Sunday’s touch of soreness in my right arm–from Saturday’s latest Covid booster–didn’t deter me from capturing 5,266 steps along the Crosscut Canal and this blue-sky, north-facing view of Camelback Mountain from the bridge.
It was the calm I needed and inhaled to organize my thoughts. Away from the world but planted firmly on it. Serenaded by a few distant Sky Harbor departures, slow stream of bikes buzzing by, and family of Gambel’s quail rushing down the embankment for Sunday brunch.
The calendar says September, but August-like heat abounds across the American west.
Thanks to a dome of high pressure, triple-digit Septemperatures in the Pacific Northwest, California, the Intermountain West, and (of course) here in Arizona are expected through the Labor Day weekend.
In the desert, we know how to navigate the heat. Carry a water bottle everywhere. Slather on sunscreen. Wear a hat. Exercise early. Do your chores in the morning. Stay inside during the heat of the afternoon. Reemerge at sundown to catch another dazzling sunset.
But there are troubling resource ramifications for this region that lie beneath the stark beauty, beyond late-summer-heat inconveniences.
Lake Powell, our country’s second largest reservoir–it straddles the Utah and Arizona border–now stands at its lowest level since 1967.
According to a recent article on scitechdaily.com by Michael Carlowicz of the NASA Earth Observatory, on August 6, 2022, the water elevation of Lake Powell’s surface at Glen Canyon Dam was 3,535.38 feet. That’s 98 feet lower than August 2017 … and only twenty-six percent of its capacity.
In August, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced it will reduce the amount of water apportioned to states in the region.
Arizona will receive 21 percent less water from the Colorado River system in 2023. That is certain to hit farmers in the Grand Canyon State particularly hard.
Fortunately, water conservation efforts are trickling down across our state and communities like Scottsdale have begun to more aggressively manage the use of water. Plus, a wet monsoon season in our state has alleviated the drought in the short term.
But, with burgeoning population growth and climate uncertainties in this region, what will the future hold for the Colorado River basin and 40 million people–Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and San Diego–who rely on it for electric power and water?
Shy and suspect, she appeared in May 2021. Soon after, I named our feral friend Poly. It’s short for our Polynesian Paradise community where she resides on the lam.
Curious but skittish, Poly stared down at me from our neighbor’s roof the first time we met. Later on, she padded down the walk–past the lemon and orange trees–when Tom or I approached.
She didn’t allow us to get closer than thirty feet.
Last summer came and went. On warm mornings, she’d climb into the crook of our fig tree to search for food. Delectable fruits weren’t her thing. In her dreams, it was a birdie buffet, featuring an unsuspecting dove or finch.
In the months that followed, Poly paraded by frequently. Meanwhile, Tom and I sat for other cats: adorable Blanca and acrobatic Hex. They also live on our lane, but both will be leaving in the next few months. As is the way of life, they’re moving on with their owners for adventures in new homes.
Now, in August 2022, Poly is the featured performer. She appears at our front door most mornings. Here on the southwestern edge of Polynesian Paradise, she meows, stretches, and rolls on her back. Like a shifty circus character, who knows how long she’ll stay in town?
By now, you have surmised that Poly has become our friend. Perhaps even our pet without an official home or address.
If she had to call one place home, I think she’d scribble the number outside our door onto a legal document with the tip of her paw. That is my fantasy.
On her most trusting days, she stands on our threshold, brushes up against our legs, and peeks in. She waits patiently as I place a ramakin of milk, handful of dry kitty kernels, or dish of wet food from a can (turkey, chicken, or fish) at her feet.
She finishes her savory treats, licks her paws, and grooms herself. Then slinks down the lane to rest on another neighbor’s doormat.
During this active summer monsoon season, I wonder where Poly hides, where she sleeps at night. Perhaps under a low palm. Or, if she scales a wall, in the cozy corner of a neighbor’s empty, but protective, patio.
Chosen or not, this is the life of our feral friend.
