It was like a fierce punch in the stomach. Only worse.
I hadn’t driven the road to Douglas in over three weeks, so I wasn’t expecting it. But today, I headed toward the College, and when I came out of the mountains, my eyes cut to the northeast, and there it was: the fire.
I know a fire has been raging in the Chiricahuas for about five weeks now. I see the pictures on the nightly news. Still, I was unprepared.
So it punched me, hard.
I screamed when I saw it. I screamed so much I had to pull over, and then I moaned. I moaned like a woman who had just found her child dead in the streets. I screamed and moaned until I had almost no voice left and my throat was raw.
Then I sat. Breathing, breathing. Eventually I could go on.
It’s a terrible thing to see a place you love dearly in the midst of disaster. My thought flew to people in the Midwest who have been watching their towns destroyed by tornadoes. In some way, I knew exactly how they felt.
No, the Chiricahuas aren’t my home. But I have been going to those mountains for nearly forty years. I have been in many of her canyons, wandered her streams, slept snugly in her valleys and hills. I’ve seen the trogon, the gray fox, and the coatimundi. I’ve picnicked, swum, hiked. I’ve taken students and visitors to see her beauty. I’ve lunched in the café in Portal and spent time in Paradise.
And now those places are burning up.
Firefighters have been there since shortly after the fire’s inception. It is human caused, though how it actually began is unknown. A cigarette tossed from a car window? A hot muffler on brittle, dry grass? Arson? Any of these could be the reason. Many locals, however, blame migrants for leaving a campfire when they fled the Border Patrol. This rumor remains, and it grows.
One resident is even quoted as saying, “To say that illegal aliens didn’t set the fire is like saying that Neil Armstrong didn’t walk on the moon.”
Set the fire. Not even started the fire. This man explained that in order to escape the Border Patrol, a group of migrants started the fire to distract their pursuers so they could run away. No matter there is no record of a chase, and no matter the Border Patrol didn’t report the fire.
All other recent fires  in Southern Arizona (seven major ones burning right now) have been started by US citizens. One was started by someone  out target shooting and another by US military training exercises. A third was started by a man who was welding.
At this point I am less concerned about how the fire started than I am how it will be put out. What matters is a place I love is being destroyed, more and more acres every day, every minute in fact. Over 80,000 acres have burned, and it’s only a few miles from the sweet community of Paradise. Residents have just been ordered evacuated.
Like the residents of Portal and Paradise, I could not bear it if these towns are destroyed.

Barefoot Beachwalk

I just returned from a walk on the beach, barefoot. I tossed on my one-dollar Thriftstore Beach Dress, slipped on my flip flops, and hit the sand. Pulled off the flip flops. Walked right at the shoreline so the incoming tide would wash over my feet. Delicious.

I decided to go barefoot partly because the sand feels so great. Also, I sink further into the sand when I’m barefoot, so I have to push a little harder when I walk, and I figure that will help tone my calves. And walking in the sand helps to slough off dead skin and calluses from my feet.

Power walking the beach is a lot harder when you’re barefoot because you really have to watch where you’re going. It’s no fun at all to land on a beached sea slug or jellyfish, and it’s also no fun to land on some kind of spikey shell. So I spent a lot of time gazing at the ground.

Because I was so focused on each step, I noticed much more beach flotsam than I usually do. First, of course, were all the shells. Shells and pieces of shell litter the beaches in Kino. There was also quite a bit of glass and I scored three pieces – green, clear, and blue.

The sound of the shells was beautiful. Tide was low, and the water slid gently onto the beach and back. With the water’s movement, small shells came and went, clinkking against other shells, tinkling like a fairy’s wind chime.

Of course there were a few slugs, and I was so glad I didn’t step on them! And dead fish, or to be more accurate, their spines and heads. Every dead fish that littered the beach had been picked clean by gulls and vultures. There is a mysterious beauty in the remains of a fish, so I stopped to photograph several, looking for the right angle, wishing the light were a little better.

One stretch of beach was littered with what seemed to be shredded plastic. It looked like plastic and it felt like plastic, but it looked as though it had been put through a paper shredder. Sometimes there were single strands, just a few inches long, but mostly there were large wads, the strands all wrapped up in one another with a little seaweed thrown in for color.

And the seaweed, of course. Some brown, some green, all fun to poke in just to see if there’s a hidden clam.

