humor, travel memories

Deserts, Forests, and Memory: Arizona and Pennsylvania in the 70s

If this is a travel blog why are you blathering about kittens, ziggurats, and palm trees?

This being my first post, I feel I should declare my intentions with this blog. If you choose to spend your precious life’s moments with me, what can you expect to find here?

Travel stuff, definitely, but perhaps not in the way you are used to reading it. Photos, notes about destinations, impressions, memories, histories, various place-related details, all these are fair game.

But here’s the thing. I love to travel and I’ve been blessed enough to do a fair amount of it in my life, so this blog will consist of what I hope will turn out to be interesting tidbits about the places I’ve seen and those that yet remain on my bucket list. But I’m also a writer, a thinker of sorts, and an idea factory. Because of that, I will at random times post about creativity, ancient history, cats, dogs, birds, rhinoceri, Tasmanian devils, my latest writing project, mosaics, sci fi television shows, bunions, pepperoni pizza, the zombie apocalypse, and ebola.

So, basically anything.

For the time being, however, I will try to restrain my wandering mind to the experience of travel.

Cowansville, Pennsylvania
Go East, Young Man? A home in Cowansville, Pennsylvania.

Back in the Day

Once upon a time, in the 1960s, a recently discharged Army veteran in his late twenties named Leon fled the frigid, economically depressed hamlet of his youth – Cowansville, Pennsylvania. He drove a Rambler across the country to  the sprawling desert metropolis of Phoenix, Arizona, where he promptly set up residence in a small apartment owned by an entrepreneurial Chinese man. Not only did he settle here because he wished to escape the brutal Pennsylvania winters, but he also because he desired to escape the eligible bachelorettes that would appear regularly on the sofa at precisely the time he returned from work, courtesy of his mother. Phoenix seemed a paradise to young Leon, who was welcomed by the clear, hot breeze, wide Western sky, and comely beer joints off 16th street.

“The summer heat didn’t bother me,” Leon proclaims, remembering.  “I would come home from work and cool down by taking a cold bath.” He then whiled away his evenings in the local bar, further cooling down with the aid of cheap beer.

One day Leon’s landlord stopped by his place and, wiping a glistening trail of sweat off the end of his nose, proclaimed, “Why don’t you turn the cooler on?”

“It is on! This is as cold as it gets in here,” Leon told him.

Whereupon the kindly Chinese landlord rushed off, looking embarrassed. Soon, the evaporated cooler was repaired and the thermostat dipped beneath triple digits for the first time since he had arrived in town.

“I just thought that’s how it was here,” he says. “I didn’t know any different.”

Aerial shot of the downtown Phoenix area in the 1960s.
Phoenix, Arizona in the 1960s.
Credit: Arizona100

Roma Avenue

Fast forward to the late 70s, when Leon’s family – wife, daughter (me!), and son – now lived in a brick ranch-style home off Roma avenue in central Phoenix. Here we children whiled away bucolic summer afternoons picking cholla cactus spears from our arms, lying limp with heat prostration in front of the television set, and splashing away in the cold, chlorine soaked waters of the neighborhood swimming pool. For some reason, my brother and I occasionally walked the three blocks to the pool without wearing shoes. This inevitably became a sort of exercise in agony as we skittered across sizzling hot asphalt streets and leaped upon whatever scraggly bit of grass was tough enough to survive the blast oven heat. There we would pause as the pain from our burning feet subsided and we steeled ourselves for the dash to the next tiny urban oasis until at last we reached the sparkling crystal waters of the city pool. It was those same sparkling crystal waters where I got my first look at an adult male penis. Granted, it was underwater, and for some bizarre reason the owner of said appendage had it wrapped up in an ace bandage, but still. One should mark such momentous occasions.

Now, where was I?

Saguaro in Sonoran desert of Arizona
Stately saguaro cacti in Arizona’s Sonoran desert.

Yes, life in Phoenix. It is very hot, and dry, and few green plants grow there. Scraggly bushes are called trees (manzanita). When you open the car door you are met with an explosion of face-singeing air. People who exercise at midday are routinely given psychiatric referrals. Adults terrorize children by reading histories of the time before air conditioning, when people sprayed down adobe walls and slept on the rooftops to cool off.  It is a place of fire ants and German cockroaches and water bugs, that most horrid of all creatures because they not only appear, in their three inch long dull brown glory, but they fly around at night like those demonic monkey men from the Wizard of Oz, only worse. The buzz of cicadas is a loud, ceaseless drone, and in July and August the oppressiveness of the heat splits apart under the onslaught of dust-laden monsoon winds. Temperatures drop, lightning splits the sky, and a torrent of hard rain dumps onto bare desert earth, filling arroyos with rushing brown water.


Summertime also brought an event of a different kind to our family. We put aside our popsicles, flip flops, and short shorts (it was the 70s, people), piled into our cab-over camper/Datsun pickup and rumbled across the country on that most American of activities – a road trip. I will rhapsodize about the joys of eating nothing but bologna sandwiches and drinking nothing but Carnation instant milk and staying in off the beaten path KOAs, and in some other post. Suffice it to say that after many miles, just when the camper smelled as ripe as a soccer player’s Dr. Scholl’s insert, we arrived in Cowansville, Pennsylvania, that most glorious abode of my father’s side of the family.

Flickr - Nicholas T - Coniferous
A rushing stream in the lush Pennsylvania countryside.

Here, I beheld a green-cloaked paradise unlike any I’d ever experienced. Plant life choked the forests – ferns and vines and leafy deciduous trees dozens of feet tall. Cool creek water tasted free of harsh-tasting minerals. Creaking wooden floors and the smell of mildew. Lightning bugs and deer bounding proud but frightened across grassy fields. Weenie roasts and distinctive eastern accents and wide steel gray rivers spanned by rusted, arched bridges. One lane country roads and sweet summer corn sold in carts. The sky peeked out through dappled leaves, and the air heavy and wet, clung to your skin like warm lotion. The houses here were multistory, with dark damp basements and bat-cluttered attics.

My cousins laughed at me for wearing a jacket in the evening cool, but that was all right, that was fine, because it was beautiful here, and our arrival was an event, and no one knew it, no one really understood it, but this became the definition of travel for me. Newness and wonder and sensory overload. Delight and open-heartedness, and the mountains in the distance, purple at the horizon but craggy, regal, and piercing the sky itself. Calling for elemental forces and creation, and me.