Walking in the breeze
On the plains of old Sedona
Among the trees
–The Pixies, “Havalina”
I was supposed to see The Lemonheads tonight. They’re playing The Rhythm Room, performing their “It’s A Shame About Ray” album in its entirety. An album I love. But I’ve started a new job a few weeks ago, slinging coffee and cupcakes at early morning hours at Tammie Coe, and my body hasn’t adjusted to the odd hours yet. Given the choice between hearing “My Drug Buddy” live or getting 6-7 hours of blissful sleep in my own bed (as opposed to all the couches I’ve been surfing on lately), I’ve made the choice of sleep. That choice makes me feel old. But I don’t regret it; if I had gone to the concert, I never would have seen the javelinas.
I saw them at first as black shapes lumbering in the corners of my eyes. The sun was setting on Raintree. I was walking back to my apartment, a bag of groceries from the Safeway I had just left planted in my bag, when I saw the shapes and froze. Across the street I saw them, emerging (I think) from a drainpipe in the gravel that sloped down from the sidewalk. Six of them weaved through the bushes in the gravel, walking past a closed down tire repair place, five big javelinas and one javelina piglet walking in the middle of their formation. They were big: it was clear that they were in no danger of starving to death anytime soon. But they were in danger of being crushed by oncoming traffic, as they attempted to cross the street.
I watched it play out: the first time two of the biggest ones entered Raintree, saw cars slowly coming round the bend in the distance and doubled back to the sidewalk. Spooked by the cars, the javelinas vanished down the gravel hill, out of sight. I stood on the sidewalk for a few minutes, wondering if they were going to try to cross the street again, a part of me hoping they wouldn’t (for fear they’d be hit) and a part of me hoping they would (for reasons I’ll explain later). Perhaps I was so tired that I had just imagined the javelinas. But they came back out of whatever pipe they were hiding in, and tried crossing again.
They walked into the street in an “Abbey Road” formation. I saw cars in the distance, driving through the dimming sunset, heading right for them. They saw the javelinas in time and pumped the brakes: as the cars skidded to a halt, the javelinas dashed across the street, right into the parking lot of a condo complex. The “Abbey Road” formation held as they descended a gravel slope near the condo’s gate, and they disappeared, presumably into another pipe or tunnel. I stayed standing in place for another five minutes, waiting to see if they’d come back out, but it seems (as night crept closer and closer) that the javelinas had wisely decided not to press their luck and were calling it quits for the night.
It’s not the first time I’ve seen them in this part of town. Sometimes I’ll walk at night and see eyes looking up at me from tunnels and grates along the sidewalks and make out the forms of javelinas, resting beneath pavement and landscaping. Every time I see them it gives me this odd jolt of… hope. Much in the same way that seeing the occasional coyote running around in Phoenix makes my heart beat in appreciation. If Grant Morrison’s theory (posited in “The Invisibles”) that cities are viruses is true, I like to think that the javelinas and coyotes that thrive within the concrete desert of Phoenix are spiritual white blood cells, immune to the plague of civilization, walking yipping “Fuck You”s to the manifest destiny of builders turning every square inch of Arizonan nature into a parking lot or suburb.
To be clear on something: I’m no Edward Abbey. I’m a city boy, through and through. I love neon and tall buildings and graffiti and manhole covers and cracks on the sidewalk. I feel lost and exposed and vulnerable in the wilderness. When I went to New York, I felt no fear wandering around by myself at 3 in the morning, whereas the thought of wandering alone anywhere in the dark of night in a forest or desert chills me to the bone. At least in a city I know what kind of predators roam the wild: I’m prepared to face the claws and teeth of muggers and drunks and cops and lunatics. Walking amongst the trees and mountains, though, I’m not sure what threats lie in wait for me. And it is that fear of not-knowing that makes me cling to cities, safe in the arms of the Devil I know.
City boy loyalties aside, I still like seeing those stubborn stowaways of mother nature, the old tenants of the desert who refuse to be relocated. Their very existence seems to say “I can survive anywhere; drop hundreds of tons of concrete on my home, and I’ll just live underneath it, motherfuckers, and eat your trash”. And maybe they provide hope and comfort because they remind me of my childhood, growing up on 72nd St & Sweetwater, where if you drove not even 10 minutes down Scottsdale Rd civilization would peter out and there would just be desert. That’s the thing about being a lifelong native of Arizona: I remember just how much nothing there used to be, I remember all that desert before the sprawl rolled over it and swallowed it up. Seeing the coyotes and javelinas darting past “Yield” signs (they would do no such thing!) shows a continuity. Phoenix may destroy its own history, tearing down its architecture and burying its past, but the Phoenix that was here before Phoenix, the Phoenix whose tallest structures were saguaro instead of bank buildings, endures. It grows in the cracks and drainpipes of the new city, growing fat on our refuse, grinding our traffic to a halt so it can parade itself in the streets, show itself off, make a much-needed mockery of our “progress”. Living here for so long, I can see both of those cities. Perhaps that’s why I’m confident that Phoenix will be a great place to live, will become a thriving community, convinced in a way that many of my friends who aren’t lifers can’t understand. Because I remember when there was nothing but desert, and how quickly the city grew to become this mammoth, unrecognizable thing. And because I can still see the old world getting strong and sly inside the thing that was supposed to kill them.
Somtimes at night I can hear the javelinas grunt and murmur to each other in the pipes. Sometimes I wonder if they’re grunting at me to join them. “Not yet”, I wish I could grunt back to them in their peccary tongue. “I’ve still got traffic of my own to stop”.