Water God Breathing: Sonoran Desert
Water moved through the desert. Black filings of iron ghosted a stream that I followed, drawing along a sand bed. It was not much, just a trickle that would last no more than fifteen minutes. A hard rain had just cleared, the ground still dotted with little pops of hail. Newborn stream nosed under lances of dope-green ragweed, and turned through a bowl of gathered mesquite leaves before finding its way ahead.
I walked alongside wearing a beaten, white cowboy hat. My wool serape smelled like a wet dog. I had some water with me, a journal, a pen. I kept a few other important things dry in my pants pockets under the serape, a paperback of Mary Oliver, a folded love letter from my wife, and a worn photograph of my son. Nothing else was needed for a walk through southern Arizona on a blustery day.
This was the greenest I had seen this desert in decades. Weeks of sporadic winter rain had been falling, conjuring up racy fields of plant life. The many flowers had not yet appeared, but I could feel them. Every green thing here swelled, ready to pop. Years of drought had left the place yearning, countless seeds of a hundred species begging for just a taste of life. This was the year.
I walked across a lawn of tiny purple flowers, ones with a name I did not know, always the first to spring open in the rain. Tassel leafed mustards cropped up beneath creosote bushes.
A shower passed to the north allowing shreds of sunlight to fall across the desert before the next storm arrived, each coming on the half hour. I followed this tongue of a newborn stream among green-barked paloverde trees the color of emeralds shot with sunlight. Though this is my childhood desert and I spent decades living and traveling here, it was still an easy place to get lost. I had done it before, wandering well into the night among moonlit heads of cactus, looking for a way back to my camp, to my vehicle, to the road. Everything looks about the same down here, row after row of little washes, ranges of cactus and paloverde, big washes. The rangy shapes of plants repeat each other in every direction, giving no clue as to direction. Low clouds rolled across each other, obscuring the sun.
I keyed off of a blue mountain range far behind me, and then another blue mountain range far ahead. I was stretched between the two in the long, articulated country of the bajada. As I checked back and forth, I saw a bloodspot of a red cardinal perched in a gauze of paloverde branches. It flew off and I began walking again.
A thrasher flashed across the ground twenty feet ahead, a little, ruby-eyed bird taking a quick glance at me and then disappearing. The birds were out after this fresh rain, their calls baubling and piercing from the brush. A hawk perched high atop a saguaro cactus, a watchful sentinel, a male Cooper's. When I stopped to look at him he lifted away, wings gathering light, damp wind.
The Sonoran Desert is an arboreal desert, a place of trees, and birds take well to it. Through these trees I had no view of where exactly I was. I thought it was no wonder people who had lived here seven hundred years ago built their settlements upon artificial mounds. An extra ten feet would get you up high enough to see everything, and to be seen by everyone. From the ground, though, I might as well have been walking through an oak thicket.
Hohokam platform mounds showed up late in the archaeological record, one of the last prehistoric features of this desert. They were pedestals erected with considerable human effort, and on their roofs were adobe buildings and courtyards that would have looked like citadels standing over the desert. Curiously, these platform mounds first arrived along with a rash of artifacts associated with migrants from the highlands beyond here. At the same time, local ballcourts similar to those found among the Mayans and Aztecs, went out of favor. Some scholars have suggested that the people living here took a defensive posture against intruders by building raised communities, and began associating more with northern traditions than with southern ones. The other side of the argument is that the migrants were the actual innovators of these platform mounds. People coming down off the Colorado Plateau were well known for building up on the tips of things, positioning themselves as high as possible for the view.
Casa Grande, an archaeological site in the region, is a multi-story compound that still rises from the desert like a beacon. It is the largest singular prehistoric building still standing in the Southwest, as perfectly squared and tuned to cardinal directions as a Middle Eastern ziggurat. These days pigeons roost in its second and third stories, gathering on cool, wet days like this in high doorways and decaying walls. Some of Casa Grande's accompanying buildings are still visible today, the sprawling foundations of houses and plazas contained by the formidable square of a perimeter wall. The place feels like a great house of older days, but is made of adobe instead of masonry. Some scholars believe it is a great house, a later, southern iteration of what was once built in Chaco.
When I was young my father took me to see Casa Grande. Afterward, we drove out to the desert to camp. He stopped his truck at the edge of an eroded terrace and walked me out to a place he knew of. I do not recall any sort of structure having been there, but the ground was covered with pottery, broken and enchanting pieces of what I now know as Salado polychrome. He had crouched and fingered out one of the pieces, then held it up as if it were a glass lens. He had passed it across to me, its red face marked with spurs of black and white paint.
"This is very old," my father had told me. "People before us, from another time." He had run his fingers across the ground, saying then, "I see them sometimes, ghosts dancing out there. They are still here."
