It’s late July on the north edge of the Valley of the Sun, and things are dreamy as the roosters crow at false dawn. I’ve got beery memories of crystal meth cowboys hitting the glass pipe before furiously hammering together a tack room in an old wooden shed … white light white heat instead of ye olde white lightning, Metallica instead of Willie and Waylon, but cowboy hats and boots all the same. I was drunk and trying to help but ended up on my back in the desert dirt watching night lightning explode silently beyond the jagged black outline of thirsty mountains north, west, and east. Not a drop of rain though. Not for 100 days or more.
The cowboys are still hammering away. I can hear them loud and clear from my cave in the back of my truck, where I’m sweaty and covered with flies fresh off the manure pile. I’d sleep in my Dad’s trailer if I could, but need a few hours respite from the permanent clouds of cigarette smoke that have gradually stained EVERYTHING — ceiling, can opener, framed photos, false teeth, curtains — a yellowish brown color. He’s in there right now, finishing up his morning prayer and getting ready to light his first smoke and pour the day’s first shot of gin at 6 in the morning. No savings, no retirement, nothing but lost years, a disability check and an ancient trailer to house his broken body. A youth spent riding bulls and whores now just riding it out — hard living and a long decline punctuated by a monthly trip to Safeway and the daily ritual of cranking Hendrix and the swamp cooler up to full blast round about 10 a.m.
The sun rises from behind the Mazatzal Range, instantly nudging the thermometer into the mid-90s and forcing me out of my sanctuary. I slip on pants and shoes and crawl out of my truck, ready to kick the rooster that attacks me every morning, but he’s nowhere to be seen. I relax and piss in the gravel between a mound of old tires and the remains of two vintage satellite dishes. Such wreckage is everywhere: Pickup trucks without engines, engines without trucks, piles of pipe and fence posts, bent bicycles and broken toys, rusted horseshoes and barbed wire, bullet shells and beer cans, and tumbleweeds impaled upon the perimeter fence line. Not to mention the scrapped singlewides at the edge of the property, windows shot out, chock full of black widows and bad memories.
The brand-new doublewide (only one window busted out) right next to Dad’s place is all closed up, but the television is blaring already. It’s probably been on all night. In a little while, that trailer door will open and a toothless tweaker grandma will stand on the rickety stairs and holler endlessly in the most-grizzled and raspy voice imaginable: “GODDAMN IT PEANUT, GET BACK HERE PEANUT, GODDAMN IT PEANUT” — Peanut being the family Chihuahua who’s yipping at a rattlesnake coiled beneath the monster truck in the driveway.
But, for now, things are peaceful, and other than the hum of distant traffic on I-17, I hear nothing but the sounds of animals: the coos of mourning doves, chickens clucking as they peck at scraps thrown from all the front doors, packs of cattle dogs stretching and scratching fleas, a few dozen cattle staggering toward feed troughs and the snorts and whinnies of horses demanding to be fed. I wave to a tiny Guatemalan woman as she steps out of her windowless shack along with her three young children, all of whom quickly begin filling water barrels, distributing hay and oats and grooming the horses like they’ve been doing it all their lives. Maybe they have been. Her husband was swept up by La Migra three months ago when they raided the racetrack where he cleans the stalls of thoroughbreds and nobody knows when he’ll be back. But the folks who own this place (a pious Mormon wife and a beer-swilling Jack Mormon husband) are kind to everybody who’s found refuge out here. They’ll feed and shelter the family until El Padre is able to make the long walk across the border and through the desert. Again.
High noon. 105 degrees or so, supposed to top out around 113. A morning of sharing his stroke-and-gin-slurred rodeo and racetrack stories has tired Dad, so he settles into the easy chair for a nap. I open the trailer door and am hit by an oven blast of heat, then down the steps to the driveway, across the cattle guard and into the desert.
People say they love the desert, and they probably do … at Thanksgiving when they’re visiting family in Tucson and walking around in sandals; in winter when they’re fleeing Midwestern blizzards to ride mountain bikes in Las Cruces; in springtime when they’re snapping photos of El-Niño-year wildflowers in Death Valley. Few would claim to love the desert now, during a July that is slated to be the driest on record, just as the sun reaches its apex.
The intense heat is exhilarating, but I’m only hiking a few miles today, on mostly flat ground, with plenty of water. Not long enough to feel the full force of the summer Sonoran desert sun. Not far enough to get disoriented by shimmering heat waves. Not thirsty enough to gauge my own love for the desert.
