I don’t live in France anymore. I spent my last moments in the Pézenas apartment taking a bath—planning to explore that metaphor more later—kissed my lover goodbye, and flew home. Basic communication with strangers isn’t daunting any more. Pastries are a non-event. There are a lot of American flags attached to pickup trucks in my day-to-day. Small towns are no longer constructed of old stone and vine revolving around a central church, but instead large stretches of asphalt from one beige stucco house to the next to the Walmart to the southwestern wilds that are like nothing else in Europe.
That’s where I am. Kind of. Well, I’m in a trailer in a state park named after a dead horse with a beebee gun in the cabinet and blues on the radio. I’ve traded killing time speaking English in front of classrooms of disinterested French high schoolers to dripping sweat over the dry Arizonan soil with a cohort of four American high schoolers who think that a good way to spend their summer is doing hard manual labor under a sweltering desert sun. That’s where I am. With my six-foot-something coleader sleeping in a tent in the front yard amid a screaming chorus of crickets and a night sky that only the dry desert air can display.
This summer, I’m working for the Arizona Conservation Corps as a mentor for the youth program. My location is the Verde Valley (pronounced VUR-dee), a region of Arizona consisting of a few small towns with names like Cottonwood, Camp Verde, Cornville, Clarkdale, Centerville, Jerome (an abandoned mining town turned artsy hippie community). The small towns are deeply American, just as the landscape is deeply southwestern: cactus, red dirt, expansive blue skies, cottonwoods and willows weeping over the Verde River, the longest free-running river in Arizona. I’m getting battle wounds from the mesquite tree thorns here that may never go away.
Said days usually start with coffee around six in the morning. Cowboy coffee: beans soaked in boiling water which usually end up getting consumed too. Oatmeal. Pick up the youths. Fifteen minutes of physical training and fifteen minutes of stretching. A few hours of pulling invasive weeds or trees, some of which are so volatile that every pore in your body leaks in protest. A few hours of trail building. Maybe mixing up mud for planting seeds. Hiking. Collecting dragon fly larvae. The jobs vary, but the heat is a constant, boiling away my skin and humidifying the sweat under my thick collared uniform. The brilliant sarcasm from my corps members is another constant. Laughing so hard I can’t get my body to keep working. Two fifteen minute breaks and a thirty minute lunch. We finish at 3:30, and I get to hike, bike, fish, paint, write, go to Taco Belle with the rest of my afternoon. Then dinner, make lunch for the next day. I’m usually in bed by nine.
The days are steady and predictable in a way that only a day constructed around eight hours of hard work can be. Slow days built by slow work whose effects feel dubious from such close proximity (what is five hours of pulling napweed when it will only be back in a matter of months?). But the river here is not a strong one anyway.
It meanders. Sometimes, you wonder if there’s a current in its water at all, sitting idle between its grassy banks with something that looks like rotten peanut butter on top. This is all just a lesson in slowness anyway. This river that gives no heed to here or there has supported life for centuries. Look to the ruins at Montezuma’s Castle or Tuzigoot. Look around and see all the miraculous green for which the Verde is named. Listen to the bugs. Watch out for snakes.
Baths don’t always get you cleaner. Rivers don’t always display obvious force. Time is just a labelled bag.
This is where I am.