When I lived on the Arizona desert in an old homestead cabin, I had neither electricity nor running water. The Hassayampa River was about an eighth of a mile from the cabin, and it was from there that I hauled water in buckets for drinking, cooking, and bathing. But the laundry I generally carried to the river.
One bucket of laundry, which is all I could carry, accumulated pretty fast. How quickly it piled up depended on the temperature outside.
On cold days, nothing could pry me away from a good book and the 33-gallon drum that served as our wood heater. But inevitably the day arrived when neither my spouse nor I had a clean stitch to wear, and the volume of dirty clothes was too much to take to the river. At that point, I'd scrape together enough quarters to go to the laundromat in town.
But in the summer and early fall, when the mean desert temperature is somewhere in the 100s, washing clothes in the river was a pleasant respite from the heat. I'd go down the dirt road carrying my two pails, one for the laundry, and the other for my washboard and soap.
The road turned to fine sand as it approached the river and widened into a small beach. A few yards upriver was a grove of towering Australian pines where, each afternoon, a small herd of cows rested in its shaded depths.
At the river's edge, I shed my shoes. Balancing carefully as I stepped into the shallow current, I made my way over smooth stones and soft sand to my favorite rock. Next to my rock was a stony sandbar where bushes had taken hold and grown. There I put my pails.
My method was to dump the dirty clothes onto the sandbar, and fill one pail with water and soap. Taking one piece of clothing at a time, I sloshed it up and down in the pail to get it nice and soapy. Then I balanced my washboard on a low, flat rock in front of me, and rubbed the soapy garment on the board until it was clean.
Rinsing the clothes was the most enjoyable part. I only had to hold the edges of a garment and let the current run through it (being careful not to lose my husband's favorite shirt downstream). This left me free to daydream, to enjoy the pale summer sky the color of robins' eggs, the chirp of birds, the sough of wind blowing through the pines, and the sound of the running water that cooled my feet.
I looked at doing laundry this way as a peaceful, pastoral activity until one afternoon when I was roused from my rinse-cycle reverie by heavy breathing and snorting coming from the shore. Two bulls, heads lowered, were faced-off on the beach. Puffing and snorting, they pawed the ground and threw sand behind them. Their battleground blocked my road home.
I was apparently going to have to wait it out. I was rooted to my rock as I watched the slow drama. And slow it was.
After a great deal of snorting and throwing of sand, the two bulls approached each other, running the last few steps before going head to head. Then they separated and pawed the ground for a while before joining heads again. This sequence seemed to be how the game was played.
I didn't know what the rules were, what was a win or loss to a bull, but I had ample time to observe. There was no gouging involved; their horns had been blunted, and they made no attempt to use them.
I guessed that a win consisted of the stronger bull pushing the weaker one so far backward as to intimidate him, causing him to give up and leave.
I couldn't test this theory, however, because no matter how much the bulls puffed and pushed, pushed and puffed, they remained in the same place. They were evenly matched. It was a standoff.
The sun got low in the sky, and I was getting hungry. It was time to fire up the kitchen range for supper. I'd simply have to find another way home. But that required shoes on my feet, for the desert floor is prickly. I wasn't sure I had the courage to get my shoes, which were now so close to the fray.
I waited until the bulls were head to head again, their steamy breath mingling, before I made my move. As I'd hoped, they were too absorbed in each other to notice me inch shoreward to retrieve my shoes, and backward again to the sandbar for the laundry.
With pails in hand, I waded downriver, found a loose place in the barbed-wire fence, slipped through, and circled home.
In later years, I lived in town in a house that had a laundry room. Twin Maytags hummed their rhythms as they automatically washed and dried my clothes.
Hanging on the wall above them was my old washboard - a reminder of the time when laundry day was an adventure.
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