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.

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.

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. 

Colorado, creative non fiction, maine, New Mexico, Uncategorized

Maine True

Meanwhile, there was Maine with all its charms and curiosities:  Fried clams.  The Windham, Maine, property that had a mint condition replica of a 1950s gas station.  “Lobstah.”  Locals wintering in “Florider.”  Lighthouses.  The Italian corner store.  Winslow Homer.  Dark, plump wild turkeys filing across a country road.  “Christina’s World.”  Old Town Canoes.  The seventeen-hundred-pound “chocolate moose.”  A public reading of Whittier’s “Snowbound.”  A boat and trailer in every other driveway.  A Portland Seadogs Double-A baseball game disappearing behind fog.  Dunkin Donuts.  Sap gushing from a pruned maple limb in the spring.  Maple syrup.  Bundled and sheltered “CAMP WOOD” for sale along a rural roadside littered with windfallen . . . camp wood. The cottage industry of personal pickups with snowplows.  Roiling, whirlpooling, thundering, misting Maine rivers guided by granite through downtowns after a day of heavy rain.  Lightning bugs burning spark holes in a June evening.

Colorado, creative non fiction, maine, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest, Uncategorized

Summers in Maine

Maine summers have long been known for their comfort, for being warm but generally not hot.  In addition to “The Pine Tree State,” Maine’s nickname is “Vacationland.”  For generations, people, including members of my family, have flocked to Maine to have a taste of the wild and, especially, to escape the torrid summer heat of the states south of Maine.  For instance, if you lived in Morristown, New Jersey, and on a July day the temperature there was 91°F and the humidity is 90%, you were forgiven for longing to be in a breezy Maine coastal town like Bar Harbor or Christmas Cove; or, if you favored deep woods and fresh water, to be loafing on the summit of Maine’s Mt. Katahdin, where the famed Appalachian Trail terminates, or to be taking an invigorating plunge in Maine’s Moosehead Lake (“like a gleaming silver platter at the end of the table,” wrote Thoreau).  Indeed, nothing―not even the most pleasant day in New Mexico―beat an August afternoon in our backyard in Gorham, the temperature in the 80s, and I relaxing against the trunk of a pine, listening to the breeze in the treetops and the fiddling of insects, recalling my childhood, my butt upon a new-mowed lawn interwoven with scintillating pine needles.

But the operative word here is “relaxing.”  On many summer days in Maine, if I was engaging in a vigorous activity while working or playing outdoors, my body often felt greased with sweat.  And while the first floor of our house was generally comfortable in the summer, we often had fans exhausting the heat from our second-floor bedrooms on summer nights.  We even considered an air-conditioner for one of the bedrooms.  Living in the arid West nearly all her life, Linda was more sensitive to the Northeast humidity than I.  Yet we both concluded we were just too spoiled by the aridity of the Southwest.[1]

The rains continued throughout the Maine summer.  As in the spring, there were the vast, wet, but low-key systems that moved through Gorham like a slow train.  But there were also the brief thunderstorms whose violence rivaled anything I ever experienced in the Southwest, although a violence somewhat cushioned by all the vegetation.  After a calm, sunny morning and early afternoon, during which I might have guided our newly-acquired self-propelled rotary mower over our entire lawn, I’d take a hot shower and repair to our front porch, where I’d sip a cold drink.  Then, a breeze would arrive from some indeterminant direction, creating a foamy sibilance in the leafy crowns of the huge maples in our front yard.  I’d hear a sky-crumpling shudder of thunder.  Yes, a thunderstorm was soon to arrive, but from where?  In the desert Southwest, one could see storms approaching from miles away.  However, storms approached our heavily wooded Gorham neighborhood like a blimp might approach a man in a closet with its door ajar.  But arrive the storm would, bringing more thunder―and lightning.  As in the Southwest, the harder the downpour, the more one could expect a bolt of lightning and heart-stopping crack of thunder: that seemingly incompatible mixture of fire and water.  The torrent would enclose our property, overflow our gutters, send water vomiting from the drainpipes, and set the creeks in our neighborhood to temporarily singing.         


[1] Spoiled?  In July of 2019, in an online article/survey about coping with summer heat, presumably in the New York metropolitan area, The New York Times posited this: “Humidity is the best weather.  It’s good for your skin, but you probably knew that.  A healthy dose can improve the quality of your sleep and clear up breathing problems.  Maybe that sounds familiar, too.  But did you know that humidity can enhance your sense of smell?  A moist nose works better than a dry nose, and scents, delightful and otherwise, are more easily trapped by muggy air where they linger longer.  Then there’s this: Humidity may have given rise to some of humanity’s most complex languages.  According to one theory, the persistent swampiness in some parts of the world limbered up the voice boxes of local inhabitants, allowing them to create languages with a wide range of subtle tones.  And if all of that isn’t enough to convince you, there’s one more reason to love humidity: It’s egalitarian.  No one needs to be worried about being a sweaty mess, when everyone’s a sweaty mess.”  At the time I read it, 614 readers agreed with the preceding, and 3385 disagreed.

