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Conclusion: Destinations Close to Home

With Laura Paskus’s warning―or projection, or prediction, or however you wish to interpret it―in mind, I was, in all hopefulness, imagining a Southwest a decade hence. 

I am 80 years old.  New Mexico’s oil and natural gas wells are capped, no longer vomiting carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere, no longer cooking the planet, no longer holding the state’s economy hostage.  New Mexico is now dressed with solar panels, bristling with windmills, grappling with the challenges and enjoying the rewards of harnessing and delivering clean energy.  Forests are relaxing.  The desert is luxuriant, the blessing of regular flash floods erasing the prints of resurgent wildlife on the sands of its arroyos.  Lithium for batteries is being mined relatively cleanly from brine rather than rock.  Psychiatry is booming as purring electric cars, trucks, motorcycles fail miserably as expressions of American manhood. And I am once again longing to hoist my plant-based pack on my back and light out to mountain, desert, or prairie for a night. 

But I have questions.  Will my dimming mind and historically-tender piriformis muscles withstand another 50- or 100- or 200-mile drive?  And, if so, will there be a charging station for my car in Palo Duro Canyon, Texas; Campo, Colorado; Mexican Hat, Utah; Winslow, Arizona; or Vado de Fusiles, Chihuahua?  And, should I have a major medical event on the remote trail, will rescuers reach and deliver me to a major medical center in time?  Have I renewed my Verizon service?  (Shit!  I can’t remember.)    

And then it occurs to me: Maybe I no longer have to put all those miles of asphalt and concrete beneath me to get away from it all, rough it, enjoy a wilderness experience.  Maybe it’s time to finally spend a night in those mountains that have witnessed, inspired, and comforted me for my 25 years in Albuquerque.  Maybe it’s time to backpack a destination close to home: the Sandias!  After all, despite docking against a city of three-quarters of a million, they still offer opportunities for solitude and peace; still cover 112 square miles; still contain 37,000 acres of federally-designated “wilderness”―that is, acreage free of all motorized and mechanical devices.  As reliably as any mountain I’ve ever packed, they offer earth for a bed; sky and stars for a blanket; and plenty of safe, discrete woody and rocky hollows―those figurative little-brown-shacks-with-half-moon-ventilators―for relief.  Prescribed burning of their forests has successfully reduced the threat of catastrophic wildfire.  And they’re a mere 45-minute walk from my front door . . . through another wilderness, one I’ve never packed: the streets and neighborhoods of Albuquerque.

So, at age 70, to prepare for this eventuality, that’s what I did: I backpacked Albuquerque and the Sandias.



I wonder if anybody will call the cops?

Well, that’s a thought that never occurred to me at the foot of Mt. Taylor or the entrance to the Valley of the Gods.

It was 6:30 in the morning, I had just exited my front door, and I was walking through my neighborhood, a private community of closely-packed patio homes on the southeast edge of Albuquerque.  The day’s forecast called for a high of 97 degrees with a 2 percent chance of rain.  Meanwhile, an internet site reported a “heat dome . . . baking Arizona and Nevada.”  But the sun had yet to crest the Sandia Mountains to the east, so it was still dim and pleasantly cool in my neighborhood. 

I had a pack weighing 40 pounds, 18 of them water, on my back.  I wore a dingy, stained, long-sleeved tee shirt.  My five-year-old hiking boots were faded, striated, and badly worn at the toes (in other words, perfectly broken-in).  Nearly my entire head was hidden beneath a sweat-stained sun hat.  Throughout my six years in this community, my neighbors had periodically complained about homeless people camped in the arroyo―city-owned “open space”―that borders the north side of our development.  Thus, I wondered if one of them would mistake me for an interloper, tramp, thief, or raider from a presumed encampment, and then panic and dial Albuquerque’s popular 2-4-2-COPS or a local, privately-owned, “armed response” security company.  After all, Albuquerque was on edge of late because of a rash of homicides.  

A stretch of lush green lawn―a community common area―looked and felt utterly foreign beneath my dust-impregnated boots.  Equally strange was the tap of my walking stick against the asphalt of the street that led out of our community. 

Along the way, I approached a woman―undoubtedly a fellow homeowner in my development, although I didn’t recognize her―standing on the edge of the street beside a bird-of-paradise shrub, preparing to take a photo of one of the shrub’s gay red and yellow blossoms.  Fearing that my presence on the street at that hour and my somewhat slovenly appearance might frighten her, I bid her good morning in my most cheerful, non-threatening manner.  She looked at me briefly, barely acknowledging the greeting, and returned to composing her photo. 