My father often brought me to the desert, telling me again and again of dancing ghosts that I never saw with my own eyes. His explanations lingered in my imagination, people before us...another time...ghosts dancing...still here.
It felt good to be back in the Sonoran Desert, following this small stroke over water down its slender path, feeling the tug of mesquite thorns on my serape and the grappling pull of catclaw. I long for this place whenever I've been gone. It is utterly unlike the plateau desert to the north, the place of Hopi, of Zuni, of Hisatsinom, Atlashinawke, Anasazi. This is where I was born, the Sonoran Desert. Though I was conceived on the Colorado Plateau, there is no doubt some affiliation stretched between here and there, chemical traces of both landscapes in my deepest memory. This place is the Yin of my life, while north is the Yang. I have done nothing since childhood but move back and forth, north and south.
Up there the land belongs solely to North America, a desert of the Great Basin sparse with junipers and ricegrass, swells of fine-grained sandstone lifting in unison as if to a drumbeat underground. Down here, in Arizona, the land is broken into basins and ranges, and the environment is more closely tied to the tropics, a succulent desert. The Sonoran lies on the far, northern fringe of Mesoamerican climates, and especially today it remotely had a taste of jungle. Even gangle-limbed creosote bushes beamed green. Teddy bear cholla glistened across higher, flatter bajadas, their silvery arms covered with needles so sharp and finely barbed that a pair of pliers is sometimes needed to extract them from skin. I passed through these thigh-tall cactus, pulling in the damp skirt of my serape so it would not snag. I felt as if I were walking through a coral reef, all sorts of spines and beautiful poisons blooming around me, ocotillo spangling upward like sea creatures. The Sonoran is an otherworldly desert. It still had that feel for me even after all the years I had spent here. I smiled to be back.
Saguaros gathered together, the good old boys of the desert patting each other on the back. Their June flowers would be rich this year, plumes of white linen. The stream swept below these stately cactus pushing a head of foam as it wrapped across the sand. For a short time nearly every year streams wander down the many cobbled washes of this region, washes that eleven and a half months of year are absolutely dry. Little of this water is bound to any ocean. It reaches as far as it can across the desert and then recedes. Quick floods arrive in July, August, or September followed by these slow purls of January, February, or March. Year by year the cadence unloads whole rivers directly into the ground. The rainy finger I followed was the smallest of these projections, water sleepwalking onto the land.
Finally this water faded. With the rain gone, the stream fell back into the sand, returning to the underworld after its season in the sky. I stood at its final reach where it soaked out of sight. I had hoped it would lead me to larger and larger washes, finally to one hissing in flood, but this was not such a storm. I watched the stream sink back into the ground.
Where, oh where do you go? All my life I have wondered. My earliest memory is the smell of water in the desert, my earliest story that of being a child standing among desert cobbles where a rare appearance of a stream suddenly ended. I once stood in an abruptly dry place peering at the ground, imagining another world pulsating beneath me, underground passages of water. My father used to tell me about watersheds and I thought of old, wooden shacks erected like shrines where water magically appeared from the earth.
I walked away from the wash, listening to ground sucking and guzzling. Damp hollows slowly drained into their own hearts, pressing like a sponge beneath my step. In prehistoric times in the Sonoran Desert, such a year would have produced some of the finest agricultural land in North America. Rarely seeing a frost, and with a bimodal pattern of viable crop rains falling across two seasons, it was a prime place to be growing things. People from the Colorado Plateau and from the highlands had only one span of a growing season and it was often cut short between the early frost of October and the late frost of April. The corn they grew was often stunted, barely enough time to sprout, flower, and seed. When people from the north and the east showed up in the Sonoran Desert seven hundred years ago it must have felt as if they had walked straight into a breadbasket. They entered a place where water tables suspended just beneath the surface, any used water restored rapidly by coming rains. Alluvial basins are filled with gravel that holds the water, directing underground rivers that rise to the surface in places and then fall away. There are ancient stories down here of floods erupting from the ground, and of sacrificing children to make the water stop. For people who came from highlands, this must have seemed like the leaking heart of the earth, the ground lucid after a rainstorm, floods sinking back into the dark chambers of the underworld.
I stopped at a little loaf of granite on the ground. I knelt and picked it up, feeling its heft and its smoothness. It was a metate, a grinding stone. They had been here. People before us...another time...ghosts dancing...still here.
Who exactly had been here was difficult to discern from just one stone, but there are places in this region piled with ruins. Excavations have pulled up a city's worth of artifacts. Archaeologically, this is a very prosperous region. For at least thirteen thousands years people lived in this area, gathered along oasis rivers like the San Pedro River. Artifacts suggest that first it was mammoth hunters, and deer hunters after that. Hunter-gatherers were followed by the urban planners of Hohokam who were next overwhelmed by migrants building northern-style pueblos, which over time turned dry and fell back into the hands of hunter gatherers.
