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Desert or Durham? 

Here I am in Mesa, Ariz. My husband and I are here for several weeks assisting my brother as he recuperates from heart surgery. And I feel like an alien from another planet.

We go for early morning walks around the grounds of the huge apartment complex where we are temporarily living. Usually we stop at the fitness center. It is typically empty, but the TV is blaring away. There is no way to turn the power off; day after day the blaring continues 24/7. The overuse of unessential energy feels like a punch to my stomach. On my way around the grounds, I notice the deep greenness of the grass, attained by the timed underground sprinklers gushing forth. The brilliant colors of flowering shrubs are breathtaking, but the cacti on the grounds are just as beautiful, and they thrive without water in their natural habitat.

Later in the day we drive my brother's Explorer on streets crowded with other oversized vehicles, engines revving. After one week we used a full tank of fuel just to drive back and forth to the hospital and to do some errands, all within a five- to 10-mile radius. We fill the gas tank and worry that we are the next candidates for heart surgery: $49!

As we drive, the scenery on our left consists of malls: large ones, smaller ones and super-sized ones. The landscape on our right: more malls, interspersed with large apartment complexes and retiree havens such as Leisure World ("Daily Tours Given"). Maybe there's an older part of Mesa at its core, but I sure never see it, and if it's there, it has sprawled out into this. Unlike Durham, though, it's easy to find our way around. The streets form a neat and tidy grid. No diagonal Cornwallis', no streets changing names midstream like you-know-where. Mesa scores big points for the abundance of sidewalks, an amenity and safety measure we lack in Durham.

We bring out the trash but can't find any recycling bins. My brother tells me they don't recycle in Mesa, but I don't believe him. I call the apartment management office to ask if there are any recycling capabilities. Nicki answers the phone. I know what her answer will be, but I also know I must actually hear it to believe it. "Then what does one do if they want to recycle?" I ask. "I honestly don't know," replies Nicki. "Probably take it somewhere."

I call the city of Mesa and find that they do have a recycling program, but it is completely voluntary. There are two recycling drop-off centers in Mesa for a population of 430,000. Yet, one can find a Wal-Mart every couple of miles. I start Googling and find that Durham, in addition to its mandatory recycling (which I am told includes apartment complexes) has 10 recycling drop-off centers for a population of 209,000.

I envision the day a couple of generations from now when Mesa will no longer have the greenest landscapes in the desert. Maybe it will appear as an example in an Al Gore film. The green grass and displays of seemingly endless energy do not make Mesa aesthetically appealing to me; they make me ache to return home.

  • Here I am in Mesa, Ariz.

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