After passing the woman, I dipped into a pocket of my cargo pants, extracted my journal and pen, and noted the encounter.  While doing so, I, as self-appointed arbiter of all things authentically New Mexican, recalled that the bird-of-paradise, lovely though it is, does not grow wild in our state, but is instead imported from South America.  But I tried to muffle that somewhat snide thought.  This is your long-awaited urban backpack, I reminded myself.  Embrace it in all its urban-ness!  Don’t belittle an attractive city neighborhood with some nitpicky botanical observation.  The plant thrives here, for goodness sake! 

I continued my climb up the steep community entrance road.

At the top of the road, already beginning to sweat, I did an about face and looked westward at the huge mesa bordering my city’s west side.  As I’ve mentioned, what makes Albuquerque’s western horizon so beguiling, inviting, and stress-absorbent is its stark emptiness.  On the far end of the horizon, 100 miles nearly due west, rose Mt. Sedgewick, highest point in the Zuni Mountains.  Immediately to Sedgewick’s north climbed the southern slopes of Mt. Taylor.  I’d backpacked Taylor numerous times, made whoopee on its shoulders shortly after moving to New Mexico.  Sedgewick, meanwhile, was a mountain I was planning to pack, although I feared its slopes might buzz with too much humanity, as a primitive road goes practically to its summit.  Other things occupied the horizon, albeit at Albuquerque’s edge:  Five volcanic cones.  And a third mountain, the massive Amazon distribution center, which was still under construction.  That is, Mt. Bezos.  Or perhaps, more precisely, given its blandly boxy construction, Bezos Butte.  Or Bezos Mesa.  Was it ugly?  Of course.  Was I at least somewhat responsible for its appearance?  With my hundreds of online purchases over two decades, inescapably. 

But “jobs,” our ball-and-chain. 

I exited our community at Four Hills Road and descended into Tijeras Canyon―“Scissors” Canyon, where modern-day cowboy John W. Burns, played by Kirk Douglas, and Burns’s beloved horse, Whiskey, were tragically taken out by a tractor-trailer hauling toilets in the 1961 movie Lonely are the Brave

I had to admit, I thoroughly enjoyed my swift and smooth, because utterly predictable, gait upon Four Hills Road’s recently-repaved asphalt sidewalk, realizing not only how much additional energy I expend negotiating, with feet and legs, the sheer ruggedness of backcountry terrain, but also all the scenery I miss as I’m forced to constantly stare downward at said terrain in order to avoid injury while advancing. 

Scenery such as the kind I was now freely enjoying, particularly the towering western canyons and slopes of the Sandias, majestically unfolding, still shadowed in blue, green, and black.  In his novel The Brave Cowboy, on which Lonely are the Brave is based, Abbey described those canyons and slopes as “loom[ing] over” the Rio Grande Valley “like a psychical presence, a source and mirror of nervous influences, emotions, subtle and unlabeled aspirations.”

So much for Abbey’s boast about the “poetry of simple fact.”  He, too, occasionally couldn’t resist the mystical touch.  And we have been the better for it.

After I crossed the bridge over Tijeras Arroyo at the bottom of the canyon, however, I was pulled jarringly back into the city.  There stood a man and woman on the sidewalk beside the entrance to a dirt road that descended briefly to a dirt parking area beside the arroyo, the woman clutching a cell phone.  Meanwhile, a fire truck came roaring down the north slope of Four Hills Road, its lights flashing and siren screaming. 

“What’s going on?” I asked, and the couple nodded to the parking area, where two young men beside a late-model sedan were frantically stamping out a small fire of what appeared to be merely some papers.  They obviously were not encamped in the arroyo.

“Whoever they are, they’re going to start a brush fire,” said the woman.  “So I called 911.” 

Although the city was indeed tinder-dry, I doubted the brush fire threat, as there was no brush in the parking area and not a breath of wind.  However, I kept this opinion to myself.  But I was nonetheless pleased the woman called 911.  Fires of any kind in Albuquerque Open Space were illegal and, given the right conditions, potentially devastating to what few thoroughly wild, so to speak, areas we had in the city.  Wilderness sojourner John C. Van Dyke championed deserts as the “breathing spaces of the West”; similarly, in addition to the city’s developed parks, these urban wildlands were Albuquerque’s “breathing spaces.”

I was also glad to see the monstrous fire truck grind to a halt, probably coincidentally, at the entrance to the dirt road, effectively blocking it off.  I was sick and tired of seeing Burqueños constantly getting away with behavior such as speeding, reckless driving, and littering.  Now I knew these two rapscallions would at least suffer some embarrassment as a result of this obvious infraction.

Although they tried not to.  With the fire out, they jumped into the sedan, which then disappeared beneath the bridge.  I knew they wouldn’t get far, however, as the dirt road is the only automobile exit from that stretch of arroyo.  Sure enough, the sedan reappeared and slowly crept up the dirt road to the sidewalk and Four Hills Road, where the fire truck and a half-dozen burly firemen awaited them.  Caught, the two men exited the sedan.  Words of some kind were exchanged.  The two young men smiled sheepishly and then re-entered the sedan, evidently free to go, surely relieved the cops didn’t arrive and possibly arrest them.

