In Tucson, triple-digit temps arrive this time of year like an old friend, and with several guarantees: snowbirds and students depart, parking spaces magically reappear, and TV weatherfolks cleverly announce that the ice is breaking on the Santa Cruz River.
It's legitimately hot and we try to soothe ourselves with the knowledge that at least we don't live in Phoenix, where it's always five or more degrees warmer. We also like to boast about how long we stuck it out before finally turning on the air conditioner in the house and in the car. And when the monsoon finally kicks in, our fallback response for when the temperature tops 100, "But it's a dry heat," is replaced for the moment by "sultry cicada paradise."
This is home, and while the sweat is dripping down the backs of our knees, maybe it's a good time to consider that our ancestors survived Sonoran Desert summers without benefit of air conditioning. People lived and worked here during the hottest months, even before the arrival of electricity that heralded the fan.
I went to my source for such matters, my mom, who grew up in an adobe house on South Seventh Avenue from the 1930s through the '50s, and dared ask her how she and her two sisters survived each summer without AC (the family got a small swamp cooler installed in the 1950s). She recalled doing what many folks still say they do today to keep the electric bill down or to get as much out of that old swamp cooler as possible before the monsoon humidity renders it basically useless.
In those Old Pueblo days, the blinds and curtains were always drawn. My grandmother avoided doing cooking that required the oven, and she would send my mom and sisters off to the library, where they could keep cool while absorbing a little knowledge. Then, the crazy-about-books sisters would take home their new books and read them in a special area lined with pillows and sheets that my grandmother created for them in the middle of their bedroom floor.
Other beat-the-heat activities included swim lessons for 10 cents at a crowded city pool on 22nd Street and visits to a raspado stand across from Jerry Lee's grocery on Meyer Street. In the evening, my grandfather would put out cots so my mother and her sisters could sleep outside, with the evening chatter along South Seventh as their soundtrack for snoozing.
"Back then everyone lived the same way," my mother told me recently. "There wasn't anyone doing anything differently. There were ways we kept cool that we'd been doing for years."
Well, here's your reminder. The snowbirds are gone, and this is our town. Close the curtains during the day and venture out mostly at night, and you'll find you can do more in a Tucson summer that just complain about the heat.
Pray for rain
You can tell when the monsoon is coming because the humidity rises, but there are other signs, too. Most of the saguaros have bloomed by now, and the fruit is ripening. When the fruit turns red, that means, one, the fruit is ready for picking and, two, that the monsoon should have arrived. So keep a watch.
Another traditional sign that rain is due is Dia de San Juan, a more than century-old westside tradition that marks the unofficial start of the monsoon. A procession from the west bank of the Santa Cruz River in late June offers prayers for rain and the display of a statue of John the Baptist, the one who brings the rains. Festivities take place near Mercado San Agustín, at Congress Street and Avenida del Convento.
There's live music, folklorico and more. This year's free festival will be held from 5 to 10 p.m. on June 24. More info is available at the festival's Facebook page (facebook.com/pages/El-Dia-de-San-Juan-Fiesta-Committee-Tucson-AZ/208228845869696).
Keep your body cool: Drink agua frescas and eat raspados
The raspados place my mother remembers going to as a kid on Meyer Street is long gone, but luckily for Tucsonans, there are still more than a dozen places to partake of raspados and agua frescas. (See the accompanying story, "Raspado Paradise," for reviews of our favorite raspados purveyors.)
I sat down recently with Liane Hernandez, community life director and executive chef for the YWCA of Tucson, about agua frescas, the drinks such as horchata, tamarindo and jamaica that offer cool sweetness in an instant
Under Hernandez and new executive director Kelly Fryer, the YWCA has created a café and catering service at the organization's Bonita Street community center. The café's espresso cart in the building's lobby features a couple of pitchers of fruit agua frescas made fresh each day.
