My “weekend” fell on Monday and Tuesday. I headed to the far east side of Tucson and a gap in the fence separating the city from the open desert. No one else hiked the trails at Saguaro National Monument East. I walked swiftly along a winding path paralleling the base of the Rincon Mountains under a harshly brilliant sky.
Thirsty, breaking a sweat after three miles or so, I stopped to rest in the shade of a blooming palo verde tree. A small pool, remnant of heavy winter and spring rains, still stood in a sandy wash near the base of the tree. It might be a nice place to spend the night but I wanted to see more, create a challenge for myself. I spotted a light area on the flank of the mountain a good distance over me, aimed for that point, and headed off the trail. I cut back in much the same direction I had come, climbing slowly into the rugged eastern terraces and box canyons.
I had brought little but trail mix, water, and a sleeping bag, so I simply climbed and rested, savoring my surroundings. The Sonoran desert, radiant equivalent of a great cathedral, held a sacred silence. I spent a peaceful and uneventful night on a moonlit ridge listening to natural sounds and watching the twinkling stars and far-off urban lights. I hovered in balance between city life and a seemingly ageless wilderness.
Now that the wild had seeped into my pores, I was reluctant leave the mountain in the morning. I had a bit of water left and knew if I remained quiet in the heat, I could spend another day and night in peace.
By mid-morning I was semi-fasting and nearly expected having some sort of vision or peak experience. I wandered about some, strolling languidly through stands of saguaro, palo verde, and mesquite. The weather was hot, clear, and luminous as only a May day in Arizona can be. A furtive movement caught my eye. Watching from the shade of a boulder pile, I sat as a lone deer thrashed in a slow-motion flight through a hollow below me, unaware of an observer. I wondered if I, too, were observed.
Except for the deer and the occasional laughing trill of a canyon wren, the cactus forest lay mute, immense in its silence. Time ceased to exist as each moment flowed into the next like ripples on water. The passage of illusory time reflected itself only in the changing sky, the movement of light through its spectrum. When the light receded, I unrolled my sleeping bag and contemplate d the vast galactic sea lapping overhead.
The night sounds increased in volume. From a distance, the yipping of coyotes both startled and soothed me. Life was extraordinary in its simplicity. I felt exceedingly grateful to experience the novelty of living without demands.
I slept. The night sky faded to indigo when I awoke. I watched the stars disappear, the horizon bloom with color, heard night sounds recede back into the earth. I stretched, wobbling in my sleepy attempt to brush and braid my hair, psyching myself for the return trip to town. The sunlight blinded me despite the early hour. I’d have to be home soon, showering and changing into my uniform for a mid-morning shift at work.
I began rolling and tying my sleeping bag when I heard an odd shuffling and snuffling. I couldn’t imagine—oh, an animal! A javelina—it didn’t see me, just kept walking, rooting and chewing, no more than twenty feet away. I stepped back, uncertain as to whether I was in any danger. I had heard that the peccary could bite viciously when cornered.
The rooting, grunting noises became louder. I stood transfixed. Two, three, four, five, six, seven! I became aware of javelina on the other side of me as well, not paying me any mind at all. I stamped my feet. They startled for an instant, then continued their slow, chewing ascent.
An entire band engulfed me. I didn’t know whether to panic and run, try to shimmy up the nearest saguaro, or to introduce myself. Most of the javelina were as large as medium-sized dogs. Some were a little larger than others. There were a few small ones—a couple of babies followed a larger javelina, presumably their mother.
Twenty-seven twenty-eight, twenty-nine…bringing up the rear was by far the largest javelina of the band, no doubt the dominant animal. It was alert, cautious, and definitely aware of me, whether by sight or by scent. I could feel the raw power in its patient glare. I stood frozen, picturing myself a wild pigs’ picnic. A minute passed. Tension filled my body. I reached for a rock, growled, and lunged forward a little, not knowing what I was risking or if I was risking anything. The large peccary stood its ground. Another minute passed. Satisfied at what it saw or sensed, it slowly turned and followed its band, a handful of stragglers following behind. I had counted thirty-four javelina!
I finished tying my bedroll, then started down the mountain and onto the valley floor. The javelina had left a clear trail for me to follow. They’d wound their way systematically up a rugged, pathless hillside, grazing as they went. They hadn’t lingered, consuming entire stands of vegetation, instead nibbling clusters of prickly pear cactus and catsclaw, leaving them to survive.
I returned to the noise and congestion of my human habitat jazzed and uplifted. My relationship didn’t last, but this wild encounter has always stayed with me. I finally understand needing the javelina and the earth more than they need me. In our ignorance, we humans demand so very much from the earth. She asks of us only not to wound her as she floats through aeons of time. Her natural state is serenity. By contrast, human life is fleeting. It must be lived courageously with an open hand, ultimately releasing one’s attachments like the proverbial dust in the wind. We may begin our journey to serenity by acknowledging community with our non-human brethren as more important than commerce.
I will always thank the javelina for sharing with me a glimpse of their earth, their desert, a world inexorably vanishing, if we remain attached to the puny values jeopardizing it. Surely these animals walk in beauty.
“Javelina Sunrise” appears in an abbreviated form in Least Loved Beasts of the Really Wild West: A Tribute, Yvette A. Schnoeker-Shorb & Terril Shorb, Editors, Native West Press, 1997. Kate Robinson now lives and wanders in Arizona’s central highlands, where javelina have recently appeared, having migrated from the lower deserts in the past few decades.