creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest

Arizona Mexican

Of course, we ate Mexican food in Yuma.  The Mi Rancho restaurant was our introduction.  The decor of Mi Rancho was splashed with lime greens and lemon yellows, all trimmed in pink.  The waitresses drew their dark hair into tight buns pinned with artificial roses.  The walls were covered with photos of young Latino boxers, until then something I’d seen mainly in Albuquerque barber shops.  There were colorful acrylics of matadors and Mexican mercados.  There was a rooster clock and a warping poster of Chichen Itza.  

La Casa Gutierrez, now no more, was aptly named.  Sandwiched between two residences on a quiet street, it obviously was the house of the Gutierrez family at one time.  I favored its chile rojo. 

Maricosos Mar Azul introduced us to Mexican seafood―Yuma is 70 miles from the Gulf of California―the best we’d eaten this side of the border. 

Like La Casa Gutierrez, Los Manjeres was charmingly intimate―a couple small rooms, one with a fireplace (that’s right, in Yuma).  It, too, was surely once a house. 

From Clinton, Oklahoma, to Yuma, Arizona, Latino chefs knew how to satisfy.

arizona, creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest

Salad

Amid the harsh desert of Yuma County were 180,000 acres of lush fields and orchards: North America’s winter produce section.  Yuma was once a massive flood plain for the Colorado and Gila rivers, and the soils that were deposited on the plain by flooding over the eons were rich in nutrients and thus ideal for growing.

Meanwhile, there was the sun.

Agricultural activity, in the fields if not the orchards, was at a minimum when we arrived in Yuma in the dead of summer.  Planting on a grand scale commenced in September.  On fields level as pool tables―well, maybe tilted pool tables―there was machine-sculpted ridge after perfect ridge of finely-granulated soils irrigated by sprinklers spewing Colorado and Gila river waters.  Other fields were flood irrigated.  Soon these acreages were bright green with lettuce and dull-green with cauliflower.  Meanwhile, wagons piled high with colorful lemons and limes trundled along Yuma’s streets, their occasionally spilled fruits ornamenting the roadsides.

Field harvesting in Yuma was serious business likely performed entirely by Latinos, many of them temporarily in Yuma from their homes in Mexico, 20 miles to the south.  Repainted former school buses packed with field workers scurried over the state and interstate highways and county roads from pre-dawn to post-dusk.

My culinary preference pointed me particularly to the Romaine lettuce harvest.  A harvesting machine―basically a wheeled, self-propelled, slowly-moving workbench that extended over a dozen rows or so―combed over the fields as the lechugeros―“lettuce people”―cut and boxed heads of Romaine, and then delivered the boxes by conveyor belt to a shadowing tractor-drawn wagon.  Lechugeros in Yuma County numbered as many as 40 thousand between the months of October and March.

When the harvest was completed, the lettuce field invariably contained not only a pallid mess of dead leaves, but thousands of still rooted and, it seemed to me, perfectly full and edible heads.  As a salad lover, I’d look at these remnants; long for a plate, fork, and a bottle of Ken’s Italian with Aged Romano; and, mouth watering, nearly weep at the puzzling waste.  (And a waste that didn’t end there: Americans, myself included, threw out 60 million tons of produce annually.)

For final processing and shipping, the harvested vegetables were transported to a massive complex on Yuma’s east side.  Empty and dark during the summer months, in the winter it operated non-stop, a dynamo that lit the night sky as it swarmed with 18-wheelers, their trailers refrigerated.

Legendary farmworker organizer and pacifist Cesar Chavez was born in Yuma.  And yet nowhere in the city was there a monument to him, a designation of his childhood home or neighborhood, or a street bearing his name.  Understandable?  Thinly so, perhaps:  Chavez’s fame rested on his considerable organizing successes in California.  His efforts to do the same in Arizona were far less fruitful. 

However, in nearby San Luis, Arizona, where Chavez died, I did come upon a handsome, larger-than-life bronze statue of him at a community center bearing his name.  Within the center, there was big, beautiful portrait of him. 

