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 was neither.  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 nine 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.  As in Anthony, 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 liked to toot my own horn about my ability to contend with extreme heat, I couldn’t have lived 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 dogs and I set up camp in our north-facing living room―as if such global positioning 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.

creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest, Uncategorized

Four Corners, Part 3

The Valley of the Gods, a vast landscape of sandstone mesas, buttes, and monuments, spread from the base of a 700-foot-high rampart that ran from northeast to southwest.  I parked Red at the entrance to a dirt road that looped through the valley.  Cars and trucks trickled onto the road.  Preferring solitude, I decided to distance myself from it.  I reloaded my backpack, including the ridiculously bulky Sears sleeping bag and wide foam rubber pad, hoisted it onto my back, and, after negotiating a barbed wire fence, struck off in the opposite direction, a roadless swale devoid of prominent formations, yet no less lovely. 

In addition to shrubs and juniper, the land was dotted with tufts of tall grass on which some two dozen Hereford and Angus cattle grazed.  Their piles of manure―dark, rippling, and glistening when obviously fresh, gray and crusty when aged―were not infrequent.  But neither the smothering manure nor the destructive footprints of these huge, lumbering beasts bothered me.  So charmed by the myth of the American cowboy was I that I accepted these things as tolerable elements of this landscape of jarring beauty.  Depending upon the landscape, however, this sentiment would soon change.       

I hiked for a couple miles. After making a campsite beside a tall, broad juniper, I spent much of that afternoon sheltering from rain squalls, my plastic ground cover doubling as an awning.  The purchase of a small tent prior to my departure didn’t occur to me.  After all, my two previous visits to Utah’s canyon country involving camping took place in July, when the weather was sunny and 104 degrees, and September, when the weather was considerably cooler but equally dry.  Thus, I had concluded that it rarely rained in southeast Utah.  Whatever, I considered myself tough enough to handle any weather condition.  So, in the shelter of the awning, I looked around and around, marveling not only at the distant formations on the valley floor, but also at the fabulous sandstone bulwark at my back.  

This was the fulfillment of a dream: the Pawnee Buttes multiplied beyond imagining.  The landscape fascinated me for a number of reasons, beginning with its geometry, a result of its sedimentary nature.  Except for the Pawnee Buttes, the natural world I’d known up to now―the Berkshire hills and mountains of Massachusetts; the Catskill mountains of New York; the hills, mountains, and valleys of central Colorado―appeared more or less fashioned with a waving, cupping hand.  Curves―often crude, of course―characterized these landscapes.  Utah’s canyon country, however, with its millions of predominantly rectangular and triangular formations, appeared to be the work of T-squares, meat cleavers, guillotines, and circular saws.  It didn’t flow.  It chomped. 

Meanwhile, as with the Pawnee Buttes, this angular landscape had a charming familiarity.  I loved it for its natural qualities, yet also for the artificial constructs these natural formations recalled: tables, temples, battleships, edifices, pyramids, butcher blocks, all in various stages of silent, mysterious, melancholy ruin.  And what curves there were in the land had a striking ability to evoke parts of the human anatomy such as breasts, nipples, and crowns of phalli. 

It was as well a naked land.  Before witnessing the Four Corners country, I’d become accustomed to a landscape cloaked not only with grasses, trees, and shrubs, but with soils.  The Colorado Plateau was often paved with nothing but bare, lifeless rock―the very bones of the Earth. 

Space in the canyon country looked and felt different.  All of these right angles, these vertical rock faces, seemed to arrest the flow of gargantuan quantities of space; trap, concentrate, and fortify them.  I could almost hear and feel space colliding with the massive rock wall that stood behind me. 

Within all of this, a uterine security, the trance of entrance.

