Back when Molly was in middle school and high school, we lived in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in the Chihuahuan Desert just 35 miles north of the US-Mexico border. (There we are in the photo above in grove of native Mexican elder trees in our backyard. My hair was still red and long then, Richard hadn't started shaving his head, and Molly had a cat named Hypoteneuse.)
Late-spring and early summer temperatures in Las Cruces can easily soar into the triple digits. Whenever I would turn woozy and white in the heat, Richard would tease me: "You're my favorite Norteña."
The literal meaning of Norteña is a female from the North, which I am (I was born in northern Illinois at 42 degrees N latitude). In the Spanglish spoken in the border region, Norteña could also be a mild insult, meaning a foreigner, someone who doesn't belong.
Which was true as well, though in the seven years we spent in Las Cruces, I tried to belong: I studied the history, natural history, and culture of our desert region. I wrote four books about the desert, including my favorite, Barren, Wild and Worthless, my first excursion into what I didn't know then was memoir; plus dozens of articles, and hundreds of weekly radio commentaries. I led nature walks, worked on restoration projects, and co-founded a book festival about the border region with my friend and co-honcha Denise Chávez, novelist and visionary extraordinaire.
Still, I never quite acculturated to life at 32.32 degrees North. My body didn't love the heat; my immune system didn't love the wind-blown clouds of pollen from the non-native species, including the mulberry trees planted throughout town for welcome shade. My diurnal rhythms were confused when summer days weren't long and winter days were.
When we moved north to Salida, Colorado, Richard's childhood home, in what he considered "that cold state way up north" (at 38.5 degrees N), I was relieved. Salida had, I thought, the best of the Southwest and enough of the Rockies to feel like home. And it did, while he was alive.
After he died though, I grew more and more restless. I missed… something. I traveled more, trying to figure out what I was looking for. It wasn't until I spent two weeks volunteering on an ecological restoration project in Yellowstone National Park (digging out invasive weeds), that I realized what should have been obvious.
Grubbing houndstongue, an invasive perennial, from around the base of big sagebrush in northern Yellowstone.
I was homesick.
This Norteña missed summer evenings so long it feels like it will never get dark, until night suddenly swallows the twilight, and short winter days. The sweetly turpentine-like smell of sagebrush after warm rains. The sound of robins cheer-ee-o-ing at dawn in early spring.
The pell-mell rush as the days lengthen, and then suddenly the grass is green and all the birds sing a nearly operatic daily chorus. Until summer and they go silent in the exhausting work of feeding voracious young, when wildflowers bloom one after the other after the other in bee-mad meadows. And elk calves honk for their mothers.
Silvery lupine and Wyoming indian paintbrush blooming among big sagebrush
The sound of male elk bugling that wheezy nasal challenge in fall, as bighorn sheep males duking it out with a loud cracking of colliding foreheads. (Such guys!) The sour-sweet smell of fallen aspen leaves wet in the first snow.
The silence of winter nights; the howl of blizzard winds. The bite of sub-zero air on bare skin. The stars crackling bright against skies so dark they seem to swallow the earth.
A gnarled old big sagebrush shrub hanging on through winter
After I moved home to Cody between blizzards in January, some part of me that had been tense and alert for decades relaxed. The slant of the light at this latitude (45.5 degrees N, the same as Portland, Oregon, Chicago, Illinois, and the Gulf of Maine), felt right.
The blue winter twilights, so soothing after the dazzle of sun on snow during the day. The wind whooshing in the spruce trees in my yard; the resiny smell of spruce sap as the days began to warm. The sagebrush on the hill behind my neighborhood, their small evergreen leaves gradually turning from winter's silver-gray to silver-green again.
And now that the robins are back from their southern winter homes, their cheerfully fluting voices wake me. I lie in bed in my snug spot among the big spruces and my heart fills with joy. Home for me is more than people and memories. It is the light, the rhythm of the seasons, the smells and sounds of life going about its business.
It is something I feel in my cells, a kind of inner contentment at being in the place that is just right for me, inside and out.
Richard and I loved each other with our whole hearts. But born in Arkansas, raised in Salida, Haiti, and South Texas, my southern guy never understood the call of my particular North. Perhaps he would if he were here with me to get to know the place, but he isn't.
And in this bittersweet journey, I feel very fortunate to have found my way back home on my own.