SOUTH MOUNTAIN looms large along the southern spine of the Phoenix metro area, a saguaro-smothered mass of gneiss and granite bristling with a hedgehog’s back of radio and television towers. In the evening, those 28 towers pulse red some 2,500 feet above the city—a phenomenon that, to an impressionable 4-year-old, might have the air of a monochromatic fireworks show lighting up the sky, somewhat inexplicably.
Turns out my daughter is one such impressionable 4-year-old.
From her room on the south side of the 1930s bungalow we rent near downtown, she can just make out the light show. Each night, she pulls her white canvas curtains to the side, smooshes her nose to the paned glass, and stares. “There they are—the fireworks!” she squeals. “Red, like always. Mama, I think they’re celebrating us because we’re new here.”
It’s an interesting point of view from someone who hasn’t exactly been celebrating our new surroundings since we arrived in Arizona six days before Christmas. It’s not that she’s unhappy to be here—she’s thrilled by kid-thrilling things, like the fact that the neighbor kids love sidewalk chalk and that there are five pizza places (or “pizza stores”) in proximity. The rest of it, though? The mountains, the cacti, the painterly Southwestern sunsets? All those things—those larger-than-life, adventure-sparking things—I’d been so excited to show her and her little sister?
She’s been … nonplussed.
Driving down from Arkansas, we weren’t even 100 miles into the mud browns and sandy sages of The Grand Canyon State when it started. On Arizona 377, we drove through the ponderosa pines of the White Mountains and into the scrubby chaparral and spindly junipers of the Tonto National Forest. “This doesn’t even look like a forest,” my daughter said, staring blankly at the barren vistas that were so unlike the greens of summer oaks and the blues of highland rivers that she’d known since birth.
Sedona, I thought. Sedona will do the trick. How could it not? Its brick-red buttes and upside-down-ice-cream-cone rock formations would be unlike anything she or her sister had ever seen. We headed up Sedona way at the first opportunity, which happened to be Christmas Day. The sky was the Arizona version of overcast, ashen and ominous in spots and crystalline blue in others. As we drove north, the mercury dropping from 70 degrees to a blustery 42, the vegetation changed from spiky cactus to brushy pinyon, the sandstone growing taller and redder. It was a landscape of petrified fire, unlike anything I’d ever seen.
“When are we going to go home?” chirruped a voice from the back of the SUV.
OK, then. On to the Superstition Mountains. We headed east a few weeks later, following a gravel road known as the Apache Trail along ridges and into canyons, inching deeper and deeper into the Sonoran Desert and farther and farther from civilization. At points along the trek, I had to close my eyes, bracing my arms against the side of our Toyota as we edged our way along a hairpin-turned precipice that plunged a thousand feet just beyond my passenger-side window. I opened my eyes and turned to look at our daughters, sure that they’d be bubbling over with all the excitement.
They were both asleep.
“Do you even like it here?” I blurted out in frustration the next day, back in Phoenix. I’m not sure who I was really directing the question at—the 4-year-old, or me.
“Well, I do,” she said with a shrug, her brown eyes big and serious, “but I miss Arkansas.”
The next weekend, we decided to stay closer to home at the suggestion of a new friend. There’d been a bit of rain, she’d said, so the Spur Cross area just north of town would be worth exploring. We loaded our daughters into the car: the toddler happy just to be out for an adventure and the 4-year-old concerned she’d be missing out on quality sidewalk-chalk time with the neighbors. As we set off on the trail—the longest hike we’d yet attempted to tackle with these two in tow—I was doubtful we’d make it to the end of the loop. By this point, I’d almost resigned myself to coming up short in my attempts to impress them.
The unforgiving Arizona landscape had become familiar to us, the towering saguaros and spiny chollas almost second nature. Out here in the Southwest, there’s no cover, no shade—nothing to stop the wind from gusting or the sun from glaring. The trails are rocky, and what’s beyond the trails is rocky, too. It can be hard going, especially for little ones, and this Spur Cross trail was no exception.
We’d followed the trail up and up and up until we reached the ridgeline. Over the top, we were presented with a scene unlike any we’d yet seen in our new home state: A gurgling, glistening creek cut through the draw in the mountains, a ribbon of life in what felt like a lifeless landscape. The girls squealed with delight. I closed my eyes so I could concentrate on the sound: the gentle lapping of running water over river stones, the soundtrack of my Northwest Arkansas youth.
The trail quickly diverted from the creek and twisted and turned through a few stands of saguaro, narrowing as we pressed on into a grove of gnarled trees known as a mesquite bosque—a woodland common to desert floodplains. For a few blissful tenths of a mile, we ambled beneath the canopy, tromping over ferns and stepping over felled logs. The girls slowed down and lingered, running their hands over time-smoothed bark and soft patches of lichen. On either side of the trail, green grass grew in clumps, interrupted here and there by the delicate heads of orange and yellow poppies. After all of the ochre-red rocks, all of the untouchable cacti and sun-parched earth, it was a panoply of textures and sensations and softness and smells. It was familiar. Comfortable.
Before long, the trail met the creek again. A couple of weather-worn four-by-fours formed a makeshift bridge across the 12-foot-wide expanse. After traversing it with the little one, I turned around and found the big one and her father rock-hopping their way across the water. If I squinted, we were back along the Buffalo, maybe skipping stones at the bend at Steele Creek. I tried to snap a photo but was sidetracked by the toddler, her palms in the water, her face lit by a smile so bright it could only be bested by the midday Arizona sun.
“Do we have to go?” the 4-year-old said, casting a glance in my direction.
It may not have been fireworks, and it might not have even been new. But it was a little bit of the South in the desert, and for a moment, it was home.
Writer Katie Bridges is the former editor of this magazine. She’s making a home for herself in Phoenix but could certainly use a slice of Skylark Cafe pie right about now. Follow her Arizona adventures on Instagram at @kathleenbridges.