I was camping in the desert of Arizona, just a North of the Mexican border. I’d been living in Arizona for three years already but still came at it like a tourist, always looking for places to camp, wander, drink, talk to strangers. So this night some friends and I were in the middle of nowhere, a spot I couldn’t find on a map exactly now but could approximate.
It was blasting hot in the day, then the temperature dropped with the sun, and we were freezing by night, in our shorts and tank tops. We had whiskey. We had lightweight tents. If you’ve been in a desert like this, you know what I mean—it’s deceptive, how hot it is in the day and how cold at night. It wasn’t the same as in town, in Tucson, or even in the campgrounds around Tucson. We must’ve been at a higher elevation. I think we were just past Bisbee.
We went looking for wood, to build a fire, but there’s hardly any wood on the ground in the desert. Saguaro skeletons are lightweight and porous. They aren’t worth building a fire with. Any bushes were mostly covered in spines, and besides they were thin and alive. The rest of the ground is rock and gravel.
I kicked around in the dark in the desert for a while, with all the stars overhead, then went back to camp and made the tiniest fire with a few twigs, while my friends looked for wood. I could hear their voices, off in the dark. I poured a shot of whiskey and huddled near my tiny flame. The whiskey was warm, the moon was full. Bats darted and swooped after bugs, stylized darker spots against a blue-black sky, a curtain full of stars.
I poured a shot of whiskey, took a sip.
A bat hit me in the side of my head. It got tangled in my hair. Before I could sort out what was happening, it freed itself and flew away.
I put a hand to the side of my head, where I had felt it scramble. I was so cold, I leaned in closer. My fire was disappearing.
“Weneedwoodweneedwoodweneedwood,” I chanted to myself, teeth chattering, under the full moon in the dark, alone.
Two red lights showed up on a high ridge, with the sound of gravel sliding, tires, a car braking to a halt. There was a road up there. Somebody else had stopped at this abandoned spot.
It’s weird in places like that—better to be alone, than to have a stranger show up. We used to joke that there wasn’t much difference, in Arizona, between the state prison and the prison state. There were prisoners and parolees all over the place.
A man’s voice called down. He said, “Hey!”
I didn’t answer. I just kept an eye on his figure in the dark, up on the ridge.
He called out, “You need any wood?”
I wasn’t sure I heard right. He said it again.
I called back then. “Yes!”
It was too strange, too coincidental, and I gave in to it.
I walked to him in the dark, his feet and my feet feet crunching dry ground. My friends came in too, they’d all heard the voices. When I got up the hill to his truck, I saw he had a tidy bundle of what he called extra fire wood, split and dried. “All yours,” he said.
It was like he’d heard my quiet whispered chant, my prayer, my wish.
We unloaded the small stack from his truck bed. I kept thinking, what does he want, for this? Money? Our time? Is he going to sit at our fire and get drunk, turn nasty? It happens.
He said, “Take care,” and he got back in the truck, pulled out onto the highway. We built a perfect fire, sat around it, put it out when it was time to put it out. It was exactly right. We never saw that man again. It was a minor miracle of hospitality, the kindness of strangers. It was a whiskey drinking, bat swooping, full moon night prayer answered.