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

Delivering Care in Maine

I resumed working, now as a practical nurse with all its expectations and responsibilities―honestly, not every one of which I met.  I briefly worked at a couple of long-term-care facilities, one that did business in an aged structure in South Portland, the other a unit of a luxurious “retirement community” on the coastline of the town of Scarborough.  Neither worked out. 

I then settled into a long-term-care facility in Westbrook, where I primarily passed medications on a locked dementia floor, many of whose residents had Alzheimer’s Disease.  There, I cared for residents who covered a spectrum of diagnoses and behaviors: calm, cooperative people; people who mumbled to themselves as they constantly paced the sleeping pods and common areas; people who fought with other residents and exploded at the slightest provocation; people who refused medications; fall-risk residents who set off piercing alarms as they rose out of boredom from seats and beds; bedridden people in tearful pain, contending with severe pressure sores and praying to die.  Every other week a young man arrived on the floor, and with his guitar, untrained voice, and evangelical bent he performed creaky gospel songs for the residents. 

I worked the swing shift.  Every shift began and ended with the tedium of accounting for the opiates in the medication cart.  On my feet throughout the shift, I’d drag home through the often-foggy New England shoreline night exhausted.  I lost ten pounds during this experience, and quit―even eschewing a small but obviously thoughtful going-away ceremony with cake―after nine months.  I then worked at a family-practice clinic that employed four physicians―here, as in Alamosa, working more as a medical assistant than a practical nurse.  I vastly preferred this to working in a long-term-care facility. However, I never recaptured in Maine the pleasure and rewards I felt delivering healthcare in the San Luis Valley.

Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest, Uncategorized

Rotten Ice and Rain

Several days after our arrival, I went with Buddy for a first walk well beyond our front door.  Our destination was a place Bruce’s brother―the previous owner of our house, who would soon have a house built for himself and his wife immediately behind us―called the “ottah pond.”  That is, the otter pond.  (Although I had a Boston roommate at boarding school, the Maine accent would take as much getting used to as the woods.  And, yes, I obliquely know the Maine accent differs from a Boston accent and a southern Maine accent differs from a northern Maine accent.)  We walked in the direction of our road’s dead end and crossed a single-track railroad line we had been told was abandoned.  We then headed down an asphalt trail that paralleled the track. 

It was a raw morning.  The temperature was forty.  The skies were leaden.  The air was still.  Fog filled the woods in places.  A foot and a half of old, dull snow blanketed the woods and the occasional open space.  The asphalt trail, obviously used heavily by snowmobilers and cross-country skiers, consisted of flattened snow and rotten ice.  It was all I could do to avoid slipping and falling.  Vast patches of ice were new to Buddy and he, too, fought to keep his hindquarters aloft.  The countryside was quiet but for the occasional call of a crow and the distant bark of a dog―a deep bellow, probably that of a Labrador, which, I would soon learn, is a very popular canine in watery Maine. 

The gloom of the morning and the density of my surroundings were certainly different, got me to wondering:  Is this what inspired some of my favorite writers: Emerson, Thoreau, Frost, Hal Borland, William Cullen Bryant, Henry Beston, Edward Hoagland?  Would this sea of towering wood succor or smother me?  Comfort me or unnerve me with all I imagined it was concealing?  Would this gray sky soothe my eyes or throw me into a depression?     

Soon we arrived at the pond―actually one of several ponds―where the asphalt trail ended and the railroad track disappeared in a dense, gray tangle of trees and brush.  (I would later learn that the track ran from Portland to the northeastern New Hampshire town of Whitefield.)  The world opened up somewhat at this body of water and patchy ice that I estimated was about the size of the flats behind our house in Alamosa.  The pond was as melancholy as the morning, but, during our walk back to the house, the prospect of swimming in it on a hot July afternoon―after all these years, to feel the sting of some fresh, clear water up my nose, to paraphrase Mainer E.B. White―lifted my spirits as I negotiated the trail, now with a bit more sure-footedness. 

