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

Conclusion: Destinations Close to Home

With Laura Paskus’s words in mind, I was, in all hopefulness, imagining a Southwest a decade hence. 

I am 80 years old.  New Mexico’s oil and natural gas wells are capped, no longer vomiting carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere, no longer cooking the planet, no longer holding the state’s economy hostage.  New Mexico is now dressed with solar panels, bristling with windmills, grappling with the challenges and enjoying the rewards of harnessing and delivering clean energy. 

Forests are relaxing.  The desert is luxuriant, the blessing of regular flash floods erasing the prints of resurgent wildlife on the sands of its arroyos.  Lithium for batteries is being mined relatively cleanly from brine rather than rock.  Psychiatry is booming as purring electric cars, trucks, motorcycles fail miserably as expressions of American manhood.

And I am once again longing to hoist my plant-based pack on my back and light out to mountain, desert, or prairie for a night. 

But I have questions.  Will my dimming mind and historically-tender piriformis muscles withstand another 50- or 100- or 200-mile-or-longer drive in my all-electric car or truck?  And, if so, will there be a charging station for my car in Palo Duro Canyon, Texas; Campo, Colorado; Mexican Hat, Utah; Winslow, Arizona; or Vado de Fusiles, Chihuahua?  And should I have a major medical event on the remote trail, will rescuers reach and deliver me to a major medical center in time?  Have I renewed my Verizon service?  Shit!  I can’t remember.    

And then it occurs to eight-decade-old me: Maybe I no longer have to put all those miles of asphalt and concrete beneath me to get away from it all, rough it, enjoy a wilderness experience.  Maybe it’s time to finally spend a night in those mountains that have witnessed, inspired, and comforted me for my 25 years in Albuquerque.  Maybe it’s time to backpack a destination close to home: the Sandias!  After all, despite docking against a city now numbering three-quarters of a million, they still offer opportunities for solitude and peace; still cover 112 square miles; still contain 37,000 acres of federally-designated “wilderness.”  As reliably as any mountain I’ve ever packed, they offer earth for a bed; sky and stars for a blanket; and plenty of safe, discrete woody and rocky hollows―those figurative little-brown-shacks-with-half-moon-ventilators―for responsible relief.  Prescribed burning of their forests has successfully reduced the threat of catastrophic wildfire.  And they’re a mere 45-minute walk from my front door . . . through another wilderness, one I’ve never packed: the streets and neighborhoods of Albuquerque.

So, at age 70, to prepare for this eventuality, that’s what I did: I backpacked Albuquerque and the Sandias.



I wonder if anybody will call the cops?

Well, that’s a thought that never occurred to me at the foot of Mt. Taylor or entrance to the Valley of the Gods!

It was 6:30 in the morning, I had just exited my front door, and I was walking through my neighborhood, a private community of closely-packed patio homes on the southeast edge of Albuquerque. 

The day’s forecast called for a high of 97 degrees with a 2 percent chance of rain.  Meanwhile, an internet site reported a “heat dome . . . baking Arizona and Nevada.”  But the sun had yet to crest the Sandia Mountains to the northeast, so it was still dim and pleasantly cool in my neighborhood. 

I had a pack weighing 40 pounds, 18 of them water, on my back.  I wore a dingy, stained, long-sleeved tee shirt.  My five-year-old hiking boots were faded, striated, and badly worn at the toes―in other words, perfectly broken-in.  Nearly my entire head was hidden beneath a sweat-stained sun hat. 

Throughout my six years in this community, my neighbors had periodically complained about homeless people camped in undeveloped, lightly forested, and brushy Tijeras Canyon, which bordered the north side of our development.  Thus, I wondered if one of those neighbors would mistake me for an interloper, tramp, thief, or raider from a presumed encampment, and then panic and dial Albuquerque’s popular 2-4-2-COPS or a local, privately-owned, “armed response” security company whose vehicles regularly appear in our community.  After all, Albuquerque was on edge of late because of a rash of homicides.  

A stretch of lush green lawn―a community common area―looked and felt utterly foreign beneath my dust-impregnated boots.  Equally strange was the tap of my walking stick against the asphalt of the street that led out of our community. 

On that street I came upon a woman―undoubtedly a fellow homeowner in my development, although I didn’t recognize her―standing on the edge of the pavement beside a bird-of-paradise shrub, preparing to take a photo of one of the shrub’s gay red and yellow blossoms.  Fearing that my presence on the street at that hour and my somewhat slovenly appearance might frighten her, I bid her good morning in my most cheerful, non-threatening manner.  She looked at me briefly, barely acknowledging the greeting, and returned to composing her photo with her electronic device. 