And in Yuma County, as in the Mesilla Valley of New Mexico and the San Luis Valley of Colorado, I regularly saw two examples of his legacy: Every field under harvest was equipped with tidy portable toilets (no more searching for a tree or ditch) and shiny hand-washing stations (although, of course, agribusiness, in this era of periodic widescale food contamination, did have a serious stake in strict hygiene).

arizona, creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest

Monsoon

Throughout most of our stay in Yuma, the city and surrounding plains and mountains stood under appallingly empty skies.  Day after arid day I gazed at the vacuum over the Gila Mountains and imagined how the dot of a question mark would have felt if it had been permanently denied the crook above it.  Sometimes the skies were generous and treated us to pitiless brushstrokes of cirrus clouds.  At the end of the day, they hung exhausted above the western horizon in faded grays, pinks, and oranges, in shapes mirroring the modest mountains, like a bank of ashes, below them. 

Yes, rain was scarce in Yuma.  The city averaged about three inches a year.  I couldn’t imagine how roofers or car washers made a living there.  Well, perhaps just car washers.  Because Arizona, like New Mexico, did have a summer “monsoon season.”  Yuma’s monsoons were triggered by tropical air masses visiting from the Gulf of California.  Thus, it did occasionally shower in Yuma, although generally briefly and lightly. 

However, one late-August afternoon, with the temperature yet again in the low-100’s, a muscular monsoon struck our neighborhood, one of the most frightening storms I’d ever experienced.  In minutes, the inside of an oven became that of a dishwasher.  Over an hour, several waves of thunder, lightning, rain, hail, and winds gusting to 50 miles-per-hour raked our neighborhood.  Torrents spilled from the roof of our house.  Plastic trash dumpsters and sheet metal fit to behead a person hurtled down 24th Street, which had become a river. 

Three hours later, the sky was still dark, thunder rumbled in the distance, and a light rain fell.  Our front yard was a swamp, the nearest intersection a lake.  All around east Yuma, paloverde were uprooted or ripped in half.  Near our house, a massive, fenced-off catchment basin, previously bone dry, was now engorged.  Arroyos in the sandy desert were re-sculpted, their banks steep and re-sharpened to a keen edge, the fine grains in their beds exquisitely waved. And the heat, now heavy with the cloying odor of creosote soup, returned.  In the days that followed, a vast green tint appeared on the lower elevations of the Gila Mountains―a stunning transformation in this static land. 

arizona, creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest, Uncategorized

Sonoran Trivia

Like central and southern New Mexico, southwestern Arizona was located in North America’s Basin and Range Province: vast plains dotted with relatively small mountain ranges.  As in New Mexico, the landscape struck for me a pleasing geographical balance between space and substance, mountain fashioning a buoyant space, and space lending individuality, dignity, and presence to mountain.  (“Is it not true that bulk and breadth are primary and essential qualities of the sublime in landscape?” asked John C. Van Dyke.)  In the stunning clarity of this arid land, the mountains were at once distant and weirdly intimate: I’d study an empty ridge, and sense that ridge studying me.  The formations were as majestic as ships at sea, possessing in the clarity and stillness an almost dioramic perfection and unreality.  To repeat, they were also the grimmest mountains I’d ever seen, their flanks steep, barren, and sun-blasted, their crests knife-edged and seemingly incapable of escaping the gnash of flames that began at their feet.

Yuma is located in the Lower Colorado River Valley subdivision of the Sonoran Desert.  The leading author of my desert field guide noted that the “open valley floors of this region . . . can be quite monotonous,” dominated as they are by the creosote bush and white bur sage. 

Monotonous?  Some might describe the face of a Maine woods in summer as monotonous.  Nonetheless, having once explored what is now known as Saguaro National Park, outside of Tucson, I was expecting a far greater variety of vegetation in Yuma, including and especially the saguaro cactus.  In fact, in the undeveloped deserts in and immediately around greater Yuma, the saguaros were strangely scarce.  To view them, and then only in small numbers, I had to scan the rugged slopes of the nearby Gila Mountains.  On the same slopes, the tall and tentacular ocotillo, also largely absent in Yuma’s city limits, were somewhat more ubiquitous.  But I was content, there at the lower elevations, with the few trees and shrubs that I managed to identify: the mesquite and paloverde trees; the athel pines with their clouds of long, tough, pendant needles; and, humble lord of the hottest North American deserts, the creosote bush.

