I must have been 7… maybe 8 years old, and it was the first time I'd ever traveled somewhere that wasn't just to visit my dad in California. We were going to Arizona! I couldn't get the image out of my head: sun-baked sandy earth cracking apart like chapped lips. Soil so thirsty for the smallest drop of rain, only to become bitterly disappointed as the droplet evaporated a few feet away from its parched surface. Vultures circling over adobe huts formed up from red clay and sun bleached straw. Did they even have running water in Arizona? Would we sleep under the black, starry sky next to the orange glow of a bonfire? How big of a stick would I need to fend off scorpions seeking the warmth of my body heat during the frigid desert nights? I didn't own cowboy boots or spurs, but perhaps this was my time to adopt a tougher image. A pasty Oregon boy like me would stick out like a sore thumb on those dusty, wild plains.
We boarded flight 86B in the late afternoon. I didn't drag my feet or even ask my mom to help carry my suitcase. Adventure beckoned, and I had answered the call!
Three hours later, a ding from the overhead speaker in the plane cabin. "This is your captain speaking." We were near! My eyes needed to feast on this new world. Would the clay huts be visible from this high in the sky, or would they blend in with their natural surroundings? I scrambled over my mom's lap and smashed my face to the window. Immediately my eyes were assaulted. A patchwork of manicured lawn, asphalt, and artificially blue pools of water. Suburbs?! We must have gotten on the wrong flight. "Ladies and Gentlemen, we are now approaching Phoenix, Arizona where the local time is 7:13pm, it's a balmy 88 degrees Fahrenheit, and you if you look now, you can catch a lovely view of the sunset just out the west facing cabin windows…" This wasn't right. Not right at all.
The plane lurched onto the runway. The rubber wheels left black streaks across the tarmac, and burnt rubber skid-marks over my flattened dreams of desert adventure. Where had I gone wrong? The world I sleeplessly crafted in my mind was a farce. Instead I was being served a generic sun-soaked city.
If I were to describe the Phoenix Airport in two words, they'd be: Painfully Typical. I had already sketched out similar maps in my adventure book. Where was the excitement of exploration in a place so stereotypical? The luggage claim smelled like dirty mop water and public transit. The parking lot wreaked of overcooked tar. Our rental car, a Ford Focus, sailed smoothly over well-kept streets. I'd kill for just one pothole on a dirt road. This wasn't the Arizona I signed up for.
We pulled up to beige stucco house. It had clearly been built long before I was even a thought in my mother's mind, and it smelled like Goodwill and secondhand smoke. My bedroom was pea-green and the bed springs crunched and screamed as I sat on them. Maybe I could sleep in the backyard. And maybe if I closed one eye, I could block out the power lines as I gazed up at the milky way.
"Tomorrow," my mom promised, "we will see the real desert." Resting my hope in her words, I laid down under the popcorn ceiling, smashed a sugar ant on the wall, and closed my eyes to sleep.
The next morning, the sun peaked through dusty blinds, and a familiar sizzle of frying potatoes and scrambling eggs awakened my senses. I welcomed the food. I would need sustenance in order to weather the brutal heat of the desert. I sipped orange juice from a blue plastic cup, knowing the next time I quenched my thirst may very well be for my own survival, cracking open a spiny cactus and letting its glorious waters satiate my dehydrated throat. We packed up the car and headed out.
Soon, the smoothly paved streets gave way to gravel, which gave way to dusty, bumpy, dirt roads (ripe with potholes!). A tumble weed validated my excitement. We had arrived.
I threw open the car door and breathed my first breath of the dry, arid, desert winds. To the left was a small abandoned building with iron bars in the window. A prison of the old west. What bandits must have served hard-time within those wooden walls? How many tally marks were etched into its memory. The dilapidate jailhouse was the lone standing building in a sea of dirt and sand. Dry grass sparsely littered its edges. It was glorious. I ran towards it, but was stopped short - my mom called out to me to stick with the group. My desire to uncover the secrets of the Wild West were outweighed by the sting I'd feel from my mom's belt if I didn't mind.
We walked down into a dried riverbed. The top layer crackled under my feet. Light brown dust billowed around my shoes. I ran ahead of the group, careful to stay within view.
In preparation for our trip, I'd read several books from my school library. One was about a young boy who tamed a wild horse he came upon after getting lost in a Canyon. I looked at the edges of the riverbed, mere seeds of the canyon walls they could grow into. Perhaps one day this river would carve its way deep into the earth and form a vast and winding canyon. It wasn't there yet, but I might still find a worthy steed along the twist and turns of these dried mud cracks.
