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Thursday, March 31, 2016

How Long Is a Day?

Return to the West, II: How Long Is a Day?

Information on times for sunrise and sunset are readily available for any intersection of latitude and longitude, for any day of the year, but clock times given don’t take into account trees, hills, mountains, or canyons. Here in Michigan, someone living deep in the woods, west of a high, wooded ridge will experience sunrise much later than a Lake Huron shoreline dweller. Dark comes earlier in the woods, too. The beginning and end of a Michigan day are gradual, anyway, even along the shores of Lakes Michigan, Huron, and Superior, often with subtle, soft edges and muted tints.

Desert and mountain sunrises and sunsets are more tropical – at least, from what I’ve read of the tropics. They are not, except on the occasional cloudy morning or evening, long drawn-out affairs. The sky grows light before the sun itself appears, but once up that sun is anything but subtle. So, too, when it drops below the western horizon at day’s end, dark is a sudden presence. (Absence of light = presence of dark.)

On this spring Sunday in northern Michigan, with cold, grey skies promising a gloomy day, precipitation probable, I remember very different mornings, those of our ghost town cabin in the high desert. In Dos Cabezas, if I woke when the sky was still dark, the lights of distant houses and ranches winked against the blackness, as they had the evening before. Slowly, then, gradually, unrelieved blackness would give way to indistinct, shadowy hills. At first the mountains were more suspicion than reality, themselves untrustworthy, but when at last the sun set fire to the mountain horizon the light would be instantly implacable, flat and white and pitiless, and the reality of the mountains revealed – falsely, of course, as we know from geology lessons -- as immutable.

After a night cold enough to make gas heat welcome in the cabin, morning remained cool enough that I habitually wore a heavy, rough suede jacket lined with wool fleece for the day’s initial sortie, a walk with my dog down into the dry wash. The Philadelphia Wash, one of the neighbors called it. Like rivers and creeks in Michigan, the washes in Arizona have names, though it is generally only the locals who know them. In summer storms dangerous torrents of water from the mountains rush through: in winter only patterns in the sand show where water sometimes flows. The wash was easier walking than the desert itself, because beyond the wash one must thread carefully through mesquite and catclaw (jacket and boots necessary protection), and the ground throughout our part of Dos Cabezas was littered with strands and pieces of rusty barbed wire, rusty old tin cans, and all kinds of broken glass, remnants of an old dump as well as the ghost town itself, with wire fences strung to keep cows out of various parcels of property.

Down in the dry wash, in midwinter, where frost inhabited shaded areas until they were reached by sunlight, morning’s bird was the pyruloxxia, Arizona’s “silver cardinal,” singing from bare branches of leafless winter scrub oaks. The color palette of the winter high desert was limited to dusty browns and greys and grey-greens, relieved only by the bright green of creosote bush. Day or night, the smell was of dust. Sometimes, also, if they were near the cabin, there was the living fragrance of cows. The creosote bush, if brushed against, had its own strong smell, of course, but the primary smells were, first dust, second cows.

(Later in the season, furry leaves of the little bajada lupine, a beautiful flower at close range but low and small enough to be easily overlooked, offered drops of dew, held carefully like transparent glass beads. Tiny, delicate toadflax and stands of frail desert leeks, both with heavenly light-blue flowers, cast slender shadows on the ground. Primrose opened wide to the morning, some yellow, others almost white but lightly tinted pink. None of the early spring blooms of the high desert are large or showy. All are shy and close to the ground, living, it seems, on the scant moisture from morning dew.)

The heat of midday brought with it the illusion that the afternoon sun stood unchanging for hours, but spending those hours around the cabin dispelled the illusion, demonstrating by movement of shade that the sun too was moving across the cloudless sky. The front steps, facing south, however, were always in full sun, the tiny back deck, under an extension of the roof, looking off to the Cabezas, always shaded.

Every morning my first self-appointed task was to make coffee. As soon as darkness began to leak away, I would begin opening venetian blinds -- those on the east opened last and never all the way, because David liked to stay in bed later, the two west windows and one north over the sink all the way as soon as the sun was up.

