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Fitz's Opinion: Seeking refuge from the virus in our desert wilderness
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Fitz's Opinion: Seeking refuge from the virus in our desert wilderness

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David Fitzsimmons

The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.

I was a refugee seeking refuge from the asylum in my rearview mirror, escaping into the embrace of the Tucson Mountains. I promised my scruffy self my furlough would be a restorative break requiring only my camelback and my two favorite walking sticks. A hike a day keeps the chattering world at bay.

When NPR news barked from the car radio I spun the dial to avoid the knowing. Not this week. Up ahead a rusty pickup swerved with the same ferocity to dodge a vulture feasting on roadkill. The hand lettering on the rear window read, ”Will swap TP for weed.” Tough times for us all.

Before I knew it I was hiking among the Great Ironic Spring of 2020, the most beautiful spring I have ever seen. Indifferent to our suffering, the natural world is ablaze with color and life. When have these familiar hillsides brought forth a more glorious field of native wildflowers?

“Perhaps, mistaken man,” coos the mourning dove, “the penstemons, brittle bushes and fairy dusters are bouquets of condolence.”

On a high ridge I’m eye to beak with three pterodactyl-sized vultures elegantly floating on thermals. My journalist mind chatters questions. My phone tempts me with answers. I abandon the zen moment. I google, a prisoner of the restless, furtive monkey mind.

“A group of turkey vultures is called a committee, a venue or a volt.”

I pocket my phone, squinting to follow the volt of vultures, descendants of dinosaurs driven to seek refuge in their primeval sky preserve by an ancient asteroid.

“Get video!” I resist the devil in this wilderness, the digital temptation, and instead, I silently swoop with them in circles above the shadows of the clouds rolling across the desert floor below. They vanish behind a distant range of ragged mountains.

Fools say we’ve peaked.

It is not a single peak. Experts say it is a sawtoothed mountain range we must cross in the months and years ahead.

I see everything as an analogy for another thing.

Masked hikers up ahead give me more than six. “How are you folks?”

“Good. You?”

“Paranoid. Deluded. Beautiful day. Nice mask!”

I try not to exhale as I walk past. Atop the first peak I rest to catch my breath and wonder if my lungs could survive an assault by this virus.

The golden poppies at my feet are not opium poppies. Only their beauty is addictive. So is thinking. Monkey mind starts juggling. Opium poppies. Heroin. Quick fix. Chloroquine. “Chloroquine Study aborted in Brazil after deaths.” A news item among the hundreds pin balling in my brain.

I turned off the news alerts on my phone. All I want to hear is the wind.

I add a tiny golden flower to the doll-sized bouquet in my water bottle holster, a posy I’m assembling to present to Ellen when I return home.

What did the children sing? “Ring around the rosy, pockets full of posies.”

My bouquet offers no antidote to plagues. Only distraction.

“Ashes, ashes,” we sang. “We all fall down.” The trail becomes a narrow ledge. I will not fall.

A sign near beautifully crafted stone stair steps lectures me as I catch my breath. FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps in ’33 to provide jobs for millions. A dollar a day.

How many barrels of oil could that buy? I walk on. Happy days are not here again. There is no New Deal savior. Only this daunting, rocky trail. By now Moses would have reached Sinai. This splendid trail galls like Golgotha and dazzles like Eden. From the summit this heathen shall see the Promised Land, Gates Pass, Picacho, Wasson and Golden Gate. I listen to my breathing. I surrender to the beauty that is in front of me at this moment. I commit this vista to memory.

I think of the health-care workers, the out-of-work, the clerks, the stockers, the responders, the sick, the dying, the lonely who deserve to be where I am right now, in the sun, free from fear, free from the struggle, free from the suffering, surrounded by the unnerving quiet of this ironic spring.

Down below a vulture dines on death. Repelled, I’m immune to the irony that I belong to the species that worships mammon over mothers, profits over people, pharisees over the least. In our national wilderness no one will turn these stones to bread. Or masks or ventilators. Or hearts that beat with empathy and compassion. In the valley I hear a twig and stop. A young desert tortoise crosses my path, a small marvel, persisting. If only we could hibernate in our shells through this viral season and stir on a more pleasing day.

I returned from the trail, got in my car and drove in sublime silence among 10,000 saguaros, free of rancor, rumor and chatter, windows down, blasting past the trill and dirge of the mourning doves who mourn for us all.

David Fitzsimmons: tooner@tucson.com.

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