Then I hit the party area. Empty Coke bottles. Halves of limes squeezed dry. A few straws and plastic cups. From the looks of it, the party had been small, maybe an intimate rendezvous, two lovers with a bottle of rum and a few Cokes.

But there was one unusual thing. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out what it was. And of course, when I did find out, I felt about as intelligent as a flat tire.

I found several of these: a wooden stick maybe eight inches long, and on one end of it was something the shape of a three-inch-long clam shell. The shelled part was fuzzy. Each one looked like it could be a tom tom of a drum set, but the things were too heavy and the stick was too short. I picked one up.

I wandered back from the beach to find two men heavily into their evening happy hour and kvetching session. The night’s topic was the pinche medical establishment (last night it was the pinche environmentalists). One was complaining about how those irrational dermatologists want us to protect ourselves from the sun. I wandered into the foray and plopped myself down on an empty chair.

“Either of you know what this is?”

“Don’t want to burst your bubble, Emilie, but it’s a snack. Actually, the remains of a snack. They sell them on the pier – mangoes on a stick.”

A “duh!” moment. Of course. The clamshell appearance was the mango pit. On a stick.

I sat a few moments more, until the conversation drifted back to the pinche medical establishment, then took my leave.

The mango-pit-on-a-stick is planted in my garden. Think it will transform itself into a mango tree?

The Sea

The sea. Calm, turquoise, sunlight bouncing off small waves that roll in. The sea. Angry, gray, waves beaching shells, small fish, plastic.

The sea at Bahía de Kino is a study in contrast, from day to night, tranquil to irate, glistening to gloomy. Each day seems to begin the same – soft dawn and a quiet sea. But then, anything can happen.

The occasional storm rolls in. Once a storm came across from the Baja. Dark terrifying clouds built, forming a monstrous wall, and moved steadily across the water. It was so terrorizing that locals fled.

In the fall of 2009, Hurricane Jimena hit San Carlos, less than one hundred miles to the south of Kino. Although the sea rose here, pouring over the seawalls, not a drop of water fell. In the aftermath, the beach was covered with a ten foot swath of shells, nearly a foot deep in some areas. As I walked the beach, I poked around to find shellfish that were still living and tossed them back into the water. From the other direction came a woman and her three young children. They were poking around and gathering the living shellfish.

The family was delighted that they were going to have a good dinner that night.  I, on the other hand, was enchanted, knowing I’d spend days doing the best shelling one can imagine.

Kino’s wind usually comes from the water. Humidity levels stay low, comfortable. Then overnight the humidity can rise so high that in the morning everything is damp, even wet. I rinse the salty dew from my car. But winds can come from the east, from the desert, dropping the humidity to single digits. Then temperatures soar until the wind shifts again, bringing the cooling ocean breezes.

Although dawn is generally clear and crisp, once I awoke to heavy fog. I couldn’t see a quarter mile down the beach, and even the streetlight-type lighting system here had its lights haloed in fog. I stood on the beach watching it change. Pieces of the pier surfaced; parts of houses came into view. The little island about a mile from shore, Isla Alcatraz, slowly emerged.

Every day in Bahía de Kino is the same: beautiful. Every day in Bahía de Kino is different. The sea controls it all, throwing beauty in my face, lulling me with sameness, shocking me with a singular moment.

Walking Kino

Bahía de Kino – Viejo. Took a long walk through Viejo today and only touched one small part of it. This town has fewer than 16,000 residents, and some of them live in Nuevo. Viejo is the original part, almost undeveloped to “first world” standards. And that is why I love it so.

The town is full of cement block buildings, a few old ramshackle stick-built ones, and an entire barrio of tarpaper shacks. Most of those shacks lie on undeveloped property, and if the shack owner installs water and lives there a certain amount of time, she or he can claim title to the land. Then the owner will often begin to build a real house.

Construction moves slowly, though. First, of course, there’s the problem of paying for construction. This is true everywhere but especially so in these incredibly poor neighborhoods. There’s another reason for slow construction: taxes. To my understanding, the property owner doesn’t have to pay taxes on a house or other building until it is completed. Completed, then, becomes a very vague term.

Many houses have a room with a missing wall. Or, it may have the walls but one room with no roof. Or there could be pillars towering above the structure indicating a second floor is coming. Of course, there may be no stairway to that one-day second floor, but the pillars tell the tax man to back off.

Because of lack of cash and tax laws, Kino Viejo is filled with unfinished houses. Many of the unfinished ones are fenced and have lovely gardens. And every one of them has a dog.

