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. 

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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.

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.

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Autumn in Maine

Fall in New England: What can I write about it that hasn’t been written in greater detail, beauty, and thought by the late Hal Borland?  For over a quarter of a century, Borland lived on a farm beside the Housatonic River in Salisbury, Connecticut―several minutes’ drive from the fabulous lake where I vacationed as a boy.  (And, yes, wouldn’t it have been interesting to have at least met him then?) During that time, he wrote millions of words about the hills, valleys, rivers, and lakes of this corner of New England, and many appeared nearly every Sunday as “nature editorials” in The New York Times.  Dozens of these pieces dealt with fall.  In a 1964 piece, he called it “the great symphony in the woodlands.”  Nobody, not even Thoreau, chronicled in greater detail a landscape through the seasons.  Meanwhile, in Seasons at Eagle Pond, the late New Hampshire poet and essayist Donald Hall wrote a marvelously lyrical and comprehensive piece about fall in his home state.  I can hardly add to this trio.       

Let me just briefly state the obvious that fall in Maine was colors: primarily the reds, oranges, and lingering greens of maple and oak―swimming, exploding, dripping, and drooling everywhere.  Sure, the effervescent gold of the aspen and the muted reds of the scrub oak of the Southwestern high country, and the bright lemon-yellows of the cottonwoods in the Southwestern river valleys and arroyos, were beautiful, but nothing could surpass the sheer variety and abundance of New England’s autumnal palette.  The New England autumn weather, too, was nearly always delightful, thanks largely to the decrease in the humidity.  I welcomed, as well, the lowering temperatures, culminating in the first frost, that killed all the biting insects.

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.