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Mexican Food in Yuma

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’ve 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.

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Muggins, Dome, and Gila

To escape the bustle of Yuma, the dogs and I would drive east over Telegraph Pass, drop down into Dome Valley, and wander farther east on foot over a dirt road into the Muggins Mountains.  Except along their dry arroyos, these were mostly barren formations, as rugged and bleak as the formations of Jordan’s Wadi Rum Valley (and Lawrence of Arabia fame).  Benches below the range’s sharp peaks and ridges were broad fields of nothing but fine black rock: desert pavement.  (Picture the most superfluous attempt at xeriscaping by a slovenly Southwestern homeowner.)  Even creosote struggled here, and the saguaro was almost non-existent.  The dominant hues and shades were browns, tans, dull greens, and whites.  Rarely did I hear birdsong.  The buzz of an occasional fly marred the silence.  In mid-November, while most of America prepared to gird its loins against another long season of rain, slush, and snow, this queer land of timeless sunlight, aridity, and vacant sky went on, serenely meditating on its indifference. 

Meanwhile, the heart of Dome Valley was a lush three-mile-wide belt of crops that ran for a dozen miles southeast to northwest.  The belt traced the course of the Gila River, once one of the Southwest’s most vibrant rivers from its source in southwestern New Mexico’s Black Range to its termination at the Colorado River in Yuma.  Buddy and I camped along its lively waters not far from its source fifteen years earlier.  Today, the river is strangled by a dam in Coolidge, Arizona, and, downstream, nearly starved by the agricultural demands of the Phoenix, Arizona, region.  To get to the Muggins, the dogs and I had to cross a bridge that spanned the Gila near Ligurta, Arizona.  From the bridge, we observed not a river but rather what appeared to be a series of narrow, stagnant puddles cushioned on both sides by a broad, treeless bottomland of green and brown grasses.  In the Dome Valley, and perhaps beyond to the Colorado, the river seemed to vanish entirely, reimagining itself as a maze of concrete canals and earthen ditches, all blanketed with cauliflower, wheat, lemons, and cotton.

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Lettuce

Amid the harsh desert of Yuma County are 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 are rich in nutrients, and thus ideal for growing.

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, there was machine-made ridge after perfect ridge of finely-granulated soils irrigated by sprinklers spewing Colorado River water; 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 and avenues, their occasionally dribbled fruits ornamenting the roadsides.

Field harvesting in Yuma was serious business performed almost entirely―maybe 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, 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 always contained not only a pallid mess of dead leaves, but thousands of still rooted and, it seemed to me, perfectly good heads.  As a salad lover, I’d look at these remnants; long for a plate, fork, and a bottle of Newman’s Own Caesar; and, mouth watering, nearly weep at the puzzling waste.  (And a waste that didn’t end there: Americans, myself included, throw 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 eighteen-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?  Although 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.  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 today does have a serious stake in strict hygiene).

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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’d gaze at the vacuum over the Gila Mountains and imagine how the dot of a question mark would feel if it had been permanently denied the crook above it. 

Sometimes the skies would be generous and treat us to pitiless brushstrokes of cirrus clouds.  At the end of the day, they’d hang exhausted above the western horizon in faded grays, pinks, and oranges.  Upon the horizon itself, barely noticeable, there’d be spread, like a bank of ashes, a distant range of Californian, and perhaps some Mexican, mountains. 

Yes, rain was scarce in Yuma: the city averages 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, does have a summer “monsoon season.”  Yuma’s monsoons are triggered by tropical air masses visiting from the Gulf of California.  Thus, it did occasionally shower in Yuma, albeit briefly and lightly. 

However, one late-August afternoon, with the temperature yet again in the low-100s, an unusually powerful monsoon struck our neighborhood, one of the most frightening storms I’d ever experienced.  In minutes, the inside of an oven became the inside 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 end-over-end 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 following the monsoon, a green tint blossomed on the lower elevations of the Gila Mountains.

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Yuma Trivia

Southwestern Arizona is located in an area of the United States the geographers identify as the Basin and Range Province: vast plains dotted with relatively small mountain ranges. Here, for me, a pleasing geographical balance was struck 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, the original poet of North America’s deserts, in 1901.) 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 never lofty enough to escape 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 notes 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 iconic 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 has a pungent, tarry odor, particularly evident after a rain.  Some might describe the odor as sickening.  Perhaps this explains why Native Americans used―and perhaps still use―creosote as an emetic.  However, in moderate doses, I’m personally taken by the fragrance.  It pleasantly recalls our most forbidding lands.  It recalls, as well, my leisurely, dreamy, misspent 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’m not troubled by desert “monotony.”  Creosote bushes have been known to live for at least 9,000 years: the oldest living things on our planet.  Imagine how monotonous our parade of puny life cycles must appear to them. 

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

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Desert Light

The Sonoran Desert at 2 p.m., when every point in space was aglow, was transfixing.  The light shrank your pupils to the size of sand grains, blinding you for a couple minutes after you entered the darkness of your 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 dusky, russet, coppery figures, looking as if they should have been accompanied by embers.  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 developed a dark coat that apparently continued to resist the sun’s ultimate threat. 

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.

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Tengo Sed

Yuma was also thirst.  My thirst there was unlike any I’d ever experienced.  The sensation went beyond my mouth, throat, and stomach.  It clawed 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.  (For now.  We’ll see how climate change tampers with 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. 

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The Psychical Mestizo

Adequately hydrated, I didn’t mind Yuma’s extraordinary heat.  I even liked it.  At 9% humidity, a temperature of 104 can 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.  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 like to toot my own horn about my ability to contend with extreme heat, I couldn’t live 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 100s.  As a consequence, Linda retreated to a motel room while the three dogs and I set up camp in our north-facing living room―as if such geography 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 fifty dollars when the job was done and went out for a Big Mac and large fries.

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Trifle at Your Peril

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 languid Colorado River, I set out one sunny noon on its 2.5-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 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.

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More from the Land of the Black Flame

Thus began our stay in Yuma, and my fascination with extreme heat.  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 slightly cool drink.  Heat that could fry an egg or possibly even grill bacon―or at least zap its trichinella―on 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.