Windows and blinds facing south were most judiciously and gradually adjusted, slats tilted to let in light but guard privacy (although the road was some distance from the cabin), the tilt monitored and changed little by little until finally maximum light streamed in. Before we left for the day’s adventures, however, we closed those south blinds tight, for while morning’s warmth was comforting, a full afternoon of sunlight would have turned the small cabin into an oven by later in the day.

When we came home in late afternoon, we would slide a few windows open from the bottom and open the south blinds partway, on a slant, permitting evening air to circulate until sunset (which came on early in January and gradually later as the weeks went by), when I closed all windows and blinds tight again, this time to hold in whatever of the day’s heat remained. As the season advanced, we also took to leaving the heavy front and back doors of the cabin open in the evenings so that air might pass through the cabin by way of the screen doors, taking away the heat of the day.

During the day, a large mirror above the gas heater faced the front door, and the mirror would reflect and intensify the south light in the cabin’s interior. There was no excluding the sun. Even with the blinds fully closed, the days were awash in light. Meanwhile, monitoring and adjusting light and air through windows and blinds was an integral part of each desert day’s ritual, and I relished the task, set for me by the sun and mountains rather than by any capricious human mandate.

At night, against the endless black of the sky, the shining stars far outnumbered those even in our northern Michigan sky, while cows continued to shuffle around the cabin, grazing in the dark. Off in the distance rose a coyote chorus, sounding much farther from the cabin than our northern Michigan coyotes sound from our old farmhouse, where they seem to be serenading us from below our bedroom window, though it’s doubtful they are any closer than the willow-lined creek. 

Stars and coyotes in the high desert – so familiar, so like home, and yet reminding us constantly that we were somewhere else, very far from home.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Longings for Elsewhere

Return to the West I: Longings for Elsewhere

During my midlife graduate study of philosophy at the University of Illinois, from time to time I was invited to francophone dinner parties given by the bilingual secretary of the French Department, whom I knew through mutual friends. Besides Americans for whom French was a second language, guests were visitors to the Illinois prairie from Canada, Belgium, Algeria, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and other French-speaking African countries, as well as from France. Those international evenings granted all of us a most welcome temporary illusion – that of being in Paris, dream capital for all enamored of the French language and culture.

When I had first arrived in town, I’d been told that Champaign-Urbana was a wonderful place to “get work done” because there were “no distractions.” While scholars at the Chicago campus might be challenged by temptations of the city itself, no such danger existed downstate.

After one of her delightful dinner evenings, my French-speaking hostess remarked rhapsodically, intending neither irony nor humor, “Champaign-Urbana is such a wonderful place! There are so many people here who desire to be elsewhere!”

Desiring to be elsewhere....

What I remember of my birth state, South Dakota, comes from a later visit, a camping trip in my seventeenth summer. My memories of growing up center instead on Joliet, Illinois, and while the memories are far from being nightmares, for years there I longed to escape, and once escaped have never contemplated permanent return. As a child, I spent long, dreamy hours on the front porch, gazing west across the cornfields on the other side of the road (soybeans in alternate years), yearning for wild open spaces where I would not be hemmed in by suburban streets and land cultivated for agricultural crops. No one would have known it to look at me, but in my imagination I rode a galloping horse toward the setting sun.

But it is no fault intrinsic to Illinois that the Land of Lincoln felt like a prison for me. Illinois was cast in that thankless role in my personal story, I see now, because of the facts of childhood dependency, adolescent longing, and, later, the suffocating constrictions of graduate study. No doubt I would have had the same longings for escape in Albany or Phoenix, had circumstances other than place been the same.

For years, Michigan was the dream. From the time I was twelve years old, our family camping trips took place along the Lake Michigan shoreline from Indiana to the Straits of Mackinac. Camping – vacation -- escapes from school and housework and all ordinary strictures of urban/suburban life. Sun or rain, regardless of temperature, in Michigan we lived the outdoor life that fueled my dreams, so it is little wonder I saw Michigan as embodying those dreams, that life. At the age of eighteen, I moved to Michigan at last.

Having a dream is one thing. Living it is another. Reality is always a mix of light and shadow. But I have not been disappointed living the dream. Michigan is home.

