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 farm workers and landscapers, the people who maintained the ditches and swimming pools, that remarkable─or pixilated─person who wore the full panda suit while hawking some business on 4th Avenue at midday. 

Yet, as much as I like to toot my own horn about my ability to contend with extreme heat, I couldn’t live in the hot desert without some kind of home refrigeration, be it air-conditioning or evaporative cooling. 

I became especially aware of this in Yuma, when our dwelling’s air-conditioner failed on the cusp of the Labor Day weekend, when the temperatures were, of course, still in the 100s.  As a consequence, Linda retreated to a motel room while the three dogs and I set up camp in our north-facing living room―as if such geography would have made any difference―with a ceiling fan spinning madly above and two floor fans blasting air from opposite sides. 

Our management company said it was unlikely a repairman could be found over the Labor Day weekend.  (Probable translation: “We’ll be damned if we’re going to pay triple the cost just so you can enjoy the holiday.”)  But, to my surprise, after two days and two nights of the North African sirocco in our living room, a repairman showed up on Labor Day itself and spent four hours in the blaze on our roof installing a new compressor, which he had to pick up in Phoenix the previous day.  I tipped him fifty dollars when the job was done and went out for a Big Mac and large fries.

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

More from the Land of the Black Flame

Thus began our stay in Yuma, and my fascination with extreme heat.  That strange third digit morning after morning on the front page of Yuma’s daily paper.  The prefix “one hundred and” uttered day after peculiar day by television meteorologists.  Heat that required running the cold-water tap for five minutes before getting a slightly cool drink.  Heat that could fry an egg or possibly even grill bacon―or at least zap its trichinella―on a rail of the Union Pacific track not far from our house.

On fiery July afternoons, our neighborhood was effectively deserted, disturbed only by a fleeting breeze, the flight of a dove, the rasp and whisper of palm leaves, the shadow of a vulture, the distant roar of a freight train.  Meanwhile, the chief activity in Yuma’s ubiquitous RV “resorts”─the city’s cumulative golden goose during the fall and winter─was the mere drift of sand. 

Then, at sunset, like the rattlesnakes, pocket mice, kit foxes, and solpugids in the surrounding desert, our year-round human neighbors―some of them, at least―emerged from their dens and commenced to walk, run, bicycle, play hopscotch and kickball, water flowers and shrubs, and reconnect.

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Four Corners Sojourn – Part 4

Determined to get even closer to the Four Corners, and certain that I would be sleeping under a sea of stars, I left Shiprock, heading west into Arizona. As I drove, I knew that somewhere not far to the south loomed the legendary rock formation that gave Shiprock its name, but I was unable to see it in the darkness beyond the lights of my car.

At a place named Teec Nos Pos, I pushed north on an even more remote highway, well aware that it was late, yet hoping that, in the light of a new day, I would find myself among those grand and colorful mesas and canyons, vibrating with broken rock, that I associated with Moab. After some five miles, I paused at the junction of a road that, according to a sign, led to the Four Corners Monument. I consulted my map: the monument was less than a mile away. I stepped out of the car, its motor and lights off. When my eyes adjusted to the starlit darkness, I looked around: no grand cliffs and canyons, not even a manmade structure; just a bland, rolling, nearly treeless upland. Thus, my introduction to the Four Corners: a cartographer’s curiosity, and some additional income for the Navajo nation (an entrance fee to the monument was required), but beyond that, not much. Small wonder each state provided a mere corner of itself to the place.

I resumed my drive in a northeasterly direction, but, exhausted, I soon stopped. Wary of sleeping on the ground so close to the highway, yet equally wary of bumbling off into the gloom with a loaded pack on my back without a flashlight, I lowered the back seat of Little Red, raised the hatchback, crawled in like a furtive high-desert creature. I didn’t know which of four possible United States I was in, and the mystery gave me a cheap thrill. Crumpled in my car, I spent a nearly sleepless night.

Dawn found me, to my surprise, at the top of a slope that led briefly down to a broad river, the San Juan, which I had skirted in Shiprock the previous night. I hastily repacked my gear and continued northeast. I passed a sign welcoming me to Colorado, so I assumed I spent the night in New Mexico. I crossed the San Juan, which flowed through a dismal landscape of barren gray hills, its shoreline dense with squat trees yet to leaf out. Other than the highway and a littered parking area beside a brief trail that led to the river bottomland, the area was devoid of any traces of humanity.

Immediately upon climbing out of the river basin, I pulled the car over and had a breakfast. Hungry as I was, I would have liked five scrambled eggs smothered in chile verde, a side of chorizo sausage, and two ten-inch flour tortillas, but I settled for my stewed apricots and coffee. As I ate, I studied Shiprock, not the city, but the actual geological formation, the Navajos’ “rock with wings.” It stood 25 miles to the southeast, aglow in the sunrise, jutting above a horizon of dun-colored tableland, like a lone, worn tooth of a saw blade.

