Friday, November 27, 2009


I've been sitting by the fire, playing Cowboy's Dream on the banjo, thinking how nice it would be to be able to teleport myself to my favorite spot in Arizona for a few days. Just sit in the sun, ride horses, and climb up the mountain to those gorgeous views. Alas, not to be. But here's a piece I wrote about a man I met there.

A prayer for comfort . . .

Snake Bit

Darryl Pearce was filled with venom even before the rattlesnake bit him. His eyes exude the dark, fierce look of a caged animal, that wild look in a horse’s eyes before it kicks and runs, eyes you avoid looking into for fear of what you will see. Something painful throbs just below the surface, beneath the seemingly calm exterior of a polite, knowledgeable man. He’s part Apache—a dark, sinewy man. He wears his anger like an iron skin, quietly but undeniably. Khaki hiking shorts and shirt, sturdy boots covered with fine dust, felt hat with a stampede string, a water bottle and a knife in a leather sheath at his waist. I wonder if he used the knife to extract the venom when the rattlesnake bit him last year.

Darryl Pearce is a naturalist in the Arizona desert. He leads hikes into the foothills of the mountains, explaining all the intricacies of life in the desert. Last year I took my second trip to the area to go hiking with him. I love the hikes, love understanding the native animals and their adaptations to the harshness of the desert. I love being in the sun, the air, climbing up the mountains for the incredible views. But more than anything else, I love the tranquility. I go to the Arizona desert to find peace.

On my first trip to the area I hiked with Darryl as part of a group, the number of people varying from day to day, ranging from six to ten. Darryl is a fascinating, complicated man, with a deep reverence for nature. He has no patience for fools yet he patiently, tirelessly tells visitors the compelling story of the desert and its inhabitants. He knows where the rattlesnakes live in the wild and pointed us to a place under a rock where a rattlesnake lay sleeping. He has had a lifelong fascination with snakes and took a couple of us to a private area where he kept venomous snakes. I have a healthy respect for snakes, but share neither the fear nor the obsession of others. But Darryl was a snake man and told stories of all of his close encounters with snakes, boasting that through all of his years around snakes, he had never been bitten.

But three years later, on my second trip to that part of Arizona, I learned that Darryl had just returned to work after being out for several months—he had nearly died from a rattlesnake bite. He showed me the scars on his hand and said, “I just lost my focus and it happened. I was strangely calm immediately after it happened, just told someone to get help quickly.” He didn’t provide any sensational details—perhaps it was too fresh, too real, the only snake story he didn’t want to retell.

There weren’t many visitors during my second trip, so I got to spend some time hiking alone with him. He taught me about the different species of hummingbirds and took me to a place where we were nearly surrounded by them. Darryl and I had things in common—we had both come of age in the turbulent 60s, and his wife left him a few years earlier, about the same time my husband left me. We shared the knowledge of betrayal, loss, and anger. There was something unspoken gnawing at him while he spoke of the commonplace heartaches, an anger out of proportion to the stories he told. In a sense I felt a connection with Darryl, felt that he had cracked open the door with me, that he trusted me to confide in me a small, small part of his story. But that hint of connection also frightened me. I didn’t know if I could handle more than that. He told me stories about being in Vietnam. These were stories that skimmed the surface—I knew there was so much more that he wouldn’t tell and, while the words were coming out of him and in the silences between, I felt him living the rest of the story in his head. I got a glimpse at the horrors many Vietnam veterans will carry in their heads all their lives. I don’t know the details, I didn’t hear all the stories from him, but I saw him retreat into painful silence. I could see something wickedly sad in his eyes and I could feel something beyond sadness in his heart.

Hills covered with saguaro cactus, hawks and hummingbirds, coyotes and javelinas, snakes and the lapis-colored sky. I hope Darryl Pearce finds peace in the desert he loves, but I don’t think he has found it yet. Such a strange intersection in the paths of two souls—I go to the desert to find tranquility and I spend time with a man who can find no peace.

I love everything about the desert southwest—the landscape, the art, the music, and especially the food. This is a sort of Mexican lasagna, a recipe that I’ve adapted from my friend Betsy Brooks, former resident of Flagstaff who first piqued my interest in southwest cuisine.

Chicken Tortilla Casserole

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
1 sweet red pepper, cut into julienne strips
2 cloves minced garlic
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup sour cream
¼ cup sliced black olives
2 small cans whole green chilies, coarsely chopped
½ teaspoon cumin
1 dozen corn tortillas
2½ cups grated Cheddar cheese
3 boneless chicken breasts, cooked and shredded into large pieces
Salsa verde

Sauté onion, red pepper, and garlic in oil. Remove from heat and add soup, chicken broth, sour cream, olives, green chilies, and cumin. Set aside.

Put about ½ cup of sauce mixture in bottom of a deep casserole dish. Tear apart 4 tortillas and put in casserole. Add more sauce, chicken, and cheese in two more layers until casserole is filled. End with layer of cheese on top.

Bake 30-45 minutes at 350 degrees until cheese is bubbly.

Serve with extra salsa verde on the side.

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