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Excerpt: 'Going Back to Bisbee'

Author, poet and university professor Richard Shelton uses a trip from Tucson to Bisbee to tell the story of the land. Along the way, he also reflects on his life in the desert.

Excerpt from Chapter 1:

It is July 20, 1989, early afternoon, monsoon season in the Sonoran Desert, and I am going back to Bisbee. As I drive east out of Tucson, the temperature is 106 degrees and the humidity must be in the forties. Huge white thunderheads are building up in the south, drawing moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, but they don't look very promising yet. Too white and too far apart. Between them the sky is cerulean under a fierce sun. The heat doesn't seem to have anything to do with the sun. It comes up from the ground and just hangs there, almost solid. Perhaps the clouds mean a storm later in the afternoon, or perhaps they will just drift north like idle promises. No blue-black horizon yet. No thunder. But the breeze is from the southeast, what there is of it, and a monsoon can move in quickly at this time of year, especially late in the afternoon.

The desert could certainly use a storm right now to cool things off and lower the humidity. I am reminded of what somebody said about a fundamentalist fire-and-brimstone preacher. "It's not the heat so much as the humility." I've been on the road only a few minutes and already my backside is melting into the car seat. The sane part of me says, "Stop! Roll up the windows and turn on the air conditioner!" The insane, masochistic part of me answers, "No! You will be leaving the desert floor soon, climbing out of this furnace and into the rangeland where it will be cooler. Don't be a pantywaist. I engage in these dialogues with myself about the air conditioner quite often. They have as much to do with the history of the van I am driving as they do with my own warped point of view.

The van bug bit me a few years ago when Rosalie Sorrels, the folk singer from Idaho, came to visit us, driving her elderly van which she had named Mabel Dodge. Rosalie and Mabel Dodge had been batting around the country doing concerts. In fact, Rosalie had been batting around the country so much that she was known as "The Travelin' Lady" from the title of one of her best known songs. The romantic notion of a home on wheels attracted me at once. Why couldn't I get a van and bat around the country doing whatever it is I do, and I wasn't exactly sure what that was, but the idea felt good. So my wife and I started looking for a used van. I didn't want any furniture or fancy trappings, just room to stretch out in. With a sleeping bag and an ice chest I would be fine.

And soon, on one of her trips to West Texas to visit her family, my wife found the almost-perfect van. She called me from Ft. Worth.

"Happy birthday. I bought you a van."

"Great! Wonderful! What color is it?"

"It's the color of your eyes." My wife can be a little romantic herself sometimes, especially when she has just driven a hard bargain.

"Good lord! I don't want a red, white and blue van.

"No, it's blue all over, inside and out."

It was a 1978 Dodge with one previous owner and a considerable number of miles on its odometer. It had front seats and a bench across the back and was otherwise devoid of furniture. But it was gloriously, decadently carpeted-floor, walls, and ceiling-with a deep shag, light blue carpet. Sleeping in it, I was soon to find out, was like sleeping in a blue womb. Otherwise its personality was masculine. I named it Blue Boy.

Other than a Rickenbacker owned by my grandparents, which was an elegant antique when I was a child, Blue Boy is the only automobile for which I have ever felt genuine affection, and we have had many adventures together from Canada to the tip of Baja California and from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Blue Boy is badly faded now, like my eyes, from years of Arizona sun, and he has a gash near the rear where my wife backed him into a paloverde outside our garage. (When asked how it happened, she said, "God moved a tree," and she sticks to that story.) He is a little loose in the joints and has many rattles as the result of some of the worst roads on the North American Continent, but he continues to purr along like the perfect traveling machine he is.

But Blue Boy had one peculiarity which was linked to the fact that he had lived all his previous life in West Texas, although I didn't make the connection until years later. His motor ran cool enough, even with the air conditioner on, until the outside temperature rose above one hundred degrees. Then he began to overheat when the air conditioner was on. From the depths of my ignorance of automobile mechanics, I assumed that Blue Boy's engine was not powerful enough to take on the added burden of the air conditioner at such high temperatures, and I simply got used to driving without the air conditioner most of the time, and always when the outside temperature was very high. I took a certain macho pride in being able to tough it out," as my father used to say, and had a tendency to sneer at the occupants of other vehicles as they rolled down the highway all sealed up in their air-conditioned capsules.