I didn’t linger at the scene.  I was of the impression that our public servants―our cops and fire fighters―were rightfully cautious about engaging in small talk with bystanders, so I always helped them out by avoiding the practice.  Like any kid, I was just pleased I could leisurely witness a “fire” and the excitement and drama of a huge, colorful truck arriving to address it.  And mete out some justice in the process.  My tax dollars at work.

Meanwhile, I still had miles to cover in this urban wilderness, and the day wasn’t getting any cooler, so I continued up the north slope of Four Hills Road.

After crossing the oil-stained and food-bespattered asphalt parking lot of Smith’s Supermarket, I donned a sweatband.

Then I arrived at the intersection of Central Avenue and Tramway Boulevard.  Due to the time―7 A.M.―and the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, the intersection was still almost entirely devoid of people and traffic.  Soon, however, it would become a tumult of cars, trucks, and motorcycles; panhandlers with cardboard signs; loiterers; the homeless; pedestrian grocery shoppers; fatalists; and the meandering mentally ill.

I crossed Central Avenue in the immediate wake of another urban backpacker.  Well, packer.  Because all his worldly belongings were not exactly loaded on his back.  He carried an unbundled sleeping bag and old-man’s cane in one hand, a tarp and plastic water bottle in the other, and a handbag looped over a shoulder.  He was a lumbering, flapping human chuckwagon on an urban Chisolm Trail.  Unshaven, stone-faced, dead-eyed, and bent forward into another day of survival on the streets, he might have been my age.  We didn’t acknowledge one another.

Meanwhile, there I was, with my $300 Osprey backpack with its multitude of bins and pockets and hooks and clips and zippers, perfectly adjusted with Velcro and straps to float away from my shoulders, aerate my back, and ride like eiderdown on my hips; snug, streamlined, and ready and waiting to get me up the Maroon Bells like crap through a goose.  Still, given the reputation of that intersection, I was betting that the people who bothered to notice me at all were lumping my lot in life with that of the poor soul just ahead of me.    

Continuing north on Tramway Boulevard, I passed the off-ramp from I-40.  A premier platform for panhandlers, it would soon be occupied. 

Then I walked beneath the I-40 bridge.  Here, I now discovered, was a netherworld, an underworld.  It filled with the eerie, endless, random thunder of the six lanes of interstate traffic above.  A weird dim-to-dark biosphere never sweetened or cleansed by so much as a ray of sunshine.   From the sidewalk, concrete sloped up to a narrow ledge just below the bridge’s understory, a ledge, I estimated, just big enough to accommodate a human being. Or, end to end, two human beings.  Or three.  An empty section of sleeping bag drooped beyond the ledge.  I shuddered to think who had been, or was still, using that bag.  What did that person dream about while asleep?  What was the condition of that dream upon awakening?  Pigeons cooed, preened, and paced on the ledge.  Others flew beneath the understory, coarsely chopping the sluggish air like giant, fidgeting bats.  Pigeon shit, denied the flush of rain, caked in ridges on the sidewalk at my feet; stirred into it, the usual discarded fast-food packaging.  Meanwhile, on the highway above, they drove like mad to Chicago, Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, Kingman, Gallup, and Rolla, Missouri.  Hauling onions, wind-turbine blades, ventilators, pre-stressed concrete, restless children, lunch meats, PODS, televisions, new cars, dog food, fertilizer, beef jerky, beleaguered husbands, backpacks.  America on the move.

But just so much dark romanticism brought to you by the comfortably-retired Urban Backpacker.  Try selling this metaphorical piffle to a homeless person simply seeking shelter from a downpour or shade on a fiery New Mexico afternoon.

I gratefully exited this world on the deafening roar of another Albuquerque monkey in a muscle car heading, like me, north on Tramway.  The clamor the homeless must put up with.

Plodding up the Tramway sidewalk/bike path, I came upon a bright red plastic hazardous-waste bottle on the asphalt.  I picked it up and shook it.  It rattled, no doubt with used syringes. 

Good, I thought.  For once a proper disposal. 

Local organizations routinely asked Burqueños to volunteer to comb empty lots in order to safely pick up and dispose of syringes used for injecting heroin and other illegal drugs.  Obviously, a percentage of Albuquerque’s homeless injected this stuff as well.  Whatever the syringes in this bottle were used for, and however the bottle found its way to this sidewalk, I was touched and encouraged by this meager gesture of safety and compassion in a cruel world.  I should have clutched the bottle until the next trash can along the sidewalk, but I wanted my hands free to make entries in my journal, so I returned the bottle carefully to the sidewalk and documented the happenstance.  Guilt weighs less than a hazmat bottle.  I walked on.

