When my family and I moved to Arizona in 1990, we moved into a small 3 bedroom rental house in Ahwatukee, a small enclave of Phoenix proper referred to by some as “the world’s largest cul-de-sac.” This is due to its unique geography, most notably the fact that it was backed up to South Mountain on the West and to Interstate 10 on the East. This made it somewhat insular and thus attractive to both young middle class families and senior citizens alike. Indeed plenty of both groups called the small village-within-a-city home, as did several golf-themed resorts and country clubs. Basically it is a place where not much happens and the residents like that just fine, thank you very much.
One of the best qualities of our new (rented) home was its proximity to a large park, which actually happened to be right across the street. It was not a huge park by any means, but for a nine year old it was plenty big enough, with tennis courts, basketball courts, a large field, a sizeable playground and even a little wooden bridge built over an artificial creek bed. The bridge in particular was my most favorite feature of the park and indeed I crossed it on my small BMX too many times to count or approximate. Something about the “thump thump thump thump” noise the wooden planks made under my bike tires was oddly satisfying. I still cannot totally explain why. The bridge still stands today.
One advantage of the park being across the street was convenience, as it became commonplace for me to simply leave home on my bike unannounced and spend a lot of time there, particularly as I was still new to the area and getting to know other kids my age. But these first tastes of independence, of being able to be “out and about” without supervision laid the groundwork for years to come. It’s something that is likely unheard of today, as parents tend to keep at least one real and one digital eye on their kids at all times lately, but I look back on those times as both formative and fun.
My school in Ahwatukee, as it happens, was only a short ten to fifteen minute bike ride away from our new home, down a main road. Basically, I’d leave our neighborhood by setting off in a southerly direction down a street that abutted the park on one side, and then simply hung a right turn to the west where the road slowly curved me southward to my destination. See, this town really was a giant cul-de-sac, and indeed my school resided where two parallel roads separated elsewhere in Phoenix by a good mile or so curved into each other and met in a giant loop. Basically, my school sat at the very apex of this loop. So, since this was such a safe town and since I had spent the summer showing my parents how good I was being out on my own, it became the regular routine for me to bike to school every day alongside my sister, and bike back home also. Now of course sometimes circumstance and weather got in the way but a lot of the time, at least at first, this was the run of things.
It was at school when I met my friend Nathan. But of course we did not start off as friends. Actually we started off as mortal enemies, or at least whatever mortal enemies actually are in the fourth grade. He would antagonize me in the playground and I would simply try my best to avoid him. Things never came to blows but he would occasionally use verbal barbs and shoves or quick arm “taps” to make his point. Nathan, like me, was filled with the rage that only someone with a bastard for a father can have inside of them, and he wasn’t as good at bottling it up inside as I was. So it goes.
Eventually though, and mind you I cannot recall exactly why this is, I won him over somehow and we started to become friends. By the fifth grade we were stuck together like glue. It was then that my independence finally started to expand. By the time I hit age 10 I was out at Nathan’s house, or the park, or the mountain trails that Nathan’s house had easy access to down an old drainage wash near his house, nearly every night if not every night. It became a topic of much debate in our house, as my mother began voicing concerns about my long hours “out and about.” My reaction to these concerns probably would resemble Cartman from South Park telling his mom “Nuh uh, I do what I want!” but at the time it seemed logical. I was old enough. I knew what I was doing. I was an immature fool testing his boundaries is what I was. I don’t think anything would or could have “happened” to me per se, but maybe I’m lucky nothing did. I’m not sure. But I was never very far from home so it seemed safe enough to me at the time.
But the mountains, and the towers, were always there, hovering over everything. They hovered over my home, my school, and most everything around our house. At night, the towers came alive, marking the approximate location of my home for miles and miles around. During long road trips up north or west into California those first few times, we knew we were near home when we first saw the mountains looming in the distance, or the far away red flickering of the lights. There was our destination. There was home. I think we saw those lights from 30-50 miles out once, back when Phoenix ended at Glendale, leaving hundreds of square miles of flat, empty expanse from the city all the way to California.
The mountains were where we lived. They were where Nathan and I got into youthful adventures, challenged each other to bike races, and planned forts in unsafe drainage gullies and ditches. They were where I fell while riding out by myself one time, necessitating a downhill limp home on a bike with three wounds slowly leaking a trail of blood along the way. They were why we always had scorpions invading our house, a pest we were not used to seeing at all. They were on fire once, the first of many times I would sit in fear of a fire that could turn and start burning toward my house and everything I knew and cared about. The sun set over them every night. But for all the good things and all the bad things, they were home for those first two years in Arizona. To this day, when I visit Phoenix, one of the first landmarks I try to locate is South Mountain and the towers on top of the highest peak. For some reason they have remained an indelible part of me, and I’ve always remembered the time we spent at home under the lights.