The sun beat down, cooking my pale skin. My cheeks felt tender to the touch. My ears burned hot. I sipped from a metal canister and let the tinny water settle on my tongue before washing down into my stomach. The visual dryness of the desert around us was enhanced by the lush sounds of its inhabitants. Buzzing insects. Crying hawks. The occasional rustling of dry grass by some unseen critter skittering away as we approached. We exited the riverbed and climbed up a small hill and took in the view from its summit. Every hue of brown, gold, and gray painted the desert-scape, accented with purple flowering cacti, tall grasses, green and red. The sky so blue it looked like ocean. I breathed in the warm air, sweet and exotic to my nostrils, milk and honey to my soul. The call to adventure had revealed a new sense of home. A home without walls, but with a wild, rugged heart.
I was scoping out the landscape for the perfect stargazing perch when the mirage of my dreams dissolved with just four small words:
"Alright, let's head back."The adults turned to leave. I lingered, unable to shake my enraptured trance. Soaking up every detail of my vast world before it slipped away. "Now!" My mom shouted. I turned to join them. I couldn't look back.
My head swayed low like the limbs of a weeping willow as we followed the riverbed back towards the car, and all my joy evaporated, up to the sky to stay in the desert forever…
But just then, from the corner of my eye, a strange shadow darted across a large rock at the edge of the riverbed. I paused, holding my breath. There, basking in the sun rays, was the wild horse to my lost boy. Not a real horse… no, but close enough. A lizard!
The color of sand with flecks of dark brown. His eyes peacefully shut, serenely soaking in the sweet sunlight. With all the stealth I could muster, I crept closer. I dared not move too quickly, lest my my pint-sized steed dart away, taking with him my last remaining hope of a successful desert excursion.
The lizard was small, the length of my hand. And though from a distance he appeared quite delicate, two strong arms held his torso aloft, puffed up with the majesty of a great dragon. His body decorated in spiky armor that he wore like a crown. His chin proudly tilted towards the sky. His eyes flicked open, and my heart skipped a beat. Our eyes met, and I knew he would flee.
But he didn't. He turned his snout in my direction, contemplative and wise. I mouthed a greeting, "hello", and his head bobbed approvingly. I blinked and he blinked, in mutual understanding. The world became still, and we became one.
"Nick!" My mom shouted. I had left her line of sight. The trance was broken, but my friend did not desert me. My mom came into view "There you are… you can't disappear like that! Come on, we have to keep moving."
Without a moment's hesitation, I scooped up my comrade and ran towards my mom. He didn't wriggle nor squiggle, nor fight me nor bite. We had bonded, and there was no fear. I victoriously showed my new friend to my mother. She smiled.
In the car ride back to town, I held him on my lap. He was still and calm… stoic.
"What's his name?" My mom inquired. Lewis. His name was Lewis.
We stayed in Arizona for two more days, and didn't leave the Suburbs again. But what did it matter? I had found my purpose in Lewis. I caught him ants and made him salads, and he slept in my shirt pocket, right over my heart. We were inseparable.
The morning of our flight home, I packed my bags and brought them to the car. Lewis was excited to see Oregon. He couldn't fathom so much greenery.
"Ready?' My mom asked. I gave a thumbs up. "Hold on… is that lizard still in your pocket?" Of course he was in my pocket, it wasn't safe for him to ride on my shoulder. "You can't take Lewis on the airplane. The high altitude will kill him."
I tried to argue, I really did… but I lost the fight.
I sulked around to the side yard and found a place in back of the house. A warm rock, just like the one where we'd met. I held Lewis in my hand and pressed my lips to his spiny head. He blinked quizzically. I didn't want to make it harder than it needed to be… but my eyes were burning and wet. My tears rained down on him like the first desert storm in spring. How was this the right thing?
On the airplane, I sat next to a large man named Clark. He sported a thick gray mustache, stained yellow around the lips from nicotine. His laugh was raspy but genuine. He listened with a smile as I regaled him with my desert tales. I, an explorer of the western world, mapping out an unforgiving terrain.
The plain hit the runway with an erch, and my seatbelt dug into my waistline. The plane pulsed and vibrated as it came to a stop. Oh, to be home! My heart fluttered with nerves. And then my shirt pocket twitched. Clark raised a bushy eyebrow. The jig was up. I looked over at my large friend and showed him the lizard in my pocket. He belted out a raucous laugh that shook the plain cabin harder than our landing had.
I pulled my reptilian brother out and brought him eye to eye with Clark. I chuckled and introduced my two new friends to each other: "Lewis, meet Clark."