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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. 

arizona, creative non fiction, New Mexico, southwest

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.

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 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.

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The Land of the Black Flame

At the management company we picked up the key to our rental house, into which we would move the following day.  We 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 until the following day to enter it.

Upon starting our car in the driveway to leave, I noticed the car’s thermometer read 118°F outside.  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 desert ground temperatures, particularly when the “ground” was the heat-absorbent concrete of the house’s driveway. 

At ten o’clock 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 identifies the “phenomenon known as the ‘urban heat island’.”  It is “mainly felt at night,” he writes, “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.

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3:10 to Yuma

In addition to the climate, landscapes, sunsets, cuisine, cultures, and nostalgia, there was other bait to lure us westward: 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. 

Colorado, creative non fiction, maine, southwest

Maine Sunset

Meanwhile, Linda studied theology.  Her bedroom, which included a desk, easy chair, laptop computer, and inkjet printer, filled with texts, hardcover as well as paperback, on theology through the ages, including theological approaches to such contemporary issues as violence, incarceration, and LGBTQ rights.  Many of the texts, if their cover descriptions were any indication, struck me as unimaginably dense―the particle physics of faith and spirit―yet she tackled them with the same rigor she applied to the study of medicine.  Chaplaincy, not preaching from a pulpit, was her blossoming interest as, while a student, she enjoyed volunteering at a Portland hospital, the Cumberland County Jail, and the state prison in Warren, Maine. 

And then, 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, 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 invasion of the bloodsucking black fly.  The Father’s Day invasion of the 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 an enchilada scantily clad with sauce and garnished with parsley and a jalapeño slice.)  The idiocy and racism of Maine governor Paul LePage.             

So we decided to some way, somehow, return to the Southwest. 

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Maine Winters

About the only thing I looked forward to in the Maine winter was the drama of a snowstorm, the possibility of a resulting power outage lasting a day or more notwithstanding. “Nor’easters”―cyclonic air masses that spawn off the shores of the eastern United States, wicked combinations of cold polar air and warmer ocean air―produced the best snowstorms in Gorham. 

I loved the way the curtains of falling snow erased distances, eliminated property lines, bled the world of color, and wrapped the rare person afoot in town or country in his or her own private world―a gray apparition.  Reducing traffic to a whisper―this as Maine’s intrepid road-maintenance crews kept streets and roads in remarkably good condition―the raging storms transformed the countryside into a 17th-century wilderness and the villages into ghostly hamlets.  The mountains of snow relieved the harshness of the naked branches and limbs and exposed rock of the countryside, buried the stains and litter in the towns and cities. 

As much as I liked the unfettered wildness of the snow and wind, I also enjoyed taming it, keeping it at bay, assuming the manly role of maintaining our home’s safety, comfort, efficiency, and welcome.  Although never a gearhead, during and after the storms I enjoyed blasting the snow away with my new heavy-duty Sears snowblower.  I cleared not only our driveway and the walkway to our front door, but much of our front and back yards, creating winter “pastures” for our four dogs so they could stretch their legs and and enjoy some room to accommodate their individual relief habits.  None of us is immune.