Tag: Sonoran Desert

Never Far Away

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Every morning you appear outside my window in the fever of July.

In the blooming blanket of a Barbara Karst bougainvillea.

A red reminder of ripe melons and ready resiliency.

Of sweet magnolia miles and pink petunias past.

Of green thumbs and blue birthday hydrangeas.

Every night you fade with each Sonoran sunset.

But you are never far away in the garden.

 

By Mark Johnson, July 22, 2019

 

The Voice Inside

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Water is a precious commodity. Especially on days like this in the Sonoran Desert. It’s 111 degrees outside. Perfect for a little heat-related sci fi.

***

Your throat is parched. All of your water jugs are empty. But all is not lost. You’re less than five minutes away from a water station in a strip mall.

You step in your car and prepare to drive there. You grip the wheel. It feels as if it’s been baking in an oven. But you persevere and crank up the AC.

Five minutes later, you’ve arrived. You exit your sedan with two empty gallon jugs. One in each hand. A magnificent blue oasis is looming on the near horizon. It’s calling your name. It’s glowing and quivering like a mirage in a dusty old western.

You walk to the water station entrance. You fumble in your pocket for twenty-five cents. Still in a stupor from the pulsating heat, you slide two dimes and a nickel into the slot to fill the first jug. The water begins to bubble out of the machine into your first container. A gasping-and-grateful female voice startles you. It calls out from inside the machine. It utters two words … “Thank You.”

You don’t believe your ears. You tighten the blue cap on the first jug and place the second empty one where it had been. You slide two more dimes and another nickel into the same slot in the Glacier water machine. Again, the voice inside repeats her weary declaration … “Thank You.” 

You wonder.

“Have I entered the Twilight Zone?”

“Is this a new Stephen King novel about an automated creature dying of thirst, who can only survive and get more water when patrons visit her and deposit their coins?”

“Or perhaps the frail voice inside is simply thanking me for bottling my own water and reusing my plastic containers.”

You decide.

 

 

July in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert

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It was about 90 degrees at 7 o’clock when I grabbed my broad-brimmed hat, a tall bottle of water, and a cool, damp towel to cover the back of my neck. My husband and I were heading to Vista del Camino Park for our early morning walk before the temperatures escalated past 100. Such is life in July in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.

The elephant foot succulents on the north side of our condo don’t seem to mind. They are coping just fine. Under the eaves. Resting in the shade most of the day. We decided to move our container of gladiolas next to them. They were getting torched on the south side in the all-day sun. Maybe the American flags will help boost their spirits as Independence Day approaches.

I’ve learned to accept and adapt to July’s torrid temperatures here … since that day nearly two years ago when I survived to tell the story of An Unobstructed View. As long as you keep a ready supply of water nearby and stay indoors during the spike in the afternoon heat, it’s manageable.

This year we’ve planned a few strategic July escapes, as well.  One to the stunning red rocks of Sedona a few hours north. Another further up Interstate 17 into the fragrant, tall pines and mountains of Flagstaff, where the air is thinner and the temperatures are twenty-five degrees cooler.

Truly, life in Arizona is a story of extremes … and remarkable beauty.

 

Heating Up and Cooling Off

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Here in the Valley of the Sun, 100-degree temperatures have returned. This is not a revelation. Now that I’ve become a desert rat, I’ve learned to expect they’ll be with us for the next few months.

There’s no need to worry about me. I’ve adapted to living in the heat. Early morning walks and swims before the heat sets in. Daily and repeat applications of sunscreen. Plenty of water. Broad-brimmed hats. Pop-up monsoon storms. Biannual visits to the dermatologist. A few weekend getaways to the majestic mountains and fragrant pines of northern Arizona. A trusty sunshade to cover the dashboard of our car when its parked. These are the norm in the Sonoran Desert.

I find strange comfort in all of this, because the return of triple digits reminds me of the scorching summers that defined my suburban St. Louis childhood. This 1960 image always makes me smile. It features the neighborhood kids and me (on the far right) devouring popsicles on the front porch of my home. As a tribute to the blazing days of summer, I hope you’ll enjoy this cooling excerpt from Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of twenty-six, up-and-down stories about my Missouri youth.

***

The oppressive heat and humidity in St. Louis can wear you down. At times, it’s like carrying around a moist ten-pound cape on your shoulders. Or having your dental hygienist take x-rays and forget to remove the protective flak jacket before you leave the office.

One solution is a three-letter word: ice. In the 1960s, a Pevely Dairy truck driver would deliver milk and other dairy products to homes at the top of our street in the cul-de-sac. About a half dozen of us kids would scurry to catch the truck up the street screaming “ICE!” at the top of our lungs.