After passing the woman, I dipped into a pocket of my cargo pants, extracted my journal and pen, and noted the encounter.  While doing so, I, as self-appointed arbiter of all things authentically New Mexican, recalled that the bird-of-paradise, lovely though it was, did not grow wild in our state, but was instead imported from South America.  But I then muffled that somewhat disparagingly provincial thought.  This is your long-awaited urban backpack, I reminded myself.  Embrace it in all its urban-ness!  Don’t belittle an attractive city neighborhood with some nitpicky botanical observation.  The plant thrives here on a modest amount of water, for goodness sake! 

I continued my climb up the steep community entrance road.

At the top of the road, already beginning to sweat, I did an about face and looked westward at the huge mesa bordering my city’s west side.  As I’ve mentioned, what made Albuquerque’s western horizon so beguiling, inviting, and stress-absorbent was its stark emptiness.  On the far end of the horizon, 100 miles nearly due west, rose Mt. Sedgewick, highest point in the Zuni Mountains.  Immediately to Sedgewick’s north climbed the southern slopes of Mt. Taylor.  I’d backpacked Taylor numerous times, made whoopee on its shoulders shortly after moving to New Mexico.  Sedgewick, meanwhile, was a mountain I was planning to pack, although I feared its slopes might buzz with too much humanity, as a Forest Service map indicated a primitive road went practically to its summit. 

Other things occupied the horizon, albeit at Albuquerque’s edge:  Five volcanic cones.  And a third mountain, the massive Amazon distribution center, which was still under construction.  That is, Mt. Bezos.  Or perhaps, more precisely, given its boxy construction, Bezos Mesa.  Was it ugly?  Of course.  Was I at least somewhat responsible for it?  With my hundreds of online purchases over two decades, inescapably. 

But “jobs,” our ball-and-chain. 

I exited our community at Four Hills Road and descended into Tijeras Canyon―“Scissors” Canyon, where modern-day cowboy John W. Burns, played by Kirk Douglas, and Burns’s beloved horse, Whiskey, played by a horse, were tragically taken out by a tractor-trailer hauling toilets in the 1962 movie Lonely are the Brave

I had to admit, I thoroughly enjoyed my swift and smooth, because utterly predictable, gait upon Four Hills Road’s recently-repaved asphalt sidewalk, realizing not only how much additional energy I expend negotiating, with feet and legs, the sheer ruggedness of backcountry terrain, but also all the scenery I miss as I’m forced to constantly stare downward at said terrain in order to avoid injury while advancing into the primeval. 

Scenery such as the kind I was now freely enjoying, particularly the towering western canyons and slopes of the Sandias, majestically unfolding although still shadowed in blues, greens, and blacks.  In his 1956 novel The Brave Cowboy, on which Lonely are the Brave was based, Abbey described those canyons and slopes as “loom[ing] over” the Rio Grande Valley “like a psychical presence, a source and mirror of nervous influences, emotions, subtle and unlabeled aspirations.”

So much for Abbey’s boast about the “poetry of simple fact.”  He, too, occasionally couldn’t resist the mystical touch.  And we have been the better for it.

After I crossed the bridge over Tijeras Arroyo at the bottom of the canyon, however, I was pulled jarringly back into the city.  There stood a man and woman on the sidewalk beside the entrance to a dirt road that descended briefly to a small dirt parking area beside the arroyo, the woman clutching a cell phone.  Meanwhile, a fire truck came roaring down the north slope of Four Hills Road, its lights flashing and siren screaming. 

“What’s going on?” I asked, and the couple nodded to the parking area, where two young men beside a late-model sedan were frantically stamping out a small fire of what appeared to be merely some papers.  They obviously were not encamped in the arroyo.

“Whoever they are, they’re going to start a brush fire,” said the woman.  “So I called 911.” 

Although the city was indeed tinder-dry, I doubted the brush fire threat, as there was no brush in the parking area and not a breath of wind.  However, I kept this opinion to myself.  But I was nevertheless pleased with the woman’s phone call.  The two men had started an open fire on property not their own, a fire that under different conditions could have had serious consequences.  I usually minded my own business, but why ignore and thus encourage this carelessness?   

