Salt River Canyon

Martha K. Petersen
| Memoir


When we drive through Salt River Canyon on US 60, the highway connecting the Tucson desert to the pine-forested mountains of our childhoods, I ask my husband to pull over. But never at the bottom of the canyon where everyone else stops—where you can hike over rocks to reach the river and, depending on the last rain, sink your hands in, feeling its cold muddiness wash over them; not where you can browse through booths of smooth Apache cedar-berry necklaces; not where semi-truck drivers stop to sleep for the night, their brakes smelling like burned Band-Aids after the steep drive down.
I ask him to stop at the smallest pullout, just as the highway dips down between these dynamite-blasted mountains, even though Salt River is a just a narrow ribbon from that height. I ask this, but I’ve gotten an okay only once, because we were driving into the sunset, and the light hitting insect smears all over our windshield blinded us to the curves ahead.
That one day, we pulled off next to a waist-high stone wall meant to keep us from falling down the side, and we ran our hands over the ledge of that wall, glassy smooth now from all the hands before us. We talked about our grandfathers, who’d built these walls out of Malapai rocks they’d dug during the Great Depression.
Things were harder then, we agreed.
We waited while the setting sun lit the canyon walls in layers of turquoise and copper, and then as it lowered, caught the undersides of pancaked cars that had broken through these guardrails and somersaulted down. Some had been there forever, now just rusted squares with trenches for wheels, but others were more recent. One was a red car, I saw, and another, its roof smashed into its chassis, shone a still-bright white. Look, I said, count with me. But my husband turned away.
If it makes you feel better, most of them were suicides, my mother said once, as we filled Ball jars with strawberry jam.
They must have been taking a drive on Sunday when they should have been in church, my father said another time, as we cubed chuck roast for his chili together. Either that, or they were drunk.
I knew of a girl in my junior high who’d gotten into a car with drunken boys, and they’d left our mountains one night, driving here and landing in this canyon. She was shorter than me with a hard, already-knowing face. Her name was Anna.


Martha K. Petersen writes from the beautiful but prickly Sonoran Desert in Tucson, AZ. Her creative nonfiction, fiction, and book reviews have appeared in Witness, Silk Road Review, Essay Daily, and others. She is hard at work on a book-length collection of flash essays.

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