Sure, Poly trusts us more. She has warmed to our food and advances. But she hasn’t quite come to terms with whatever shadows lurk in her checkered past.
Like any nomad, Poly believes she’s better off on her own … better off when left to her own devices.
She’s been gone nine-and-a-half years. I no longer feel the frequent weightiness of her loss. But on this day–what would have been Helen Johnson’s ninety-ninth birthday–I do.
My mother was a lifelong gardener and nature lover. So, this morning–as a symbolic gesture–Tom and I walked the Desert Botanical Garden. It was quiet and muggy there; just us, a few other couples, and a parade of random reptiles doing push-ups on the concrete path before scampering off.
Grief is a tricky thing. If you’ve lost someone you loved (and who hasn’t?), the discomfort appears as an uninvited clunky extra, who wanders on stage to disrupt a scene … only to vanish until the next anniversary, birthday, favorite song, or serendipitous moment.
As a soothing balm, I have kept the treasure trove of hundreds of letters my mother sent me. They represent a lifetime of her wisdom–her pain, joy, uncertainty, pride, denial, and acceptance. It only became wisdom and the catalyst for my first book, because she had the foresight to share it.
Perhaps the image of her–sitting at her desk or dining room table composing another letter–is her greatest gift of all to me in my literary, later-in-life years.
Out of her death and my grief, I was able to comb the beaches of her life (and mine) and make sense of it. Her letters–like this joyous one from 1999, which I included in From Fertile Ground–are the meaningful shells that washed up on shore and remain.
July 11, 1999
I really enjoyed your visit! It is good to see you happy and at peace. The fact that you plan to end your group therapy indicates a confidence in your life’s path that is reassuring. I wish for you continued growth and success in every area of your life. The next 20 years should be your best!
The boys are growing up. Nick seems to have recovered some of his old verve and displayed more of the child of old than I had seen in a few years. As he matures and charts his own course as a man, more of that lovely, lovable child nature will return and be revealed to his family members. Kirk is still an adorable rascal and much fun to have around. Enjoy it. Everything can change quickly …
Love to you and the boys. Hello to Tom.
Two years before, in the fall of 1997 while vacationing with her sister Frances, Mom wore a light blue hat in this grainy photo. She scoured the South Carolina shoreline for seashells and shark teeth. She marveled at the way the ocean’s high and low tides polished their sharp edges.
Twenty-five years later, I marvel at the wisdom and intellect my mother shared and left behind. It is her letters and my love for her that linger.
Mid-July numbers on the trail at 6 a.m. in the Sonoran Desert don’t lie. Ninety-one degrees, heading for a sizzling Saturday high of 115.
Eleven lizards, three hummingbirds, two Gambel’s quail, and one cottontail endure in the heat. They skitter by before Tom and I complete our 4,200 steps along the canal and drain our water bottles to stay hydrated.
When we arrive back home, two lovebirds greet us. They add a splash of color on the feeder I gave my husband one year and ten days ago on his sixty-fourth birthday. Soon they fly off for another adventure.
Have we been hexed by the heat? Not in the way you might think. Unless you consider one adorable, black-as-midnight kitty the protagonist. Her name is Hex.
An exclusively indoor cat, she lives down the lane. My husband and I are caring for her until tomorrow, while our neighbors Bri and Steve cruise in the Caribbean.
Ironically, sitting for Hex has been a pleasure cruise on land–without cocktails. She tumbles and dances on the cool tile of our neighbor’s condo. We feed and water her daily … and play lots of games. She chases curly doodads, bouncy balls, and a wire thingy with wooden bars attached to the end. What a life!
I’m certain she muses in her tiny brain … “Let’s play more. Toss that. Oh, and I want to curl around your legs and run the gauntlet through my flexible tunnel before you leave. Then, I’ll be sure to eat what you left. I’ll find my way back to the tray by the window. I’ll pass the time. I’ll dream. I’ll watch the birds fly by.”