On a terrace above the sidewalk there bloomed, with purple and white trumpet-shaped blossoms, a small desert willow―a true, tough, and lovely New Mexico native.  This was a tree still in its infancy, a sapling.  Meanwhile, there was a homeless campsite of a sleeping bag, shopping cart, pillow, plastic storage bin, and plastic storage barrel on the east side of the tree.  If the tree was for privacy, it obviously failed.  More likely, it was for the scant shade it offered in the late afternoon.  Although the campsite looked fresh and relatively clean, it had no occupants at the moment.  Its vulnerability to weather and “wilding”―Albuquerque punks, fortunate with homes, assaulting, even killing, the homeless for a lark―was disturbing.

Soon sunshine began to bathe Tramway and crawl up the foothills of the Sandias.  Traffic became heavy on the thoroughfare.  Runners, walkers, and bicyclists, most of them absorbed in their daily exercise routines, began to pass me on the broad sidewalk. 

Draining the west slopes of the Sandias, a deep and wide concrete arroyo with sloping sides began to parallel the sidewalk.  Given the drought, the arroyo was bone dry.  When running, much of its water flowed to the Rio Grande.

Gazing into the arroyo, I spotted a mimosa sapling growing out of the slightest crack nearly at the arroyo’s bed.  Although not native to the Southwest, the mimosa is a popular tree in Albuquerque.  I first heard it mentioned while growing up in New Jersey, in my favorite Hemingway short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” set in Africa.  We had a couple mimosas in our yard.   

I marveled at the mimosa’s ability to seed, root, and sprout in this challenging fissure, and then to grow to a couple feet.  The tree’s nearly complete concrete world, though highly unnatural, certainly had its benefits in this drought.  What scant rain we’d been having had funneled into this arroyo, and had thus quenched the sapling.  On the other hand, I knew the arroyo might spell the mimosa’s end.  Despite the drought, a flood―water three feet deep or more and traveling at 30 miles-per-hour―in this conduit was inevitable.  And if hydropower alone didn’t take out this growth, some equally inevitable manmade cargo of the flood―a sleeping bag, shopping cart, mattress, day pack, office chair, carpet remnant, bicycle―likely would.  I’d seen all such flotsam, making their way, slowly but surely, to the Rio throughout the monsoon season. 

Then I saw something the sight of which, say, tumbling in a flooded Albuquerque arroyo or caked with mud on a remote riverbank in West Texas or East Coahuila, would have rent my heart: a big dingy stuffed bear sitting on the lip of a smaller concrete arroyo feeding into the larger one I continued to walk beside.  What carelessness or cruelty delivered him to here? I wondered.  No electronic toy will ever replace a child’s Teddy.  I imagined a girl or boy upslope in tears.

I paused to sit down gratefully upon a bench.  I admired some blooming white horse nettle on the edges of the trail.  I’ve never failed to identify this plant with the funny name―and technically a weed―during all my years in the Southwest.  Like me, it was drought-tolerant and equally at home in the city and the desert.  With blossoms of lavender stars with yellow centers, it deserved the dignity of being called a wildflower.

I watched an ant bearing a crumb twice its size: inspiring, somehow.  While doing so, I wondered if anybody looking at me thought I was some eccentric tourist from England, Germany, or France, although I’d never been to any of those places.  I walked on.

On the corner of Tramway and Indian School Road, I encountered a descanso, or roadside memorial, a common sight along New Mexico’s highways, some of the deadliest in the nation.  It was a combination of a rusted metal cross, decorative rocks, plastic flowers, and large glass beads (tears?).  The memorial honored somebody with, as near as I could discern, the initials “PAHI.”  “PAHI” was surely yet another victim of a New Mexico traffic accident.

Now began the final leg of my urban trek, the mile-long climb east up Indian School Road. 

I passed the entrance to Walgreens, where I’d been getting a prescription to correct post-ventricular contraction, give me the steady, solid Hal Blaine heartbeat I’d need to hopefully continue to do these slogs into my 70’s.

I passed a handsome stone-and-stucco sign between the sidewalk and the street welcoming me to the neighborhood of “MONTE LARGO HILL,” with the reminder to “STAY FOCUSSED AVOID TEXTING.”  Good advice for drivers.  As for this pedestrian, he continued to “text” into his journal as he’d been doing for 33 years.

This neighborhood, part of Albuquerque’s aptly-named “Northeast Heights” section, was stunning: the homes, handsome; the yards, many of them prudently xeriscaped, manicured; the cars and trucks in the driveways (some gated) expensive.  I estimated each home on the first block I passed had an average price of $500,000, with homes increasing in value by at least $100,000 with every ascending block.

