In high school, I cracked an egg on the road on the hottest day of the Arizona summer and watched it crust on the pavement. I don’t know why, but it’s the first thing I think of whenever anyone asks me about home, if it’s really as bad as they’ve heard. One hundred degrees before ten, they’d shake their heads, I’d take the humidity.
I want to explain to them that the heat’s a blessing, really. Not like the stickiness, the clinginess of the East Coast in June, needy and desperate to soak in the armpits. The sun was a cruel lover in Phoenix, but at least it didn’t linger around, a moist smear behind the neck or on the backs of knees.
There’s something admirable about the directness, I’d say to them. That burn that can sear straight through the thick yolk and wet oil of an egg, dry it into a powder that can be rubbed so fine between the fingers. It’s a power so manifest that at noon I could see it over the sidewalk, a kind of shimmer that only comes when the eyes can no longer comprehend energy, when the light itself is warped by the stark rays of the sun.
Everything is so bright there in the summer, so naked that some might call it barren. And that day, even the sky stood sterile, no swollen clouds crowding the open space of the horizon. An endless world of blue, so pure and unaltered that it hurt to look at, a sacred thing.
Sometimes, I wish I could show them, these people who cluster and wonder: what is it like to live in a desert, where there is no relief outside besides the barest streaks of shade? But, it’s really more of a private affair.
My mother and I used to moon-watch at night. Eight o’clock, nine, we’d bring out the pillows, the blankets, the slippers and climb upstairs, out onto the deck of our house. She’d hold the hammock in place while I settled in, wrap me up deftly in a throw all the way up to the chin. I’d hear her ease herself onto the chair next to me, a rustle of fabric, an involuntary sigh. I like to think that we both stared up at the same time, both tilted our heads back to look at the sky sprawled out above us. We’d be wordless and happy.
There’s something about suburbs that makes this kind of thing possible. In cities, a police siren will blare. A car will honk. There will be a mysterious sound, unidentifiable but very unpleasant. You will break your gaze from the moon above you, suspended by a power so immense that the Greeks worshipped it, and you will find yourself surrounded again by tall buildings. They throw up lights so thick they start to haze the night, gas the stars.
I’ve always imagined cities as full of angry men and women. I want to describe this to them, then:
People are able to see infinity. It’s lying down in a hammock in the quiet desert night, in the company of someone who does not feel the compulsion to speak. The world stretches out above them—in it, they can witness the birth and death of stars, galaxies, unclaimed worlds. They are spectators in a drama unwritten, they lord over a dominion so open and free that it’s impossible to fathom where the end is, if there’s an end at all. And the moon—
I think about soft sand, quiet hills, wind that whispers in the ears.
It’s a vast kind of air. The kind of air you know that’s been somewhere, the peaks of mountains, the sweeps of deserts, wrapped up in the moist lick of clouds or baking in the hot gaze of the sun. It’s not the kind of air to run your fingers through—no. It’s still, it’s not like silk, and it’s dry and gritty and there’s this film of dust that coats the fingertips before the break of storms blown from Mexico, if you look carefully it might be red. Sometimes, it hurts to stand in—it is not comfortable, like the film of humidity in the South or the crisp frost of the North. This air was not meant to be settled.
Phoenix is the sixth largest city in the nation, but unlike New York or Los Angeles, there’s hardly any cluster, the compaction of people and building and car, machine and man and waste. The air, by consequence then, is not busy or nervous or thick, smog and traffic and voices about the market and the divorce and the brunch place down 12th Avenue that has inexplicably closed. The air is not civilized—or, rather, it refuses gentrification.
Because, it knows that this is its claim. It can roam the streets whenever it wants, it can blast through the entire sprawl of the city in one gust if it chooses—there are no obstructions, no skyscrapers stopping it short. This is the kind of power that is palpable, even just a few seconds outside. The air doesn’t move, but it’s not languid and not lazy. It’s a conscious choice, a deliberate refusal, and you can feel it just touch you at the curve of your shoulder or the graze of your elbow, a reminder that it’s there.
At the beginning and end of Doubletree Ranch Road, between the main cross-streets of Tatum and Scottsdale, there is a fake cactus, outfitted with a traffic camera and complete with tastefully painted woodpecker holes. When driving, it’s easy to believe that they’re real: they’re tall enough, wide enough, dusty enough. It’s a good lie, even if they seem, in that brief glimpse in the corner of the eye, a little too symmetrical, a little too smooth.
I suppose this kind of bedevilment, though, is common in Paradise Valley. Even along the residential stretch of Doubletree Ranch Road, there’s more to it than endless rows of classical mansions and contemporary monoliths, artfully paved driveways and impossibly lush foliage. In that straight walk from the beginning to the end—one fake cactus to its twin a mile away—any person could see past that display.
You will notice, after a few minutes into your journey, that there is no movement and no people. You will pass lines and lines of houses, and you will not see children, cyclists, or even dogs. All the windows have their curtains drawn, all the gates are closed. It’s true that Paradise Valley has almost 13,000 people. But after the recession, many of these houses were abandoned to rot. Of course, it’s 2016 and many of them have also filled up now, but some of those For Sale signs have been stuck in dry grass for years.
Keep in mind that it’s also a town that values its privacy, so much so that by law every lot must be at least one acre. Residents mind their own business, and as you pass the golf course that demarks the middle of Doubletree Ranch Road with the molding pond and the dirt lawn that hasn’t been reseeded, you should remember that. People entertain by themselves here, and there is no camaraderie or neighborly obligation. It’s a recluse enclave, with a veneer of old-fashioned leisure.
Yet, if you go farther still, edging up near the second fake cactus, you’ll see what this place used to be, before it was domesticated into opulent bliss. Here, the houses are straight from the ’60s, short, bulky, anything but rich. They have dirt yards, and pick-up trucks, and wooded pickets smeared brown from dust storms. They may own horses, but not for sport. Paradise Valley used to be cattle grazing land. It’s strange to think that decades ago, the ground these mansions stand on used to be inhabited by cows.