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Outside Guevavi

February 20, 2007

An occasional car Dopplers along South River Road, which contours the Santa Cruz River on our left. Melissa, my youngest daughter who has joined me today, suggests that we duck and hide at the sound of tires on the road. I know what she means; I feel it also. We’re too exposed.

We’re a few miles from our border with Mexico where the Santa Cruz River flows north into Arizona. Mount Benedict wrestles with the western skyline, its buried pediments squeezing the aquifer beneath us enough to bring water above ground in springs and surface flow—but not recently. Except for the occasional floods, water hasn’t flowed here regularly since 1993. Where the river channel swings wide in its sandy course along some low bluffs, laying up alluvial sediments in terrace after terrace, I imagine clustered pyramids of anemic cornstalks instead of the persistent seep willow and cocklebur. This could be the place.

To reach the bluff, Melissa and I climb a granite outcrop, gaining footholds in a rough seam that could once have been the runnel of a spring. We slip under a barbed-wire fence marked “US Boundary NPS.” Melissa, noticing other signs on the fence, turns her sharp blue eyes on me and says, “We’re trespassing. There’s nothing we can do here that would be legal.” I, too, am bothered by the plethora of “posted” signs. I recall news items about gun-toting vigilante ranchers, and I’ve seen Border Patrol and Department of Homeland Security vehicles, both marked and unmarked, cruising these backroads on the lookout for people on foot. But I keep going.

At the top of the outcrop, I know this is the place. At my feet, a single round socket in the rock articulates a fist of loose stone—evidence of the river farmers. It’s a 300-year-old bedrock mortero, a grinding hole for corn.

I scan the high desert grassland spread out beneath the gunmetal Santa Rita Mountains in the north. Dwarf mesquite rise to eye level and stop, releasing my view—and then I see them, chocolate walls poking up from the thin, crooked trees, the jaundiced San Cayetano Mountains behind them. We walk through what once was Father Garrucho’s entry into his courtyard, even now a clear path on the ground, and turn right toward the ruins, climbing a slope of earth between two five-foot walls to enter the church’s nave. There’s not much here; the sun is still hot on my neck. These few adobe walls, bleeding back into the dirt from which they came, are all that remains of Arizona’s first mission.

In 1701, Father Eusebio Kino established the Mission San Gabriel de Guevavi at an Indian village of Guevavi (from an O’odham word, gi-vavhia, which means “big spring”). The tall, dark-skinned Jesuit with the penetrating eyes and pronounced brow was keeping a promise he had made to these people during his earlier visit in January of 1691 when he first stepped into what is now Arizona. But it wasn’t until the mid 1700s under the oversight of the Sardinian Father Joseph Garrucho that the church rose out of the baked ground to encompass an area about the size of a baseball diamond. The plans called for a rectangular church, fifteen by fifty feet, with three-foot thick walls of sun-dried adobe, plastered with mud, whitewashed, and then painted with colorful decorations on the inside. Standing high on this mesa, above an open courtyard and the many rooms—a school, kitchen, refectory among them—that hugged a square of perimeter walls, the church would have been an impressive sight for dozens of miles in all directions. And the visibility worked both ways. Off the southeast corner of the church’s narthex, a circular tower, unusual for missions at this time, would have given sentries a perch to watch for approaching Apache raiders.

We stand among three leftover adobe walls, the highest only about eight feet tall, all of them crumbling and chocked with rocks. A loose pile of horse droppings rests where an altar once held silver chalices. I remember hearing about archaeologists finding chicken bones and peach pits in the walls and how they were made by men and women’s hands, some not so willing or careful. I think about how the mission must have appeared two hundred and fifty years ago. Its plastered walls shimmering in the heat rising off this corrugated landscape. Arizona’s first White Dove of the Desert. Guevavi would have inspired more than native eyes.

I tell Melissa that we are standing over the bones of a man who was present as history swung on its hinges for this region: Juan Tomás de Belderrain, the first captain of the Spanish presidio at nearby Tubac and Arizona’s first European settlement, who was buried here about 1760. She lays her hand on a mission wall that has stood in our desert for hundreds of years, and I think about how these same young hands are touching hands with the ancients. History collects in the lifelines of her palms like dust.

“Why do we find it supremely pertinent,” asks Annie Dillard, “during any moment of any century on earth, which among us is topside? Why do we concern ourselves over which side of the membrane of soil our feet poke?” We may walk on this earth one layer at a time, but there are places where all the layers rise to the surface and we share the same elements with those long dead and with those yet to come. This desert of exposed millennia, of rocks and river terraces in mid-pause before being swept to the sea, takes me outside myself, reminding me that we are only for the time being.

by Ken Lamberton

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  1. February 20, 2007 at 4:57 am

    Fascinating, involving, instructive – maybe the start of a different kind of travel book?

  2. February 20, 2007 at 4:42 pm

    This is thoroughly marvelous. Thank you for bringing me on this journey with you.

  3. February 20, 2007 at 8:39 pm

    I enjoyed this very much – felt like I was there.

  4. February 21, 2007 at 2:48 am

    I felt deeply the sense of place and history in these words – compelling, moving, and even threatening at times.

  5. February 21, 2007 at 11:39 am

    What a wonderful piece of writing. Thank you, Ken.

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