The path is a cow path, a horse trail, a slinking coyote track, and it braids its way through this bone-dry floodplain, where the miles-long slope of the bajada — gravel and cobbles eroded from yonder mountains — meets the sandy bed of the New River. There are stones in the parched river bed that are pleasantly smooth. Nothing else here is pleasant or smooth. Mountains rise like the armored back of a Stegosaurus. Black chunks of basalt are sharp and baking hot beneath my boots. Turn one over and you might find a scorpion, angry and ready to strike. The bleached ribs of unlucky cattle are splintered and pointy. The rattlesnakes are poisonous and marked by angular patterns, the tarantulas hairy and as big as a man’s hand. The javelinas bristle with wiry hair and tusks — TUSKS! — and rabid packrats hunker down beneath an impenetrable midden of gathered thorns. Even the ghosts of life-giving waters — the same waters that caressed the river stones to smoothness — are rough and tumble: raging flash floods are far more common than the occasional placid spring flows.
There are animals all around me, but I am unlikely to see them today. Some have burrowed down into cool earth, or followed others who did the digging for them, and they won’t come out again until nightfall. Others have walked to scattered pockets of shade, or — like the Yavapai Indians of yore, or modern exurbanites rushing north to Flagstaff second homes — migrated upward to rest in the relative coolness and sip from the hidden springs of the Mogollon highlands. A handful — the vultures especially — are riding it out thousands of feet up in the sky, soaring for hours on thermal updrafts created by the very heat they seek to escape.
Clouds are piling up above the piney island of the Bradshaw Mountains — virginal white cumulus clouds signaling the annual arrival of moisture from torrid climes farther south. Everywhere else is arching blue sky and blinding sunlight, and the hopeful spring tide of plant life is ebbing. Clumpy brown grasses are brittle and rattle in the occasional hot breeze. Parched shrubs crackle at the slightest touch. The succulent flesh of stout barrel cacti is wrinkled and pale. A few desiccated flowers cling forlornly
My feeble human brain is tempted to pity these suffering plants. This is a foolish notion. One misstep could send me reeling into a white mass of cholla cactus, and I would spend the next year yanking tiny Velcro-like spines out of my flesh while pondering the tenacity of desert flora. Unable to flee the merciless sun, these plants must endure it, and the hammers of drought and heat have crafted extreme adaptations that allow them to survive where little else will. Roots secrete poisons to keep other plants away from their patch of sporadically damp soil. Waxy stems seal in precious moisture. Many trees have no leaves at all — their green bark contains chlorophyll, which allows them to photosynthesize without transpiring water to the incessant suck of the greedy desert sun. Taproots plunge deep into the earth in search of reliable groundwater. Seeds lie dormant for decades at a time, waiting for conditions to become just right before germinating. And everywhere, on almost everything: THORNS, SPIKES, QUILLS AND NEEDLES parry the desperate nibbles of creatures yearning for a taste of succulent plant flesh.
I pause in the long shade of a centuries-old saguaro to sip water and wipe the sweat from my face. The once-exhilarating sunshine has become oppressive, but I know the end is near. Not for me, but for this particular chunk of Sonoran Desert. I see the survey stakes. I smell the diesel fumes. I hear the bulldozers. Just beyond the barbed wire, just beyond this doomed wash, the heavy machinery of civilization is transforming desert into something else entirely: The Phoenix.
I hop barbed wire and enter a lifeless war zone of churned gravel and black diesel smoke. Earthmovers versus Earth, steel Caterpillars versus actual caterpillars, dump trucks versus desert. The desert is losing, for now anyway, as these acres are bought and sold down the dry river, destined to become a Big Box overlooking a floodplain golf course. I stroll through the wreckage, dodging heavy equipment and men in hardhats, who seem not to see me, and step upon a sprawling expanse of fresh black asphalt that’s been sponging up solar radiation for many hours. The temperature quickly becomes unbearable, forcing me to make a beeline through acres of shiny new automobiles toward the gigantic stucco refuge of an OUTLET MALL.
In an instant, the harsh Arizona desert becomes scenic backdrop, and I’m strolling through the pastels of a shady Spanish villa, a haven of hanging flower gardens, singing fountains, cooling mists and flamenco music emanating from hidden speakers. My solitude is gone as well, for I’m surrounded by people: clean people in clean clothes braving infernal parking lots for a chance at a square deal on kitchenware or golf accessories. The door to the food court opens, releasing a gust of Arctic wind that swirls frigid for an instant before being swallowed up by the simmering afternoon air. I am tempted to enter, tempted to sit and relax for a moment in climate-controlled comfort, but force myself to keep walking. Must not taste the forbidden fruit of air conditioning, not this early in the day.
I leave the mall, cross another sun-blasted parking lot, blister my hands climbing a molten chain link fence, and find myself surrounded by a jumble of exit/entrance ramps, stoplights and a mad rush of plumbers, soccer moms and cement trucks rushing too and fro. To my surprise, there is a sidewalk, and I follow it across a freeway, the only pedestrian for miles around. Everyone else is sequestered away in boxes of steel and glass, windows sealed, air conditioning blasting away, denying the desert its due. Exhaust fumes fill my nostrils. Gritty sweat stings my eyes. And then a mirage: twin white waterfalls cascading down miniature mountains into crystalline pools.