Dogs are ubiquitous in Mexico, but because I spend so much time here in Kino, this seems to be the dog capital of Mexico. Dogs in the gardens. Dogs wandering the street. Dogs sleeping under a car. Dogs roaming the beach. Dogs, dogs, dogs.

Most of the confined dogs will sit up and take notice when you walk by. Some will bark. But almost every one of those dozing on the streets take no notice of humans. Occasionally a dog will approach, but it’s rare.

Many Kino dogs are street dogs or beach dogs. They have no real home and depend on trash cans, beached fish, or the occasional softie gringo to help him out. Many are ill. They carry that lean and hungry look.

But walking the streets this morning was a delight. Everyone I passed tossed out a “buenos días” or an “hola” to me. Women in gardens looked up from their watering to wish me a good day. Men nodded and spoke, children laughed and waved.

I made a quick stop at the farmácia, stopped in the tattoo parlor to see if José was in town, and lingered over an iced coffee and chat with Edgar at the only gringo-oriented place in all of Viejo, La Hacienda, a motel and restaurant. On the way back I ran into Manny, one of the groundskeepers here. “Hola Emilie!” he shouted. “¿Cómo estás?” I gave him a hug though he was hot and sweaty. Kino Viejo is that kind of place.

New Toes and Geraldine

After a long day in Sierra Vista, I headed to the little place in the mall where I like to go for a pedicure. Amazingly, late on a Saturday afternoon, there was an empty chair, waiting just for me.

I chose my nail color and climbed into the massage chair, settling in with the rollers against my spine. A young Vietnamese man sat on the stool in front of me, giving me a shy smile. His name was Danh,  and his English was minimal, broken, and heavily accented. I handed him the green glittery polish I’d chosen.

I leaned against the chair, its rollers moving down and up my back, then squeezing and pulsing down and up my spine as my feet soaked in hot swirling water. Closed my eyes. Heaven.

Danh took my right foot out of the water and began diligently trimming my toenails. Then my left.

I opened my eyes and saw the big screen TV on the wall in front of me, sound off. It was tuned to Fox news, with the announcer’s words running across the bottom of the screen. I groaned inwardly.

Danh worked on my cuticles.

Images flashed across the TV screen. Hostages being released. Libyan rebels retaking towns. Tornadoes dashing across Georgia and Mississippi. Republican considering a presidential candidacy. Michele Bachman! Haley Barbour! Sarah Palin! I closed my eyes.

Danh filed my callused heels.

A few minutes later I opened my eyes again to see a photo of Geraldine Ferraro on the screen. I froze. The words sliding across the screen told me she’d died. Tears began to stream down my cheeks.

Danh exfoliated my legs with lavender scented sugar scrub.

1984. I was thirty-eight. Walter Mondale announced that his running mate would be Geraldine Ferraro. I watched it happen, live, on TV, weeping. “Finally!” I screamed into the desert surrounding my Tucson house. “Finally! Women are human beings! Anything can happen now!”

Danh massaged lotion into my legs and feet.

1986. I had moved to Kansas City. Geraldine Ferraro was coming to town, and I had a ticket to see and hear this woman who had smashed through a major glass ceiling.

I hopped into my pickup truck and headed to the hotel where she was speaking. I was caught in a traffic jam as I moved toward the nearby parking garage, and the sidewalks in front of the hotel were filled with protesters. Some spilled onto the street. Because it was a warm evening, I had my the driver’s side window down. One of the protesters, a woman dressed in black with her face painted stark white, stuck her head in the window and began screaming at me about Geraldine being a baby killer and a pawn of the devil for her pro-choice stance.

I told the woman to remove her head, but she only screamed louder. Slowly, I began to roll up my window. “You wouldn’t dare!”

“Try me,” I said, hoping she would, but she pulled her head out just before the window would have trapped it.

After parking, I went into the hotel, walked through the lobby and was about to enter the ballroom where Geraldine would speak. Walking down the hallway toward me was the Woman Herself. It was just to the two of us. She smiled warmly, thanking me for coming and reaching out to shake my hand.

“No,” I said. “Thank you. You have opened the way for us all.”

She gave me her wide grin and walked into the ballroom.

The massage chair shut off. I opened my eyes, punched the On button, and wiped my tears. Fox news was doing a story about what great pals Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin were, sharing stories and common political stands.

Danh applied the sealer coat to my newly glitzed toes.