Oujournalist’s Blog

The blog of a freelancing journalist in Arizona

Walkabout in the Sonoran Desert August 9, 2011

Filed under: Artists in Pinal County,green,Pinal County — Candace Hughes @ 9:22 pm

Candace S. Hughes


I woke up at around midnight to see our lawn chairs floating by on the back porch, thankful that the flooding wasn’t splashing into our house. Wooshing water and pelting raindrops remind me of the newness of living with the boom and bust of desert seasons.  When I lived in Phoenix, the flooding and drought didn’t seem as evident as they

now do in the desert.  While I miss the greenery and the art, music and culture in Phoenix, the urban greenery seems like a respite from the crunchy, brown desert where I now live. The one inch of rain in the night won’t bring us out of a drought, but it is welcome. The infrequent rainwater runoff from caliche when the desert is scraped and baked brings back the sadness I feel when I see the irrigation spilling onto sidewalks and streets when I walk in Phoenix.

Seven years ago I moved to the desert from the flood-irrigated Bermuda grass, rose bushes, and grapefruit trees of East Phoenix. As I see the expanses of greenery on the Arizona State University campus, I realize I’m about 40 miles away from my home in terms of paved roads, but many more in lessons learned about how to live in the desert during a drought. A photo of me taken by an aunt visiting from Michigan shows me after giving food and water to birds, one of my new roles I have embraced after losing most of the plants I brought with me to birds, rabbits, and ground squirrels. As quail call and strut in front of me, I forget the hot, dry summer and fall.

There was no monsoon with rain this year and I missed the mud left behind when the water rushes through our yard and up to our back door, always a fraction of an inch from coming in. After a long period with no rain, a rare December storm hit last night. I got up around midnight to peer onto our back porch and arose again at 5 to see if there was snow on the mountain. No snow, but the mountain was enveloped in fog with buttes poking out of the mist.

The first time this happened our cat ran back and forth from window to door, terrified. I drove the car to the end of the squishy dirt driveway to meet the school bus. An hour later, it hadn’t arrived. When I went back in the house, our 9-year-old daughter came calmly walking up after the water subsided. The bus driver had taken each student as close as possible to the house and waited for an adult or checked to see that the child entered safely. My daughter cuddled a kindergartner whose father rescues people stranded in the desert. She knew what happens when the washes run. Now I wonder if the bus driver checks houses to see if the air conditioning is on in November when it’s close to 100 degrees and children often walk a long ways from the bus stop to their homes.

To accommodate the large number of commuters, a new bridge on our road carries vehicles over the deepest wash and the stupid motorist signs are no longer needed. I prefer to work at home and watch the goldfinches and house finches on a thistle seed sock outside the window where my computer sits. After driving to Casa Grande, Mesa and Tempe, I found the jobs and travel too tiring and unfulfilling. Before the bridge construction, the numerous early morning drivers would inch up to the swiftly flowing stream, turn around, and search for alternate ways to go to work or school. Sometimes they just had to go home and wait for the water to go down. Once I received a call from my father in Ohio, who, watching Fox News, could see our house from the air as a helicopter hovered over a car stranded in a wash with a woman and child marooned on the roof. They were picked up before the car was carried downstream and left embedded in mud.

In Phoenix I could safely walk on the bare dirt banks of the Crosscut Canal at 40th Street and Camelback Road following a Mother duck and ducklings furiously paddling to avoid being drawn into the falls. I miss being able to walk or bike to the library, post office, grocery, coffee shops, and parks. One time my daughter and I walked to the movies in the rain and home again, arriving joyously cold and wet on a June day.

Now I’m in a 30-year-old ranch-style home on an acre-and-a-quarter in car-intensive Pinal County. The roads are too busy and narrow to bike, and distances too far to walk. Music and art events are sporadic during the Winter Visitor Season, and sparse from May to September. Still, I often have a sigh of relief when I drive home late at night and see the sky turning from dark gray to blue-black as I approach Pinal County. Even as I begin to count the stars, I mourn the loss of my urban way of life. I still haven’t let go of the busyness of Phoenix and learned to reflect on, enjoy and respect what is in front of me.

The desert hiking is abundant, reminding me of the times I would take off along Ohio’s Olentangy River and tramp through frost-covered wet leaves and up shale cliffs and encounter no one for miles. The only litter was an occasional bait can. In the BLM land across from my house, the desert is littered with batteries, car parts, construction and landscape materials, appliances and even a Journalism 101 textbook. Small flood control structures hardly seem necessary since there’s been so little rain, and stand strong despite years of tires running over them. Before the fencing went up, carloads of teenagers careened through the desert, hunters bushwhacked on four-wheeled vehicles equipped with mounted rifles, and dirt bikes noisily kicked up dust in the middle of the night.

Now I step through a gate and I’m on my way, eyes so accustomed to the junk piles I don’t even see them except when they are rearranged by the wind, water, or scavengers. I do pay attention when I come across makeshift shelters with discarded clothing and food wrappers, and horses hobbled out in grassy areas to eat when their owners can no longer feed them. At sunset, I discover two frightened, tied-up mud-covered horses. They won’t let me approach them and a pack of coyotes is circling. I call the sheriff’s office when I return home. A horse-rescue outfit is sent out.

Walking in the desert, I think of the Canalscape exhibit at the ASU Art Museum. There’s no choice to beautify the canals in the Phoenix area by simply adding desert trees and

plants, but no buildings. I enjoyed the canals as open space when I used to walk there. I think about when I locked my daughter in a child seat and biked on a canal path to a children’s reading time at the library. It was much more enjoyable than driving and parking in an underground garage, even though it was hot on the way home. The other value of the canals for desert dwellers is the healing aspect of running water. That’s why I retreated to the riverbank as a child and ignored calls to return home. When I lived by the canals, I reluctantly returned to our cool home, refreshed from watching the water as it was pumped vigorously through the various canals.

In Pinal County, we occasionally have a gentle rain, but it’s much more likely to be violent. With the scent of wet creosote comes the hope that our trees and plants will be saved, although for perhaps only a short time.

The Southwest Pieta outside the ASU Art Museum is shaded in the harsh noontime sun. I descend into the darkness of the museum. The recreated, orderly flow of water in the Canalscape exhibit helps me recall how happy I am when the rain is over in the desert. Hard structures controlling the water guide me past the bubbling liquid

to a painting of the Southwest Pieta. The Native American holds a female with her hair flowing like water. In the traditional Christian sculpture, a Mother holds Christ, bemoaning her loss. In this piece, I see a polychrome representation of the water, wildlife, and desert plants as we would like to remember them, not as they are today. One storm bearing one inch of rain isn’t likely to bring back the trees whose roots can’t reach the lowered groundwater table. The incessant pumping for homes and golf courses is removing what’s needed to keep the Sonoran desert alive.

The serenity of the landscaped ASU campus beckons with its many diversions and peaceful places to sit such as the rocking chair on the Piper House front porch. I sign the visitor book inside the home every Tuesday afternoon when I make my pilgrimage to campus, making promises to myself to return for the poetry readings. When I choose to stay at my new home in the desert, I see I am anchored in a new place.

The overnight storm blew the lid off our compost, exposing a pumpkin soup embellished with vegetable peelings. As I add this morning’s coffee grounds and apple cores, smell something new being made to add to our scanty 18 inches of topsoil. Although we may need to borrow our neighbor’s jackhammer, we’ll blast out a hole for our living Christmas tree and line the area with rotting matter sure to help the tree last awhile.

The Four Peaks, dusted with snow, peek from behind Superstition Mountain as we try for the third time to plant a pine tree in the Sonoran Desert.


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