On occasion, the driver would pause and drop a big block of ice off the back of his truck onto the pulsating concrete, where it broke into smaller pieces. We’d grab a chunk and apply it to our skin as a soothing balm. We were in heaven.

Truth be told, the iceman didn’t cometh to deliver the goods that often, but he winked and dropped a block of ice into our path a few times each summer–just enough to give us hope that we could carry on the chase and renew the ritual.

The ice cream truck also visited our neighborhood. My sister and I begged our parents for change to buy an ice cream sandwich or dreamsicle from the Good Humor man. He even sold a “bomb pop” popsicle. It was red, white and blue and shaped like an actual bomb with a round top and fins coming out the sides.

Of course, in the Vietnam War era, we didn’t grasp the horror of buying a refreshing treat that was shaped like a weapon. We just knew it kept us cool.

 

 

 

 

Fifty Posts … One Breath at a Time

 

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I launched my website about a year ago. That’s when I began to blog. I had no preconceived notions about what it would mean, where my thoughts would lead me, who might be interested in what I had to say or how it would feel to send my words into the blogosphere in real time on a regular basis.

I simply knew I needed to continue to nurture my writing obsession, beyond the three memoirs I’d written and published. To keep telling meaningful, uplifting and true tales. To focus on what I know best: the journey of a sixty-plus gay man and his sixty-plus husband living in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.

Today I send this, my fiftieth post, into the world.  I consider that an accomplishment worth celebrating. Especially when I recall that my husband and I nearly didn’t make it to our new home after I suffered a heart attack on the road in St. Louis on the way west from Chicago to Phoenix in July 2017.

This morning, during our weekly “gentle” yoga class in Scottsdale, I realized I began practicing yoga in early 2018 just a few months before I began blogging. At the start of each class Debbie, our seasoned instructor, dims the lights and sets the mindfulness mood. She reads a passage in even tones to help us get comfortable and follow the rise and fall of our chests. In her words today, “One breath at a time … Let yourself go. Let yourself be … To allow the truth in life to be revealed.”

Perhaps it’s coincidental. But over the past year — as I’ve become more in touch with my body, mind and spirit — I’ve also become more aware of what’s happening around me. What’s revealed in my daily life. What it feels like to live and breathe in 2019. So that’s what I’ll continue to write about.

I may have buried the lead. A smattering of citizens from Australia, Canada, China, Colombia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Mexico, Pakistan, Rwanda, South Africa, Switzerland, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and the United States have read one or more of my posts. Thank you. I am humbled and grateful.

In the future, I’ll do my best to keep shining a light on the beauty of nature and the serendipitous moments of life … droplets in an otherwise thorny world of challenges. No matter where you live, I hope you’ll continue to follow me on my literary journey, comment when you feel the urge to do so or one day pick up one of my books.

Together we’ll take it one breath at a time.

 

 

Twilight by the Pool

 

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I’m fortunate to live in a charming, mid-century condo community in South Scottsdale with a gorgeous pool and rich history. Traditions and ripples run deep here at Polynesian Paradise. From memories of grandparents, close cousins, great aunts and uncles living under the slanted-and-peaked roofs of their Googie-style architecture.

Many early residents, Chicagoans with Italian heritage, discovered their desert hideaways in the 1960s and 70s. Others came from Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and Canada. They all traveled south or west to escape brutal winters and forge a new life in their twilight years.

During the day, Lucy (my husband’s soft-spoken grandmother) and her friends gathered by the pool to soak up the sun, unwind on a lounge chair, read a book under a kitschy umbrella, sip a cool drink or play cards in the clubhouse while their laundry flapped on the clothesline in the dry breeze.

At night, as palm trees painted sunsets over western skies, these westward-ho pilgrims dined on pasta and cannolis lovingly prepared by good-hearted neighbors like Sam (my husband’s grandfather). He spent his working years making cookies at the Nabisco factory back in Chicago and needed an outlet for his boundless energy. He found it in the condo clubhouse kitchen.

From January through April each year, as the rest of the world shivered on frosty Wednesday nights, the warmest stars aligned over the desert. Delighted residents and their guests shouted BINGO, collected their winnings, and sauntered home down sidewalks to their modest desert dwellings illuminated by porch lights.

Of course, Lucy and Sam are gone. So are most of their friends and neighbors. Like Connie and Sam who lived a few doors away. They were surrogate parents who coached us on the dos and don’ts of closing down our desert home when we were still fresh snowbirds straddling two worlds: one in Illinois; one in Arizona. Both of them died a few years ago, though their last name still hangs on a wall plaque outside what was once their door.