The Sandias now exploded into view, their shadows dissolving into the sunlight.  I spotted the peak of a foothill that might offer a reasonable campsite for the night.  I knew that if I camped a mere mile into the national forest, with Albuquerque lapping at the shore of my bivouac, I’d be happy, for my goal was not to escape Albuquerque, but rather to celebrate our public lands and acknowledge a fascinating city that had contributed greatly to my Southwestern experience.  I can make a “wilderness” experience out of a pile of gravel on a dirt road beside a busy railroad line a half-mile from a two-lane New Mexico highway if I’m content and my imagination is in gear.  Although a desert nearby does help.    

Meanwhile, in my worn boots, clutching my battered walking stick, I now more than ever felt like a tramp, a cop magnet.  But I forged ahead, still unmolested.

I paused to catch my breath in a lot―the rare lot under construction in this neighborhood―containing a recently-poured house foundation.  Cars climbed the hill with me, some undoubtedly en route to the trailhead, and, of those, some surely from more modest neighborhoods in the Duke City.  They slowed for the speed bumps on Indian School Road―speed bumps for safety, of course, and perhaps for prolonging the tormenting envy of the less fortunate driving through this glamorous part of the city. 

Two-and-three-quarter hours after I set out, I arrived at the large paved parking lot, sparsely filled with automobiles on this hot morning, at the mouth of Embudo Canyon.  Embudo Canyon trails began here, in a small patch of acreage designated Sandia Hills Open Space.  A half-mile into the trail commenced the Sandia Mountain Wilderness.  The canyon filled with hills, increasingly lofty ranges, and great gulfs of golden light.  As the slopes climbed, piñon and juniper yielded to pine, which yielded to aspen and spruce.  Public, undeveloped land.  How utterly fortunate Albuquerque was to have this at its ribs!

The Open Space also included a massive earthen berm with a concrete spillway, and a huge, obscenely inappropriate water tank.  But did I decry the tank?  No.  The water that I showered with the night before, and the bottled water now in my backpack, very possibly spent some time in that thing.

Thus, except for my return pack home, my urban backpack was over.  Taking a breather, I slipped out of my pack, and felt a foot taller. 

My pack, my house for the night.  Before my urban hike, I took great satisfaction in believing that the pack, properly equipped, could be my house anywhere in the world.  Now, I wasn’t so sure.  A house is one thing, the property upon which it sits, another.  I covered some unforgiving property this morning.  I preferred the property that now awaited me. 

At my back, a half-million. I imagined them applauding.  Before me, the sound of mountain water, the chatter of a tufted squirrel, the tart squawk of a jay, the perfume of pine resin, the moan of wind in a pine, the whisper of silence in the mind.  Yes, a destination close to home, because, as I entered my eighth decade, I was now nearing another destination close to home, close to wherever I am and will be, in fact.  But now I chose to be here.  I would perhaps have thought to break the spell by raising my voice, adding another word; but I would not do so again.  I was invisible.  I’ll explain later.  It meant nothing.  If it were not so there would be little told of it.  Home for supper.

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Penultimate: Fire or Nice

During the first few months following my return to Albuquerque, I would frequently drive Central Avenue, old Route 66, the Mother Road. I still loved the thoroughfare’s life, color, laughter, multi-culture, and leisurely pace.  I still loved observing the human ripples and echoes of the continent’s first inhabitants, though this distinction was still granting them no obvious perks.

But then there were the times when I’d gasp as reckless drivers darted all around me; see the homeless, filthy sleeping bags over their shoulders, trailing luggage with plastic wheels worn nearly to the axel; stiffen with the piercing sirens of police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks, and horns of angry drivers; stare in disbelief at the mentally-ill young men of all races and ethnicities, shirtless, sun-slaughtered, wild of hair and eye, ranting and raving; see the boarded-up restaurants and the empty lots filled with trash, dead trees, and broken cinder blocks.    

A quarter-century earlier, I would have likely dismissed all of this with an I’m-young-and-in-love-and-in-New-Mexico-for-the-first-time “That’s cool.”

But now these things just depressed me.

So, once again, I’d glance upward . . . and be reminded that no matter how intense and dispiriting things got at ground-level Albuquerque, I’d always have the company of that remarkable New Mexico sky.  A sky that, banking off the Sandia Mountains, exploded for a hundred miles in three different directions, suspending mountain, mesa, and plain, and a vanishing westbound freight train.  A sky with a blue so deep it could, in the words of Annie Proulx, drown you.  A sky untouched, unsullied, by the hands and machinations of mortals.    

And, with this heaven in mind, I’d take comfort in the words of Edward Hoagland when, in 1989, he observed that the sky “is left after every environmental mistake, roiling in perpetuity.  We can squint up at that.  Can’t chain-saw or bulldoze it, or buy and sell the clouds, pave them over or dig them up.”

