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

Penultimate: Fire or Nice

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

But then there were the times when I’d gasped as reckless drivers darted all around me; witness 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; stare in disbelief at the mentally-ill young men of all races and ethnicities, shirtless, sun-burned, 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 often just angered and depressed me.

Still, there was that old remedy: 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 soothing 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.  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 writer Edward Hoagland, who, in 1989, 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 now questions, 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 massive threat.  New Mexico journalist Laura Paskus, in her 2020 book At the Precipice, has made this case compellingly, basing many of her conclusions, as I have some of mine, 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 (meet “La Niña”).  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.  Already in this century 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 wildfire-suppression are, in Paskus’s words, “cook[ing] the soils,” preventing trees of any kind from returning.

Clearly, Mr. 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 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.  Dust increased by drought 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.  With my years in the Chihuahuan Desert in mind, 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 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 that region’s modest economic gains as a result of climate change, not to mention a cool breeze?  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. 

Uhh, 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.   Twenty thousand pieces of Earthly space junk gaily orbit our tiny planet at 17,000 miles-per-hour.  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 look forward to traveling 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.

Let’s keep this in perspective.  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 and Branson?

The choice is ours.

creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, New Mexico, southwest

Full Circle

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, was the breed of 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.  (Feeling the power now, 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.  On the main floor of 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 cloverleafs, the intersection was now an Udon noodle soup of ramps and overpasses, an engineering feat I had to admire.  Meanwhile, 40 and 25―in fact, thoroughfares all over the city and state―bristled with giant billboards for personal-injury lawyers.  You’d think New Mexico was a very dangerous place to live.

Well?

Easter week, in my truck in a light snowfall, I once again passed a dozen of the Christian faithful walking south of the town of Tijeras along a remote stretch of highway 337―to where, I’d no idea. 

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. 



 

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

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.

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

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 were rich in nutrients and thus ideal for growing.

Meanwhile, there was 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―well, maybe tilted pool tables―there was machine-sculpted ridge after perfect ridge of finely-granulated soils irrigated by sprinklers spewing Colorado and Gila river waters.  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, 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, and 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 invariably contained not only a pallid mess of dead leaves, but thousands of still rooted and, it seemed to me, perfectly full and edible heads.  As a salad lover, I’d look at these remnants; long for a plate, fork, and a bottle of Ken’s Italian with Aged Romano; and, mouth watering, nearly weep at the puzzling waste.  (And a waste that didn’t end there: Americans, myself included, threw 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.  Within the center, there was big, beautiful portrait of him. 

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, in this era of periodic widescale food contamination, did have a serious stake in strict hygiene).

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

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 gazed at the vacuum over the Gila Mountains and imagined how the dot of a question mark would have felt if it had been permanently denied the crook above it.  Sometimes the skies were generous and treated us to pitiless brushstrokes of cirrus clouds.  At the end of the day, they hung 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 averaged 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, did have a summer “monsoon season.”  Yuma’s monsoons were 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 that 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. 

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

Sonoran Trivia

Like central and southern New Mexico, southwestern Arizona was 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.)  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 noted 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 had a pungent, tarry odor, particularly evident after a rain.  Some might have described the odor as sickening.  Perhaps this explained why Native Americans used―and perhaps still used―creosote as an emetic.  However, in moderate doses, I was personally taken by the fragrance.  It pleasantly recalled our most forbidding lands; recalled, 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.



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

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 my pupils to the size of sand grains, blinding me for a couple minutes after I entered the dimness of my 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 variously 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 all 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.

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

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 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.

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

To the Land of the Black Flame

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 seized 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. 

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.