And Anita, another long-time resident, who passed away early in April. She was a familiar-and-friendly fixture at the pool. Tanning on her lounge chair with her extended, manicured nails. Listening contentedly to her favorite oldies on her transistor radio. Though I didn’t know her well, I miss her presence. I miss her connection to all the others.

Sadly, the soaring prow on the clubhouse façade is gone too. The condo association decided to remove it a few years ago, because the wood had begun to rot. It posed a safety concern for those walking beneath and the cost was too prohibitive to repair it.

Fortunately, though, all is not lost. Life goes on at Polynesian Paradise. With a fresh coat of exterior paint and a new generation of residents (grandsons and granddaughters, nieces and nephews, singles and couples) the community spirit lives on. There are still social gatherings in the clubhouse each month. Donut and hot dog days. Holiday parties. Yoga on occasional mornings. Bingo has moved from Wednesday to Tuesday nights when the snowbirds are in town.

Many in our community are over sixty, like my husband Tom and me. Living our twilight years in a pleasant condo community with an inviting pool. But there are a growing number of younger, full-time residents living here too. Infusing the community with new energy. Remodeling and updating their condos. Heading to work and school each day. Walking to their cars past cooing doves that nest under our eaves.

We’re all neighbors. Some of us enjoy a regular dip in the pool. Some of us don’t. But we’re all in the same boat. Finding our way in the world as new condo communities rise up around us in South Scottsdale. Doing what we can to live the best versions of our own lives in the Sonoran Desert. Just like the Sams, Lucys, Connies and Anitas who’ve come and gone before us.

 

 

Love is in the Air

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Don’t let anyone tell you the Sonoran Desert is dead in the Spring. While it’s true that there are no daffodils, tulips, peonies or crocuses to speak of or admire, the Palo Verde trees are ablaze in yellow. The bougainvillea are burgeoning. The cacti are blooming in abundance. Splashes of white, pink, purple, orange and red abound. Oh, and love is in the air. I mean that literally.

I was a snowbird visiting Arizona from Illinois five years ago, when I encountered my first two lovebirds under open skies. They were a couple of diminutive, rosy-faced parrots huddling and chirping in a palm tree high above, as my husband Tom and I played Scrabble near our condo pool. I was captivated by their vivid, multi-colored feathers and the tender way they preened each other.

Now that I’m a full-time resident of the Sonoran Desert, I’m still smitten. So much so that I felt my adrenalin surge recently as I captured this image with my telephoto lens:  another fanciful flock of lovebirds holding court high atop a palm tree in Vista del Camino Park near my home.

In the past week or so, I’ve come to realize that these gorgeous birds aren’t originally from Arizona. The lovebirds are natives of Africa. Namibia to be precise. According to several sources online, in the 1980s two colonies of them were cast aloft into Phoenix-area neighborhoods. One was the result of a monsoon storm that destroyed a local aviary. The others scattered when an owner decided he didn’t want to keep them anymore. He released them into Sonoran skies.

The good news is the lovebirds don’t pose a threat to native Arizona birds. They simply add to the color palette and have adapted to life in the Valley of the Sun over the past three decades. Apparently, the palm trees and temperatures here are similar to those in their African home. So, the lovebirds are comfortable living in the Sonoran Desert.

Coincidentally, last Saturday–with the lovebirds front and center in my psyche–I was wearing my “Love is Love” t-shirt. (Imagine the silhouettes of a herd of six rainbow-colored elephants–red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple–with their trunks happily intertwined above the three words and you’ve got the right idea.)

Anyway, Tom and I were strolling up and down the aisles of the Scottsdale Farmers Market. I was shopping for vegetables and fruits in my diversity-loving t-shirt. A woman I didn’t know, a vendor named Elizabeth, jumped out from behind her booth. She approached me with a loving, beaming smile. She insisted upon taking my photo in the “Love is Love” shirt. She wanted to send it to a friend back in Chicago, whose sixteen-year-old daughter had just come out to her.

Of course, I was happy to oblige since I’m gay and had lived in Chicago for most of my adult life. I told her I’d even bought the t-shirt at a Banana Republic store in Chicago on North Michigan Avenue. But more importantly, I know how frightening and challenging it is for a young person who’s gay, lesbian or transgendered to find their way. They need all the support they can get.

Yes, it’s Spring 2019, but even if you have a loving mom or dad, and community of people around you who believe “love is love” and treat you with respect, the world is still a complicated and often judgmental place.

Perhaps all of us–now as much as ever–need all the love and lovebirds we can get.