I was also glad to see the monstrous fire truck grind to a halt, probably coincidentally, at the entrance to the dirt road, effectively blocking it off.  I was fed up with seeing Burqueños constantly getting away with behavior such as speeding, reckless driving, and littering.  Now I knew these two miscreants would at least suffer some embarrassment as a result of this obvious infraction.

Although they tried not to.  With the fire out, they jumped into the sedan, which then disappeared beneath the bridge.  I knew they wouldn’t get far, however, as the dirt road was the only automobile exit from that stretch of the arroyo.  Sure enough, the sedan reappeared and slowly crept up the dirt road to the sidewalk and Four Hills Road, where the fire truck and a half-dozen burly firefighters awaited them.  Caught, the two men exited the sedan.  Words of some kind were exchanged.  The two smiled sheepishly and then re-entered the sedan, evidently free to go, surely relieved the cops didn’t arrive and come down on them with considerably more weight, including questions.

I didn’t linger at the scene.  I was of the impression that our public servants―our cops and firefighters―were rightfully cautious about engaging in small talk with bystanders, so I always helped them out by avoiding the practice.  Like any kid, I was just pleased I could watch a “fire” and the excitement and drama of a huge, colorful truck arriving to address it.  And mete out some justice in the process.  My tax dollars at work.

Meanwhile, I still had miles to cover in this urban wilderness, and the day wasn’t getting any cooler, so I continued up the north slope of Four Hills Road.

After crossing the oil-stained and food-bespattered asphalt parking lot of Smith’s Supermarket, I donned a sweatband.

Then I arrived at the intersection of Central Avenue and Tramway Boulevard.  Due to the time―7 A.M.―and the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, the intersection was still almost entirely devoid of people and traffic.  Soon, however, it would become a tumult of cars, trucks, and motorcycles; panhandlers with their cardboard signs; loiterers; the homeless; pedestrian grocery shoppers; fatalists; the doped-up; and the meandering mentally ill.

I crossed Central Avenue in the immediate wake of another urban backpacker.  Well, packer.  Because his goods were not exactly loaded on his back.  He carried an unbundled sleeping bag in one hand and a small, filthy vinyl tarp in the other.  A plastic bottle of water was shoved in the rear pocket of his jeans and a looped handbag hung from his neck.  A lumbering, flapping human chuckwagon on an urban Chisolm Trail.  Unshaven, stone-faced, dead-eyed, and bent forward into another day of survival on the streets, he might have been my age. 

Meanwhile, there I was, with my $300 Osprey backpack with its multitude of bins and pockets and hooks and clips and zippers, perfectly adjusted with Velcro and straps to float away from my shoulders, aerate my back, and ride like eiderdown on my hips―snug, streamlined, and ready and waiting to get me up the Maroon Bells like crap through a goose.  Still, given my clothing and the reputation of that intersection, I was wondering if the people who bothered to notice me at all were lumping my lot in life with that of the poor soul just ahead of me.    

Continuing north on Tramway Boulevard, I passed the off-ramp from I-40.  A premier platform for panhandlers, it would soon be occupied. 

Then I walked beneath the I-40 bridge.  Here was a literal underworld, a netherworld.  Filled with the eerie, endless thunder of six lanes of interstate traffic above, it was a dim-to-dark biosphere never sweetened or cleansed by so much as a ray of sunshine.   From the sidewalk, concrete sloped up to a narrow ledge just beneath the bridge’s understory, a ledge, I estimated, just big enough to accommodate a human being. Or, end to end, two human beings.  Or three.  An empty section of sleeping bag drooped over the ledge.  I shuddered to think who was using that bag, and to imagine a dream having to support all that traffic.

Pigeons preened and paced on the ledge.  Others flew beneath the understory, coarsely chopping the sluggish air.  Pigeon shit, denied a good flush of rain, caked in ridges on the sidewalk at my feet.  Stirred into it, the usual discarded fast-food packaging.  Meanwhile, up above, they drove like mad to Chicago, Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, Kingman, Gallup, and Rolla, Missouri.  Hauling onions, wind-turbine blades, ventilators, pre-stressed concrete, restless children, husbands and wives, lunch meats, PODS, televisions, new cars, dog food, fertilizer, beef jerky, backpacks.  America on the move. 

The rest, forlorn as a hubcap on the side of a highway.

But just so much dark romanticism brought to you by the comfortably-retired Urban Backpacker.  Try selling this metaphorical piffle to a homeless person simply seeking shelter from a downpour or shade on a fiery New Mexico afternoon.

