God’s country is how my grandfather described it. An arid wasteland is what stands before me now, but the limitless palette of the setting sun does commence one to wondering about the divine. Many here believe in the divine. The Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, and, increasingly, Islamic interpretations vary, but nonetheless they all fail to see the true beauty isn’t in their different collective histories and holy books, but, rather, in the rising and setting of the sun. The howl of a Coyote piercing the twilight while taking roll call, or the smell of a coming monsoon shower and the life it brings overnight. Feeling the drops of life on your face while your children proceed in their rain dance with unadulterated joy is divine. A place like Arizona where the history of man has no significance in the infinite history of the universe is divine. Frost had it right, as did Emerson, Muir and the countless wilderness vagabonds who search for meaning along endless trails.
I wake in the morning and head out on a run along the banks of Roosevelt Lake and lose myself as I stare at Venus floating like a planetary Aphrodite lulling me toward an inestimable possibility. Skipping over a Javelina carcass and dodging a solitary cactus rib mistaken for a rattler, I contemplate what the cave dwellers on the Tonto Basin thought was divine. For me it has always been nature. You yearn for what you don’t have, and, in my youth, I had a concrete jungle. However, the truly divine was always a woman. Women are truly divine. Men have gone to war over them, built monuments for them and have created art for eternity speaking to their impossible beauty. We all have one; many some. I am no different.
Her legs stretched for eternity. Her hair stretched further, and the color was a dark void where I lost any semblance of will power. She had the facial features of a Mediterranean goddess. I would have waged a second Trojan War for her. Her pale skin, plump cheeks of youth and dark Eastern European features set my prefrontal cortex aflame with an irrepressible lust, a yearning to hold her delicate frame nearer to me than physically possible. She was completely unaware of her divine properties, which rendered me a slave for eternity to her every whim.
But I lost my faith years ago. I lost my divine standing alone in another desert a world away. I lost my faith at the banks of where the Euphrates and Tigris rivers merged; where millennia ago civilization, religion and the history of man sprung forth on the stone tablets of the Sumerians. However, the divine is fleeting. The divine is ephemeral. When I arrived home after my year in purgatory I found that the only thing that hadn’t changed was the desert landscape. The city sprawled a little further outward, and the dim glow from Phoenix lights shown a bit brighter, but you could still wander far enough to enter an unblemished landscape. The vastness of the Sonoran Desert often left me wondering if another human, any human, had ever laid a foot on the very soil I was passing through now. It all seems so uniformly dull when you stand in the desert and peer into the distant, beige void.
However, that’s what’s so unique about this empty landscape. It isn’t empty. It’s filled with harsh life adapted to overcome the insurmountable heat and lack of water. If you stare hard enough you begin to pick up movement here and there, and then, you begin to contemplate how incredibly maladaptive the human form is for a terrain like this. How did anyone survive a Phoenician summer before the advent of A/C? Yet, the fingerprint of humankind has been evident here for more than a millennium.
I read a story once of a mixed martial artist fighter who decided to head into the desert on a spiritual quest. He never returned. Perhaps in his quest he simply became a spirit. His essence becoming one with the stardust that stretches for eternity every way you look. The circle of life inevitably playing out as food for desert scavengers. It’s childish to think, but I think, of the enormity of how ridiculous it is for my flesh to be consumed and passed through an animal’s digestive tract. Weird, perhaps; I know.
I remember spending summers as a youth wandering alone in the desert on the Indian reservation. I stayed with my aunt and uncle and two female cousins. They were natives, and I was a mixed blood with pale skin and blond hair. I must have stood out like a vibrantly red cardinal on the frozen tundra of Alaska. Those summers reinforced two things: the reservation was a harsh place to live, and the desert was a great place to get lost.