By late afternoon, the skies had cleared.  Anticipating a long, cold, lonely night, I decided to create a warm, colorful, lively companion until sleep overcame me.  Wandering near and far, I gathered juniper limbs and branches that I found scattered, gray and fundamentally arid, upon the red earth, and piled them at my campsite.  After scouring the ground, I reluctantly took to breaking branches and limbs from nearby junipers dead but still standing.  Although still reaching for the sky, that leafless wood was equally gray and parched.  Yet when I ripped a limb from a trunk, producing a sharp report that echoed faintly off the stone rampart, a reddish inner pulp, like the marrow of a bone and faintly aromatic, was revealed. 

That night, after a meal of beans and apricots, I sat on a boulder and fed juniper into a fire for three hours, studying the distant lights of Bluff, watching a particular star progress across the sky at the pace of an hour hand, and thoroughly smoking myself with the spice of burning juniper, that unfailing fragrance through my ongoing Southwestern years.  

The following morning, I awoke―as I often would for years to come―to the croak of a solitary raven winging through the vast stillness in the direction of nearby Monument Valley.[1]  

Before leaving, I investigated, simply out of geological interest, a nearby cluster of boulders, some as big as storage sheds, at the base of the cliff.  After rounding the corner of one, I was stunned.  The side of the boulder was not belly-round, but rather planed perfectly flat, as if sliced with a giant diamond wheel.  Pecked into its surface, which was darkened as if with years of accumulated soot (later I would identify this “soot” as a geological/chemical phenomenon known as desert varnish), was a collection of obviously human-made figures. 

Several figures clearly depicted humans, or, rather, abstracted humans.   One was armless with stubby legs and an elongated trunk with a large rectangle in its center.  Another possessed all its limbs, although it, too, had an elongated trunk.  A third had an elongated neck and stubby legs and was accompanied by a circle―a primitive, if empty, “dialogue balloon”? I wondered―immediately to the right of its head.  There was a figure that recalled a snake, or perhaps a river, or perhaps a mountain range.  There was another that clearly resembled a scorpion. 

I knew immediately the figures were not the work of modern man or woman.  Any newcomer to Albuquerque with the slightest bit of curiosity quickly learned of the petroglyphs―human-made etchings―in the volcanic rock of the vast lava field on the western edge of the city.  Indeed, Linda and I had already visited the field that would, within two years, become Petroglyph National Monument.  There we saw etchings, some perhaps 700 years old―created well before Coronado’s arrival in today’s North America―that prepared me for the ones I now beheld in southeast Utah.  The idea that these lonely etchings near Bluff, Utah, had survived possibly seven centuries of wind, rain, heat, cold, and dust, murmuring their presence to virtually no one throughout nearly all of those years, stirred my guts.  I entertained the possibility―absurd but stirring nonetheless―that I was the first to witness them after such time, but then the knowledge of the paved road two miles to the east more or less affirmed otherwise. 

The petroglyphs stayed with me all that day as I returned to Albuquerque.

(“Eh,” dismissed Ricki, a Navajo I met in Carrizozo, New Mexico, long ago. “Old love letters.”)

[1] Years later, while consulting a map, I would learn that this camping experience occurred just below a place called Muley Point.  And I would read, in an October, 1982 entry of Edward Abbey’s published journal, his description of the point: “It’s as marvelous as ever up here.  The tremendous stillness.  The tremendous infinity of sky.  One raven croaking.  The inevitable raven, guardian spirit of this place.  Sunlight on the beaches down in the Goosenecks of the San Juan River.”

creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest, Uncategorized

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 recordings with an obvious Southwest tinge: Marty Robbins’s ballads set in El Paso, Texas, and 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 Fenderborn 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 revealed 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 was Lawrence Clark Powell’s introduction, entitled “An Essay on the Land.”  It was an evocative, poetic piece particularly sensitive to the Southwest’s fragile natural beauty and threats to it by blind development.  A librarian as well as a writer, Powell also identified a number of authors─lesser known, certainly, than the authors I’d read as a college student, 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, living in New Mexico, I would read Powell in depth.  No writer has ever written with greater love, knowledge, and eloquence about the Southwest.