It took a while, but working year after year in jobs often experienced as miserable servitude I managed at last to find a way of being in the world that has remained with me, for the most part, ever since. That is, wherever I am, living or visiting, I try to be fully. After all, if I could afford to travel endlessly, would I not devour every strange sight and sound and make the most of every moment? So why not do that wherever my here is on any given day?

In Kalamazoo, then, on long walks or bus rides through the city, I came to see every building and alley and tree, in every detail, as unique and fascinating and delightfully foreign. The same was true for me of Cincinnati during two years I spent there. In the beautiful northern Michigan county where I have lived and worked now for over two decades, I am astonished at how many people will spend hours puffing away at indoor exercise rather than walking the roads and woods around them.

There is so much to see in the world, and the scenes are never the same two days in a row – they change from one hour to the next. For every one of us, life is too short to contain all possible experiences, and these are not limited to sight alone, either. I have imagined being without sight, without hearing, and how much delight would remain in the fragrance and touch of a June breeze here at home, sitting outdoors below the linden tree in bloom.

“We’re here now” has been my mantra for years. Being here is not something I want to miss.

And yet – and yet -- .

By December of 2014 we had been four years at home without any significant travel or time away when unexpectedly a possibility for adventure appeared. Someone we knew owned a cabin in southern Arizona, and we could rent it for the winter. The very modest price put it within our reach; the price was modest in keeping with the cabin and its location. We would know no one and have few neighbors -- all the better, as far as I was concerned, because as soon as the property owner casually tossed off the phrases “ghost town,” “high desert,” and “open range,” my heart throbbed with old cowgirl dreams.

I had not, as an adult, yearned for Arizona. If anything, to be honest, I was somewhat impatient with Michigan friends who jumped ship for the winter to head for the sunny warmth of the Southwest. Certainly, I had no desire to spend months quarantined in a trailer park or a condo, but a ghost town a mile above sea level with cattle roaming through the yard? Vivid images filled my imagination, and while negotiations were in abeyance it seemed that all my happiness depended on spending winter in the high desert.

We went. We saw. We explored. I fell in love. In the spring we came home again. That was then, and this is now.

Home happiness has never kept us from having travel dreams. Over the years we made actual travels, too,. One September we flew to France, a place we had each loved for a long time, finally joining our separate loves of Paris and discovering together new regions to the south. Another year, in the spring, we drove across the Canadian Shield to Montreal, an exciting and cosmopolitan North American City it had long been my dream to visit. The Florida Everglades were wildly different from northern Michigan, as was the fascinating Gulf Coast, where we spent a couple of winters (yes, it must be admitted – winters away from Michigan) in the tiny “Old Florida” settlement of Aripeka. Coming home one spring from Florida, we passed through the vibrant beauty of Savannah, Georgia, which featured youth as well as venerable age. And twice we followed the course of the Mississippi from Illinois to the Twin Cities of Minnesota, crossing back and forth from one bank to the other, hungrily devouring every sight along every bend of the river.

Back at home, we relived adventures and dreamed of returning to this or that place, of relocating somewhere else for part of the year, and of exploring new places not yet experienced. The imaginary lives we have lived are beyond number. How many times was it love, and how often mere infatuation? And how does one tell, except over time?

As teasing, reluctant northern Michigan spring advances and retreats following a blessedly mild winter, I look forward to the joys of the unfolding season. Still, I must confess my heart was not fully here in the cold and snow just past. Again and again it returned to the scruffy, hardworking, struggling, unglamorous scenes of southeast Arizona: the ghost town, the playa, the cow town, the isolation, the open spaces, the cows and horses and mountains.

I wonder how I will feel when spring has fully arrived, when the woods are full of the sweet, ephemeral blooms of wildflowers, when it is time to dig and turn the garden and inhale the fragrance of living soil. Will those long-beloved sights and perfumes banish my longing for the dry, dusty high desert?

If not, can I possibly write a travelogue while going nowhere? Can I transport not only myself but also anyone who cares to read my words to another place? Can I convey anything of what enchanted me in a part of the country not known for wide appeal to tourists or snowbirds?

“Be thinkin’ about it,” the announcer kept telling to the young rodeo riders waiting their turn in the arena.

I’m thinkin’ about it.