City builders stayed for a very long time, lulled by the faithful rhythms of bimodal rainfall. These Hohokam people appear to have been the incontestable heartbeat of the Southwest. They did not indulge in the migratory fanaticism of their Anasazi counterparts from the highlands and plateau desert. They showed a high degree of fidelity to their network of waterways, the Gila River, the Salt, the Santa Cruz, and the San Pedro. Some of their settlements along these rivers were occupied for an unbroken seven hundred years, a sedentary timeframe unthinkable to the constantly mobilizing people of the Colorado Plateau.
Four present-day tribes from all across the Southwest now recognize ancestral ties to this part of the desert: The Tohono O'odham who still live in southern Arizona, the Athabaskan Apaches now living in the Mogollon Highlands, the Zuni from the eastern drainages of the Little Colorado in the northern plateau country, and the Hopi still farther to the north in Arizona. Up until the eighteenth century the Hopi were regularly traveling down here for trade, and when the first expedition of conquistadors came through in the sixteenth century they met Zuni settlers and heard much talk among the natives of routes leading from here back to Zuni almost 250 miles away.
The next rain arrived on schedule, half an hour after the last. Its first few drops landing like feathers on my face. I was not moving at much of a pace, kind of lost among pillars of saguaros and sprawling greenery all around. Lost or not lost, on this day there was little difference between the two. I was heading toward a blue mountain range ahead, a good enough destination.
Following a faint cattle trail and then a line of flat-faced prickly pear cactus, one way was as good as any other. Pocks of cattle hooves in the soil began filling with fresh rainwater. I had heard the bawling of a cow earlier, but it was a mile off and I certainly could not see the creature through all this thorny brush.
I slipped off my brimmed hat, letting it hang by its cord in the center of my back, and pulled up the peaked, wool hood of my serape to keep my head dry. Rain grew into a downpour, the ground popping with pinheads of hail. Through a fine, pulsing mist I saw a barbed wire fence stretched across my path. I took it with a quick vault, boot sole planting on a taut strand and turning me to the other side. The fence caught a tuft of wool from my serape and kept it. I glanced back at the sign of my passage, thinking it looked like a puff of animal fur, some creature caught bounding over this fence.
No more than fifty feet farther I came to a highway that leads to Tucson. It was a black, two-laned streak through the desert, a dotted yellow line running down its center. I turned to walk along the highway's shoulder in a grinding path of pea gravel. Cars fled past, bursts of sound dragged out for miles, tires hissing in the rain. I walked just off the shoulder when they came. I did not want to get picked up or be offered a ride. I was just a wet animal out for a walkabout.
As I traveled down the road I thought that I should slip back into the desert, that a sheriff or highway patrol might stop me and I would have to explain what I was doing out here, no towns nearby, no houses. The next major settlement north of here had a maximum-security prison. Signs along the highway read DO NOT STOP FOR HITCHIKERS. Safer to be in the desert, I thought. They would stop me on the highway and I would tell them of the smell of rain, the feel of my homeland on my skin, and they would insist on giving me a ride to somewhere I did not want to be.
Each car sped by and I kept my eyes to the ground.
A Native American man had recently been incarcerated for a crime and as far as I knew was still in a jail out here. His name is Octavio Luis Perez and he had been locked up for a few months without a trial. The problem was he spoke a language no one seemed to know. His words were too far from Spanish or English to sound familiar to his captors, so they assumed he was Native American. But when various native translators were contacted, his language remained a mystery. He could not read a map and did not know the name of countries. It took months until a panel of linguists finally isolated a few of his words, realizing he spoke an isolated, nearly lost dialect of northern Mam from the highlands of western Guatemala, an ancient language of the Mayans.
His story had stirred my curiosity, a man imprisoned far from home, a traveler in another world speaking in tongue few people know. If this was possible in this day and age, I figured the same might be true in reverse. There could be people living far south of here alone in their own language, an isolated tribe speaking Zuni somewhere in Mexico or Central America, maybe Peru by now. I wondered if the Zuni's Lost Others were still intact out there, maintaining their cultural integrity as Colorado Plateau people are want to do. Perhaps they still told stories about a holy landscape, reciting legends of emergence, living in the jungle and recalling a desert of their origin bespangled with streams.
Where the highway crossed a notable wash, I walked down into it, stopping to peer into a culvert concreted into the ground below. I bowed into its passageway, my hands nearly grazing the floor as I crouched along an aluminum cave. A bit of water trickled through, not a flood, just a sliver of rain. I stopped there, getting out from the weather and away from the highway for a moment. Pulling back my hood I stared out of the hole at rain sheeting down outside, the desert setting into motion. Every few minutes a car shrieked over my head, sending an involuntary shiver down my back, dragging my attention toward Tucson.