Yes, it’s summer. I’m definitely ready for it to be over. But at least I have this cat tale to share. It’s a reminder that we can never allow the hexes happening in the heat of the moment all around the world to overshadow the joy of animals–inside and out.
Though sometimes the critters that cross our paths may appear dark like Hex, they brighten our days. They conjure our best instincts. They ignite hope for a better tomorrow.
It had been decades since I’d traveled by train for pleasure. All those Illinois years (on and off from 1980 to 2014) riding the Metra to jobs from my homes in the northwest suburbs to Chicago’s Loop don’t count.
But for four hours on July 6, 2022–our sixty-fifth birthday–Tom and I rode the rails for fun on the Verde Canyon Railroad in central Arizona.
Close your eyes and imagine twenty miles of track, trestles, curves, Cottonwood trees, Verde River bends, one tunnel, and a stretch of close quarters near jagged cliffs between two small towns: Clarkdale and Perkinsville.
Along the way, we moved back and forth from the cool comfort of our coach (featuring a champagne toast in a plastic cup and nifty snack pack of fruits, meats, cheese and crackers) to an open-air car.
The amenities were a nice touch, but not enough to keep us contained. We spent most of our ride outside. That’s where we welcomed unfiltered access to stunning views and stimulating conversation.
Dianne, our assigned interpreter, and Austin, an operations coordinator, provided color commentary as Tom and I guzzled small bottles of water to forestall dehydration in the ninety-plus-degree heat.
With Dianne’s direction, I managed to snap a photo of a Mastodon footprint in the rocks below on my Sony digital camera.
It is evidence of prehistoric life in the old, old west … many centuries before copper smelting and mining, and even longer before one smooth glide through nature carved its initials on the memory of our milestone birthday.
Five years ago, Tom and I signed the papers, closed the deal, and passed the keys of our Illinois home to the new owners, a thirty-something, Turkish-American couple with a six-year-old son.
It was a pivotal personal moment–a cocktail of joy, relief, sentiment, and sadness–as we walked out the door and prepared to begin our next chapter in our cozy Arizona condo.
Of course, it was just the start of our journey. Before we left on June 30, 2017, we captured this selfie in front of our Mount Prospect home with a sign that was a parting gift from a friend.
The sign came west with us. Later that summer, someone took it from the front of our Arizona condo. I never discovered what happened to it.
Suffice it to say, the spirit of the sign lives on in my heart and on the pages of my third book, An Unobstructed View. It’s an honest reflection on my Illinois years and the early days of my life as a heart attack survivor.
I sat in our Arizona sunroom and read the prologue again earlier this week. I’m thankful I found the creative resolve to reconstruct vivid memories from that watershed period. Friends and strangers have told me the book moved them.
Four years have passed since I published the book. I’m a much different person now. Less patient, more compassionate with a greater awareness of life’s fragility. I’m also more adept at living in the present.
That’s what a serious, sudden illness will do for you. You learn that tomorrow isn’t a given. You discover yoga and how to be mindful. You relish the quiet. You notice the beauty of nature that surrounds you.
You give thanks for simple but vital things–breathing, a strong heart, a loving husband, friends and family near and far, affordable healthcare, and an array of nearby doctors … and you also find a deeper appreciation for those who have loved and supported you along the way.
If you are reading this, you probably fall into this last category. Thank you for joining me on this journey. These first five years in Arizona have proven to be creative ones, and–with time–I’ve found greater equilibrium and new friendships I hold dear.
Given the state of our world, I think it’s also important to hold true to our beliefs and voice our opinions and concerns.
In that spirit, I’ll always advocate for human rights … life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness … for all Americans no matter their skin color, cultural ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs.
It’s rare for me to rise to witness morning’s first light. But, at 4:45 a.m., I was thirsty and warm.
I peeked from our den window through the Sunday slats of our vertical blinds to see a line of doves welcome the day.
I heard the clock ticking in the hall, then reclined on the couch to check the news feed on my phone.
Soon after, I heard Tom stir. Bleary eyed, he staggered into the living room to check on me.
