22 February 2008

When you were young

And sometimes you close your eyes
and see the place where you used to live
When you were young

It is rodeo season again in the place where I used to live. I never went to the rodeo, but as I wrote last year, I used to take my younger sisters to the parade. I remember getting downtown at pretty nearly the crack of dawn, and finding a good place on the curb from which to watch, probably around Church and Alameda. What constituted a skyline kept the sun from reaching us for quite some time, and that was nothing to cheer about. February at 2800 ft. above sea level can be significantly chilly, and the parade horses' breath steamed in the cold morning air.

On some level, it amazes me that my parents would entrust a 5-year-old and an 8-year-old to the care of a 13-year-old for several hours, including a bus ride home. But the world was a different place, as was the place where I used to live. We were given common sense instructions like "don't get into cars with strangers" and "stay out of the tunnel under Fifth Street," but the only time our activities were restricted was when murderer Charles Schmid escaped from prison. I wasn't allowed to walk three houses down the street alone until he'd been recaptured, our mothers were that petrified we'd be snatched off the street.

Few of the houses in our area had fences or walls, which allowed us plenty of room to roam during play time. Houses were small, yards were enormous, and there were plenty of vacant lots about. Unpaved roads and alleys were the highways we kids traveled in packs, en route to the park or Circle K. There were salt cedars and mesquite trees to climb, rocks to investigate. Electrical crews had little care for what they tossed away, and we found plenty of old glass insulators that had been left on the ground that we incorporated into the forts we built with old scrap wood. We avoided the greasewood bushes, which really did leave a horrible waxy residue on everything, and the cactus. All other activities would be suspended if someone proposed a game of kickball in the alley.

I felt tremendous nostalgia when I found the book Roxaboxen for my children: even decades after the events in that story, an open expanse of dirt and desert glass and rocks made a fine playground for my friends and me in the cool morning of a torrid desert summer. Once in awhile, we even found a sizeable hunk of copper ore, pretty, but not so unusual in an area where copper mining was a way of life.

The place we tended to avoid was the dry arroyo a couple of blocks down the street. There was something utterly creepy about it, a sense of loneliness and menace, and it frequently figured in my nightmares when I was a child. These washes served to channel the runoff of the sudden and violent rainstorms to which the desert is subject, and all of us knew someone who'd drowned in a flash flood. The arroyo that bisected our street was bounded by a church parking lot, a pretty house with a pomegranate tree (from which we periodically stole the fruit), a vacant lot, and a tiny house sitting far from the street shrouded in trees. Legend had it that place was haunted.

(Years later when I was back there visiting, I happened to fall into conversation with a man whose parents owned that house. "They never could figure out why kids didn't stop to trick-or-treat," he told me.)

It was years before my brother and I were allowed to have bicycles. Our father was the identification photographer for the police department for several years, and he'd seen one too many bike/car entanglements. But once I did get a bike, there was no stopping me. I was everywhere, a lunch and bottle of water packed in my basket. Sheer boredom would drive my brother and me up the road into the mountains, and lightning from a monsoon storm roaring over the same mountains would drive us home again.

The best and worst thing that ever happened was when I was given a free bus pass my senior year of high school because I was taking classes at two different high schools: only one had the AP class I wanted, and so I left my home school at 10 am for a 12:30 class at the school near downtown, and invariably ended up at the university or the artsy 4th Avenue district. I would stop into the art museum, the library, or the cathedral, or walk past the old convent where I'd gone to kindergarten. Once I ended up far enough west to hit the banks of the Santa Cruz river, a dry channel long since capped, and the wishing shrine that sat quietly, candles burning in all weather, all the time. There were no fences, no boundaries, no bit of barbed wire I wouldn't climb over to reach my objective. And when the time came to go to college, I realized the same held true: nothing could stop me from leaving a small desert town. I knew how to read a timetable, how to negotiate an airport, a train station, a subway. I had to wait a year from the moment I understood I could go until the time came that I was able to leave, and throughout that year, I climbed on the roof at night and watched the stars trace their path through the sky, each change in their position bringing me closer to that final fence.

I left a long time ago, and the place where I used to live changed. So did I. Overcrowded and overurbanized, it is now a monument to poor planning and that catchphrase of the 1970s, urban sprawl. My own planning isn't always perfect and my territory grows continuously as I travel my own road, off to see what I need to see, to do what I want to do, driven by a need to move that even I have difficulty understanding.

I return to the place where I used to live rarely now, usually only when the tug of nostalgia becomes unbearable, or I need to visit family. Sometimes, I just long to sit in the warm rain of summer or the cool and ancient dust of the mission. The mountains I remember in such sharp relief to an unbearably crystalline sky are more often shrouded in murk now, and the traffic crawls like the millipedes that used to slink up from the dirt after a storm. In so many ways, I am more grounded now than I ever was at 2800 feet above sea level, and it's not a sensation with which I am easy. The air was thinner there, but easier to breathe, the sky more wide open, and once I'd made good my escape, I recognized just what I'd left behind. I regret the loss of what I treasured there, but the journey continues to be more than worthwhile.

Go listen to some good music: "When You Were Young" from the album Sam's Town by The Killers.

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