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Notes on Buddha Sightings

by Mary Sojourner Mar 9, 2011
2. Noname Canyon, somewhere northeast of Tucson

It is early Spring of the year the President uses American soldiers to attack Iraq. My road-compadre Everett and I flee town. Even without television, both of us are bone-weary of media lies and avarice.

We head south. We’ll see if we can find what seems to be a spring at the head of a canyon that may or may not be reachable by the dotted-line on the topo map that may of may not be a road my old truck can travel. We never get that far.

First, there are two stops to donate money to the Apaches, the first at the casino in Payson, where Ev and I settle for an hour or so into a wilderness of neon and noise; then in Globe’s Apache Gold, where I watch that bitch, Cleopatra, suck up twenty dollar bills as fast as I shove them into the slot machine. $180 for a 25-minute bad blow job.

Ev and I are mildly demoralized as we drive south from Globe. You’d never suspect it to hear us. We sound like seasoned Buddhists discussing the illusions of the world. “Hey, it’s only money. Hey, someday we’ll be dead.”

We drive past the camp in Dripping Springs Valley, where we met Dapple the starving long-horn cow and fed her the last of our baby greens and escarole. We debate Chicago pizza in Wickenberg, but we’ve got twenty bucks apiece between us and that will cover gas for the ride home.

We stop for a spell on the banks of the Gila River, do penance, good ex-Catholics that we are, by picking up four trash bags of litter. I write, taking field notes for a piece I know will some day emerge.

“Have we been good enough?” Ev asks. “I want to head down the road, find a camp, eat till I can’t move, and kick your ass at Scrabble.”

A half hour later, we drive east through the canyon of discarded sofas. The prudent folks of Winkelman and Kearney, rather than wasting gas driving to some municipal land-fill, have dumped their old furniture at the base of the little volcanic cliffs that line the dirt road.

“I can’t imagine,” Ev says, “why they’d want to get rid of that couch.” He waves at a wrought iron and burnt-orange sectional the length of my pick-up. Whoever rested on the sprung cushions was an enthusiastic user of hair-oil. And, as best we can tell, had owned cats. Shredded faux-velvet shimmers in what is left of sunset.

We drive up out of the arroyo up into twilight. The sky is thin blue. There is no moon, still the road seems to glow softly beyond our headlights. I open the window. The scent of creosote drifts in. Ev slows the truck. I can hear dry branches rattling in the wind. I wonder what lies on either side of us. When a bush rises against the sky, it is a black skeleton.

Ev and I are quiet. Our mutual gambling joneses have set in. I let my thoughts skitter to the moment I come home to a mailbox full of bills and no writing checks due for a month. I consider telling Ev to stop the truck so I can walk off into the desert.

“Stop thinking ahead of tonight,” Ev says.

“You,” I say, “need to get out of my brain.”

We camp on an outcropping. We know there is a mine somewhere, maybe water. Ev cooks. The moon rises. There is enough light to follow the dirt road down into the canyon.

Moonlight catches on the lip of the canyon, something glitters. A beer can. A bobcat’s eye. I love that I have no idea what it is. I have forgotten that I live in poverty.

We go. He moves on ahead. I walk slow. Moonlight catches on the lip of the canyon, something glitters. A beer can. A bobcat’s eye. I love that I have no idea what it is. I have forgotten that I live in poverty. Mystery is all the wealth I need.

Next morning we hike along the canyon bottom. Ev nearly kills himself on a solo scramble. I follow the creek’s trickle to a white boulder just above the canyon narrows. The current plunges in a waterfall no wider than my hand into a black pool. Ice rims the boulder. I sit. I imagine summer here. How even a drama queen facing bankruptcy would not walk off to her death by dessication in this desert, how she might find herself easing down off a hot boulder into the sweet black pool.

I climb out of the canyon and meet Ev downstream. He has a gash on his cheek and the smile of a man who has yet again escaped fate. We decide to drive up-canyon to see what is left of the mine. Mounds of beer bottles and the sparkle of shotgun shells are the signs of good hunting country. Quail. Rabbit. Deer moving down toward the year-round stream.

The road begins to switchback. We go slow. I see something in the cliff-face. Ev stops. I pick up the little rock. It is white quartz, a dot of indigo on its side, the dense shimmer of galena.

I set it on the dashboard next to the battered head of Felix the plastic cat. We found him near a crumbling stone hotel somewhere in the Mojave. Felix loves to travel. He rides facing forward into surprises. His favorite destinations are Laughlin, Nevada and any bad desert road he hasn’t seen.

We swing round a curve. Ev gasps. He is not the drama queen I am, so I expect we are about to plummet to our early deaths. “Holy shit,” he says. I look.

A fifteen-high foot Buddha is spray-painted on the cliff face. He is orange and red and yellow. He smiles exactly as I have seen the Tibetan monks smile. His ear lobes are pendulous. I think I remember that is a sign of his compassion. He holds a giant mala in his left hand. I think I am going to faint.

“I’m not sure I’m seeing that,” Ev says. “Him. Whatever.”

“Me either.”

We pull up next to the cliff. There are no offerings, no plaque commemorating something or somebody. There is nothing but the Buddha and a little fire ring. We see rusting mine-works above. I remember Pedro, the Mexican santeria priest I met in his botanica in Rochester, N.Y. I had found a shelf of little plastic Buddhas. A sliver of garlic was embedded in their bases. Pedro laughed. “My people,” he said, “will use anything holy that works. They love the Buddha and the garlic is for, well, manhood!”

I tell Ev the story. I leave a chunk of obsidian from the trail at Buffalo Park at the base of the cliff, and say, “Thank you.” Ev leaves nothing but his quiet witness. We climb back in the truck and head up the next switchback. Felix stares straight ahead.

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