The spring rains that occurred not long after our arrival fascinated me.  I’d awaken in the morning to a gray lid over Gorham―and, I’d assume, all of New England.  Then, with no fanfare―no heralding wind, thunder, or lightning, as was common in the desert Southwest―it would rain.  And rain.  And rain. Not torrential rain, just, amid a fundamental stillness, a relentlessly pouring rain.  It drummed with “Bolero” monotony on our roof.  In the deep woods, where its billions of droplets struck billions of spring-exploding leaves, it hissed, chattered, and roared.  James Dickey wrote of the “pressure” of the Eastern woods; these rains compounded that pressure.  Accompanying the percussion of rain on leaf was the ubiquitous melody of droplets on puddles everywhere.  

Of course, I took measures against the wetness, perhaps overdoing it.  Shrouded in my ethylene vinyl acetate rain poncho still stiff and glossy with desert disuse, I galumphed around downtown Gorham with a Frankenstein gait in my new, shin-high, size-15 muck boots.  (I would have preferred L.L. Bean’s lighter, “legendary” leather-and-rubber boot―all over Maine since 1912 and popular at my boarding school―had it not stopped at size 14.)  Meanwhile, I marveled as women in mere tee-shirts and dresses, their bare feet in flip-flops, splashed with little apparent concern upon asphalt and concrete.  In the night with an oily chill that followed, the hollows that abutted the rural roads filled with the eerie music of the amphibians locally known as peepers.

Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest

Home in Maine

We left Alamosa on a warm afternoon in late February.  Sammy, our mover, was a Mexican-American from―frankly, to my surprise―the aforementioned Clinton, Massachusetts.  I drove the pickup that pulled our 23-foot travel trailer; Linda drove the SUV; and we divided the four dogs between us.  We spent six nights on the road to Maine, sleeping in Brush, Colorado; Council Bluffs, Iowa; Chicago, Illinois; Cleveland, Ohio; Utica, New York; and Warner, New Hampshire, where my sister and brother-in-law lived.  Shortly after crossing into New York State, we exited I-90 and pulled into an empty lot gleaming with snow in the town of Ripley.  As we let the dogs wander, I ceremoniously brought a pinch of the fresh snow to my lips.  New York!  Where I went to college, had my first legal beer, lost my virginity, dropped acid for the first time!  

Four days later we closed on house #4 at a lawyer’s office in downtown Gorham. Shortly thereafter, we arrived at the house on a dead-end road.  The neighborhood was covered with a couple feet of old, graying ice and snow.  Bruce, one of our new neighbors, was helping Sammy jockey his massive rig to an optimal unloading place.  It was the first of many occasions in which Bruce would help us. 

After several days we established a modicum of order in the house.  The 35-year-old structure was a variation on the common New England Cape Cod style.  It had a second floor and a unfinished basement, which meant stairways, a new element in our homeowning experience.  The front of the house had a small, screened-in porch.  The detached, pitched-roof, two-car garage had a large attic.  The house sat on a little more than an acre, two-thirds of which was lawn, shrubbery, and groundcover. Trees of all sizes―white pine, maple, oak, birch, hemlock, larch―guarded, hugged, and canopied our house.  The remaining one-third acre was densely wooded: our own little parcel of Maine wilderness.  Nearly all of the fifteen or twenty other properties on our three-quarter-mile-long road were of similar size.  We no longer had the wide-open surroundings we enjoyed in southern New Mexico and Colorado; on the other hand, I was grateful for the privacy and solitude provided by the crush of trees.

Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest

Look Homeward, You Restless Nostalgic Angel

As much as I loved living in the Southwest, for at least a decade I had occasionally fantasized about returning to my native Northeast.  Not the concrete, asphalt, traffic, and sprawl of my suburban New Jersey boyhood and adolescence.  Not even, within that sprawl, the one thing I fondly recall, in an adolescent-romantic way, about the Garden State: that railroad line that ran from my town to Hoboken; that corridor of steel, wood, ballast, brick, soot, grease, sidings, boxcars, loading docks, platforms, Italian bread factories, fifty-five-gallon drums, fens, storage tanks, chemical factories, rust, overpasses, billboards advertising liquor and Broadway shows, and bocce ball courts that threaded in the smoke and haze such burgs as Paterson, Passaic, Clifton, Lyndhurst, Kingsland, and Secaucus, and that I frequently traveled by passenger train for a few dollars after school for fun.  No, nowhere in New Jersey.  

