I am a creature of the desert. I grew up in Albuquerque, a place which, among my high school cohort, we dubbed “the Wasteland” and “the Land of Entrapment”. All of us aspired to leave, as all suburban kids do, chafing at the limited nightlife, the incestuous social group, the hopeless dullness of a place grown overly familiar. We all aspired to leave, never realizing the extent to which, even in leaving, you’d take a piece of the wasteland with you. Like a tree growing in rocky ground, the environment you grow up in shapes you, leaves indelible marks.
I was one of those troubled goth teens, disdaining sunlight in favor of drinking Denny’s coffee at 2am. It wasn’t until I moved to the east coast and suffered through my first bitterly cold, SAD-haunted winter that I realized how much I love sunlight, how much I’d taken nice weather for granted.
New Mexico has, on average, something like 360 sunny days per year.
Many have a vision of the desert as a parched emptiness, sand dunes stretching to the horizon, but my desert is full of life. The plants tend toward scrubby and prickly, but their blossoms are all the prettier for being hard-won. They are frugal, taking advantage of every drop of water that comes to them. The desert teaches you that the world is finite, that abundance cannot be taken for granted — but also that when the rain falls, you make the most of it.
In the desert, you spread out. There aren’t enough resources for anything to pack too closely together: plants, animals, people. Everything’s self-sufficient. The beauty of the desert is the beauty of open spaces, of the horizon stretching off into infinity. Desert creatures enjoy solitude and quiet and are comfortable being alone with their thoughts, and though I’ve become a city person, that too is a way I’ve kept the desert inside my head.
A lifetime ago, when I needed to think, I would drive out into the middle of the desert at night. A short hop on the freeway, a few random exits and turns, and I’d find myself on an empty, unlit road, well away from the light pollution of the city. I’d lay on the roof of the car and stare up into the vast blanket of stars until the feeling of insignificance began to file smooth the rough, ragged edges of my heart.
Fast-forward. I left that self behind like a discarded skin and moved to New York City, where I found that losing-myself feeling again in the unending, strangely-orderly chaos of city life. I found a new favorite solitude, the solitude of city anonymity, finding that I loved the comfort of being steeped in, yet not beholden to, the crush of humanity.
I miss the desert, in a way, but I’m not tempted to go back to it. It is the repository of too many former selves. Anyhow, there’s no need to return when you carry the essence of a place inside your own skin.
When Dominic and I moved to San Francisco two years ago, I’d only been here for a few brief visits. I had no clear sense of it as a place. I had a vision in my head of Platonic California-ness, based on half-remembered childhood vacations to Disneyland: sunshine, beaches, movie stars in broad-brimmed hats. When I talked about our impending move, people kept exclaiming how much I’d love it here, how the weather was so nice year-round.
My definition of perfect weather is a clear, hot day in mid-summer. The sky is blue and cloudless, so expansive you feel like you could fall into it. The dry air — in the 80s or even warmer, by preference — is stirred by a slight breeze, but never a colder wind. It’s the right weather for an excursion to the beach, for wearing long, flowy skirts and sandals, for feeling the sunshine on your bare shoulders.
You feel yourself expand, sweat opening your pores, shedding the protective layers worn the rest of the year, feeling the warm air on knees, armpits, midriff. You feel like eating only lightly: watermelon, iced tea, berries. You are suffused with a sense of wellbeing, of optimism. You feel relaxed yet energized, not curled-in on yourself the way you feel in winter. The long days fill you with a sense of rightness, as if there will be all the time in the world to do all the things you want to do. And at night you sleep with the sheets thrown off and a fan blowing on your skin, the white noise and the caress of the air causing you to sleep deeply and have vivid dreams.
I am a child of summer: born at the end of July, when the weather is nicest, when it seems the perfect summer days can go on forever. The tempestuous spring is a memory; the sudden chills of autumn are not yet on the horizon. It’s no coincidence that my sun sign, Leo, is a fire sign, its governing celestial body not a planet but the sun, Sol, our own personal star. Sometimes when I sit in the sun I can imagine myself as a plant, my leaves drinking the sunlight like honey, all of myself, down to my bones, uncurling and stretching to be a little closer to that light and that warmth. I close my eyes and turn my face to the sun, and in those moments I understand how some civilizations worshipped the sun as a god.
But I was telling you about San Francisco.
We moved in July, driving cross-country with a stop in New Mexico. My mother and I drove through New Mexico and Arizona and southern California in 110-degree weather, eating only fast food for lunch because we didn’t want to turn off the car for any length of time with the two cats in the backseat.
Our first apartment here was in the Mission, in SF proper, a neighborhood chosen because we knew people who lived there and it was an easy commute to Dominic’s office and it seemed like the place to be.
That’s when I learned about San Francisco in the summer, about the fog, about the cold winds that blew in from the ocean. I learned that “the weather is mild year-round” meant not only that winter wouldn’t be too cold but that summer, my beloved summer, would be practically nonexistent. If you define summer as “being able to leave the house without a sweatshirt”, those days are rare, here, very rare, as short-lived and precious as the perfect two weeks of spring in New York City.
That was the year without a summer, and it was not an easy one. Remembering it now, it all runs together into a montage of disappointment and misery: my homesickness, the isolation of working from home on irregular freelance contracts, all the ways San Francisco wasn’t what I had hoped or thought it would be. And on top of all of that, the wrongness, the indignity of having to wear sweatshirts in August, a disappointment that I have neither forgotten nor forgiven.
Things changed, of course, as things have a habit of doing: I got involved in some communities, made some friends, found things to like about the city. We moved to the east bay, a place that suits me better for numerous reasons, not the least of them being slightly nicer weather.
And I discovered one thing, a palliative to make up for enduring hoodie weather while the rest of the country tweets pictures of summer barbeques. There’s a week or two in the Bay Area, a sort of Indian summer in September or October which is really and truly nice. For a couple of weeks, it’s just like I imagined living in California would be. I wear sandals and smile to myself when I overhear everyone complaining about the heat. Shhhhh, I think. This is mine. This is what I look forward to all year, this little bit of true summer. You can have the rest of it, you hoodie-weather-loving people, but this little moment is mine.
It’s beautiful in Berkeley today. The weather report says 91 degrees, sunny and clear. The sky is blue, blue, blue, and every once in awhile a bit of air blows in the window like the long sigh of someone peacefully asleep. I feel a deep and all-encompassing happiness — not as an emotion emanating from my heart or my head, but as a resonance seeping out of my bones, my skin, the small passages in my ears, the soles of my feet. Just for a moment, I feel that I belong here, that I could stay, that everything will be alright.
As far as I have wandered, I am a creature of the desert, and days like today feel like home.
Measuring the wastelands
See how far they go
You’re always trying to leave this place
And you’re always coming back home