Hernandez, who came to Tucson in 1990 to attend the UA, began working for Bentley's House of Coffee, which helped kick off her culinary career. But community work is equally important to Hernandez, a founding member of Raices Taller 222 who in the late '90s also was managing director of Borderlands Theater. She's also been banquet chef at Hacienda del Sol, Casino del Sol and Loews Ventana Canyon, and, most recently, sous chef at Proper.
The new YWCA program's goal is both to build a sustainable business to help support the organization's work and to train people for careers in restaurants and catering.
"Not a lot of folks are used to coming in here to eat, so we've been working to get our westside neighbors to check us out and what we have to offer," Hernandez said.
On Walking Wednesdays, Hernandez and her crew take little packages of deliciousness to businesses in the area. For $10 you get a sandwich, fruit and an agua fresca.
"It's a little of what I learned working for JoAnn Schneider (of Bentley's and La Cocina) for 13 years," she said. "You should be able to eat for $10 or less and it should be good."
The YWCA is working from a "cold kitchen space" until enough funds are raised to purchase new ovens. "Right now we can still do a lot with what we have, and that's part of what I hope we are teaching, too—grit and a spirit of working with what you have," Hernandez said.
"It's about learning to adapt based on reality of the situation. Ultimately, it will teach the interns ... that that's the nature of the business—make do with what you got."
There's a bit of experimenting going on with the café's agua frescas, but each one is delicious and their availability this summer could help the café catch on with residents of the neighborhood as well as businesses.
The combinations may seem unusual, like tangelos and rosemary or cucumber with lime and mint, but they're the perfect drink to drive away the summer heat.
The café buys mostly local produce and herbs, and works with other agencies like Iskashitaa, a refugee-support organization that gleans fruit and produce from Tucson yards. Hernandez is looking at what she can do with the kumquats and sour oranges the group has received.
"We're trying to go as local and seasonal as possible," she said. "We want to look at different veggies and we're doing quick picking and also introducing new foods to people working here. The staff we have right now, we are all exploring together."
By the way, summer is a favorite time for Hernandez. She loves those early evening hours when people come out of their houses to cool off, and the early mornings, when she sees some of the older women in her neighborhood tenderly caring for their veggie and flower gardens.
"You see the neighborhood come back and recover from the heat. It's something remarkable," she said. "People come out of their houses and get together."
Take an outdoor shower or sleep under the stars
With people being a bit more modest during my mother's time growing up in Tucson, I can understand why taking outdoor showers wasn't one of the tips for surviving summer.
But now, in this age of permaculture and climate change, outdoor showers are an easy way to get cleaned up and water the peach tree at the same time.
Permaculture resources, such as the Sonoran Permaculture Guild, which offers permaculture design certification courses and one-day workshops on landscape design and growing your own food, are all about thinking beyond the norm when it comes to water use in the desert.
Summer being our high-water-use season in Tucson, the website of Tucson water-harvesting expert Brad Lancaster, harvestingrainwater.com, is a good place for tips on water harvesting and using outdoor showers, such as soaps that won't harm your edible or nonedible plants (find them at the Food Conspiracy Co-op).
Now, about sleeping outside. I asked my mom, "Well, what about the mosquitos?" During monsoon there's often a lot of standing water, and swamp coolers also provide a fertile breeding ground for mosquitos. (Free tip: a capful of clothes softener in the swamp cooler keeps those skeeter eggs away.) But my mother doesn't remember mosquitos being a problem as she grew up.
According to a city of Tucson webpage on mosquito control, the increase in development and water use are the likely reasons we have to deal with mosquitos today. But if you don't have a lot of swamp coolers in your neighborhood, why not get a cot or hammock and give it a try (and if you do have mosquito issues, you can get a mosquito tent at Miller's Surplus). Our summer desert evenings are cool, which is a good excuse to try something that was the norm in Tucson in the 1940s.
When the swamp cooler gives out, bring out the box fan
If the swamp cooler became an unofficial symbol of Tucson desert life, then surely the box fan was almost equally important to surviving the summer.
