Protecting Myself from the Sun, Rattlers, and Weird Old Dentists

I took my father to the dentist the other day. When we were out in the waiting, getting ready to leave, my father told that weird old guy that I often walked in the desert for a couple of hours at a time.

The dentist said, “Come here.” Um, yeah . . . like I’m going to do what a weird old guy says. For all I know, he could have instruments of torture he wanted to try out, or ancient dental equipment he wanted to use up.

I backed away, and he shook his head at me and said, “Have you ever seen skin cancer?”

I admitted I hadn’t.

“I want to show you what it looks like,” he said. “Come here.”

I stood my ground, so he called one of his assistants to the front, grabbed her by the arm and said, “Look.”

The woman had two small sores close to the elbow on her left arm. She told me it was skin cancer, that people who drove were prone to getting cancer on the left arm because of its exposure to the sun through the driver’s side window, which probably is true, but she also had the leathery skin of a person who’d once spent too much time sunbathing and who thought a sun visor sufficed for a hat.

He dismissed his assistant, then said, “That’s what the sun can do to you.”

“Do I really look stupid?” I asked.

He just frowned at me, and said, “I didn’t say you were.”

I told him I could take care of myself and left. The guy was not a doctor, he was a dentist, and not even my dentist. He could see I wasn’t tanned, or at least that my face wasn’t, since the rest of me was covered up, so why the concern? I mean, I’d only just met the guy.

I am not one of the fashionably unclad. I don’t wear short shorts, cropped tops, and flip-flops, and I especially don’t wear such things outside. If you saw me in the summer sun in my long pants, long-sleeved and high-necked shirts, my sturdy shoes and socks, my broad brimmed hat, my hand coverings, my face shiny from day cream with sunscreen, walking stick, a bottle of water in one pocket, my cell phone in another pocket, you’d probably think I was weird, but the truth is, I dress properly for the desert. Because of life’s ironies, I realize I will probably get skin cancer before my deeply tanned sister does, but I do the best I can to protect myself. (There is nothing one can do to protect against those ironies that life seems to delight in.)

Admittedly, the walking stick isn’t a garment, but it is necessary for hiking in the desert — it helps me keep my balance on steep rocky slopes, and it could provide some protection if I were to meet a rattler up close. I also make a point of never leaving the house without a bottle of water and my cell phone. Although many people around here treat the desert as if it were a cross between a park and a city dump, I never forget that I am an interloper in a wild place.