Rather, my gaze was now upon New England, mainly the rural New England of my youth and the memories it held: Vacations on a lake amid the hills and mountains at the confluence of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York State; a lake of awesome breadth and, until I learned to swim, frightening depth, glassy one day and coarse with steep, mutinous, white-capped waves the next.  Dense, dark woods into which I would venture only so far.  A pine needle-blanketed railroad track nearly digested by the woods, yet bearing a short, crawling, thrilling freight train once or twice a week.  Crows and song sparrows.  Corn fields.  Rivers of sibilance in the leafy treetops. Dairy cows encircled by electric fences whose strands I would test with a stem of grass.  A shallow lily pond at one end of the lake in which was interred a rowboat coated in furry mud.  Stubbed and bloodied toes.  Legs and arms stiff and sore with poison ivy rash plastered pink with calamine.  Motorboats.  Water rainbowed with fuel.  Lake activity echoing off a wall of white pine on limpid mornings. Sky-crumpling thunderstorms.  A lush, mysterious, and silent private island belonging to a school for the deaf.  Bass, pickerel, perch, sunfish, mussels, and crayfish.  Nocturnal raccoons raiding garbage cans.  Barred owls calling in the dead of night.  Air balmy with a comfortable humidity. A place that introduced me to the wonders of nature and the succor of woods. As I walked carefully, slowly, tenderly in those woods, I think my developing mind for the first time got a sense of the past―not my past, not my mom’s or dad’s past, but the past.

Memories of a single year at a boarding school at the base of a western Massachusetts mountain.  Coats and ties.  Mandatory sports and chapel.  No girls.  Constant hunger.  Nicotine withdrawal.  Fear of failure. A frustrating if awe-inspiring English master.  A big, quiet, comforting library sweet with the must of old books.  The mouth of a culvert in which I huddled, sneaking Marlboros on bitter moonless nights deep with snow.  The shame of a remedial education.  And yet a school―with its reputation, recommendation, and a second-string spot on its varsity basketball team―that got me into a college beyond my wildest dreams.

I even fondly recall urban New England: Boston.  Age seventeen.  Staying at my sister’s apartment on Agassiz Street in Cambridge.  Lolling on the banks of the Charles.  Discovering Look Homeward, Angel on a night stand.  The pleasure of first-time inebriation―screwdrivers―on a Boston subway platform.  A side trip with sister and her friends by bus to a camp in Conway, New Hampshire.

However, bad memories also haunted that land.  Adolescent New Jersey memories of bullying, loneliness, and academic shortcomings.  I wondered if I could now stand to revisit them―for surely they still existed in Northeast places―and forever put them to rest.

Still, a land to which I owed much. My mind now enriched and my body seasoned by my years in the Southwest, could I, at age fifty-eight, reengage with its spirit? Could I spend the rest of my life there?  I thought I could.

Now, could my wife?

.

Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley

Sorties Real and Imagined Beyond the Valley

My hikes and backpacks in the Southwestern mountains and deserts decreased during my years in the San Luis Valley.  The vivid and unimpeded views of some of America’s most rugged wilderness areas from our property, coupled with the tranquility of our immediate surroundings, often satisfied my need to light out for the remote. 

Fitness, or a lack thereof, was another factor that kept me at home.  When in mountains, I like to camp at the highest elevations, where one has breathtaking views and the thrill of a nearby lightning strike.  I had the heart, lungs, knees, and ankles required to climb to the nine-, ten-, and eleven-thousand-foot elevations of central and southern New Mexico.  However, my body did not do so well when it came to climbing the predominant twelve- and thirteen-thousand-foot elevations of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.  So I was often content to stay at home, soak up the views, and visit the Western wilderness in the richness of literature―in the writings of Frank Waters, Cormac McCarthy, A.B. Guthrie, Harvey Fergusson, Colin Fletcher, Annie Proulx, and Frederick Manfred. 

Yet I still found the energy to now and again gasp in the south San Juans of Colorado and the Sangre de Cristos that border the San Luis Valley and tower in northern New Mexico.  San Antonio Mountain, a free-standing monolith overlooking the Colorado-New Mexico border just south of Alamosa, had the effrontery to tear my medial meniscus, thus preventing me from reaching its 10,900-foot summit.  A fall on a steep bushwack in the Piñon Hills delivered a hairline fracture to my humerus.  And Buddy and I once drove six hours to my desert playground near Bluff, Utah, to stay for only one night, but a typically magical one. 

I had to do these things.  Along with the sexual act, they are the most primal, the most authentic experiences I can imagine.  Maurice Herzog, who along with Louis Lachenal was the first person to summit Annapurna in the Himalayas, captures it for me when he wrote: “I believe what I felt [the day of the summit] closely resembles what we call happiness.  I also believe that if I felt such happiness in such rigorous circumstances it is because the planned, organized, predigested happiness that the modern world offers is not complete.  It leaves certain sides of man’s nature unsatisfied.” (This even after Annapurna “digested” all of Herzog’s fingers and toes via frostbite.)