by Kai Staats
Of Rockets, Gang Fights, and the Sonoran Desert
While attending Phoenix College for the two years following my summer in the Cascades, I picked up a few odd jobs: an assistant to a local, famous glass artist; a temp laborer moving weather rockets, and through a one-line posting in the Want Ads, a life-long friendship with inventor and entrepreneur Greg Glebe at Xylem Design.
In fall of 1989, I joined the Phoenix Chapter of the Guardian Angels citizen crime fighting organization wherein I gained invaluable experience on the then dangerous streets of Phoenix. We conducted drug busts (breaking drug paraphernalia), citizen arrests (after the dealers assaulted us for breaking their pipes), driving pimps out of boundary neighborhoods (which often resulted in gun shots), and at the call of a the local fire station, our patrol rescued a woman from being raped in a city park.
In Chicago where I was training to return to Phoenix as a Chapter Leader, our patrol was jumped by a local gang, sending two of our guys to the emergency room. Later that night, we were back out on patrol when a car drove by slowly at the end of the street, its windows rolling down. I yelled “DRIVE BY! DOWN! Everyone down!” when a bullet missed my ear by a few inches, the whooshing sound one I will never forget. I hit the pavement and rolled into the gutter. The tires squealed, leaving us shaken but not injured.
I spent many weekends backpacking in the Superstition and Four Peaks Wilderness, exploring the underbelly of so many secret places. My sense of comfort in the world grew as I became familiar with the Sonoran Desert, finding solace in solitude, sleeping on the ground. While no sand rail, my first Subaru hatchback took me places that often required a shovel and a few hours of digging to get out.
Chao (now Ethan) and Karaen’s son Jon became a reflection of my desire to topple the sprawl, to bring down the towers that represented the human desire to dominate a landscape instead of learning to blend in. At that time, the local paper ran articles about the number of acres of land raped of its native grasses, succulents, and flowers in order to make way for 3000-5000 sq-ft houses for families of three.
The contractors overtly admitted they did not have the time or resources to stop and investigate, let alone archive information about the numerous Native American archaeological sites destroyed at the steel blade of the bulldozers. Everyone knew that the discovery of a burial site would delay construction for months, even years. Move faster than the tribes could invoke injunctions and hope no one noticed,
My favorite spot was just past Pinnacle Peak Patio, once the Northern Edge of Scottsdale where I slept atop a massive boulder many nights. One particular night I recall clearly for the coyotes were at its base. I rolled over, onto my belly, and crawled off my sleeping pad to the edge of the stone, some fifteen or twenty feet off the desert floor. There, directly beneath me, the coyotes barked and yelped, contending for their fresh kill. I was a voyeur, privy to an ancient ritual too easily destroyed by a grocery store parking lot.
It was then that Phoenix died, for me. As soon as I was able, I headed North.
The comfort of the campfire. The passion for the desert. The disdain for the reckless destruction of the open spaces in the name of progress. All of this found its way into Jon’s Song and Sands which were developed for a creative writing class my second year at Arizona State University.