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The Hawk's Nest

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The lure of the desert is not so luring

I’ve always had a curiosity about the American Southwest. I like to experience dramatic and harsh environments but haven’t had any of those opportunities in the southwestern deserts.

Therefore, when the opportunity came a few weeks ago to go to a conference in Phoenix, I was quite excited.

I knew it would be hot but still, it was an international conference so I was thinking my dress should be a little dressier than what it generally is here at home. My wife kept saying, “It’s Phoenix in June. Take shorts and sandals.”

The conference was to last a week so I finally was convinced to take a couple pairs of shorts thinking I might get to use them in the evenings after the meetings.

All the arrangements were made with comments like, “Boy, that will be hot” or, “Phoenix in June?!”

Other than a few trips to see my brother in Los Angeles I’ve never been close to this destination. I’ve always found my harsh environs in the mountains both here and in Canada. Well, there was a trip to London a few years ago and another to Rome. Therefore, huge throngs of city dwellers with a good mix of tourists and severe Rocky Mountain storms, both summer and winter, have, until now, been my most threatening experiences. Still, I’ve wondered what extreme heat is like.

As planned, I left home in North Idaho early on a Monday morning. I checked the thermometer in the car as I got in: 42 degrees. On the radio, they predicted snow at four thousand feet. It was early June and I was ready for some warmer weather. About six hours later I walked off the Southwest flight into 104 degrees, no breeze and shade that didn’t seem to make much difference.

Outside, where I was to catch my shuttle, was open but completely shaded. As soon as I felt the heat, the clothes I had put on for the low forties felt like a sweat suit and the moisture running down my face was not rain out of clear, Arizona skies. Add to that the jostling of the crowds, the din of thousands of cars and buses, plus the stench of their exhausts and I knew I wasn’t in Athol anymore.

The driver of my shuttle told me the heater of the three-year-old minivan we were in had never been turned on.

“I don’t like heated air. I don’t think it is good for you,” he said over the noise of the air conditioner.

I was delivered to my hotel, where taking the five steps from the van to the door, all in the shade, nearly took me to my knees. In my room, I changed into shorts and sandals. Asking at the desk where the Wig Wam Resort was, she replied, “It’s two miles away, but on the same street. Do you want me to call a cab?”

“Oh no, not for just two miles. I walk farther than that to get my mail,” I said.

I filled a water bottle, put on my straw hat, and went out into that harsh environment I was so curious about. It was a busy street, but after a few blocks I noticed no one was walking on the sidewalk. At about the same point, I noticed the other side of the street was shaded by palm trees along with several other varieties of flora that I’ve never seen in Idaho. In spite of the shade, the sidewalk was just as uninhabited. I crossed at the next corner.

By now it was about 1 pm in Phoenix, Arizona and I was walking on a concrete sidewalk next to a black asphalt road. I made the two miles in a time of just over three water bottles. I decided to do that only in the early morning or late evening for the rest of the week.

The walk in my new sandals without socks, causing a tender blister on my toe, gave me a personal understanding of “blistering heat.” Since I was at a resort with golf, tennis and several other sports, I figured there would be a place to buy a pair of socks somewhere. In my search, I ran into a friend I was expecting to see who knew where to go and walked with me. We passed several tennis courts that were not in use. I mentioned it and was reminded it was two o’clock in Phoenix, “Oh yeah, a bit brutal for tennis.”

In the shop I found a pair of crew socks that looked like they would work. Right away, the sales staff said I couldn’t wear crew sox with sandals. My friend concurred. “Call your wife and see what she says,” he advised. I didn’t. It was becoming obvious everyone’s “dork meter” was more sensitive than mine was. I found a pair of low socks that didn’t (only since I really needed them) max out the meter. It was another lesson for an Idaho country boy in the city.

After checking the week’s schedule, it was clear the only part of the desert I was going to experience was the heat. “But it’s a dry heat,” I kept hearing. Well, so is my oven at home, I thought.

That evening, after dark, I was getting ready to walk back to my hotel when I ran into a friend from Seattle. She said it was snowing on Snoqualamie Pass and they needed to get the plows out again. Already that was far out of my reality. I walked outside and started down the drive to the street. A few steps from the door I turned and went back in and asked for a ride. It was still as hot as the afternoon.

That was the start of a week at an excellent conference in a harsh environment I never managed to fully embrace, no matter how hard I tried. For this compulsive outdoors guy it was a week of indoors, both day and night. When I did brave the outdoors, I heard bird songs that I’d never heard before, saw salamanders scrambling around the flowers and manicured gardens that are not a part of my woods, all able to thrive in the Arizona sun in a way I could not. I never wore the dress clothes I took and only walked to the conference before 7 am. On the other side of that, the ride sent for me each day was a brand new Town Car, kind of stylin’ for an Athol boy.

On Saturday, inspired by several excellent seminars and workshops and after seeing many old friends and making new ones, I flew over the Grand Canyon, Hells Canyon and the Salmon River Canyon before landing in mid 60s temperature back in the Inland Northwest.

I still have that curiosity about the desert, outside the city, but maybe it should wait for a winter trip.

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Author info

Ernie Hawks Ernie Hawks is a former theater director who has branched into the creative fields of writing and photography. He lives in a cabin in Athol with his lovely wife Linda, and feeds the birds in his spare time.

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