In addition to the climate, landscapes, sunsets, cuisine, cultures, and nostalgia, there was other bait to lure us westward: one-year programs in “clinical pastoral education”―hospital chaplaincy―offered at various Western hospitals. So we weighed opportunities in Albuquerque; Austin, Texas; Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Yuma, Arizona.
My wife applied to the Yuma program. When it was the first to accept her, she snapped up the offer. However, we knew we weren’t going to spend the rest of our lives in Arizona. After all, we were well aware that the lower two-thirds of the state, including Yuma, was viciously hot much of the year; we detested the cruelty of notorious Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio; and we had a distaste for the state’s predominantly Republican representation in Washington. But the opportunity in Yuma would give us a foothold once again in the Southwest, because Yuma, without question, is the Southwest.
Suddenly we found ourselves thrust into high gear. Our house sold quickly to a couple from New York City. Over the phone, through a management company, we rented a house in Yuma.
During our fifth June in Maine, Linda graduated from Bangor Theological Seminary with a master’s of divinity degree during a ceremony held in Bangor. (And just in time: Shortly thereafter, the 186-year-old seminary closed.) Near the end of the month, the movers emptied our house on a gray day with intermittent light rain amid green mansions. We arranged to have our pickup shipped to Arizona. Packed in our Toyota RAV, Linda, I, and three dogs then began our journey west. We faced twenty-eight hundred miles, but, as long as I could keep the sun on my back every morning and in my eyes every afternoon, I knew I would be happy.
We drove. Warner, New Hampshire. Syracuse, New York. Columbus, Ohio. Rolla, Missouri. Clinton, Oklahoma (where actual Latinos prepared and served a good Mexican meal).
On our sixth afternoon, we arrived at the Econo Lodge in Albuquerque. The RAV’s thermometer revealed the outside temperature to be 101°F. I recalled that this was typical for late June in Albuquerque, and I knew that there would be just two more weeks of 100-plus daytime temperatures in central New Mexico. And yet, after the San Luis Valley and Maine, I’d forgotten what ferocious desert heat, its low humidity notwithstanding, felt like, and I panicked. For I knew this heat would be child’s play compared to what we would be experiencing in Yuma, where daytime temperatures are in the 100s from June to September. Still, I was certain I could handle it. But could my wife? The following day, we deadheaded to Yuma on various interstates, a mad dash to beat the movers to our rental house.
Never had I’d been aware of two so profoundly different back-to-back bioregions as northern and southern Arizona. From the cool pine forests of the northern Arizona city of Flagstaff we made the long plunge down a series of massive benches―the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau―into the furnace of the Sonoran Desert, with its stark, rocky slopes; paloverde trees; ocotillo; creosote bushes; and countless varieties of cacti, including the iconic saguaro.
At noon, we paused for fast food in Phoenix, where it was at least 110. In the restaurant’s parking lot, after I swung open the rear gate of the RAV, revealing the dogs, a nearby woman, undoubtedly a local who’d likely noticed our Maine plate, barked a warning about placing the dogs on the blacktop. She obviously knew, as did I, that the asphalt was fifty or sixty degrees hotter than the air temperature. Still, I resented her nosiness and tone of voice, and nodded coldly―nobody lectures this Mainer about desert heat. Then, I seemed to feel the heat soaking through the soles of my shoes as I carried each pooch from the car to a tiny patch of green grass, whose temperature was likely a mere 105, beneath a palm tree.
South of Phoenix, we picked up Interstate 8 and continued west. We passed the vast acreage of a solar-electric farm, its panels numbering perhaps a thousand. We drove across desert plains where―curiously, it seemed to me―even the saguaro thinned out. Then I became aware of all the dust devils; I’d never seen so many dancing at once―“auguring” the earth, in Cormac McCarthy’s memorable phrase. Meanwhile, through the harsh glare, I beheld the scattered, barren mountains to the north and south, the grimmest formations I’d ever seen.
We passed Freeman, Big Horn, Gila Bend, Theba. We passed the husks of gas stations long out of business. At a convenience store in Dateland, beside acres of palm trees, we gassed, toileted, and purchased “date shakes”―milkshakes with chopped dates (delicious, and useful for viscera rendered inert by a week of car travel). For traveling dogs, to avoid canine heatstroke and possible death in a motor vehicle with air-conditioning paused or non-existent, the business provided shaded waiting pens with misters. After negotiating a notch in the Gila Mountains, we arrived in Yuma at the afternoon’s end.