Saturday, June 28, 2008

Coyote Falls Again

"Most people leave in the summer, you know," Dad said with a grin.

"But it doesn't feel that hot," I told him. And I meant it, too. It was 115 degrees Fahrenheit, but I didn't feel hot. I could feel the pressure of the heat on my arms, but that was all it was - a little pressure.

I know about the dangers of the heat. I grew up in Phoenix, after all. We came prepared with "camel packs" for carrying water, extra sunscreen, light clothing, hats, and plans that called for days full of swimming, hiking, driving, and fun sandwiched between days of visiting and sipping cool drinks in the air conditioning.

"And you really want to move back here?" he asked, incredulously.

The thing is, I do; but we tried it before and failed. I'll have to make sure I do it right this time, and I want to be sure that I have a job lined up - preferably one I like as much as my current job - and that all of the other things important to us are possible. I want to settle in Arizona, but I don't want to settle for Arizona.

It is a big state, and we wanted to see a lot of it. We budgeted for a rental car, and plenty of gasoline; we ran without the air on to conserve a bit, and to revel in the dryness and the scents of creosote and blooming cacti. Of course, it's a bit cooler up at the Grand Canyon, where we spent three days (two to travel, one to soak up the splendor) in the middle of the trip. Trade pine trees for creosote and lop 20 degrees off the thermometer; that definitely helps survive the heat.

Sunset was a priority at the Canyon. My lovely bride has photographic ambitions, and wanted to get some shots of the sun going down on that particular horizon. My job was to keep the children from running along (off) the edge while she focused on her task. I grabbed the two smaller ones physically, and they immediately protested.

"Wait, what do you see out there?" I asked excitedly, pointing west. "What's that?"

"It's the sun. Now let me go!" protested our little blond Hercules.

"But what's it made of?" I asked. The little princess was sulking on my lap, but I knew if I could get the boy to answer me, I'd have his attention.

"Burning hot gas," he said.

"Right, but what does it look like it's made of?"

"Gold?" answered the older boy, settling on my other side.

"It does," I said. "In fact, that's what Coyote thought it was made of. That's why he built those wings. But you guys already know about all that."

"No, we don't!" they cried. "What wings?"

I told them how Coyote, who spent most of his days trotting around in the desert, looking for something to eat or for someone to play a trick on, tried to fly to the Sun to steal the big, gleaming pile of gold when it touched the horizon. He knew he couldn't jump high enough to get to the Sun when it was high overhead, but it occurred to him that he should be able to get to it when it set each evening. At first, I had to explain, it was very frustrating for Coyote to figure out where the Sun would touch down. He would watch it set, mark the place with landmarks, and spend all the next day trying to get to the spot where it had landed, only to have it come down somewhere else each night!

He followed the Sun for weeks and weeks, until he came to the rim of the Canyon, and there - on the very spot where we were sitting! - he gave up. "I'll never figure out where the Sun is going to set if it keeps changing every night," he said, and he sat and watched the condors flying around. The next night, while he tried to figure out how to trick one of the condors into landing next to him for dinner, he noticed that the sun was setting on the lip of the Canyon across from him. And it was setting in the very same spot as the night before!

Now this is where Coyote showed how clever he was; he realized that if he tried to get over to that spot during the day, the Sun would see him, and would just set somewhere else. He would need to wait off to the side and then pounce at the last minute. But how to get across that huge Canyon and surprise the Sun?

That's when he got the idea to copy the condors. He went around the desert there, gathering sticky pitch and yucca leaves all day, and stuck the leaves together to make big wings that he could fit on his arms and back. Then he waited until the sun began to settle down on the rim across from him. He ran out to the edge and leapt high, catching the strong winds that up-drafted from the river at the bottom of the Canyon.

Coyote soared high and fast across the Canyon, startling the condors and confusing a cottontail that happened to look up just then. (The cottontail was so scared that he dove into his warren and started digging down so far that he eventually went blind and became a mole.) Coyote only saw his prize ahead of him, though. He reached out, greedily ready to snatch up as much gold as he could grab... but the closer he got to the sun, the hotter it got.

And, of course, you know what happened. The pitch melted, and his wings fell apart, and Coyote fell just short of his goal. Down, down, down into the river at the bottom of the Canyon he fell with a plop.

"Now, you would think Coyote would give up, but he still tries to get that gold. And sometimes, he thinks of a new way to make wings or some other trick to launch himself across the Canyon, so if you sit still and watch carefully, you might see him leap out there tonight."

They all looked out, just as I'd suggested; even the 11-year-old, who was still recovering from the disappointment of not being invited to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry last year. We all watched as tourists snapped photos of squirrels and each other, and leaned precariously over rails and ledges. We watched the birds swirl far below us, and the tiny twist of river turned into molten copper.

"I see him!" cried the little one, pointing. There was nothing there, but they all started shouting and laughing until the sun was all the way down. And my lovely bride got her few moments of peace to snap her photos.

A couple of days later, we were at the Phoenix Zoo, where we were pleasantly surprised to see most of the animals awake and roaming around their pens despite the already oppressive heat. There were two shy coyotes skulking around in their area, but the littlest one had trouble spotting them until one came right up to the front and stopped to watch the human exhibit for a bit. When she saw him, she got very excited, and leaned forward to stage whisper at him:

"Next time, go for the MOON! It's silver, and won't melt you!"

She's a wise one, that littlest little.

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