Yuma and I have had a complex, love/hate relationship. I’ve spent a total of twelve years living there — first from age ten to twenty, then for a couple of years in my mid-twenties. Now I’m gone, most likely for good, and while I’m not exactly sorry about it, I’ll never forget or regret my life there. I see Yuma as a place where the future of Arizona is being defined, for better or worse. This future looms over the lower Colorado Valley. Underneath it flit the ghosts of an Arizona past that will never be completely eradicated.
My first years in Yuma were largely about getting to know Arizona as a state. I had come fresh from Missouri, from a college town, and my world had been full of a strange mixture of the Ozark rural and the world of academia (my dad had been a professor at the university): spelunking, fishing, poetry readings, and piano and French lessons. Our journey fit nicely into the historical framework of western migration; our covered wagon was a white van crammed to the brim with all of our worldly possessions (including three cats and one dog). We endured some of the same hardship those pioneers of earlier days experienced, such as the lack of air conditioning and the need to find new routes when our maps led us astray. But, by far the worst, to me, was leaving everything I had known and loved to that point for a place so strange that it might as well have been on Mars. There were so many things that I didn’t know about the great southwestern desert, and the things I discovered on our trek only disconcerted me. Things didn’t improve from there — I learned quickly that there were no caves, no wooded hillsides, no trout streams, no limestone cliffs full of fossils; no one bothered to study French. In fact, there were kids at my school who could only speak Spanish, which I had never heard beyond ‘Sesame Street’ – kids with strange beautiful names like Ovidio and Yesenia.
I didn’t like Arizona, and I kept not liking it until I went camping with someone who knew the pleasures of the desert. I learned to taste mesquite beans and jojoba nuts. I saw bighorn sheep, and scrambled on igneous rocks in the canyons of the Kofa mountains. The open, lonely places became exciting to me; the river, too, tired and wans by the time it reaches Yuma, but still majestic in a pale sort of way. I learned to look at birds, and the intense pleasure of sleeping outside with no tent, directly under the arid-black, stars filled sky. I began to realize that southwest Arizona, Yuma in particular, exists as a great nexus of pathways, both in geography and in time. It is a land of boundaries. The US/Mexico boundary is the most obvious, perhaps; even beyond the corrugated metal fence, it announces its presence through Border Patrol trucks and helicopters. The river gives up its last wandering freedom near Yuma, and the state of Arizona grudgingly yields to California. Canals divide greater Yuma into distinct segments and mark the spirit transplant of the Colorado into the city. The canals teem with life in their own right. I was once walking along the Wellton-Mohawk Bypass, and I saw a gigantic turtle surge from its depths, grab at something at the surface, and disappear just as mysteriously as it had appeared in the first place. Yuma marks several ecological boundaries as well. The saguaro cactus, symbol of Arizona, is found almost exclusively east of the Colorado River. They flourish on our side, and vanish on the other. Perhaps, like me, they are a bit intimidated by the craziness of California.
The terrain and biology of Yuma is defined by the curious juxtaposition of uber-dry desert and abundant water of the river. Birds, in particular, show great diversity because of this. In a single afternoon, you can go from desert mountains, and observe tough little birds like phainopeplas and verdin, to the riparian areas where you can see cormorants, coots, and ducks, and look into the deep, marshy sedge for the Yuma rail. In addition, there are the irrigated fields as well, which are the grounds for a number of slender-legged waders. Great Blue Herons lift their way into the sky with rhythmic wing-jerks, and egrets patrol the fields. Egrets are originally from Asia, and used to be exotic accidentals in the Yuma and Imperial valleys. In the last few decades they have thrived here, until now, they are as commonplace as doves. Nevertheless, they will never be beneath notice.
My one abiding image of Yuma is this: I stand on Prison Hill, next to the watchtower for the Yuma Territorial Prison, which at one time was full of murderous outlaws and hard-core thieves. And, for a brief time, high school students. In 1910, the school board needed to appropriate extra room for its high school, and ended up renting space from the Territorial Prison. This later led to the nickname ‘Criminals’ for Yuma High School students. I am particularly glad that Yuma High School embraced the nickname rather than trying to gloss over the past in such a way, since I would not otherwise be able to tell people with pride that I am a Criminal. It’s a lot more exciting than being a Wildcat, especially when people don’t know whether I mean an Arizona Wildcat or a Kentucky Wildcat. There’s only one place a Criminal is from – Yuma! But I digress. In my vision, I am standing next to these adobe walls on a hill overlooking the Colorado River at sunset. The water reflects the lurid red of the sky like a bloodstain amid the marshlands, and I see the ghosts of steamboats gliding up the main bed. Below me, in those water flats, are Snowy egrets and White-faced ibises bedded down or standing, totem-like, accepting the Colorado as they would the Yellow River or the Nile as an ancient, abiding home. More of them fly in from the west, ready to settle in after a long day in the fields, and they come so low over the hill that I am standing right among them as they pass. I can see the light shining through their wings and the sounds of their labor as they crest and then coast down into the marsh flats below, where they meet their flock mates with happy sounds. I am happy too, because I know that however much the city grows, whether they build a refinery here or not, indeed, no matter what the future, that this will not go away. There will be a time every year in Yuma when I may stand on this hill and watch the past unfold into the future on thousands of strong wings.