In Spring Valley

Spring Valley was made of the leftovers, the parts upturned and cast aside when the cities around it had formed. Here the fast-food joints were interchangeable and served the same sloppy food combinations. Retail stores declared bankruptcy, were replaced by a facsimile, then reappeared years later as if this suburb was a transitory place that revitalized stores from the edge of death until they were well enough to thrive in the real world beyond.

The punishing summer sun beamed its unrelenting spotlight on us. Pedestrians lumbered, all glistening languid limbs, down the valley’s shade-parched streets. Everything felt less-than in that heat; never quite what anyone needed it to be. The wear and tear of everyday life tarnished the outside of everything. The streets were greasy and uneven. Crowdedness was prevalent. Apartments cropped up in lots too small for the buildings that loomed there. The houses, jammed close together, were rundown and grimy. 

We lived on Dictionary Hill, Spring Valley’s protruding heart. The name was deceptive: it was more like a small mountain than a hill. Cars jerked and wheezed as they struggled upward on its winding roads. Canyons cut through it, creating a maze of neighborhoods. No one who had a choice walked up the hill; and if you did like I always had to, drivers passed by with a pitying smile. The view from the hill’s peak made Spring Valley look like a somewhat respectable, glimmering nation.

Our house sat atop a curved driveway in the middle of a sharp, sloped road. Barren earth and rock formed our front and backyards, so we found our respite inside, scattered across the split level of our home. In the summers, when wildfires crept up the nearby mountains, the distant smoke waved to us like a flag in warning. We watched from our balcony as the smoke plumed into the sky well into the evening only to awaken the next morning to a twin plume on another mountain. We prayed the fires would not engulf our neighborhood. The one time that a brush fire raced up the canyon behind our home, the air boiled and the dry scrub popped and blackened as red-orange flames crawled closer to us.

When the smoke cleared we set our gazes to the Sweetwater Reservoir in the distance. The wind plucked gentle waves upon its surface. The short green grass stirred in the whipping breeze. Birds cruised and dipped overhead. It was always quiet. Looking at that unremarkable blue lake, we could imagine we were someplace more inviting. With Tijuana on the horizon, a trail of lights in the far distance that winked at us, beckoning our escape at night, it almost felt possible that we were anywhere else but in that valley.

DW McKinney

DW McKinney is a writer and editor based in Nevada. A 2024 Virginia Center for the Creative Arts Fellow, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Oxford American, Los Angeles Review of Books, Ecotone, The Normal School, and TriQuarterly. A comics reviewer for Publishers Weekly, she is also a nonfiction editor for Shenandoah. Say hello at

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