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Living and Writing in the Natural World

How our "2021 Fresh Air Tour" from California sprouted wings and led us to a new home in—the Sonoran Desert?!

Tammy relaxing at Mesa Verde


(Warning:  this is a story of how two otherwise sensible people turned their lives upside-down.  Then having done that, they proceeded to turn their upside-down lives on its head—again—and ended up somewhere even more unexpected.  Fasten your seat belts.)


Part One.  It seemed such a simple, innocuous notion as the summer of 2021 dragged on.  Tired of Northern California's past three years of summer/fall wildfires and bad air? Of the realization that the fire that destroyed Paradise in 2018—19 miles from our Chico home—was not a one-time aberration but merely the first of a predictable new summer reality?  Tired of air purifiers chugging away inside your home and donning masks most of the summer whenever you go outside?  Leave it!  Drive east from California until you find fresh air, and then camp in that glorious, deep-breathing freshness for six weeks of July and August! 


We invested a thousand dollars in camping equipment, jammed it into our all-electric Chevy Bolt, and headed east over the Sierra Nevadas for Reno, where we struggled to lucidly explain our solution to summer California wildfires to Tammy's Dad.  No matter.  The next day we resumed our eastward escape.  Halfway through Nevada's Great Basin Desert, the Air Quality Index (AQI) had begun to drop toward safe, healthy levels.  By the end of the day, as we entered Utah, we could roll the windows down and take big, deep gulps of healthy air.  "Fresh air!" became our byword as we ploughed further east out of Utah to the Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado. 


Our Wawona 6-person tent (with added vestibule providing cover for cooking or just lounging out of rain or too much sun) was our Colorado home for the next two weeks.  Fresh air every morning—and all the rest of the day!  The camp grounds were huge, sites large, and a free (hot!) shower was a pleasant five-minute walk away.  Pinyon pines and Gambel oaks surrounded us, and the ancient cliff-houses of Pre-Pueblo peoples awed and inspired.  "Monsoon" thunder storms also awed us, with incredibly dense rainfall several afternoons a week. But the new tent held up fine, and the storms cooled everything off.  We experimented and finally perfected healthy, simple meals on our two-burner Coleman stove.  Lots of walks to the surrounding mesas and mountain flanks.  And infinite quantities of—yes, fresh air. 


But Santa Fe and Georgia O'Keeffe's Ghost Ranch beckoned.  Ray had explored both with his travel-buddy Al on several trips, and had promised Tammy she'd soon see them.  So we reluctantly left Mesa Verde and made the short-day drive to a campground/RV park outside of Santa Fe, pitched the Taj Mahal of tents there amidst more Pinyon pines and now Western junipers, and soaked in the fresh air of northern New Mexico.  But here, in addition to golden sunsets dazzling us from our lawn chairs outside the tent, we had culture aplenty to enjoy.  The old Plaza in Santa Fe's historic center; the nearby St. Francis Cathedral with roots stretching to 1598; the anthropology museums on Museum Hill south of town; and most important the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum just west of the Plaza.  It was all wonderful.  Short drives took us to the Ancestral Pueblo cliff dwellings in Bandelier National Monument; the old village of Chimayo in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo range, with its cathedral dispensing healing soil; a bit further to the old village of Abiquiu, where O'Keeffe lived in the winters; and to Ghost Ranch, where the indomitable artist invented a new, iconic genre of American landscape painting—the surrounding skulls, flowers, mountains, and mesas. 


It was in the evenings, watching the sun set in glory and the stars emerge from the darkening sky above our Santa Fe campground, that it happened.  Completely unforeseen, we began to wonder: could we have more of all this than just six weeks a year?  Why not escape the drought and heat and wildfires of California—altogether?  We laughed, skeptically, as we both admitted to these weird notions.  Ridiculous.  True, our kids and my daughter from my first marriage had all left Chico.  True, Chico was still crowded with refugees (and traffic) from the 2018 Camp Fire that had destroyed Paradise.  True, Tammy had just retired from three decades of teaching, only weeks before our Fresh Air Tour began.  And the future in Northern California promised nothing but continued—expanding—occurrences of wildfires, drought, congestion, and dropping levels of water in our beloved Chico Creek two blocks from our home. 


But—ridiculous.  Tho Tammy was still in her 50s, Ray was in his mid-70's, and had solemnly vowed that our last move 12 years ago would be his last.  People in their 70's don't pick up and move to a new state, leaving friends and locales cultivated since 1976 (for Ray) and 1984 (for Tammy).  They just don't.  But the notion wouldn't die.  We were genuinely sad as we packed up the tent outside of Santa Fe.  We journeyed a day's drive north to Boulder, Colorado, where our daughter Ashlyn was in the grad program at U. of Colorado.  As we left the arid southwest of New Mexico, we heard of fires in the great forests of central and north Colorado.  We had a hint of elevated AQI.  We had a marvelous time with Ash and her partner Steven, but were glad when range anxiety about traveling over the high Rockies in our electric vehicle (and spotty distribution of recharging stations) persuaded us to return to our Southwest route to get back to California; we had become rather fond of Utah and New Mexico.  We stopped at southern Colorado's Pagosa Springs, and swam in the San Juan river bisecting the town.  We climbed up to the massive red-tinted sandstone Wilson Arch south of Moab in Utah, and stayed in Green River just beyond. The incredible Black Dragon Canyon (rocks over 250 million years old) west of Green River bowled us over. All these portions of the Southwest, so closely clustered together in easy drives, provided not just fresh air, but beauty and a distinctive landscape; yes, we had indeed become very fond of the region. 