Today, however, a mere seven years after returning to New Mexico, I question, as I suspect Hoagland would now question, the shelf life of his assertion.  For today, I believe, we are, in Hoagland’s figurative sense, chain-sawing and bulldozing the sky, and in so doing threatening everything below it.  And this haunts everything I’ve so far written.

To review: Our centuries-long burning of fossil fuels has pumped greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide into Earth’s atmosphere, which is trapping some of the planet’s heat, which is warming the planet.  Dangerously.  Average global temperatures since 1880 have increased by 2.2 degrees.  The Earth is hotter today than it has been in one thousand years.  As a result, around the globe, ice sheets and glaciers are shrinking; arctic sea ice is disappearing; droughts, wildfires, and floods have gotten more extreme.  Seeking cooler conditions, wildlife are migrating to higher elevations.

The Southwest has not escaped this threat.  New Mexico journalist Laura Paskus, in her 2020 book At the Precipice, has made this case compellingly, basing, as I have, many of her conclusions on the 2018 “Fourth National Climate Assessment” of the United States Global Change Program. 

The Southwest’s average annual temperature has increased by 1.6 degrees since 1901.  Since the 1970’s, the average annual temperature of New Mexico has increased by 2 degrees.  New Mexico is the sixth-fastest-warming state in the nation. 

Then, there’s drought.  Droughts, thought to be largely caused by water temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean, are normal in the Southwest.  However, since 2000, the Southwest has been in a whopper of a drought, one of the worst in 1,200 years.  Researchers are concluding that global warming is accounting for about 50 percent of this drought; or, rather, what scientists are now calling this “megadrought.”  Drought of any scale, of course, means less water in our rivers, streams, and soils.  

And drought means an increased threat of wildfires.  In a space of three years, New Mexico has had four devastating forest fires: the Las Conchas fire in the Santa Fe National Forest in 2011―156,000 acres burned; the Little Bear fire in the Lincoln National Forest in 2012―44,330 acres burned; the Whitewater Baldy fire in southwestern New Mexico in 2012―300,000 acres burned; and the Silver fire in the Gila National Forest in 2013―138,000 acres burned.

Fire season in the West has lengthened by two months.  The week during which I wrote this, hotshots were battling a blaze in the Lincoln National Forest . . . in a snowfall, this weird combination likely a result of New Mexico springtimes becoming warmer earlier.  Thus, snowmelt is peaking in February and March, instead of May and June, when farmers in central and southern New Mexico are needing it to water their crops.

Water tables are dropping across the Southwest, threatening farms and homes.

High-intensity fires due to fuel build-up due to a century of fire-suppression are, in Paskus’s words, “cook[ing] the soils,” preventing trees of any kind from returning.

Clearly, Edward Hoagland, we’re chain-sawing and bulldozing our Southwestern sky.

Paskus gives civilization about a decade to reverse this.  To stop burning fossil fuels.  To stop me from driving three times a week 50 highway miles one way―and burning more than a gallon of regular―in order to pedal my bicycle for 16 miles on a remote stretch of highway because I like the space, light, peace, and the rare sight of the lone, loping, wayfaring coyote.  Again, no one is immune.

A tall order?  As poet James Merrill observed: “Always that same old story― / Father Time and Mother Earth, / A marriage on the rocks.”

But if we don’t reverse?

In A Great Aridness, William deBuys paints a bleak picture of the world, including the Southwest, should global warming not be rigorously addressed.  “If present trends of carbon pollution hold steady,” he warns, the temperature increase for parts of the Southwest “could amount to 8°F . . . by the end of the century.”  Paskus, only slightly less gloomy, estimates a 4- to 6-degree increase.  Generally speaking, observes deBuys, across the planet, unless we put the brakes on climate change, “wet places will become wetter; dry places, like the Southwest, drier.”  Thus, referring to the findings of Jonathan Overpeck, today a climate scientist at the University of Michigan, deBuys writes, “Climate change . . . will produce winners and losers.”  Then, he quotes Overpeck himself: “[I]n the Southwest we’re going to be losers.  There’s no doubt.”

If we don’t cease global warming, our high-elevation forests of conifer, spruce, and aspen, and our lower-elevation woodlands of piñon and juniper―the floors of both now clogged with dead wood, grass, and brush; that is, fuel―will experience more, and more severe, wildfires that will cook more soils.  If the burned forests regenerate at all, due to a warming climate they will not return as we have known them.  The tall, dark conifers that today sough in the wind―in Frank Waters’s words, “that immemorial sound of solitude which is as comforting to the mountain-born as the murmur of sea to the seafolk”―will be replaced by Gambel oak, locust, and aspen.  The piñon and juniper woodlands, meanwhile, will be replaced by oak, mountain mahogany, and brush.  Shade, is that you?

