After just a few weeks in the Arizona-Sonora Desert, I realized I had learned the smell of water. It rains on average just 3 to 15 inches a year here; The cacti hoard the moisture, turning flowers hopefully to the sky. Hiking through the scorched canyons, I found that I could smell a small creek or trickling pool of water before I could see it. Just opening a water bottle and spilling a little onto the dry earth, I notice the scent of moisture.
When the rain does come, it does so with a violent abandon, pounding on soil too dry to quickly absorb it. It pools rapidly, filling the air with its clean scent. Often, these sudden rains will flood the creek beds. Only in the desert, in the late-summer rainy season, could you risk drowning and have everything bone-dry just hours later.
Despite the extreme environment, the Arizona-Sonora Desert is surprisingly gorgeous and, in late summer, full of color. The desert flowers are in bloom. Pillars of red rocks deepen to burnished with the changing light of day, and the canyons, riddled with nooks and crannies, seem deeper with every shift of the light.
Many people share this desert. Northbound migrants and the Border Patrol are not the only ones who crisscross along these trails and drive these roads; ranchers, cowboys and artists live in off-the-grid houses just a few miles from the border. To our west, under the gaze of their tall sacred mountain, live the Tohono Od’ham tribe, a nation unto themselves whose people are bisected by the U.S.-Mexico border.
For the Tohono Od’ham, this desert is their Eden, the place where they believe themselves to have been created. Stopping on the crest of a hill to appreciate an amazing desert sunset, I understand why they believe they were born here.
Living in the desert is a lesson in extreme beauty and extreme caution. Rattlesnake country is no place to forget where you plant your feet, regardless of the views of the canyons. I expressed my fear of these notorious snakes when I first arrived.
“Don’t worry too much about the rattlers,” I was told. “They’re more scared of you than you are of them.” Steve, a longtime resident of the Sonora Desert, winked at me. “Let me tell you a secret. Eighty percent of the people bitten by rattle-snakes are male. Of those, the vast majority are bitten on their hands and arms. The women who are bitten — just 20 percent of those bitten by rattlesnakes — are nearly always bitten on their legs. Now, what do you think of that?”
Not 24 hours later, I was walking down a desert trail when I heard the loud sound of a rattle to my left. If you ever want to see a human being set a high-jump record, hike a pair of maracas into the Sonora Desert. I jumped straight into the air, glimpsing the snake coiled and rising out of the brush a few feet away, and bolted.
“See?” said Steve. “Least-ways they give you fair warning. Nice little snakes.
“And don’t forget to shake your sleeping bag before you get into it at night,” he added. “Check for scorpions.”
I can’t say I’ll be forgetting that advice anytime soon.
Snakes and scorpions aren’t the only animals in the desert, though I’ll admit they’re the ones I spend the most time looking for. Deer, coyote and even mountain lions leave their tracks in the creek beds. Most are shy, avoiding the heat and gravitating toward water.
I can’t blame them. I try to drink a gallon a day while I’m here, keeping two or three water bottles always on hand.
Storm clouds build in the west, burgeoning into thunder-heads, and the hot afternoon air turns suddenly cool and electric. Miles away from us, we see the moment it starts to rain — it’s as though the bottom of the clouds have suddenly dropped, created a solid pillar of water down to the mesa. It stops just 20 minutes later, and though it has not rained over us, we smell the water coming toward us: a flash flood in the wash. Water rushes down the creek bed, filling it with a strong and startling current. I stand and watch it, amazed. We will not be able to cross this road.
An hour later, the water is gone, leaving only the lingering taste of humidity in the air. In another two hours, my clothes, wet from the flash flood, are completely dry.
“Welcome to the Sonora Desert,” Steve tells me.
Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures and to e-mail questions to her, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com.