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Saguaro in the Palm: Gratitude and the Mindfulness of Death

In the midst of training for a trail race, I traveled to a conference in Phoenix. Thinking of the pain I would be in if I didn’t keep up with the training program, I was trying to figure out how to fit an 8 mile run, get back to the hotel, shower, eat and be ready to go for the conference by 9am. Away from home I was uneasy about running in the dark and worried about getting lost. I found the Phoenix Mountain Preserve to be just 2 miles away from my hotel. If I could get there by sunrise and loop around the trails 5-6 miles, I could have light to run in and get back to the hotel in time. I had a plan.

The street lights got me to the preserve just fine and there was enough pre dawn light, but just barely. The jagged rocks were not very friendly and took some concentration.

A half mile around Piestewa Peak the drums started. I looked up to see the tip of the peak illuminated. It sounded like first nations drumming. I was surprised that I was not alone in the park at that hour. Someone else must have climbed to the peak in the dark to sing in the morning. I felt like I had stumbled into Carnegie Hall by accident. “What is happening and how did I come to be here at this moment?”

Later, I passed some folks and asked about the drumming and they seemed to think it was a Native American drummer up there. There were several splits in the trail and I was also getting uneasy about being on the right path to get around Piestewa Peak in time. Some distance around, I ran into a couple and mentioned the drummer and asked if they knew where the trail ended up. They pointed the way and then said, “That guy up there is calling demons down, watch out.” I wanted to say with Michael Scott from The Office that I was only a “little sticious,” but I could feel a little of this guy’s fear and some of my old wide-eyed religious fears started rumbling.

The trail was really quite brutal for running, with lots of rocks just the right size to turn ankles. I began doubting my timing calculations and started getting worried about being lost out there on a tangential trail. Turning back at that point would have taken just as long as moving forward, unless I was wrong about the trail I imagined to be ahead.

It was reminding me of the time I was lost running in upper Michigan that ended after dark knocking on a door and asking for a ride to town. My inner skeptic was getting louder with his mantra of “you are getting lost again.”

The path flattened out a bit but the rocks were unrelenting. I put my foot down and as the rock flipped, I saw a vague shape tall to my left and my hand shot out to find balance. In the deciduous forest climes of my youth, it was perfectly reasonable to assume that a vertical object would be a friendly maple, oak, or ironwood tree. Apparently, the rules were different here. My hand did purchase some balance with a complimentary gift of twelve two-inch long saguaro cactus barbs sticking out. My hand looked like a pin cushion.

Frightened by the sight of the barbs deep in my hand, I quickly began pulling them out and with the first pull, blood jetted out of my hand into the air. I said to myself, “This is not good,” when I saw the pool of blood cupped in my hand.

“This is it, this is where I die.”

Liberating my pin cushion of its inhabitants, I wrapped my bleeding hand in my shirt as tightly as I could, hoping the bleeding would stop, but still imagining that it was hemorrhaging under the shirt.

Fairly soon, I came upon a man hiking, and I asked if he had a first aid kit, because what knucklehead goes out without one. He said no, but immediately launched into a story of when he needed one and didn’t have one. I politely kept going on my way, for on this rare occasion, I was not in the mood for stories.

Not long after, I checked and the holes from the cactus seemed to have closed and the bleeding seemed to be done. No squirting blood as I had imagined. “Maybe I will survive.”

I came across a young Mexican couple and what seemed to be their mother. They walked carefully while the 60-something woman ran down the trail I was heading up. I imagined it was a María Lorena Ramírez Hernández of the Rarámuri running like it was the most natural thing for a human to do at any age. She made me feel not crazy for running this perilous and gorgeous trail.

I did survive if you hadn’t guessed, and I slipped into the conference just a couple minutes late, noticing that most of these good folks probably awoke to some morning news, a shower, and coffee. And they probably did not witness the sonorous sunrise around Piestewa Peak, get bitten by the demon barbs of a saguaro, or wonder if today was their last. I sat in the back of the room contemplating the juicy wonders of the rotating orb we ride that trades darkness for light each morning. And along with the calm of a well exercised body, my core was filled with gratitude for life that follows on the heels of the mindfulness of death, each breath and each sunrise a sacred gift.

Two years later I still carry a tiny dark speck of that saguaro in the palm of my hand and, when I notice it, feel a little more alive.

(Check out videos of Ken Koshio and his Taiko drumming atop Piestewa Peak. , see also the Land Acknowledgment Statement regarding the O’Odham and Piipaash peoples and their ancestors tied to the Piestewa Peak and the surrounding lands and finally if you are curious watch the documentary: Lorena, Light-Footed Woman)

Joel Klepac finds joy and wonder exploring the world through the practices of hiking, providing therapy, drawing, fiddling, encaustic painting, writing, and spirituality. You can find his art and musings at and

*all photos made by author with i-Phone 8


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