The upshot:  during our return drive to Chico after 6 weeks of camping and enjoying the American Southwest, the notion of relocating, of beginning a new chapter in our lives, had shifted from something ridiculous and laughable, to something worth exploring seriously.  Both of us were retired, with a living income appearing in our bank account the first of every month—why not?  It was a push/pull sort of thing.  California drought, wildfires, congestion and social unrest pushing, and the Southwest's awesome (and novel) landscape, history, and culture pulling.  Returned to Chico, we had two weeks before leaving for our annual month in Hawaii.  We took a deep breath, thought it through again, then contacted a real estate agent: let's just gingerly dip into the market while we're gone.  Nothing serious, of course.  No prepping our home, no big repairs or painting.  Just informally, tentatively, see what might happen. 


We had our usual marvelous time on Maui.  Snorkeling, walking the beaches, swimming, lying in the sand learning the constellations gleaming brightly above us at night.  The Southwest grew a bit dimmer over the month.  Moving to Hawaii also seemed attractive, but the finances really, really didn't make that feasible.  Moving to New Mexico?  Only slightly less outlandish. 


The day we arrived back home from Hawaii, we received an offer for our home that would be hard to reject.  We accepted it.  Called the kids and told them we were moving to Santa Fe.  The word quickly spread around our CoHousing community.  Universally, the reaction was either a stiffly polite "Really? That's interesting" (the kids) or a stunned, stammering "Ahhh…" (the friends, who later admitted that it translated to "You guys must be out of your minds!").  We persisted.  Having received bids from moving companies to pack and move us for $14,000, we decided to do it ourselves.  The kids agreed to gather in Chico over Christmas to help us pack what we'd take with us to our new home (close of escrow was January 4).  They duly gathered: daughter Ashlyn and Steven from Boulder, son Lou and daughter Heather with our two grandkids from the Bay Area.  The evening of the first day, one of the gang tested positive for Covid.  All scattered, as per common sense and Covid protocols, leaving only Lou with us. The young fellow knew he was coming down with the disease (which he did), but was determined to pack up those books of Dad's vaunted library which were coming with us to Santa Fe (which he also did). 


Tammy did an incredible job of selling a very large portion of our belongings (our lives?) on Facebook Marketplace.  We piggy-backed on the yard sale of a neighbor.  It was still a huge, formidable job to pack up what we had determined to bring with us to Santa Fe into boxes—plates, bowls, utensils, clothes, photo albums, wall-material (photos, paintings), furniture. Und so weiter.  We threw away tons of things into the dumpsters behind schools, at least until we very nearly got arrested for doing so.  Finally the home was empty, and our belongings (our lives?) sitting in a Chico storage locker.


Exhausted, and not at all sure that we were not, in fact, "out of our minds", in early January we put our beloved (and by this time thoroughly spooked) cat Inky into her travel cage in the backseat of our rented car (no way the little Bolt was remotely large enough) and drove in three stages to Santa Fe, where we wearily unpacked our bags into the lovely home of Brenda and Kent, former Chico CoHousing friends who had moved to Santa Fe a few years previous and were about to visit grandkids in southern California.  We began to acquaint ourselves with the real estate market in our new home town.


Part Two.  To make a long and agonizing story short, Tam and I within ten days in Santa Fe realized two things.  Several snowstorms and many frigid mornings brought home the fact that Santa Fe winters were quite unlike balmy Santa Fe summers. We had moved into a distinctly colder winter climate.  Beyond that, houses in our price range were few, and you had to add 10% onto the asking price and be prepared to hand over cash promptly to even be included in the frenzied bidding for a home.  In other words: winter temperatures too low, home prices too high. 


Gulp.  Yes, we ideally should have figured this out before.  But remember:  we were in the very middle of what the Prussian von Clausewitz had described as "the fog of war."  In any enterprise of importance, you make your plans as best you can, and then when the enterprise begins and you are quickly enveloped in uncertainty and unanticipated catastrophes, you just remain nimble and imaginative and make your way boldly through the fog.  I reminded Tam and myself of General George Patton many times in the ensuing days: driving his Third Army tank corps brilliantly through the debris of war toward Berlin in December of 1944, he defied all known laws of military tactical logistics and abruptly wheeled his forces 90 degrees north to rescue 101st Airborne paratroopers facing annihilation by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium.  He succeeded.  Then got his tanks to Berlin.  We would do the same.  We would visit and camp outside Santa Fe every summer—but we wouldn't reside there.  We would, instead, live in—in—uh…   Where the devil were we going to live? 