More charred landscapes will mean more erosion and flooding.

The Rio Grande―in Paskus’s words “already a climate casualty in New Mexico”―will have a snow supply reduced by 67 percent, which will in turn reduce a spring and summer supply of water to New Mexico’s farms and homes by 95 to 100 percent.  The Colorado River will likely see a 30 percent decrease in flow by 2050 and a 50 percent decrease by 2100.  What threatens the Colorado also threatens the San Juan River, a Colorado tributary.  Water is piped from the San Juan to New Mexico’s Rio Chama, which empties into the Rio Grande.  Deny the Great River liquid and its water table will drop.  Should it drop to more than 10 feet below its surface, the cottonwoods cushioning its banks that I so admired when I first moved to Albuquerque will wither and die.

Increased warming and drought will affect the Indigenous nations of the Southwest, threatening their forests and grasslands with wildfire, and threatening the conditions necessary for them to grow their traditional foods.

Risks to health will increase.  Those who cannot afford air-conditioning may die of heat prostration.  Increased dust will imperil those with respiratory ailments.

Vanishing surface and groundwater will mean no more agriculture along the Rio Grande.  Will you trust a chile pepper grown in Saskatchewan?

New Mexico, historically afflicted with poverty, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, child abuse, teenage pregnancy, teenage failure to take responsibility for teenage pregnancy, and political corruption, may find that climate change worsens these scourges.

And, of course, there’s desertification.  Sand, and more sand.  On this topic, I e-mailed David Gutzler, a professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of New Mexico.  Given that I had once lived in the Chihuahuan Desert, I asked him:  If we fail to address climate change, will Albuquerque and its surroundings look like the Chihuahuan Desert city of El Paso and its arid, harsh Franklin Mountains?  Gutzler’s slightly oblique reply was: “In fact, if we extrapolate the sort of century-scale trends in climate projected by models out to 2100, it turns out that the average temperature and precipitation in Albuquerque becomes very similar to present-day El Paso.  I’ve made this point in public presentations by showing photos of the Franklin Mountains above El Paso, which really are very nice for hiking . . .  But there are no trees to speak of in the Franklins [my italics].”  I took this as a “yes,” and imagined the Sandia and Manzano mountains sun-blasted and covered with creosote, prickly pear, mesquite, an occasional decaying Huggie (New Mexico is always New Mexico), and an occasional desert willow.  That is, desertificated.  

It boggles the sensibilities.  Will central and northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, their forests and woodlands wiped out by wildfires, one day look like Yuma, Arizona; Death Valley; or the Gran Desierto of northern Mexico?  (Mexico, too―85 percent of it―is currently grappling with drought.)

Will New Mexicans face crop failure, civil unrest, famine, new diseases?  Will they, if they can afford it, migrate en masse to the northern parts of the United States, desperately seeking a cool breeze and that region’s modest economic gains as a result of climate change?  Will the United States withstand such a migration?

Pebbles in my boot.

And here’s another pebble: the “Anthropocene.”  In her preface to her biography of Thoreau, Laura Dassow Walls defined it for me: an epoch in which human beings have become “a geological force changing the planet itself.”  Scientists are now suggesting, or perhaps confirming, we have entered it. 

Sure, we have. 

Speaking of Thoreau, how would he have regarded an “Anthropocene”?  In Walden, he wrote: “At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable.” 

Methinks we abandoned that “requirement” some time ago, Henry.  We’ve dammed the rivers.  We’ve wiped out thousands, perhaps millions, of species.  With atomic weapons, we’ve unlocked the secret of the stars.  In the Pacific, we’ve produced a raft of garbage and errant plastic twice the area of Texas. Belts of national aeronautical and space administration junk gaily orbit our tiny planet.  Global “cactus traffickers” are “cleaning out the deserts.”  Now we’re goosing the weather of the entire planet.  The weather! 

Is there not a speck of mystery and the “unfathomable” left?  Is there no aspect of the physical world, of nature, that has not escaped our clutches?

Now, thinking locally:  I don’t want a Southwest that is desertificated and devoid of humans and wildlife.  Or, if not devoid of humans, home to only those curmudgeons, desert mystics, and desert rats who can afford solar-powered air-conditioning (and imagine that colossal irony) and private wells a mile deep.  And I’m guessing future generations don’t want that, either.  

I want a Southwest in which higher-elevation forests complement lower-elevation deserts, plateaus, and prairies―as satisfying as the Southwest’s complements of mountain and plain, refuge and prospect, and city and country.  A Southwest where people can continue to travel vertically as well as horizontally, going up to escape the heat and down to escape the cold. 

I want a Southwest that has, even if only intermittently, the sound of running water in its mountains and deserts, water that will maintain this land’s tradition of limited but clever and enduring agriculture.  I want a Southwest steep with snow and deep with burning sand.