The creosote had a pungent, tarry odor, particularly evident after a rain.  Some might have described the odor as sickening.  Perhaps this explained why Native Americans used―and perhaps still used―creosote as an emetic.  However, in moderate doses, I was personally taken by the fragrance.  It pleasantly recalled our most forbidding lands; recalled, too, my leisurely youth, which was often spent walking railroad tracks the wooden ties of which were, and still are, preserved with the essence of creosote. 

Meanwhile, I wasn’t troubled by desert “monotony.”  Creosote bushes have been known to live for 9,000 years, and thus are the oldest living things on the planet.  Imagine how monotonous our parade of puny life cycles must appear to them

Like the mountains, Arizona’s desert florae were generously spaced, vibrantly individual.  They were clever in their capture and assimilation of water and remarkable in their adaptability and resilience.



arizona, creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest

Desert Light

The Sonoran Desert at 1:00 or 2:00 P.M., when every point in space was aglow, was transfixing.  The light shrank my pupils to the size of sand grains, blinding me for a couple minutes after I entered the dimness of my curtained house. 

And, like heat, this light demanded respect.  There were people in Yuma, and here I refer primarily to the Anglos, who had obviously exposed themselves to a lot of sunlight.  Like my Chihuahuan Desert friend Frank, they were variously dusky, russet, coppery figures.  Some were obviously sun-worshippers who had taken the practice to a questionable, if not dangerous, level.  Then there were those who had spent their entire working lives in the Arizona sunlight―passive sun-tanners, you might call them―and had either found exposed skin comfortable, despite the fact that it hastens dehydration, or had simply tired of slathering on sunscreen and donning protective clothing.  As a result, they had all developed a dark coat that apparently continued to resist the sun’s ultimate threat, melanoma. 

Once, I dealt with a Yuman, a white non-Hispanic about my age, who worked outdoors.  He came to our house to explain how the timer on our lawn’s irrigation system worked.  He was a strange sight.  Wearing a tank top, he had a permanent squint; the thick, wrinkled eyelids of a Sonoran lizard; and a mottled hide that recalled beef jerky.  Slaughtered by the sun, he nonetheless still functioned.  I was fascinated by his adaptation to desert light.

arizona, creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest

Tengo Sed

Yes, adequately hydrated.  For Yuma was also thirst, unlike any I’d ever experienced.  The sensation went beyond my mouth, throat, and stomach, clawing at my body’s very cells.  There were times when I couldn’t seem to quench it, no matter how much or how swiftly I drank.  And yet if, as Cervantes observed, “There’s no sauce in the world like hunger,” then surely there’s no better additive to water than a great thirst. 

Americans, maybe humans worldwide, don’t grant thirst the same significance they grant hunger, even though water is more essential to our survival than food.  We in America don’t hear about “children going to bed at night thirsty.”  Of course, this is because a glass of tap water in America is so readily available and cheap.  (Except, of course, in Flint, Michigan. Meanwhile, we’ll see how climate change tampers with all of this.)  The bottled-water industry notwithstanding, we aren’t drowning in ads to relieve fundamental thirst.  Water in American advertising is merely a medium to deliver alcohol, sugar, “purity,” Coke’s secret formula, caffeine, “vitamins,” and “electrolytes.”  As if hydration isn’t satisfying and celebratory enough. 

arizona, Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, southwest

More from the Land of the Black Flame

Thus began our stay in Yuma.  And my fascination with heat heretofore unimaginable.  That strange third digit morning after morning on the front page of Yuma’s daily paper.  The prefix “one hundred and” uttered day after peculiar day by television meteorologists.  Heat that required running the cold-water tap for five minutes before getting a warm drink.  Heat that could fry an egg or possibly even grill bacon―or at least zap its trichinellaon a rail of the Union Pacific track not far from our house.