On occasion, my tio Leon would join me for a walk. Intoxicated even though it was early morning, he would tell me tales about the Moreno family. A long and illustrious lineage that changed depending on the day, the hour, the number of adult beverages he had before 8 a.m. The only story I ever believed was of the Moreno curse. Alcoholism. It was a demon I would fight, and sometimes conquer, later in life. However, most Morenos weren’t so gloriously triumphant. Some danced with the demon for years before succumbing to the inevitable, while others met the demon head on, briefly, violently, losing the fight face down on the tiled floor of a lonely bathroom stall.
Leon’s alcoholism didn’t kill him. The hushed rumor amongst the Moreno clan is that Leon was murdered by my tio Rodolfo, his wife and the two previously mentioned cousins. The harshness of reservation life is real, at least enough so that murdering kin for their paltry monthly benefits is a viable option for survival. However, it could also simply be another Moreno tall tale fueled by cheap beer and interfamily rivalry. The official cause of death was heart failure. Despite family reservations about Leon’s actual cause of death, it really came down to the local police department not caring enough to provide additional resources to investigate another dead, brown body.
I almost understood the demon at that early of an age. The Morenos came from the desert and the isolation can drive you mad if you’re unable to control your thoughts, so an intoxicant was always calling to muddy the voices, to quell the voices, to stop the voices. But, on those long walks through the reservation deserts, I found I enjoyed the isolation. I enjoyed discovering and conquering each step put before me. But even then, that demon came for me early. That demon almost ruined my career, my relationships, my life – everything.
My youngest memories are of my father battling the Moreno curse. It’s all so confusing at such an early age, but as I grew older, had children and consciously fought to control myself for their sake, I began to understand. I began to understand that this evil has been a part of many families, but, especially, native families. It’s as though the genocide of the past four hundred years wasn’t enough punishment. It wasn’t enough that only one to five percent of the population survived the Spanish, English and Americans genocides. To truly experience horror, they were forced to face a more cunning enemy – Budweiser and friends. This curse; this demon, represents Arizona to me, but Arizona so much more.
There’s a popular saying among liberal circles that all Americans are immigrants. For me, that’s only half true. The history of the Moreno clan extends beyond Columbus. There’s trace amounts of Conquistador blood, but as you search through the few remaining black and white photographs the native faces staring back at you are undeniable. However, the problem with native histories are that they’re often oral traditions. Oral traditions are unreliable, and when you mix alcohol into the equation the oral traditions are essentially fiction. Even honest people can’t tell a police officer an accurate account of a car accident or bank robbery. “Yes officer, it was a 6 foot, 180 lbs. African American male.” So, when you factor in that the Moreno clan consumes enough alcoholic beverages to keep a mid-sized microbrewery afloat it’s becomes clearer that the more you search the less clear the history appears.
However, I searched. I searched for our history, a lost history. A history that takes shape in so many ways depending on who was telling you the Moreno story. But, those were just stories. I needed proof, but all I had to go on were a few photographs. In one image my great, great grandfather is holding a rope attached to a donkey staring wearily after, presumably, a long day in the fields. The photo is almost comical in its stereotypical depiction of a Hispanic farm laborer. But, there’s nothing comical about the years of experience that flow through the crevasses of his face. A face that holds so much untold history. A face that exuded a determination to simply survive, and he did, as the multitude of Morenos who descended from this diminutive man can attest. Furthermore, I, the outcast gringo, bore his name.
In another photo, a textbook image of a native American woman stares reluctantly into the camera as though she’s uncertain of the camera’s intent or that of the photographer. Wearing typical Southwestern Native attire, she’s heavy set and bears no resemblance to my father, which in turn bears no likeness, even remotely, to me. And the photographs end there. Therefore, I’m left to my own devices to figure fact from fiction. Did we really have the blood of a famous Native chief running through our veins, or was it simply another false story like my father’s make-believe service in Vietnam? What I found out, unbelievably, remarkably, was so much more.
Where to begin? For me, the amateur investigator, though humbly educated historian, it seemed obvious, the last known location of my lineage. So, destination Douglas, Arizona, an unremarkable border town seemed ideal to begin uncovering an unremarkable past – I thought.