I want a Southwest alive with birds, snakes, insects, fish, and furry quadrupeds, and a Southwest that can sustain a reasonable number of humans.  I want a Southwest where people can enjoy companionship―and solitude. 

I want a Southwestern climate whose fate largely depends not on the tailpipe of a pickup truck on Central Avenue, but rather on the whims of a distant El Niño or La Niña, or even a solar-dictated epoch of planetary fire or ice.  I want natural, damn the consequences.

Earth is not threatened.  Earth will survive.  It has survived five mass extinctions, oxygen starvation, deadly cold, sweltering heat.

Civilization is threatened.

And the estimate by science that there are ten billion trillion habitable planets in the universe does not give us the right to trash this one.  Got that, Bezos?

The choice is ours.

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Full Circle

After six months, our obligations in Yuma had ended, and we began looking for a final house―once again, in Albuquerque.  We chose Albuquerque because we knew and liked the city; it had a robust job market (my wife would look for work as a chaplain, I for work as a non-medical home caregiver); and, given our advancing ages, it offered a wide variety of medical services. 

We looked at several semi-rural houses in central New Mexico on the Internet, but concluded they were beyond our means and/or were too distant from emergency medical care.  In the late winter, we eventually closed on a house at the edge of Albuquerque and moved in at the end of March, about a quarter-century after we first arrived in the Southwest.



During my first few months back in New Mexico I returned to some of my old haunts.  I visited a mom-and-pop restaurant in downtown Albuquerque, and discovered that it had been renovated and was now serving more costly food and a variety of “specialty” beers.  Although it retained its name, largely gone, it seemed to me, were its customers with whom I once dined, including the many bacon-and-eggs viejos of Albuquerque’s oldest neighborhoods, replaced now by a new generation of young people who were patronizing the many new nightclubs and venues for live music downtown.  Downtown now also included a titty bar. (“Feel the power,” Albuquerque.)  

On the campus of the University of New Mexico, I visited Mitchell Hall, where I first taught composition.  However, my classroom was gone, replaced by a spacious lounge with a refreshment stand.  Had my classroom been so equipped on that anxious morning two decades earlier, I might have entered it with considerably less paralysis.  At the campus’s Zimmerman Library, where once there stood the long wooden banks of a card catalog, students now lounged upon comfortable chairs and sofas, their noses buried in handheld electronic devices.  Index cards cataloging books had now been digitized, the digital information accessed by computer terminals scattered throughout the library.  

Elsewhere in the city, I tightened my sphincter as, dodging reckless motorists, I negotiated the intersection of Interstate highways 40 and 25; no more vague cloverleafs: its latest manifestation an Udon noodle soup of ramps and overpasses, an engineering feat I had to admire. 

Easter week, I once again passed, in a light snowfall, a dozen of the Christian faithful, no doubt mostly Catholics, walking south of the town of Tijeras along a remote stretch of highway 337―to where, I knew not. 

I returned to the Rio Puerco basin west of Los Lunas to watch the freight trains of the BNSF railroad, once again fantasizing hobodom. 

I plunged back into the outdoors, spending days and nights hiking and packing, among other places, the slopes and summits of New Mexico’s Manzano, San Mateo, and Gallinas mountains.  To my surprise and delight, they continued to be lightly visited.  

Still, I was an urban dweller once again, and now for the duration. 



 

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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.

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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 are rich in nutrients and thus ideal for growing.

Meanwhile, there is 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, there was machine-sculpted 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 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, 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 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 and a big, beautiful portrait of him within the center.  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, in shapes mirroring the modest mountains, like a bank of ashes, below them. 

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, 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 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 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. 

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Sonoran Trivia

Like central and southern New Mexico, southwestern Arizona is 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, the original poet and champion 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 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 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 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; recalls, 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.



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.  Their arroyos excepted, these were mostly barren formations, recalling to me, albeit on a smaller scale, the formations of Jordan’s Wadi Rum Valley of 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.  Only the buzz of an occasional fly marred the silence.  In mid-November, while most of America prepared for another long season of rain, slush, and snow, this queer land of timeless sunlight, aridity, and vacant sky went on, 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 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 15 years earlier.  Today, the river is slowed by a dam in Coolidge, Arizona, and, downstream, nearly strangled by the agricultural demands of the Phoenix, Arizona, region.  To get to the Muggins, we had to cross a bridge that spanned the Gila near Ligurta, Arizona.  From the bridge, we observed not a river but rather 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 puddles and grasses themselves seemed to vanish, the Gila here reimagining itself as a maze of concrete canals and earthen ditches all quenching blankets of cauliflower, wheat, lemons, and cotton.

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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 the 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.  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, 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.

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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 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 9 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.  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 100’s.  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 $50 when the job was done and went out for a Big Mac and large fries.