On fiery July afternoons, our neighborhood was effectively deserted, disturbed only by a fleeting breeze, the flight of a dove, the rasp and whisper of palm leaves, the shadow of a vulture, the distant roar of a freight train.  Meanwhile, the chief activity in Yuma’s ubiquitous RV “resorts”─the city’s cumulative golden goose during the fall and winter─was the mere drift of sand. 

Then, at sunset, like the rattlesnakes, pocket mice, kit foxes, and solpugids in the surrounding desert, our year-round human neighbors―some of them, at least―emerged from their dens and commenced to walk, run, bicycle, play hopscotch and kickball, water flowers and shrubs, and reconnect.

Yes, the summer heat in Yuma was ferocious, and I quickly learned you trifle with it at your peril.  Intrigued by the recently dedicated Yuma East Wetlands public park adjacent to the Colorado River―like the Rio Grande through Alamosa, languid through this stretch of Arizona―I set out one sunny noon on its two-and-a-half-mile loop trail, thinking the quart of water in my daypack would be sufficient. 

A half-mile into the trail I was puzzled by the lack of people.  After all, the temperature was a mere 100.  At what I presumed was the trail’s midpoint, I slumped in some scant shade beside a bone-dry concrete irrigation ditch. 

And began to panic.  My water was nearly gone, and I felt the desert beginning to sit on my chest.  I resumed, although now somewhat wobbling upon the trail.  Passing a swamp filled with a dark, stagnant, repellant broth, I noticed my thoughts beginning to slur.  At one point, buried amid the park’s trees and shrubs and confused by the trail’s signage, I wondered if I was going around in circles―or going mad. 

I was neither.  I finally made it to Gateway Park, my starting point.  There, I thrust my head under a blessed outdoor shower likely installed for bathers in the nearby Colorado.  I pictured clouds of steam issuing from my head.  Never did water─river water, I presumed, so I avoided drinking it─feel so good.  I would have stepped completely under the shower─jeans, shirt, hiking boots, daypack, wristwatch, everything─but a family with small children was picnicking nearby and I feared alarming them with such pixilation. 

Somewhat relieved, I dragged myself another quarter mile to the Yuma Visitor Center, where I rehydrated, gulping two quarts of water as I slumped on a vinyl sofa, grateful to be alive.

And yet, adequately hydrated, I didn’t mind Yuma’s extraordinary heat.  I even liked it.  At nine percent relative humidity, a temperature of 104 could be, in Edward Abbey’s words, “comfortable, even pleasant.” 

July and August days, dressed in athletic shorts, a sleeveless polyester shirt, and sandals, with only household errands to perform, I deliberately drove around Yuma with my truck’s windows wide open and its air-conditioning off, fancying myself one of Frank Waters’s “psychical mestizos”: men “European on the outside and Indian inside, men neither white nor wholly red.”  Rather than continually battling the heat, I sought to engage it on its own terms, the way people did for thousands of years before refrigerated air was introduced to the Southwest around 1950.  As in Anthony, I found such heat soothing, cleansing, purifying. 

Of course, I also acknowledged that such heat could be exhausting.  I thought of the Yumans who had to toil day after day in it: the farmworkers and landscapers, the people who maintained the ditches and swimming pools, that remarkable─or pixilated─person who wore the full panda suit while hawking some business on 4th Avenue at midday. 

Yet, as much as I liked to toot my own horn about my ability to contend with extreme heat, I couldn’t have lived in the hot desert without some kind of home refrigeration, be it air-conditioning or evaporative cooling. 

I became especially aware of this in Yuma, when our dwelling’s air-conditioner failed on the cusp of the Labor Day weekend, when the temperatures were, of course, still in the 100’s.  As a consequence, Linda retreated to a motel room while the dogs and I set up camp in our north-facing living room―as if such global positioning would have made any difference―with a ceiling fan spinning madly above and two floor fans blasting air from opposite sides. 