This went on for several years until last summer when we took a trip from Tucson to the West Coast, during which my wife wept, complained, and threatened to faint nearly all the way to Los Angeles. She flew home and announced that she was never going anywhere in Blue Boy again in the summer. My wife is resolute. When she makes up her mind, she makes up her mind; and when she issues an ultimatum there is no getting around it.

The situation called for drastic action. So I decided to take Blue Boy to a mechanic to see if anything could be done about his peculiarity. The upshot was that my diagnosis had been wrong. Blue Boy's engine was quite powerful enough-how could I have doubted? But his radiator was all clogged up, and his circulatory system couldn't cool the engine properly. His radiator was clogged because his previous owner had put West Texas water in it, and West Texas water is loaded with minerals and alkali and God knows what, causing deposits to build up to the point that the radiator was functioning at less than half its normal capacity. I gave Blue Boy a new radiator and his peculiarity disappeared. Now he can go up the steepest hill in the Southwest in August and never overheat.

But I am a creature of habit and stubborn in my own way. I have driven for so many years in the desert without an air conditioner that I still rarely use it unless I have passengers-one passenger in particular. I have the notion that in order to see the landscape properly one must experience the temperature as well. I agree with one of my dogs who keeps telling me, "What good is it to travel if you don't slow down enough to smell the country?" But right now, as my van pulls away from the sunset and my bottom slowly melts into the driver's seat, I would like to see and smell and feel a good slap-dash Southern Arizona monsoon storm. I think Blue Boy would enjoy it too.

I love the Sonoran monsoons when they finally arrive. They are usually brief, violent, and incredibly dramatic, with enough thunder, lightning, and harddriven rain to make life exciting, even precarious. After the clouds build up into great white cathedrals, as they are trying to do now but without much success, the desert turns suddenly dark and still. The light is dim, green, and eerie. Everything seems to be holding its breath, waiting. The air becomes languid, palpable with humidity. Low thunder begins to roll around in the distance, almost comforting after the unnatural silence. Then somebody up there starts flipping light switches. Enormous panels of sheet lightning go on behind the clouds, hold for a few seconds, then go off. The effect is totally theatrical, as if some wizard lighting technician were playing bravura pieces on the control board offstage, never quite repeating the same brilliant display twice.

Then all notions of theatricality are destroyed and things get serious. The entertainment is over, but the show has just begun. And if you are in it, that is, if you are out in it and cannot get out of it, you will never forget it. Suddenly there is a wrenching, shrieking explosion as a lightning bolt connects with the ground nearby. It sizzles, pops, and sputters. The air smells strange, pungent with ozone. Another bolt strikes, and another. The desert has become an exploding mine field. Thunder breaks directly overhead, so loud and close you can almost see it, as if a huge chasm had opened in the clouds. The vibration makes you duck and nearly knocks you off your feet. Reverberations rattle away in the distance. More bolts of lightning strike-to the left, to the right, straight ahead. The temperature is plummeting. It can drop more than thirty degrees in a few minutes. In the flashes of lightning you see paloverde and ocotillo lashing in the wind, which seems to come from all directions at once. Cottontails huddle at the base of a greasewood, ears down, noses twitching, black eyes huge and shining with terror. A young javelina, the peccary or wild boar of the Sonoran Desert, panics, breaks from shelter, and runs wildly down the arroyo, snorting at every step. The sharp crack of thunder, the spluttering pop of lightning, and the screaming of the wind are reaching unbearable levels. The world has gone mad.

From Going Back to Bisbee, by Richard Shelton, copyright 1992 The Arizona Board of Regents. Reprinted by permission of the University of Arizona Press.

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Richard Shelton