But judging from a recent stroll through Home Depot, the box fan's heyday has come to an end, replaced by more tech-savvy fans. That's sad in a way, because children no longer can find out how cool it is to talk directly into the fan and hear their voice distorted by the fan's rotation.
It also may mean losing valuable family time. Back in the '70s, there was nothing like sitting in our living room with sweat dripping down our backs and with half a dozen box fans angled in every direction—the TV volume up full blast.
Seek out cool spaces: Go to the movies
If you're staying home with the kids during the summer, don't forget heat relief is available at the movie theater. The Harkins chain, along with other theaters, offer movies for children throughout the summer, with deals on popcorn and snacks. The movies are usually second-run, but they're a good excuse to cool off and use the theater's air conditioning instead of your own.
Our favorite summer movie experience for the past seven years has been the Tucson International Children's Film Festival, held at the Loft Cinema in mid-to-late July. Films at the weeklong festival are shown during the day, and can be an amazing way to introduce your kids to the latest in animation. The festival is where my son and I became devotees of Hiyao Miyazaki six years ago.
The festival dates and schedule have yet to be announced, so keep an eye on the Weekly and the Loft's website, loftcinema.com.
Up for watching a movie outdoors? Don't forget the Cinema La Placita outdoor movie experience at La Placita, 110 S. Church Ave., at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays from May through August. The $3 admission includes popcorn. There are chairs, but you can bring your own. Go to cinemaplacita.com to see the schedule.
Become friends with chlorine and public pools
If you're spending the summer in Tucson, you might want to bookmark these two webpages: pdsd.tucsonaz.gov/parks/aquatics and webcms.pima.gov/recreation/pools_and_splash_pads. They are, respectively, the city and county pool and aquatics programs. Some pools are open year-round and some only during the summer. But we're lucky that some (not all) of the pools closed in past years because of budget cuts have reopened.
Don't be snobs, people. Our experience with city and county pools has been positive. Our favorites include the westside's Menlo Park Pool, a busy but fun neighborhood swim spot, and the pool at Fort Lowell Park (it's huge). Another great city pool is next to the Quincie Douglas Library, at 36th Street and Kino Parkway.
Take refuge on a sky island
So we live in the desert, where it's supposed to be hot. Fortunately, we are also surrounded by mountains. And because these sky islands are always much cooler than the desert floor, heading up Mount Lemmon or Madera Canyon in the Santa Ritas is a smart way to get out of the city and chill a bit.
Mount Lemmon also has Rose Canyon Lake if you want to fish or take a cooling soak. Like Mount Lemmon, Madera Canyon offers amazing hikes, and it's also popular with bird-watchers. Keep in mind it still costs $5 per car to travel on Mount Lemmon and in Madera Canyon, and there's an $8 use fee for Rose Canyon Lake.
We're also advocates for midnight summer walks up Tumamoc Hill, and there are evening tram rides in Sabino Canyon worth checking out (you can do an evening hike, too). Go to sanbinocanyon.com.
When the heat is too much, try a staycation
At some point, let's be honest, you're going to finally freak out at the heat. Maybe the swamp cooler broke down or the car AC gave out, but you're done. You're tired of sweating everywhere you go, but you can't go far enough to get away from the heat. So you do what many folks around these parts are doing: take a "staycation." Most of the resorts in Tucson and the Phoenix area offer great deals during the summer—and most of them have great pools.
After a weekend spent with a pool just steps away and some sanity regained by using as much of the resort's air conditioning as you like, pretty soon life seems better and you return home ready to ride it out through September.
If that's not enough, there's always San Diego and the Pacific Ocean.
I'll end this guide with a few more words of advice from my mother on surviving summer. "We didn't have air conditioning in our cars, either, and we just rolled down the windows and drove everywhere like that, even to Phoenix."
That's it—acceptance. Roll down the windows. The ice has broken on the Santa Cruz. It's a Tucson summer and you can survive, just like they did without air conditioning more than 70 years ago.