Our management company said it was unlikely a repairman could be found over the Labor Day weekend.  (Probable translation: “We’ll be damned if we’re going to pay triple the cost just so you can enjoy the holiday.”)  But, to my surprise, after two days and two nights of the North African sirocco in our living room, a repairman showed up on Labor Day itself and spent four hours in the blaze on our roof installing a new compressor, which he had to pick up in Phoenix the previous day.  I tipped him $50 when the job was done and went out for a Big Mac and large fries.

arizona, creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest

To the Land of the Black Flame

We drove.  Warner, New Hampshire.  Syracuse.  Columbus.  Rolla, Missouri.  Clinton, Oklahoma. 

On our sixth afternoon, we arrived at the Econo Lodge in Albuquerque.  The RAV’s thermometer revealed the outside temperature to be 101.  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 100’s from June to September.  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 experienced 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 50 or 60 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 date palm trees, we gassed, toileted, and purchased “date shakes”―milkshakes with chopped dates (delicious, and useful for viscera seized 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.  (Misters would also be popular at southern Arizona restaurants with outdoor seating.) 

After negotiating a notch in the Gila Mountains, we arrived in Yuma at the afternoon’s end. 

At the management company we picked up the key to our rental house, into which we would move the following day.  We then got a motel room on Yuma’s main drag. 

In the early evening, while Linda napped and the dogs chilled, I drove to our new house on the east side of the city to check it out.   It was a modest, single-story, three-bedroom affair with a small swimming pool.  I would wait to enter it.

Upon starting the car in the driveway to leave, I noticed that the car’s thermometer read 118 degrees.  I suspected the city’s official temperature was less, although not much so, and that the added degrees were the contribution of the naturally higher ground temperatures, particularly when the “ground” was the heat-absorbent concrete of the house’s driveway. 

At 10:00 that night, the TV weatherperson reported the temperature was 104.  Was it that hot beyond the city, in the undeveloped desert? I wondered.

I doubted it.  Writing about Phoenix in A Great Aridness, author William deBuys identified the “phenomenon known as the ‘urban heat island’.”  It is “mainly felt at night,” he wrote, “when the hard surfaces of the city release heat stored during the day.”  In any event, never had I found myself attempting to square so much heat with so much darkness.  That same night, just beyond our motel window, Yuma’s municipal workers were repaving 4th Street, no doubt to prevent daytime traffic jams, but surely to avoid the debilitating, if not deadly, daytime heat as well.    

Welcome to the Land of the Black Flame.

Colorado, creative non fiction, Desert, maine, southwest

Come Now, You Didn’t Think We Were Going to Stay, Did You?

Four years after we moved to Maine, as my wife prepared for her graduation, we looked at the mounting entries on the liabilities side of our Maine balance sheet: The wearying humidity of summer.  The bone-gnawing cold of winter.  The ticks that appeared in the woods every spring, entering our house aboard our four dogs and the Smartwool of my socks before crawling between our bed sheets, threatening Lyme Disease, and expiring only between the teeth of a pair of pliers or beneath the blow of a hammer.  The rare Maine vista beyond its shorelines.  The Mother’s Day entrada of the bloodsucking black fly and the Father’s Day entrada of the stabbing mosquito.  The snow-laden tree limbs that broke power lines, plunging houses into cold and darkness for days.  The marginally-satisfying “Mexican” food at the On the Border restaurant in South Portland.  (Beware of a dry enchilada garnished with parsley and a jalapeño slice.)  The idiocy and racism of Maine governor Paul LePage.

So we decided to return to the Southwest.

Linda’s desire to further her spiritual education helped in this regard.  She was seeking a training program in “clinical pastoral education”―hospital chaplaincy.  It so happened that Yuma, Arizona’s regional medical center offered such a program.  And one could not get more Southwest than Yuma, Arizona. 

Linda applied to the program and was accepted.             

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 highly-publicized and nasty behavior of 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 our 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, sadly, 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 trucked to Yuma.  Packed in our Toyota RAV, Linda, I, and three dogs―our Buddy having recently passed into the mystic―then began our journey west.  We faced 2,800 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.