There’s 116 miles between Phoenix and Tucson. Most of that long stretch along the I10 is an unremarkable desert with occasional dust devils making an appearance to break up the monotony. The well-maintained interstate can be a congested nightmare at the worst of times, but at the best of times it’s an empty road leading you from one oasis to another, lulling you from your consciousness with the smooth drone of wheels over pavement. The newness of Arizona’s cities contrasted with the ancientness of its lands are a fascinating juxtaposition. Hieroglyphs paint the landscape on heavily used inner-city trails and Native ruins lay among skyrises of downtown, truly alluding to the notion of the Phoenix.
Halfway through the journey between Arizona’s largest cities sits Picacho Peak State Park. The peak stands as a lonely sentinel watching over travelers on their desert journey. A uniquely formed mountain, it’s an arduous hike that provides an adrenaline dump for even experienced climbers. The peak is also where on April 15, 1962 the Battle of Picacho Pass took place. Thirteen Union soldiers took fire from a small band of Confederate soldiers. With two dead, including their commanding officer, the Union soldiers sought refuge in a Pima Indian Village. The Confederate soldiers were too few to pursue, and thus ended Arizona’s unremarkable Civil War participation. The state park reenacts the battle every year on the battle’s anniversary.
I decided to pull off at the Picacho Peak exit to refuel. Remote gas stations throughout the Southwest double as gift shops of useless Native trinkets. The sale of gentrified versions of Native culture is a boon to forgotten towns littered along lonely highways. The overpriced objects, gas and food represent the monopoly these one-stop shops have on the local economies. However, as I perused the aisles of the useless, I can’t help but think a purchase equates to a donation toward the preservation of a bygone era. So, I donated coin for a soft drink and protein bar then made my way to the Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch to feed the overly aggressive modern dinosaurs. The rude birds were an interesting respite to my journey to the border. I was tempted to extend my brief visit to attend the weekend monster truck show, but a 9 to 5 work week left me with little time to spare. It was a four-hour, one-way drive to the most southeastern part of the state.
Tucson is the second largest city in Arizona, but, despite an effort by the local art community, it’s incredibly ugly and lacking for culture outside small patches of ignominious New Age wiseacres. There are few reasons to stay in Tucson besides a national park, Old Tucson and decent Mexican food, so I stopped at El Guero Canelo to stuff my face with Sonoran hotdogs and carne asada tacos before continuing southeast along I10.
Douglas, Arizona, like much of Arizona is forgotten land. Founded in 1901, it’s a border town in the high desert that provides a location for border patrol agents to campout. The downtown comprised a few buildings with the tallest no more than five stories. Douglas is an extremely impoverished town with a largely Hispanic population. There’s little for visitors to do in Douglas, unless they’re stopping for the night before hiking in the Chiricahua National Monument.
Poncho Villa once roamed these lands striking fear in the miners and farmers. Part of the Gadsden Purchase, Douglas was a copper town though never as affluent as the silver-laced Tombstone a stone’s throw to the west. This unremarkable patch of dirt was the birthplace of my father and the beginning of my story.
I arrived in the late afternoon just as the sun was setting, displaying an ethereal pink with broad strokes of wispy clouds swirling like “The Starry Night.” No climate beats a desert winter for its beauty, and as I arrived the cool breeze from Mexico blew like borderless, ethereal immigrants bound by no law but nature’s. I checked into the Gadsden Hotel and strolled across the mezzanine like Poncho Villa without a horse before bounding the marbled-steps two at a time. The fading sun dimly lit the Tiffany and Co. stained glass of a desert landscape neatly decorated with a variety of cacti. Having spent the summer before in the Stanley Hotel I was accustomed to brushing off the tale tells of ghostly hotel guests who had refused to check out. But everything about Douglas on this winter evening gave me a chill. I know the temperature didn’t help, but the empty streets and whispered echoes of cowboy boots on tiled floor filled me with a sense of unease.