The wind blows in Idaho this time of year. Totes the angry vestiges of another aging winter. Grass leans, limbs break, birds balance in the tops of aspen branches that tilt away from the gales that holler off the east Oregon desert. Time moves east to west around here, the wind sweeps west to east and yells back at us about what we time-mailed West Coast way yesterday.
And yesterday the wind blew, and last week, most of the week except for one or two golden days where the rays made us think of planting spinach and snap peas; but then, here it rolled in again, the blustery breath of early spring, stirred up by differences in barometric pressure. Wind is air movement pushed out of high pressure areas into low pressure areas. Winds create havoc in hurricanes and typhoons, can lift the land off the top of Wyoming and haul it all the way to the bottom of the Atlantic. It carves, cuts and makes you crazy.
Once Betty and I stood above the Palais de Papes in Avignon, Provence, admiring a late spring view of the Rhone, the hills, the old town, when a blast of hot air known locally as the Mistral almost knocked us over. I recall reading somewhere about that wind, and Gauguin and Van Gogh and how the Mistral helped drive Van Gogh crazy.
When I lived in southern Arizona, the wind got up in the spring and blew a layer of dust for days, stinging eyes, skin, the leaves of newly planted pansies, testing your ability to stay focused on the business of getting by. In the summer, great hullabaloos formed up over Tucson and harangued our way, as if to furiously eradicate the city of Phoenix and everything in between.
I lived in that desert in early the seventies, not too long back from the war and metaphorically speaking, walking backwards into a stiff gale. In 1972 I recall standing outside my house and watching one of those brief and violent late afternoon holocausts rear up and try to exterminate everything in its way. Spiny Sonoran Desert mountain ranges over four thousand feet up were dwarfed by the chocolate brown fury. It roiled and rolled, like a flood rush of muddy water. When it attacked us, the sky turned black, trailer houses moved twenty feet to the northwest, telephone poles snapped like match sticks, privet bushes lost half their leaves. Everything and everywhere owned a coat of fine brown clay.
When Betty and I lived in the high mountains of southern New Mexico, the wind blew from late February through May. Steady. Brisk. The moan and whine of old spruce trees as they rubbed up against each other and the wood in your back porch deck. The gales, gusts, and breezes that hauled Arizona’s surface over the Gila massif, the Black Range, the San Andres, finally picking up the white gypsum sand outside of Alamogordo. Plastering it on the sides of mountain top Ponderosa pine and red fir so that it looked like snow. The season of creaks and cracks and listening to the trees complain in the middle of the night. Worrying about the hood of your car. The roof over your bed.
In Cloudcroft, NM, the bars bustled that time of the year. Men stormed in and threatened each other with big Bowie-type knives, .357 magnums, fists, snow shovels. The schnapps and cheap whiskey spilled all over the bar tops. Boot heels up in the air. Old woodstoves smoking where the melting snow leaked in and dripped dripped dripped.
Everyone seemed on edge. That was the time of boredom, before planting, before moving the cattle, often too muddy to go into the woods to work. Just time to drink and dream and stew. That’s when the Apaches would come to town and irritate half the white folk. I don’t know if it was all on purpose, the back and forth between the white folk and the natives. But it bubbled up everywhere: in the mercantile, the gas station, the Western Bar. Barkeep Frieda used to get after the young Apache men as they taunted her over their glasses of draft Budweiser. She’d call the law. They’d laugh. The law would show up. Sometimes a fight ensued.
Once a young Apache man came to town and ran out of gas in his pickup. The wind blew that day, too. I recall the fluttering skirts and scarves of women bustling on the boardwalk, the American and New Mexican flags slapped straight out from the flag pole.
That young Apache man went around and begged for change to buy a couple of gallons of gas. I sat in the Western Cafe and drank hot coffee and watched. He tried at the gas station. They threw him out of the bank. He walked up to the door of the bar, but thought better. I don’t know, maybe he’d been kicked out of there before when he wasn’t so needy.
He went from store to business to store down the length of Burro Street. Out of sight I wondered about all the animosity between whites and browns, whites and yellows, black and brown, yellow and red, hell, anything that makes one different is enough to start the process, like a little breeze that gets up in the afternoon, then steadies into a wind that gusts with particular fury. Sometimes it’s a typhoon and blows the world down onto its knees.
After finishing my coffee, I walked down to the post office to get the mail. The wind forced me to tilt my back into it. People in the street leaned this way and that, any way they could to fight the power of what they could not stop.
After I checked my mail box, I saw that young Apache standing at the door, hitting everyone up for change. He wasn’t having any luck and I wondered how I could slip by him and out into the wind. I didn’t want to get caught and have to say, “No.”
For a moment, a gaggle of women dammed up against the entrance…purple pant suits and the quilted outers of down jackets. L. L. Bean boots. I saw my chance to escape but by the time I arrived at the door he was standing forlorn and single. I figured if I didn’t look him in the eye, he’d leave me be, but for some reason I looked him in the eye. What I saw was nothing to fear.
He said, “Hey, man, I ran out of gas and I…”
I already knew his story. It’s as old as mankind. For some reason, against my will, I stuffed my right hand in my Levi pocket and pulled out a lump of dollar bills, quarters, pennies, dimes.
I shoved it at him, “That’s all I got.”
I swear some tears rose in his eyes and I doubt it was from the wind. He started to pull off a silver and turquoise ring the size of my thumb, and said, “Here, man,” but I threw out my clenched fist and said, “Naw, ain’t necessary.”
He began to say something else, but I didn’t stick around, just had to get out into that wind.