Our new home would be somewhere in the Southwest, clearly. We researched and pondered possibilities in New Mexico other than Santa Fe.  Up north in the countryside around Abiquiu, our much-loved Georgia O'Keeffe country? Down south in Las Cruces, a lovely university-town near the Mexican border?  In the Jemez mountains to the west of Santa Fe, close to Bandelier?  Or—how about checking out that "active retirement community" my Sierra Club friends Harold and Janet had moved to a year ago, and described with enthusiasm in their Christmas letter?  Where was that?  Oh yes: Arizona.  Hmmm. Just north of Tucson, a small burg called Oro Valley. Where the heck is Tucson?  Oh, here it is, way south in Arizona, in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, yet.  We investigated all the possibilities, both New Mexico and southern Arizona:  the winters, the water supply, the recreational opportunities, the housing market.  Southern Arizona proved especially intriguing. Tucson had been stockpiling water from the Colorado River for decades, and was flush with the stuff.  (Oro Valley hadn't, tho.)  Of course, where our friends lived, one of the Del Webb "Sun City" developments, was by definition full of old people (or at least 55 years of age, which wasn't really old).  Best of all, we discovered that Tucson and Oro Valley really did have very mild winters.  You could hardly call them "winters," in fact. 


So into the rental car goes Inky, again, 1,200 miles under her feline belt and another 500 to go to Tucson.  Two things are clear to us:  we are going to seriously investigate living in water-rich Tucson, and we aren't going to live amongst a bunch of retirees in water-dicey Sun City.  Arriving in southern Arizona, to be polite we have lunch with our friends in the Sun City community restaurant.  Food is delicious; a bright red Vermillion flycatcher flits about in the nearby trees; a tour of the shared community facilities reveals several swimming pools; ceramic studios with virtually free clay and kiln use; a watercolor studio whose artists painting that afternoon welcomed Tammy with open arms; a well-stocked woodworking shop the size of a shopping center; a stained-glass studio; a pool room with excellent tables; tennis courts galore.  But most surprising:  active, attractive, lively residents happy to show you around these facilities, not just making things but learning the ukulele or swimming or bicycling or walking around the community.  All yours to enjoy for a monthly home-owners fee of—prepare yourself—$178. 


Tammy and I return to our car after our tour.  We sit silent in the front seat, both staring straight ahead. She finally speaks.  "Well, what did you think, Ray?"  I reply, in a tentative, hoarse voice.  "I want to live here, Tam."  She turns to me quickly, her face alight.  "Me too! I never want to leave!"  So we canceled our upcoming meeting with a Tucson realtor, found a Sun City realtor and soon a home in our price range (no 10% addition required) that we really liked (and so did our kids, when they viewed its Zillow entry). We made an offer the day we toured it, and by that evening were the proud owners of a new home in sunny southern Arizona.  Three weeks later, Ray and his friend Bruce drove a rental truck stuffed with our belongings 20 straight hours from Chico to our new home, where Bruce's wife Jody was keeping Tam company.  After Bruce and Jody's departure, we stared at the ocean of boxes crammed into our new home for another two weeks, until Ashlyn arrived from Boulder, and promptly unpacked all the books Lou had packed back in Chico, which got us started. 


As of this writing, we have lived here six months, and love it more every day.  All the kids and grandkids have visited us, and approve of the new home.  We play pool, we swim, we explore the surrounding parks and trails.  We belong to the Tucson Botanical Gardens, and visit regularly. Our neighbors in Sun City, Oro Valley are wonderful, and uniformly friendly and interesting folks.  Tammy and I walk together around our new community every evening, she taking dozens of photos of the stunning sunsets.  Tam is a regular at our immediate neighborhood's Happy Hour on Friday afternoons.  In the mornings, Tam takes long exploratory walks in the community, while Ray traverses two blocks to an entrance into the surrounding Sonoran Desert, and completes "Ray and Tam's double-loop desert walk."  As a biologist, Ray is completely fascinated by the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert, far and away the most diverse and interesting of the four North American deserts.  Tammy has taken up painting again, and is exploring the discipline with characteristic verve and imagination (check her Instagram page).  Ray is a desert rat, and also spends a day a week exploring Sabino Creek in Sabino Canyon (google it!), where he swims and spots wildlife to his heart's content. 


So that's the story of how Tammy and Ray took a fresh air tour, which turned into a journey, as we had the eyes to see one chapter of our life together closing, and another opening. At times the journey was frightfully difficult, both physically and emotionally. We stubbornly moved forward, and amidst some stumbles kept searching until we found a place that felt right to us. Somehow we landed on our feet. We understand that this sort of journey is not for everyone.  But it worked for us, our marriage stronger by virtue of our shared struggles and decisions.  We are happy here in southern Arizona.  And yes, it is definitely a new chapter.  Come visit.  Barnett out. 



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