The Education of a Midwesterner
Lessons learned living 10 years in a small Southwestern town.
This being the 10th anniversary issue of Desert Exposure under our stewardship (see this month's Editor's Notebook), it seemed appropriate to share some of the things I've learned in the past decade of living in a small town in the Southwest. Nothing in my previous life, I confess, truly prepared me for such a lifestyle change. Although I grew up in a relatively small city — about 60,000 people when I was a kid — it was nonetheless the largest in South Dakota and the economic hub of the area. (Indeed, we used to boast that Sioux Falls was the biggest city in five states — if you picked them carefully and avoided adjacent Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska.) We'd spent only a total of four years of our married life in non-metropolitan areas, and even then in places about the size of Sioux Falls.
The climate and geography, of course, are 180 degrees from my alternately freezing and broiling childhood on the Great Plains. Almost everywhere else we've lived, for that matter, was mostly green and prone to weather extremes — no "four gentle seasons." (The lone exception was the 13 long months we spent in Tuscaloosa, Ala., which seldom got very cold. That was also, however, the only place we ever thought we might freeze to death, when a freak ice storm knocked out the power and we realized our apartment was built with the same insulation properties as Saltines boxes.)
Nor did our first day of actual residence in Silver City do much to prepare us for what was to come: As we were moving in, it rained. Poured. All day, drenching the movers and our stuff. Of course. We kept track, and every day thereafter for the rest of the year we saw the sun at least once. Ironically, one of the lessons I've subsequently learned about living in Silver City is: Don't worry about a little spilled water or wet towels or clothes — things dry in an eye blink here. When we later went to Hawaii and our swimsuits sat sodden and soggy in the shower for days, it was as if the laws of physics had been repealed.
Here are a few other things I've learned in the past decade:
- Pray for rain. I've written in this space before about my general dislike of rain, which gets my glasses wet so I can't see, but even I have come to appreciate the wisdom once expressed by a teen Desert Exposure intern, obviously drummed into her by years growing up in a dry place: "We need the moisture." We repeat this now as a mantra every time rain or snow muck things up.
- Don't plan picnics in July and August. On the other hand, when monsoon season does finally arrive, a sparkling clear morning can cloud up and cut loose before you've got that picnic basket packed. One lonely little cloud on the horizon can build before your eyes into thunderheads that in my tornado-plagued childhood would have sent us scurrying for the basement. (Which, by the way, for the first time in our house-owning lives we don't have. Where are people supposed to put those boxes that will never be opened again until their heirs hold an estate sale?)
- Do not enter when flooded. Those signs aren't kidding.
- Even when you don't get wet, you can get flooded. This monsoon-season lesson was imparted to us by outdoors columnist Larry Lightner, who once got caught in otherwise-dry Saddlerock Canyon (where we have hiked multiple times) when the rain sluiced down from the mountains and formed a torrent he escaped only by a desperate scramble to higher ground.
- Snow doesn't have to last until spring. On the bright side of weather hereabouts, I no longer moan in horror when it snows, thinking those white, fluffy piles will hang around until the Masters golf tournament, slowly becoming dirty, icy slush. Unlike the snows of my previous life (such as the Halloween blizzard that once hit the Twin Cities), snow here actually melts and goes away, maybe even by afternoon. A corollary lesson is that if you don't own a real snow shovel anymore, your driveway is gravel and the nearest sidewalk is several miles away, you can forget about the drudgery of snow shoveling.
- You can live without a lawn. All those hours I spent fretting about weeds and crabgrass, spraying lawns elsewhere with fertilizer and weed killer and even beer... what a waste. We sold the lawn mower right after we sold the snow blower before moving here, by the way.
- You can live without central heating and air conditioning. True, this was not quite a conscious choice. When we got back from a successful Silver City househunting trip, it suddenly hit me: "Honey, where was the thermostat? And the furnace?" Amazingly, we have indeed made do just fine with electric baseboard heaters, a pellet stove and a fireplace in the winter, and swamp coolers and the odd window air conditioner in the summer. In our previous life this would have been unimaginable. After three days in August in Cincinnati without A/C, you'd resort to cannibalism — heck, you'd volunteer to be eaten, just to escape the heat and humidity.
- Pipes belong on the interior side of the insulation. Who knew? We learned this the hard way during that extreme cold spell a couple years ago, when an overhead pipe and one in the kitchen wall burst. The kitchen wall pretty much just exploded. Who would have put the insulation between the house and the pipe, rather than between the pipe and exterior walls/roof? Obviously somebody who didn't grow up in South Dakota.
- Tarantulas, snakes and lizards come with the territory. I don't miss the clouds of mosquitoes that made my childhood summers (that brief interval in-between blizzards) one long ordeal of scratching and applying calamine lotion. But the desert Southwest makes up for it with much larger pests, like the tarantula we once found clinging to the doorknob to the garage. Or the six-foot bull snake we came home to from a trip, finding it tangled (and quite dead) in garden netting. Or the countless lizards the cats have captured in the house, caught in the screen porch and released in the house, and de-tailed in the house leaving the rest of the lizard to scurry off heaven knows where.
- In a small town, good help can be hard to find. We experienced this when the otherwise-competent installer of our kitchen countertops told us he could finish the job in a day and a half — neglecting to mention that those hours were not necessarily consecutive. Off he went to another job, leaving our kitchen looking like ground zero. Don't even get me started on the nightmare of our bathroom renovation. And I'm still lighting the gas stove burners by hand, because we can't find an appliance repair service to keep the left rear burner's starter switch from going click-click-click all by itself, all day and all night.
Our experiences pale, however, beside those of a friend whose roofers brought beer along with their shingles and tools. Ultimately, one workman drank so much beer that he fell off the roof.
- Everywhere you go, you see people you know. Accustomed to the anonymity of big cities, we had to adjust to meeting familiar faces (which, as I've previously recounted, I'm awful at attaching to names) at Albertson's, in restaurants, at the post office, you name it. If you want to buy something embarrassing (Depends, Penthouse, condoms, Ex-Lax...), best drive to Las Cruces or click on Amazon.
- Everybody in a small town is connected to everybody else. Kevin Bacon and sites like LinkedIn have nothing on Silver City. I quickly learned (sometimes the hard, awkward way) that person X will turn out to be the partner of person Y, whom I know in a completely different context, and also be the ex-spouse of person Z, go to yoga with person Q and play in a band with person K, all of whom I also know somehow. Gossiping and speaking ill of others are bad habits anyway, but here you could be badmouthing someone closely connected to your listener.
Taken together, the good far outweighs the bad in our 10 years so far sojourning in Silver City. For every minor annoyance like getting our neighbors' mail or being unable to find semolina flour at Albertson's for pizza dough, there have been hundreds of glorious blue-sky days, enchanted wildlife manifestations in our backyard, and encounters with amazing people who somehow wound up here, too. This is already the longest we've lived anywhere besides our hometown.
Oh, and there's one more lesson we've learned:
We could never move back to the Midwest.
David A. Fryxell has proudly worn the title of
editor of Desert Exposure for 10 years.