Born of the desert

The desert has a distinct feel, one that makes each pore of your body gasp.

I forget, as years pile up between visits, what this feeling is. It takes a couple of days to reacquaint myself with the arid mountains, weathered cacti, and unrelenting heat. But then, amidst misters and tank tops, I once again remember the intense thirst of Phoenix, not in my throat but croaking through my skin.

No wonder I lived in the pool as a young child.

I rarely claim Arizona. Yes, I was born here, lived my early childhood here, and visited regularly throughout my youth. In fact, my grandparents’ home in Tempe is the one, constant backdrop of my life. 29 years of holidays, birthdays, vacations, and play dates in that home mean I can’t touch a light switch without it sparking memories. I’d know the smell of that house anywhere. And yet, Phoenix culture feels so different from the Texan hospitality and autonomy that shaped me through youth and college, or the Midwest lakeshore niceties I navigate as a grown woman today.

Yet fate has drawn us here to tend to our family tree—grafting branches in ways we never imagined when we packed up the moving van 23 years ago.

Thursday night, Mom is first to touchdown on the steaming tarmac, landing with her friend of 20 years for their annual end-of-summer shopping trip. She was here just a week ago, memorializing her aunt and sitting with her dad as he holds a new truth—he’s the last one left of his nuclear family. The rest have gone ahead of PopPop, and we all recognize a season is closing for that branch of the tree. Last weekend, Mom grieved. This weekend she celebrates.

I’m next to arrive on Thursday night, bringing in tow the Michigan boy who actually carried a sweatshirt onto the plane, because no matter how many times I said, “You have no idea how hot it is,” he really had no idea how hot it is. Our trip is one of blessing—I’m taking him to that 29-year-old house so the two people I cherish within it can meet him to share past stories and future dreams. There’s hope inside of me, and just a touch of anxiety too.

My sister Allison trails me by three days, flying in on the red eye. Hers is a trip of reconnection. Her best friend picks her up from the airport and they rush to weekend brunch. Mimosas, laughter, and big loud stories saturate what has felt parched in each of their hearts since Allison moved away last year.

Dad’s is the final flight, and he comes in riding a 36-hour high he’s spent smoking 54 racks of ribs for the 40th anniversary party of his church. After smoking, slicing, and serving those ribs in celebration, he rushed to the airport and walked off the plane just in time for what Sunday night held—the one reason that drew all of us together.

That event had something to do with Steven, the last of us Arizona babies, still hours outside of Phoenix proper. He will also be the last to arrive this evening. We’re nearly gathered, though two Johnson girls aren’t with us tonight; two girls not born of the fire and thirst of the dessert. As for the rest of us, we’re back where we all began.

Tucked beneath a sun-soaked hill turning purple as the sun starts to set, we wait for Steven. Settled in the passenger seat of his boyfriend’s car, he’s driving back from Santa Fe with no idea there’s a ring tucked into Bille’s pocket and a spot picked out at the top of that sun-soaked hill just for the two of them. Minutes tick by as the rest of us laugh and trade stories together, catching the separate strands of each other’s lives and threading them together a bit.

Finally, on the hill above us we see the curly hair and freckles we know so well. We’re too far away for him to see us, and as the man beside him takes a knee, we’re the last thing he’d ever noticed. It’s only after the ring slips on that we all whoop and holler and jump around. Together, the boys run from the top of the hill so we can catch them up in hugs and congratulations.

Grabbing each other on this red, dry dirt, we reach for old and new branches.

It’s here, looking at our brave and weathered stories that I realize: we are rooted in this place.

We each were born from the strength of this desert, and we each carry her sun-kissed beauty, unyielding fight, and passionate thirst for each other within our bones.


Katy Johnson lives, dreams, writes, and edits in a messy, watercolored world.  She’s a 30 year old, discovering her hope, her longings, and the wild spaces in her own heart.  Her favorite creative project right now is called Will I Break?, and someday, that manuscript may see the light of day.  For now, she shares her thoughts here.

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