I waited for nightfall at the foot of Squaw Peak smack in the middle of Phoenix. Sunset drew back its bright lash and crickets started up in the rocky flanks, first one, then hundreds. At dusk the mountain above me sang.
Still, I waited, sitting on a warm concrete picnic bench watching hikers streaming down a trail. They looked like worshippers returning from a shrine, some carrying flashlights. Every day it's up and back for them, a couple miles round trip, an average of half a million hikers each year, a thousand per day. To some you say hello, and to some you keep your hat brim down. The fat women struggle on ham hock legs, while sprinters shame all the rest of us.
Todd Bostwick, the City Archaeologist for Phoenix, once commented to me that a thousand years ago the Hohokam must have walked up these very same trails, using these mountains as a retreat from the noisy, smelly villages in the valley below. It makes perfect sense. Phoenix has always been kind of a shit-hole, which is why I retreat to these last places of dark and relative quiet in the city.
Squaw Peak itself is the color of fire ash, slabs of schist rising more than a thousand feet off the valley plain. At twilight the earth-pile turns a luminescent lemon color, its rock and cactus absorbing the footlights of Phoenix.
That is its old name, Squaw, not what this mountain is called anymore. By federal decree it has been changed to Piestewa Peak, the word squaw having fallen from favor, come to mean, cunt or whore, but with a Native American bent. The word has been respectfully removed, but it takes time to rewire one's brain. For me, the word squaw has only had one connotation, a wicked-looking horn of rock rising from the middle of the city.
The final handover of the name was authorized in 2008, the peak thus renamed for Lori Piestewa, a Hopi woman killed during combat at the onset of the Iraq War, first recorded woman from any US infantry to die on the front line of that particular invasion. She was a Tuba City girl mother of two turned Humvee driver for the 507th Army Maintenance Company. In the first wave in 2003, her convoy became lost in the desert and was ambushed in Nasiriya. She was hit by what Army investigators called "a torrent of fire," and died jamming her foot down on the accelerator to get her and her company out of there. Her body was later found in a shallow grave behind an Iraqi hospital.
When the name-change happened, there was little opposition but for a bunch of irritated hiking cads who, like me, grew up with the old name. Otherwise it sailed straight through a federal panel, approved April 10th, 2008. At the time, it felt to me like yet another stab at political correctness. I've never been fond of name changes. Negro Bill Canyon outside of Moab for instance. Why not call it Nigger Bill and deal with our past? Nigger Bill reveals who named this canyon, tells a little about their world. It feels like rewriting history to take out the parts we don't like.
But I had to deal with Piestewa replacing my visceral, beloved Squaw. I set out to learn something about this word.
Piestewa, a Hopi name, has been interpreted to mean people-who-live-by-the-water. An acquaintance at Hopi asked around for me and returned explaining the name is used in reference to the "Flute Religious Society." On their dance day, members of this society journey to a sacred spring and perform prayers, meditations, singing, and chant prayer-songs and play their flutes into the spring. Then they journey to the village plaza, bringing rain to the village. Piestewa is sort of a nickname for this ceremony.
The man explained, "All this is done for moisture of rain, harmony and peace on earth." He broke the word down for me to Pahu (water), yesse (gather or sitting), and tiwa (an adjective of something happening). The Hopi spelling is Pa-yes-tiwa, a word that calls the rain.
I came to this mountain tonight making peace with the word. Politically correct or not, it seemed fitting to me that such a word come to Phoenix, especially to this dark beacon of a mountain that presides over the entire metropolis. It felt like a prayer for rain now, when it never had before. It used to look like my own personal Mt. Doom. Now it seemed to be opening.
I did not get off the bench at the foot of the mountain until the sun was well below the electric glow of streetlights. Only then did I start up through boulders aiming for the summit (optimal climbing time after 11 o'clock, far less crowded). It was a strange and relieving sensation, millions of people packed wall to wall around me while I walked up completely alone.
With every hundred feet of vertical gain the city grew larger, its lights stretching out as airplanes stacked on each other approaching from due east, lined up like flares in the sky - welcome to Phoenix - while an equal chain of lights departed to the west - let's get the hell out of here.
I moved up 120 stories of rock and hardpack, theaters of crickets and lone posts of saguaros. I reached the summit, a jag of bedrock, no real comfortable place to sit. I fit my butt down into a crevice, knees higher than my hips, pretended to recline over this elegant and feverish city. It formed a circular sweep of light like the swirling rings of a planet. Thunderstorms rimmed the horizon. Flashes of lightning boiled over the suburbs. Come on, I thought, rain.
I whispered, "Piestewa."
It did not sound at all like squaw, not the carbon mass of a mountain that I knew, but it does have a ring to it and I said it again, a little louder.
At the "t" your tongue touches the back of your teeth and you draw out the "wa," as in "want."
Like many Hopi words, Piestewa is the sound water makes. It means many things: Dark-eye-of-the-city; Prayers-for-rain; Mother-of-two-found-buried-in-the-desert.
I said it as I sat, telling it to the air. I got up and hopped to another nick of rock, whispering it as I went.
I climbed down off the summit monkeying across ridges into steep, loose ravines below. I let the word fall from my mouth, memorizing the sound, Piestewa, a slow chant descending into this city so lovely tonight.