By the last week of December, my husband, Patrick, and I had head colds. A damp 40-degree chill had been hanging around Tucson for weeks. I was too fatigued to pack for our road trip I'd pushed to the end of the year. So when snow came to New Mexico, and weather advisories suggested no travel along I-10, I slurped soup and cat-napped for a day. What a big and guilty thing to Stop. Doing. Every. Thing.
I did. Every. Thing. my first semester teaching Writing 101 at Pima College. The kids liked me, then didn’t like me, then just wanted their grades. I overworked every handout to graphic art perfection! I overthought every test, assignment and reading. I played them CDs. I made up contests. I read them flash fiction. I picked entertaining grammar videos. I became dorky improv characters who once taught the lesson. I took days, days, days commenting on their essays. I smiled at the guys who contested their Bs. I smiled at the girls who looked lost. I even smiled at my paychecks—the same amount as summer 1986, when I sorted snapshots for Grand Canyon Color Lab.
What I liked best? Their laughter. When they loudly discussed writing with each other in class. Conferences—when I could see their eye color, really hear their voices. When the oldest student said on the last day, “Excuse my language, but I’m going to $#@%& miss you guys.” When they wanted a class picture.
So, good. And exhausting.
After Christmas, my son shipped out to his dad’s. The days shortened. I rested that one guilty day before Patrick and I packed the truck with snacks and hiking boots and headed north.
We passed the motor home parks and mom-and-pop diners in Catalina; desert grasses and yucca along Highway 77 before Oracle. Dirt roads wound down to rocks, sycamores and Peppersauce Canyon at the back of Mount Lemmon.
Patrick parked at the trailhead and we stepped outside. For southern Arizona, this was cold. We coated up and trekked into the canyon. Everywhere, everything new: the scent of damp earth. Acorns spread all over, oak leaves to kick through, striated junipers. A creek trickled over the rocks and disappeared in places. Spam-like conglomerates held ice on their fat, flat shelves. Frozen water snowflaked across the grassy dirt.
When we saw the second bear track the size of a salad plate, I looked at my husband.
We were an hour in, and planning to stay for most of the day.
We turned back.
My saguaro rib walking stick slipped around on the dirt and the rocks as we left the canyon. I didn’t look up at the sky, or study any leaf up close. The sun finally reached the trees and warmed up the birds enough to invite them to sing. Patrick told me, gently, in a sweet voice, what to do if you run into a bear, or cubs, or a mountain lion.
He drove us toward home. I looked out the windows for an hour and a half. We stopped at a fresh Mex place for veggie tacos--maybe the tastiest we'd ever eaten. We looked dusty and disheveled, but we didn't care. We'd seen the tracks of a bear.