We resolved to soothe our parched throats with cold water from the fridge. That’s what you do in June in Arizona. You hydrate over and over again to endure the heat of the desert.
By 5:30ish, we had summoned enough energy to pull on our shorts and socks, tie our shoes, grab our floppy hats and sunglasses, and step toward the alley that would lead us to the Crosscut Canal and Papago Park.
Just outside our door, our neighbor Glenn happened by with Mason and Katie, his two gentle-giant Newfoundlands, tugging him along.
We exchanged good mornings. Tom patted and stroked Mason’s long back. Katie and I locked eyes. Most of the puppy’s brown fur has turned black. Soon she we will be full grown.
We said our goodbyes. Tom and I continued walking west. When we reached the canal at 5:45, my phone told me it was 84 degrees–on the way to 113 by late afternoon.
Scorching, yes, but any person in their right mind knows to stay inside (or at least cover up) when the heat spikes. June isn’t a month to be savored in the Sonoran Desert. It’s simply one to survive.
By 6:00, we had walked past a few joggers and the full length of the fence that separates the canal path with the Desert Botanical Garden. We decided to stop and turn around.
The sun was beginning to bear down. I paused, peered west, pulled my phone from my pocket, and captured the saguaros waking in the morning light.
On our return trip, a few monarchs danced and perched on the milkwood near the fence line. Tiny lizards skittered by as we chugged water from our bottles.
We retraced our steps, crossed the pedestrian bridge, welcomed shade from the Roadrunner apartment complex, turned the corner down the alley, and headed east to our cozy two-bedroom condo.
As we cross through the middle of May, it’s time to share the conclusion of the story of Millie, my neighbor, and our relationship that spanned twenty years Along the Back Fence.This story first appeared inAn Unobstructed View.
In the summer of 2016, I waved to Millie as I worked in my backyard. Frail and in her nineties, she was seated on a chair on her deck with Yolanda, her live-in caregiver, nearby.
Millie motioned to me to meet them by the back fence. With Yolanda at her side, it took a few minutes for Millie to navigate her way there. But there was never any doubt she would make it.
When she arrived, I leaned out to give her a hug and she rested her head on my shoulder. She told me she loved to admire the perennial blooms that came and went, but her gardening days were over. She simply didn’t have the physical energy for it anymore.
Nonetheless, she wanted to gift the only remaining rose bush in her yard to Tom and me, if I would dig it up from her side of the yard and find a place to transplant it in our backyard.
Though I didn’t know where we’d find room for the bush, I was touched by the gesture. I grabbed a shovel from the garage, wedged the toe of my shoe in the cyclone fence, and boosted myself over onto Millie’s lush lawn. Tom found our wheelbarrow and lifted it over too.
It took me nearly thirty minutes of digging before I could pry the stubborn bush out of the ground. But it finally succumbed. When I left Millie’s yard with the bush, I thanked her and gave her another hug and kiss on the cheek. We had come a long way from our early compost pile days.
“I love you guys,” she said.
“We love you too, Millie,” I assured her.
Before Tom and I moved the following summer, we waved to Millie a few more times from our backyard whenever we mowed our lawn and saw her perched on her deck, presiding over her floral-filled memories.
And the red rose bush–which we carefully transplanted alongside our driveway and propped up with tomato stakes and chicken wire–took root and bloomed before we departed.
We left it there for the new owners to enjoy.
It only seemed fitting.
In late October 2019, Kathy–another of our Mount Prospect, Illinois neighbors–called with sad, but inevitable, news. Millie had passed away, just a few months shy of her 100th birthday.
In May 2022, I fantasize that somewhere in a distant universe, Millie is preparing to serve up a Tupperware container filled with ambrosia salad for all her friends.
In reality, seventeen hundred miles west of my previous Illinois home, it is our Arizona neighbors who are about to be dazzled by a summer-long perennial display compliments of our double-red desert rose bush.
The arrival of this much-anticipated splash of brilliant color is something Millie would have loved.