The snow swirled around us, my Mom and me, as we slowly ascended the Santa Catalina mountains north of Tucson. January 2001. We were ill prepared in my little four-door Ford Taurus. I thought Tucson was sunny over 300 days a year? I’ve never heard of snow chains. We debated turning around, but I had to get to my new home on time, classes were starting nerves building, and I knew no one. So we downshifted and kept going. It’s one of those moments that only later I realize I’m lucky.
This was the semester I would figure some big things out.
This was the time in my life where I would understand that something transformative can leave a wake.
This was the turn key to realizing that the little world I thought was a complete and finite thing – it’s ruralness, whiffs of Baptists and Methodists and Jehovah’s witnesses alongside the whiffs of booze and poverty and steel mills and deserted mainstreets – was just one possible dimension.
It was like MTV’s real-world, except for hip urban kids who were even hipper misfit outdoorsy types who fed the western funnel spiders that were spinning tornadoes in our window sills, who set up camera traps to watch the ringtailed cats of the desert bound through camp at night, who planned every waking moment to feel and be and commune with the natural world because their home cities were just the first hopscotch on to greatness.
From the moment I arrived – after the slippery drive up the mountain – I realized I was an imposter. That musty old tent that we used in the backyard, a hand-me-down from my aunt in Iowa: child’s play. The handful of nights that I spent in it, twenty feet from the comfort of my own bed, nada. Sure, we had bugs and snakes in that Bible belt crevice between southern Illinois and eastern Missouri. But the worst of them were colorful, announcing their presence. We could easily avoid them. And, the Girl Scouts I had briefly considered joining shut down anyway, too little interest in learning how to properly build a fire and tie a knot, apparently.
Looking around at my cohort, I wasn’t supposed to be here anyway in Arizona, I thought. I should be with all my friends in far-flung places studying abroad. Australia or Dublin, London or Cairo. My near-fail of organic chemistry caused my grades to plummet and be denied from these programs, but it’s not like I had extra money lying around anyway to be considered part of a jetset crowd. Who was I kidding. So my semester in Arizona was a consolation prize to get out of the South Bend winter, only to land in another type of snowy mess. Rattlesnakes and all.