He beckoned to me. And so I went.
I followed the sun west through the dusky evening sky, denying our star its right to dip back into the horizon and settle down for the night. Tucked securely into my window seat, the plane’s engines buzzing in my ears, I watched as the sky blazed orange and pink toward the west, the sun marking our orientation when we flew south. I was wound tight with anticipation: it had been three months since I had seen Matt, and our last visit had been new and different and awkward. It had been a good visit, but my discomfort with it had left a heavy feeling in my heart and gut. So it was with a leap of faith and a kernel of hope that I allowed myself to be seduced westward by the promise of cacti, mountains, and hotter-than-hell dry desert heat.
This is the thing about love: it requires faith. It seems especially true of a relationship in which months pass without seeing his face. Every visit is different, and it takes faith to believe that the connection will still be there, even in the absence of hugs or cooking together or even a shared smile.
Knowing each visit will be different is itself a gift. Matt makes his periodic relocations, from one side of the country to another, look effortless. His rambling means that if we can scrape together the time and the money for me to join him, I get to see all sorts of beautiful and wondrous things. This gift is amazing, for what is life but a giant adventure? And I am but a traveler with a bikini and a pair of sunglasses.
For three days, I feasted on the visual splendor that is Arizona. Tucson is surrounded by mountain ranges. They rise up into the clouds, ancient reminders of the geologic turmoil that created this part of the continent. I had never seen mountains this close before—I live in pancake-flat Chicagoland, but I’ve had a long-standing love affair with the idea of foothills and mountains. These Arizona mountains were stunning. The views changed depending on the time of day and the way the light and the clouds danced on the mountains. Alone, the opportunity to see such majestic sights would have been enough for me. The desert, however, offers up its own brand of splendor.
Apparently my visit occurred during monsoon season. Matt swore that everything was ridiculously green and lush and blooming because of all the rain, that the desert was usually much more hostile than it seemed to my eyes. I think he worried that I would get the wrong impression of the desert, but I don’t really mind. I just sat back and soaked in all the beauty: saguaro cacti, rising up like giant green fire hydrants into the sky. Cholla cacti covered in ludicrous numbers of spines, clustered like “dirty old men” on his family’s property, according to Matt. Fat barrel cacti, a round and plump contrast to the stately saguaros.
Amid all this greenery, animals scurried, hopped, swooped, and skittered. We were serenaded by a chorus of birds every day as we lounged on the patio. Lizards scurried across the sandy earth, their long tails dragging behind them. While we bobbed up and down in the pool, we were joined by a couple of toads, which I thought was adorable and Matt thought was annoying, especially the huge one I found hanging out under a filter cubby. This filter cubby, he told me, is inhabited by a scorpion—not a safe place for a toad, I would guess. I’m tickled that Matt turns out to be a dedicated rescuer of stray animals, including toads stranded poolside and beetles that find their way into the house. And I thought I was the only person who routinely escorted bugs outside rather than crushing them on sight! It’s just another reason to love him.
I was so overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the desert that I found myself oddly wordless most of the time. I felt blissfully content not to say much, to let Matt lead the way in our conversations and our adventures in the desert. He had a lot to say—about the desert, about his work, about my work, about his career plans for the next few years, about our meals—and I was happy just to listen. Sometimes I think the best thing to do is to just absorb the moment—it is fleeting and ephemerally beautiful.
I also had a difficult time thinking too hard about food, which is indeed an odd thing for me. I usually think about food ALL THE TIME. I can’t blame the heat. It was suprisingly comfortable during my visit. Nor can I blame the unfamiliar kitchen, which was cheery and spacious, a wonderful room in which to cook. I think I was just too relaxed by Matt’s presence and Arizona’s gorgeousness—I felt satiated without food. Nonetheless, cook we did. On the first full day of my visit, we treated ourselves to Kiki’s Mint Pea Soup and a delicious almost-classic caprese salad. In turn, we were treated to a spectacular lightning storm while we remained safe and dry inside. The power went on and off during the storm, so our meal became an impromptu candlelight dinner. We sipped our soup and our wine. We savored bites of ripe tomato, fragrant basil, and creamy fresh mozzarella. We nibbled on bread. And deep inside, I marveled at the wonder of this brand of romance—a perfect balance of planned and unplanned, longing and delight, goofiness and seriousness. I am overcome with awe and gratitude. It is nothing short of magic.
The next day, we moseyed over to the local farmer’s market in town. I was very excited about going to the market since I love vibrantly fresh produce and the gregarious atmosphere of open-air markets. I was skeptical about what kind of food could be grown locally in the desert, but I was pleasantly surprised by the bounty and variety of goods. This market was amazing! Our first stop was a coffee stand where the owners are busy roasting coffee on-site to provide their customers with the freshest brew possible. I had never seen a coffee-roasting stand at a farmer’s market! Coffee cups in hand, we toured the produce stands with no real plan of action, but we emerged with a bag of lettuce greens, a plump cucumber, a pint of tiny multicolored tomatoes, and a small container of righteously fresh farmer’s cheese, flavored strongly with Italian herbs. Back at the ranch, Matt whipped up two vegetable salads with our bounty and I swirled extra-virgin olive oil over them, just enough to add a little richness and a place for the salt and pepper to stick. We topped slices of bread with more farmer’s cheese and ended the meal with big whole-grainy Oatmeal Cookies with Bittersweet Chocolate Chips, my variation on this recipe from Orangette. (Hints: Use King Arthur Flour’s White Whole Wheat Flour to increase the whole-grain content of your cookies. I used 1 cup of white whole wheat flour and 1 cup of unbleached all-purpose flour and loved the results. And if you, like me, find yourself overwhelmed by the chocolate in chocolate chip cookies, try using 3/4 or 1 cup of Ghirardelli’s Bittersweet Chocolate Chips to make a cookie that gives you room to enjoy a nubbly, chewy, oaty cookie with pockets of dark chocolate. Heavenly! Even if your cookies start to taste like bananas because they’ve been sitting in the fruit basket for two days.)
Dear reader, I feel I have now written too much and yet I’ve said nothing at all. Words cannot describe the experience of mountains, cheese, cacti, kisses, and desert heat that was my visit to Arizona. I can’t wait to go back. The Great Lakes may have lost me forever.
Finally, as Matt wrote to me, “Here is photographic evidence of your having experienced mountains.” Personally, I think he just likes taking pictures of pretty girls.