Driving on, I turned, at a junction as desolate as the one that led to the Four Corners, onto a highway that led west to Bluff, Utah. After Aneth and Montezuma Creek, two reservation towns of ramshackle trailer homes, cars and trucks on blocks, muddy roads, and roaming dogs, I finally returned, just east of Bluff, to the red rock country that recalled Moab. Bluff was a tiny, tidy town with a grocery store, motel, homes that were actually built there, and even some lawns. Great sandstone formations hugged the north side of the town.

I didn’t linger there. Under mostly cloudy skies, I pressed on to a place northwest of Bluff with the alluring name of Valley of the Gods. I plunged and climbed through a massive canyon at the bottom of which ran Butler Wash. More gigantic rock formations appeared, although these were less angular, because far more curvaceous, than those in the Moab area. They stood upon a sea of the most beautiful combination of native soil and plant life I’d ever witnessed. Even under cloudy skies, the soil was vibrantly red as chile powder and peppered with diminutive green shrubbery accented occasionally by a juniper tree. As the man himself had lovingly proclaimed two decades earlier: “Abbey’s country.”

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Four Corners Sojourn, Part 3

I headed north on Highway 666, unaware of this number’s modern-day association with the antichrist or the devil. (Some 15 years later, as a result of its Satanic connotation and periodic thefts of its official highway signs, the “Devil’s Highway” would be renumbered/renamed 491.) Scattered along my first 10 miles of 666, ghostly apparitions coalescing in my headlights, were some one dozen northbound hitchhikers, presumably Navajos. On the one hand, it was an odd sight: in a nation overflowing with cars and trucks, all these individuals afoot and seeking rides; on the other, it suggested a solidarity, a remarkable faith, surely tribal in nature, on the part of each and every one of these hitchhikers that, sooner or later, despite the obvious competition, he or she could count on a car or truck for a lift to Sheep Springs, Newcomb, Sanostee, Little Water, or Shiprock before the 10 o’clock weather report.   Few, I sensed, are forever left by the wayside in Navajoland.

Although, that night at least, no thanks to me: I passed them all, wiping their existence away in the wake of my high beams. My current solitude was too delicious, too white man, obviously very un-tribal. Meanwhile, KTNN broadcast “No Reason to Quit” by Merle Haggard, the ultimate drunkard’s rebel yell (without the yelling, however, only Haggard’s incomparably beautiful baritone).

After 70 more miles of darkness, flecked only by the occasional light of a house near to or distant from the 666, I arrived in Shiprock, New Mexico, a veritable metropolis in this remote country, for the first time in a dozen years. At a Taco Bell, I purchased some Mexoid and a Pepsi to go.

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The Southwest of Music and Photographs

During these years, the Southwest also reached me through music, photographs, and literature.  Growing up in New Jersey, I was never far from a radio, and I enjoyed, on the pop music stations, the country-and-western “cross-over” recordings of such artists as Roger Miller, Leroy Van Dyke, Bobby Bare, the Statler Brothers, and Tammy Wynette.  In Denver, I naturally gravitated to an AM station that played nothing but country music, and soon I was purchasing country albums.  I particularly loved listening to Marty Robbins’s ballads set in El Paso, Texas, the “badlands” of New Mexico, and the remote town of Agua Frio, Arizona; Johnny Cash’s “You Wild Colorado,” his spare acoustical paean to the major American river of the same name; Johnny Rodriguez’s musical tale of hitchhiking to Mexico; and tenor Freddie Fender (born Baldemar Huerta) singing, in Spanish as well as English, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.”

Photographs had interested me ever since I was a child and first opened Life’s Picture History of World War II, which stood tall and weighty on my parents’ bookshelf.  So, one day at the main branch of the Denver Public Library, I marveled at Ansel Adams’s Photographs of the Southwest─109 black-and-white “plates” that reveal the strange landscapes and rugged peoples of the Southwest from Texas to California and Mexico to Utah.  Yet, for me, a more lasting feature of this book is Lawrence Clark Powell’s introduction, entitled “An Essay on the Land.”  It is an evocative, poetic piece that is particularly sensitive to the Southwest’s fragile natural beauty and threats to said beauty by blind development.  A librarian as well as a writer, Powell also identifies a number of authors─lesser known, certainly, than the authors I’d read as a college English major, but, in Powell’s estimation, often no less talented─who had for over a century produced memorable fiction and non-fiction about the Southwest.  Later, in New Mexico, I would read Powell in depth; no writer wrote with greater love, knowledge, and eloquence about the Southwest.