But it’s not a mirage — it’s ANTHEM BY DEL WEBB, an award-winning development by one of the planet’s largest land developers. Just five years ago, this was 20,000 acres of empty desert, home to roadrunners and a handful of half-wild cows. Four years ago, the first survey stakes appeared, and the saguaros (as per state law) were tagged and removed. Now, there are two new freeway exits and two new zip codes receiving J.Crew catalogs for upward of 20,000 people (slated, recession notwithstanding, to be 36,000). Instant city: just add water, and the barren desert sprouts Safeways, Walgreens, McDonalds, Starbucks, sports bars, Radio Shacks, dry cleaners, places of non-pagan worship, hundreds of miles of roads and thousands upon thousands of brown stucco homes marching up the hillsides — or as the billboard says: WE BUILD THE PLACE YOU BUILD THE LIFE.
I pass between the gateway waterfalls — one on each side of “Anthem Way” — and a long row of mini-malls toward the Welcome Center, where I rest in the shade of a 20-foot-tall aluminum golf ball and gaze through tall windows at a big map of the neighborhood. Five neighborhoods, actually, each tailored to a specific income bracket, plus three schools, two country clubs, and scattered pockets of “gated-access” communities. Street names seem to fall into four categories: community ethics (Prosperity Rd., Integrity Ln.), intrepid explorers (Kit Carson Pl., Lewis and Clark Circle), homage to recently displaced wildlife (Panther Run, Noble Hawk Dr.) and American literary icons (Whitman Dr., Thoreau Way).
And what would Henry David Thoreau do when the digital thermometer reads 115 degrees? Take a dip in his swimming pool behind his home on Walden Court, I’m sure, but since I lack keyed access to that side of town, I cross the street and head for the Community Park instead, eyes peeled for artificial water features. The park is green with well-tended grass, and indeed has a small lake and a couple of fountains. Nobody is around. I smell like I’ve been sleeping in a barn — right next to the barn actually — and I’d love nothing more than a swim. But signs inform me that the park is for Anthem residents only. And no swimming in the lake. And keep off the grass. And no wading in the fountains either.
Right on cue, a white pickup, SECURITY, rolls slowly down the deserted bike path, headed my way, so I turn my back on the life-giving waters and jaywalk across a busy feeder street to the supermarket parking lot. Car alarms howl. SUV doors open and slam shut. Horns honk as vehicles jockey for coveted parking spots close to the entryway — trying to minimize exposure to the long hot summer day. I pause in front of the automatic doors, take a deep breath, then plunge into the confines of a mammoth Safeway store. 78 degrees: nearly 40 degrees cooler than the uncontrollable climate outside. I shiver my way to the beer aisle — 10 below zero surely — and ponder my options: I’ve got some loose change in my pocket, enough for a high-fallutin’ bomber of microbrew or 40 ounces of shitty beer. Feeling white trashy and thirsty, I purchase a 40 of Mickey’s and return to the uncontrolled climate outside.
A few minutes of air conditioning has ruined an entire day’s worth of hard-earned heat tolerance, and I feel like I’m standing too close to a bonfire. Fortunately, I’ve got a big bottle of rapidly warming beer and a good idea. Outta the shopping plaza. Pass through the brimstone parking lot. Ignore dead ends and cul-de-sacs. Deny beckoning iced coffees. Overcome the fear of Neighborhood Watch. It’s 3 in the afternoon, and the mercury is peaking, but I’ve got my eye on the prize. I trod the sidewalks back to the main arterial roadway, glory bound for the gateway oasis.
The pools reappear — aquamarine jewels beneath tumbling falls. Settled in the partial shade of manicured shrubbery, I uncap the bottle, take a big swig of malt liquor, and remove my boots. Traffic whooshes past. Sirens wail. More beer and the stinky socks come off. Bulldozers grind away another acre of desert. The Welcome Center hands out another brochure. Another big guzzle and I’m down to the Fruit of the Looms. Scorpions crawl through cracks in cinder block walls and into barbeque backyards. Mountain lions slink down arroyos and into the exurbs. I finish the bottle, toss it into the xeriscaping, then strip off my underwear and slip into the lukewarm water. Floating on my back, arms outstretched, sweaty balls bobbing as the broiling sun inches its way towards the brown haze of the western horizon.
Charles Clayton, who grew up in Colorado’s Fraser Valley, is an upstanding citizen and pillar of his community in northern New Mexico. He no longer floats naked in suburban fountains. You can check out his blog, “Pagan Parenting,” at mountaingazette.com.