As I grew older, my height difference with my peers narrowed until I was merely "tallish," you might say. Since I also developed roughly the eye-hand coordination of, say, a beer-addled septuagenarian with an eyepatch (go ahead, bring it on, old man!), there was never any risk that I might pursue a basketball career—the sort of temptation that's led so many inner-city youth astray. No dreams of collegiate hoops glory for me, much less the NBA. "Air Fryxell" shoes would have been a big hit, though, if I'd sprouted another eight inches or so and actually been able to put a basketball through the hoop occasionally.
The redheaded kid did go on to play college basketball, though he never put enough meat on his bones to take the whomping big-time players must endure. That was long ago, though, and now I suppose he's just tall, with no special use for his extra inches. The kind of guy who gets sympathetic stares when trying to scrunch into airplane seats designed for munchkins.
The pros and cons of being big come to mind now as I study the black-eared jackrabbit that's become a regular visitor to our backyard, where he's found the windfall apples quite munchable. The jackrabbit is big. No, I take that back—it's BIG.
My prior encounters with jackrabbits were limited to the scrawny Great Plains variety, which I recall as looking pretty much like run-of-the-mill bunnies whose tails had gotten caught in a door and who'd gotten elongated with the effort of escaping. No big deal, much less a BIG deal. As a city kid, I saw these critters only at basketball games, when fans of the college where my parents taught brought dead jackrabbits to toss on the arena floor in a display of undying enmity for our arch-rival, the South Dakota State Jackrabbits. I'm pretty sure the redheaded kid went on to play for the Jackrabbits, as it happens.
(Our other arch-rival was the University of South Dakota Coyotes, another critter I never saw in the fur until moving to New Mexico, where now we hear them howl several nights a week. Coyotes, alas, were too much for our fans to subdue for arena-floor fodder. Fish, though, those were easy and appealingly smelly when my high school played the crosstown Catholic school in those unenlightened days. Being the arena janitor must have been hell.)
The jackrabbit also seems more solitary than the other rabbits, which often hop together in small sibling clusters. Once we think we saw a Mrs. Jackrabbit, but usually it's just the one big guy. The habitat probably can't support too many rabbits of that size, I guess—pretty soon they'd have exhausted the windblown apples and start kicking the trees to drop more, putting those long, kangaroo-like legs to use.
So the jackrabbit visits all by himself, nobody to have to share our apples with. It looks like a lonely life, beside the nibbling parties of smaller rabbits and the gabbling family groups of quail.
Being big is not always what it's cracked up to be, it seems.
Similarly, cities have run afoul of the downsides of bigness, snarled in traffic jams and gobbling up the exurban landscape like a hungry jackrabbit in an apple orchard. Even my South Dakota hometown, which held steady at about 60,000 people throughout my childhood, has exploded past the six-figure mark—without the infrastructure to match. When we go back to visit, the traffic on four-lane 41st Street—which used to mark almost the edge of town—boggles us. Newly minted subdivisions with curlicue streets named "Rose Crescent Trail" and "Auburn Hills Court" and the like sprout as far as 85th Street. The stretch of dirt road where I once learned to drive (another skill, like shooting a basketball, I struggled with) has become the busiest avenue in town.
Is my hometown better for being bigger? Or just bigger?
I never particularly yearned to escape to the "big city"—which for me would have been the big cities, plural, of the twin Minneapolis and St. Paul—when I was a restless youth. But inevitably, after college, career dreams took me there. Subsequent job-hopping took us mostly to other big cities—Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, back to the Twin Cities, Cincinnati—with only a couple of short stints in places about the size of my boyhood hometown.
We always told ourselves we could never live without the amenities that come with bigness—the art museums, the shopping malls, big-league sports. The truth was, of course, that we'd see the art museum once or twice in the five years or so we'd live in a given big city, no more than if we'd just visited as tourists. We might go to a couple of baseball games a season, and pro football was mostly too pricey. Pro basketball? Well, you already know my affinity for "hoops." Why should I pay to watch guys who make me feel short?
We did frequent the shopping malls, sure, but now that the nearest mall is an hour and 45 minutes away, in Las Cruces, it's amazing how well we can live without shopping as entertainment. When we do go on a city shopping excursion, it's much more fun than when it was no big deal. In the meantime, we're spending a lot less money.
When we first moved to Silver City—by far the smallest town we've ever called home—we felt the need (or convinced ourselves that we did) to go to the big city more often than we do now. Between trips to the airport (where we tried to work in some shopping) and pure shopping trips, we got to know the route to Tucson as well as we once knew 41st Street back in South Dakota. A few more trips and we'd start giving names to the rocks in Texas Canyon, along I-10.
This year, though, we haven't been to Tucson since early March. That was fun, but we've lost that burning need for whatever "bigness" brings. And Tucson, of course, is dwarfed by really big cities. We keep talking about going to Phoenix—especially now that there's an Ikea, where we can indulge our Scandinavian roots—but never seem to get around to making the trip. We last drove up to Albuquerque when I had a book-signing there, and haven't felt up to facing the "Hatch or the Black Range?" dilemma since.
Part of this can be put down to age, I'm sure. Our daughter, who lives in Nashville (she'll be starting graduate school as you read this, getting a master's at Vanderbilt in organizational leadership—thanks for asking), can't imagine living in a small town, though she enjoys visiting here. At her age, we couldn't imagine it, either. Bigness was everything. Bigger was better. Size mattered.
So I think I feel a little bit sorry for our lonely jackrabbit, out there eating apples all by itself. Sure, it's big—freakishly, staringly so, by the standards of the other animals in the neighborhood. I suppose its size grants some protection—too big for a hawk to swoop off with, probably—and the jackrabbit's gangly hind legs must make for speedy getaways. It never seems as fragile and vulnerable as the little furballs that sometimes hop up to nibble nearby.
But there's always something bigger, isn't there? Hit a jackrabbit as it tries to cross the highway and it's just as dead. Let a coyote catch one and my bet would still be on the coyote. Even if you built a jackrabbit of Godzilla-sized proportions—well, that didn't work for the dinosaurs, did it, not in the long run? The littler lizards are still about, while the "thunder lizards" are paleo-history.
Besides, big as humans and our creations are, the smart money says over the eons it's the cockroaches who'll inherit the earth.
You ever see a cockroach make a turnaround jump shot?
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure. He's six-feet tall, even.