You're in for a treat today, if a slightly long read. Book editor and author Robb Grindstaff is a friend of mine, one of the feared and shadowy Grey Havens gang, and today marks the publication of his first collection of short stories, Sonoran Dreams. So here's a guest post from a very different desert to the one we in the United Arab Emirates call home, but perhaps a topic that expats might find provokes more than a passing thought...
Deserts and their exiles
I live in Phoenix, Arizona, a major metropolitan area in the U.S., in the middle of a desert, along with a couple million more desert residents.
I have no idea. Deserts were not made to be inhabited by people. Many deserts around the world are uninhabited, but other deserts have clans, communities, cities, cultures, even entire countries that are completely engulfed by desert.
Humans who choose to live in an inhospitable land.
Who are these people? And why do they live where the planet doesn't want them?
First, let's define desert. There is no single, precise definition that is accepted by all the authorities who decide these weighty matters. The most common, I suppose, is an arid land of climate extremes with so little rainfall each year that it supports very limited plant and animal population, including people.
In the city of two million where I live, the water doesn't fall from the sky often. We receive about eight inches (200mm) of precipitation annually. But the people who chose to live here a hundred years ago built a series of dams in the mountains to catch the melting snow, and our water is piped in from these man-made reservoirs.
Phoenix is the hottest major city in the U.S. Summer temperatures are similar to Riyadh and Baghdad, with temperatures over 100F (38C) about one-third of the year, and frequently 110-120F (40-50C). Ah, as my friends from other parts of the country and around the world like to point out, but it's a dry heat. True. A pizza oven is also a dry heat, but no one wants to live in one of those.
Deserts come in many varieties, hot or cold, nothing but sand or with an abundance of plant and animal life that has somehow adapted. The Sonoran Desert of Arizona is filled with plants and animals not found anywhere else—exiled flora and fauna. Even the cacti and snakes and small rodents of the desert are not allowed to live in the lush valleys and fertile crescents and agricultural breadbaskets of the world.
Most plants have thorns and spikes. Many animals and insects are poisonous. Nature in the desert does not roll out a welcome mat or a red carpet to greet humans.
So who lives in a desert? And why?
I have categorized desert dwellers into three general types:
1. Those who don't know any better
2. Those who aren't wanted anywhere else
3. Those who don't want to be bothered by anyone
In the first category—those who don't know any better—are the large groups of people who were born in the desert, whose family has lived in the desert generation after generation, and they've likely never visited anywhere else. These folks think the entire world is just as unbearable as their home, so it never crosses their minds that there might be places with cool breezes, flowing water, green plants, and a need for socks. Or maybe they have visited somewhere else, like Norway or Wisconsin in January, and wondered how anyone in his right mind would live somewhere so unbearable.
The second and third categories I combine into one overarching description: Exiles.
Exiles have either been removed from their homes and natural habitat, or they have chosen to remove themselves.
In today's world of global mobility, the idea of someone being exiled against his will seems a bit arcane. Governments don't arrest dissidents, political enemies, and troublemakers and then banish them to Patmos or Elba or Australia much anymore.
But sometimes, a person packs up and moves to the desert. Self-exile. Sort of like self-deportation, only instead of returning to his home country or region, he deliberately, intentionally, on purpose moves to a desolate land where he doesn't know anyone and the earth makes it clear he's not wanted.
Who are these exiles?
In Arizona, there were the pioneers of the Old West who moved across the wide-open expanse of an unpopulated America in search of a new life, land, a fresh start. They traveled until they found the hottest place on the continent, just a few hundred miles shy of California's moderate climate and beautiful beaches, and said to themselves, "Let's stop here. I gotta pee." Then they couldn't get the wives back into the covered wagon, and so they told the children, "Yes, we are there yet, so stop asking."
Hardy folks. Individuals who wanted out of the big cities back east. People who wanted to scratch out a life for themselves in rock-hard dirt with no water and bugs that can kill with a single bite. The 'Don't Tread On Me' folks.
That streak of independence and individualism still runs thick in the residents of the American Southwest desert, whether they've descended from the original pioneers of 150 years ago, or if they sold their house and their snow shovels, gathered their life savings, and moved here in the past few years of unprecedented growth. They left the suffocating density and stifling social norms of major U.S. cities back east and staked a homestead (or a condo) in the suffocating heat and overwhelming urban sprawl of a city in the desert.
Exiles move to the desert to escape the tentacles of family obligations. "Oh dear, we'd love to come see you and the grandkids, but we have no one to look after our lawn, and all our landscaping will die if we don't stay here to water it every day. Besides, Friday is Bingo at the lodge and Saturday is wife-swapping in Sun City West."
Exiles seek new opportunity for economic prosperity. From entrepreneurial start-ups like solar power, to scams and frauds like government-funded solar power, to migrant workers looking for a better life that includes things like a paycheck and food.
Exiles want to disappear. Fugitives from justice. Fugitives from crazed ex-wives and restraining orders. From credit card companies. From life.
Some desert dwellers are nomads, and that's true here in the Sonoran as well. They gather only the belongings they can carry with them, such as clothes, food, and a poodle, load their caravans—perhaps a Dodge Caravan, but more likely a Winnebago—and travel across the plains every October, just in time to escape the blizzards and ice storms and freezing temperatures of the north. They travel to Arizona and spend the wonderful winters where it never snows, seldom rains, and the temperature rarely drops below light-jacket weather. Six months later, when Edmonton and Minneapolis are starting to thaw, and Arizona's springtime sun starts to blister the paint off the motor home, they return from whence they came.
Snowbirds, we call them. Retired folks mostly, they fly south for the winter, then migrate north again come spring, avoiding the extremes of weather at each end of the country.
As a writer, there aren't many places better than the desert. Writers are naturally exiles. A writer can banish himself to the spare bedroom that's set up as a makeshift office, shut the door, and tell the family, "Hey, leave me alone. I'm working in here."
The desert is full of characters waiting to be captured in the pages of a story. If it wasn't so hot, I might go meet some of them.
"Yes, I'm working. I'm developing a character. No, not for me, smart-mouth. For my novel."
More about Robb
Following a career in newspaper journalism and management, Robb Grindstaff now writes and edits fiction full-time. Newspapers took him from Arizona to North Carolina, Texas to Washington, D.C., and five years in Asia.
Robb has two completed novels in preparation for publication while writing his third and fourth. He has had short stories published in anthologies, print, and e-zines, and his articles on the craft of writing fiction have appeared in writer magazines and websites in the U.S., Europe, and Australia.
His editing clients include traditionally published, agented, and high quality indie authors from the U.S., Europe, Australia, and the Middle East.
Robb's website: http://robbgrindstaff.com
@RobbWriter on Twitter
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