I gratefully exited this world on the deafening roar of another Albuquerque monkey in a muscle car heading, like me, north on Tramway.  The clamor the homeless must put up with.

Plodding up the Tramway sidewalk/bike path, I came upon a bright red plastic hazardous-waste bottle on the asphalt.  I picked it up and shook it.  It rattled, no doubt with used syringes. 

Good, I thought.  For once a proper disposal. 

Local organizations routinely asked Burqueños to volunteer to comb empty lots in order to safely pick up and dispose of syringes used for injecting heroin and other illegal drugs.  Obviously, a percentage of Albuquerque’s homeless injected this stuff as well.  Whatever the syringes in this bottle were used for, and however the bottle found its way to this sidewalk, I was touched and encouraged by this meager gesture of safety and compassion in a cruel world.  I should have clutched the bottle until the next trash can along the sidewalk, but I wanted my hands free to make entries in my journal, so I returned the bottle carefully to the sidewalk and documented the happenstance.  Guilt weighs less than a hazmat bottle.  I walked on.

On a terrace above the sidewalk there bloomed, with purple and white trumpet-shaped blossoms, a small desert willow―a true, tough, and lovely New Mexico native.  This was a tree still in its infancy, a sapling.  Meanwhile, there was a homeless campsite of a sleeping bag, shopping cart, pillow, plastic storage bin, and plastic storage barrel on the east side of the tree.  If the tree was for privacy, it obviously failed.  More likely, it was for the scant shade it offered in the late afternoon.  Relatively clean and tidy, the campsite had no occupants at the moment.  However, its vulnerability to weather and “wilding”―Albuquerque punks, blessed with homes, assaulting, even killing, the homeless for a lark―was troubling.

Soon sunlight began to bathe Tramway.  Traffic became heavy on the thoroughfare.  Runners, walkers, and bicyclists, most of them absorbed in their daily exercise routines, began to pass me on the broad sidewalk. 

Draining the west slopes of the Sandias, a deep and wide concrete arroyo with sloping sides began to parallel the sidewalk.  Given the drought, the arroyo was bone dry.  When running, much of its water flowed to the Rio Grande.

Gazing into the arroyo, I spotted a mimosa sapling growing out of the slightest crack nearly at the arroyo’s bed.  Although not native to the Southwest, the mimosa was a popular tree in Albuquerque.  I first heard it mentioned while growing up in New Jersey, in my favorite Hemingway short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” set in Africa.  We had a couple mimosas in our yard.   

I marveled at the mimosa’s ability to seed, root, and sprout in this challenging fissure, and then to grow to a couple feet.  The tree’s nearly complete concrete world, though utterly unnatural, certainly had its benefits in this drought.  What scant rain we’d been having had funneled into this arroyo, and had thus quenched the sapling.  On the other hand, I knew the arroyo might spell the mimosa’s end.  Despite the drought, a flood―water three feet deep or more and traveling at 30 miles-per-hour―in this conduit was inevitable.  And if hydropower alone didn’t take out this tender flora, some equally inevitable manmade cargo of the flood―a sleeping bag, shopping cart, mattress, day pack, office chair, carpet remnant, bicycle―likely would.  I’d seen all such flotsam, making its way, slowly but surely, to the Rio throughout the monsoon season. 

Then I saw something the sight of which tumbling in a flooded Albuquerque arroyo or caked with mud on a remote riverbank in West Texas or East Coahuila would have rent my heart: a big dingy stuffed bear sitting on the lip of a smaller concrete arroyo feeding into the larger one beside which I continued to walk.  What carelessness or cruelty delivered him to here? I wondered.  No electronic toy will ever replace a child’s Teddy.  I imagined a girl or boy upslope in tears.

I paused to sit down gratefully upon a bench.  I admired some blooming white horse nettle on the edges of the trail.  I’ve never failed to identify this plant―technically a weed―with the funny name during all my years in the Southwest.  Like me, it was drought-tolerant and equally at home in the city and the desert.  With blossoms of lavender stars with yellow centers, it deserved the dignity of being called a wildflower.

I watched an ant bearing a crumb twice its size: inspiring, somehow.  While doing so, I wondered if anybody looking at me thought I was some eccentric tourist from England, Germany, or France, although I’d never been to any of those places.  I walked on.

