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First Night in 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 then 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 to enter it.

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

At 10:00 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 identified the “phenomenon known as the ‘urban heat island’.”  It is “mainly felt at night,” he wrote, “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

We drove.  Warner, New Hampshire.  Syracuse.  Columbus.  Rolla, Missouri.  Clinton, Oklahoma. 

On our sixth afternoon, we arrived at the Econo Lodge in Albuquerque.  The RAV’s thermometer revealed the outside temperature to be 101.  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 100’s from June to September.  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 experienced 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 50 or 60 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 date palm trees, we gassed, toileted, and purchased “date shakes”―milkshakes with chopped dates (delicious, and useful for viscera rendered immovable 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.  (Misters would also be popular at southern Arizona restaurants with outdoor seating.) 

After negotiating a notch in the Gila Mountains, we arrived in Yuma at the afternoon’s end. 

Colorado, creative non fiction, maine, southwest

Come Now, You Didn’t Think We Were Going to Stay, Did You?

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, and 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 entrada of the bloodsucking black fly and the Father’s Day entrada of the stabbing 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 a dry enchilada garnished with parsley and a jalapeño slice.)  The idiocy and racism of Maine governor Paul LePage.

So we decided to return to the Southwest.

Linda’s desire to further her spiritual education helped in this regard.  She was seeking a training program in “clinical pastoral education”―hospital chaplaincy.  It so happened that Yuma, Arizona’s regional medical center offered such a program.  And one cannot get more Southwest than Yuma, Arizona. 

Linda applied to the program and was accepted.             

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 highly-publicized and nasty behavior of 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 our 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, sadly, 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 (soon to be green lettuce fields).  We arranged to have our pickup trucked to Yuma.  Packed in our Toyota RAV, Linda, I, and three dogs―our Buddy having recently passed into the mystic―then began our journey west.  We faced 2,800 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.

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Maine is Always Maine

Throughout the year, there was Maine with all its charms and curiosities:  Fried clams.  The Windham, Maine, property that had a mint condition replica of a 1950’s 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 1,700-pound “chocolate moose.”  Roof rakes and ice dams.  A public reading of Whittier’s “Snowbound.”  A boat and trailer in every other driveway.  A Portland Seadogs baseball game paused for fog.  A Dunkin Donuts every 10 miles.  A pruned maple hemorrhaging sap in the spring.  Maple syrup.  Bundled and sheltered “CAMP WOOD” for sale along a rural roadside cluttered 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. 

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 spiritual interest as, while a student, she enjoyed volunteering at a Portland hospital, the Cumberland County Jail, and the state prison in Warren.

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

Nor’easter

About the only thing I looked forward to in the Maine winter was the drama of a snowstorm, the possibility of a resultant 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, bled the world of color, and wrapped the rare person afoot in town or country in his or her own world luxurious in its privacy.   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 snow softened the naked branches and limbs and exposed rock of the countryside, buried the stains and litter in the towns and cities.  Come the clearing morning, in the wakes of the plows, the roadside snow piled steep, pristine, and voluptuous, its peaks and whorls masacara-ed with the blue of the dawn.

As much as I liked the prodigious snow, I also enjoyed taming it, keeping it at bay, assuming the manly role of maintaining our home’s safety, efficiency, and welcome.  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 enjoy some room to accommodate their individual relief habits.  None of us is immune.

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Autumn in Maine

Stating the obvious, 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 relative humidity.  I welcomed as well the lowering temperatures, culminating in the first frost, that killed all the biting insects.

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New England Thunderstorm

The rains continued throughout the Maine summer.  As in the spring, there were the vast, wet, but undramatic 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. Dramatic storms approached our heavily-wooded Gorham neighborhood like a low-flying 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.

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

Vacationland?

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 motto is “Vacationland.”  For generations, people, including members of my family, had flocked to Maine to have a taste of the wild and, especially, to escape the torrid summer heat of the states to the south.  If you lived in Morristown, New Jersey, and on a July day the temperature there was 91 degrees and the relative humidity 90 percent, 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 terminated, 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, topped an August afternoon in our backyard in Gorham, the temperature in the 80’s, and I relaxing against the trunk of a pine, listening to the breeze in the treetops and the fiddling of insects, recalling the New England of my childhood, my butt upon a new-mowed lawn interwoven with fallen, fragrant 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 day’s accumulated heat from our second-floor bedrooms on summer nights.  We even considered an air-conditioner for one of the bedrooms. 

Linda was more sensitive to the Northeast humidity than I, although we both concluded we were just too spoiled by the aridity of Denver and, later, the Southwest.[1]


[1] Spoiled?  In July 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. However, 3385 disagreed.

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

Delivering Care in Maine

I resumed working, now not as a medical assistant but officially as a practical nurse with all of its expectations and responsibilities.  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 somewhat settled into employment at 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.  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, exploding at the slightest provocation; people who refused medications; fall-risk residents who set off piercing alarms as they rose, out of boredom and anxiety, from seats and beds; bedridden people in tearful pain, contending with difficult-to-manage pressure sores. 

Every other week a young man arrived on the floor, and, with his guitar, untrained voice, and evangelical bent, performed creaky gospel songs for the residents. 

I worked the swing shift.  Every shift began and ended with the necessary 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 coastline night exhausted.  I lost 10 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 fast-paced 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

The Rain in Maine Stays Mainely

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 vinyl 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.

New England spring unlocked.