On the corner of Tramway and Indian School Road, I encountered a descanso, or roadside memorial, a common sight along New Mexico’s highways, some of the deadliest in the nation.  It was a combination of a rusted metal cross, decorative rocks, plastic flowers, and large glass beads (tears?).  The memorial honored somebody with, as near as I could discern, the initials “PAHI.”  “PAHI” was surely yet another victim of a New Mexico traffic accident.

Now began the final leg of my urban trek, the mile-long climb east up Indian School Road. 

I passed the entrance to Walgreens, where I’d been getting a prescription to correct post-ventricular contraction, give me the steady, solid Hal Blaine heartbeat I’d need to hopefully continue to do these slogs into my 70’s.

I passed a handsome stone-and-stucco sign between the sidewalk and the street welcoming me to the neighborhood of “MONTE LARGO HILL,” with the reminder to “STAY FOCUSSED AVOID TEXTING.”  Good advice for drivers.  As for this pedestrian, he continued to “text” into his journal as he’d been doing without an accident for 33 years.

This neighborhood, part of Albuquerque’s aptly-named “Northeast Heights” section, was stunning: the homes, handsome; the yards, many of them prudently xeriscaped, manicured; the cars and trucks in the driveways (some gated), expensive.  I estimated each home on the first block I passed had an average price of $500,000, with homes increasing in value by at least $100,000 with every ascending block.

The Sandias now exploded into view.  I spotted the peak of a foothill that might offer a reasonable campsite for the night.  I knew that if I camped a mere mile into the National Forest, with Albuquerque lapping at the shore of my bivouac, I’d be happy, for my goal was not to escape Albuquerque, but rather to celebrate our public lands and behold a fascinating city that had contributed greatly to my Southwestern experience.  I could make a “wilderness” experience out of a pile of gravel on a dirt road beside a busy railroad line a half-mile from a two-lane New Mexico highway if I’m content and my imagination is in gear.  Although some undeveloped land nearby does help.    

Meanwhile, in my worn boots, clutching my battered walking stick, I now more than ever felt like a tramp, a cop magnet.  But I forged ahead, still unmolested.

I paused to catch my breath in a lot―the rare lot under construction in this neighborhood―containing a recently-poured house foundation.  Cars climbed the hill with me, some undoubtedly en route to the trailhead, and, of those, some surely from more modest neighborhoods in the Duke City.  They slowed for the speed bumps on Indian School Road―speed bumps for safety, of course, and perhaps for prolonging the tormenting envy of the less fortunate driving through this glamorous part of the city. 

Two-and-three-quarter hours after I set out, I arrived at the large paved parking lot, sparsely filled with automobiles on this hot morning, at the mouth of Embudo Canyon.  Embudo Canyon trails began here, in a small patch of acreage designated Sandia Hills Open Space.  A half-mile into the trail I planned to pack commenced the Sandia Mountain Wilderness.  The canyon filled with hills, increasingly lofty ranges, and great gulfs of golden light.  As the slopes climbed, piñon and juniper yielded to pine, which yielded to aspen and spruce.  Public, undeveloped land.  How utterly fortunate Albuquerque was to have this at its ribs!

The Open Space also included a massive earthen berm with a concrete spillway, and a huge, obscenely inappropriate water tank.  But did I decry the tank?  No.  The water that I showered with the night before, and the bottled water now in my backpack, very possibly spent some time in that thing.

Thus, except for my return pack home, my urban backpack was over.  Taking a breather, I slipped out of my pack, and felt a foot taller. 

My pack, my house for the night.  Before my urban hike, I took great pride and comfort in believing that the pack, properly equipped, could be my house anywhere in the world.  Now, I wasn’t so sure.  A house is one thing, the property upon which it sits, another.  I had covered some rugged property this morning.  I preferred the property that now awaited me. 

I set out.  At my back, a half-million, some applauding, most oblivious.  Before me, the sound of mountain water, the chatter of a tufted squirrel, the tart squawk of a jay, the perfume of pine resin, the moan of wind in a pine, the whisper of silence in the mind.  Si, refuge and prospect. And a destination close to home, because, as I entered my eighth decade, I was now nearing another destination close to home, close to wherever I am and will be, in fact.  But now I chose to be here.  I would perhaps have thought to break the spell by raising my voice, adding another word, but I would not do so again.  I was invisible.  It meant nothing.  If it were not so there would be little told of it.  I’ll explain someday.  Home for supper.

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.