25 July 2011

Arizona Part 2: The power of water

We’re moving out of Arizona at year’s end.  I’m already missing it. 

See, I’m a native here, and by that I mean I was born somewhere else but I don’t remember much of it.  Home to me has always been here, in this little patch of dirt ringed by purple remnants of an old volcano.  Home is washes that only run with water a few months of every year – torrential flash floods of mud in summer, frigid snowmelt in winter.  Home is saguaros and javelinas and creosote and knowing how to pronounce all of them.  Home is just the right amount of sky.  Home is sun, and sun and sun, with a few miraculous moments of weather.  Home is where precipitation is considered nothing short of blessed, all the time.  Home is one day of snow every seven years, snow that never sticks, snow that dances and falls and disappears instantly.  Home is coyotes howling and cicadas buzzing and frogs chirping in raucous chorus and the morning call of mourning doves.  Oh, the mourning doves!  My heart cries already.  Home is mesas and roadrunners and pico de gallo and temperatures too hot for thermometers and cracked pavement and cacti and swimming pools and year-round flip flops and only owning casual wear and painfully gorgeous sunsets.  How am I going to survive living anywhere else?

Water.  In the desert it all comes back to water.  It’s the precious thing.  I have so many memories about water.  How are people going to understand my lust for water?  Can I give you some Scenes from the Life of Me, sort of thing, and maybe you can harbor some of that lust with me?

When I was a wee babe, solid water was something that came in trays out of a freezer.  I was shocked, delighted, aghast when I found it also in the open trunk of my red-and-yellow toy car in the back yard one uncharacteristically frigid winter morning.  I was young, so young, and I could never claim that to be my first experience with natural ice but it’s the first I remember.  It was just so weird.  Water wasn’t supposed to do that.  I was so giddy about frozen water my neurons hardwired that memory into something I still have all these many years after I’ve forgotten the majority of my childhood.

The first time I remember seeing snow falling was in fourth grade.  Maybe it was fifth.  It snowed in the courtyard outside our classroom and the teachers let us all out to play in it – because when were we ever going to get that chance as children again?  We were mesmerized.  It almost stuck to the ground. 

In school we learned all about water.  I knew from the age of seven that to qualify as a desert a place has to get less than twelve inches of water a year, and our place got eleven.  Well, back then it got eleven.  Now it’s becoming sort of a joke to say we’re still in a longstanding drought, as we fail year after year to reach our mark, as the water table falls ever farther and we import more and more foreign water via aqueducts from other states… 

But I digress – back to those school days.  We attended special assemblies all about water and how to conserve water.  There was a duck.  A guy in a duck suit, whatever.  We learned to conserve water and we did a damn fine job of it, too.  When we went to visit my cousins out of state, my aunt was I think a little appalled that my sister and I would spit our toothpaste into the sink before washing it away with a short burst from the tap.  I was appalled they were willing to just let the water run a full two minutes for no reason.  It was one of those cultural things.

The only award I ever received for a school science project was about water.  It was second grade, and we were trying to figure out what kind of water helped bean plants grow best.  The answer, according to our results, was tap water.  Little did we know at the time (well, okay, I didn’t know – maybe my two collaborators were better informed than I was) that tap water had become quite politically charged that year.  They were just getting the Central Arizona Project water system online, pumping water in from Colorado, and the whole project was fraught with problems and most of the town wanted it canned.  Needless to say, CAP gave us an award for our work and we got to go up on stage and collect a plaque and everything.

Water, water, it was all about water – about the ebb and flow of nature, all governed, wholly and mercilessly, by water.  Seasons were measured not by temperature so much as by water.  And there was no better example of that than at the creek by my parents’ house. 

The creek

(People who live in Arizona haven’t invented any new words for dry washes – we still call them rivers and creeks and whatnot, even when they don’t have any water in them.)

The creek was – and is – a magical place.  It runs off from the adjacent mountain canyon, cutting into the valley and joining the aptly named Rillito River that runs through town.  And when I say The Creek, I’m speaking of a particular one-block section or so surrounding the point where it intersects a horse trail leading up from our neighborhood into the mountains.  This section is bounded on one side by the white rocks – a waterfall of, well, big white rocks that sit on someone’s private property.  (When we were little we scarce knew of the white rocks, because we didn’t dare step past the private property line with its intimidating yellow warning signs full of bullet holes.  And when we were older, it became our actual duty as kids to cross that same property line and see what we’d been missing.)  The creek is bounded on the other side by, um, I guess by more wash, which we tended to access from the other side of our neighborhood and which is therefore a distinct entity called the Meadow. 

The creek is dry most of the year, but in summer when the monsoons come it has water in it.  It flows for a few days, sometimes, after a heavy rain.  And in the winter it runs for even weeks at a time as the snow melts up on the mountains.

The creek after it rains

When we were very little, my mom would get us in our swimsuits and we’d go splash about in the foot or two of water flowing lazily through the broad section of creek right where the big trail crosses it, made broader by a rock dam built so that hikers could get across even on those few days when they needed a bridge to do so.  There were little fishes and tadpoles swimming in the creek and I never understood how they got there or where they went when the water went away. 

When we were much older my friend and I found out where they went.  We had trekked out to the white rocks, to the pool at their base which was much deeper than the rest of the creek, and there found the last few remaining inches of water evaporating away weeks after the latest rain.  And in that algae-filled slime writhed hundreds of fish, flopping helplessly body-to-body, asphyxiating slowly, squirming against each other in an effort to reach the last vestiges of fetid water.  It was a horror I don’t think either of us has forgotten.  And there was nothing at all we could do.

So I figured out where the fish went.  I never figured out how they got there.  They spawned seemingly out of nothing, growing to fill that deepest pool in the creek at the base of the white rocks.  The same white rocks where we once found a rattlesnake curled up sleeping in a cranny, the white rocks that had that one perfect groove for a butt and a lower back, the white rocks with a just-obscured view of the house over the hill where sometimes you could hear voices or dogs barking, the hill I didn’t want to admit I looked warily up at more often than my overconfident sheltered preteen attitude felt was strictly necessary. 

My only picture of the white rocks: the obscure patch of white hidden behind the brush just over the left ear of the equally obscure deer.  You might remember this picture.

The white rocks were the best place to be in the winter, when the snowmelt was six feet deep and you could make a show of jumping in with all your clothes on and shocking the crap out of your nervous system.  It was cold.  One of my very best memories of those preteen years was formed when my best friend and I convinced some classmates to jump in with us.  The two of us seasoned veterans just jumped right in all brazen and casual about it, and the rest followed like good lemmings.  I still remember the look on one boy’s face when he came up gasping for air yelling “oh shit” repeatedly, poor desert rat with no sense for ice water.  And I think I kind of fell a little in love with another of them when I saw how stoically he handled the experience.  That was one of those testing-ground kind of days, you know?  It was a bonding thing.  I held onto some of those friends for years.

We had some beautiful times at that creek.  It makes me emotional, thinking about the creek.  If you took the trail to the creek and turned right, you’d reach the white rocks, but if you turned left you’d reach our three rocks.  We had these three rocks, and we may have named them but I don’t remember now.  I just remember the feel of them, the big flat one and the tall craggy one and the little one, and the way they made this perfect shallow pool and the way you could lie on them and stare up at the sky and let your feet dangle in the water.

There existed a Moment, on those rocks.  You know how Moments go.  They’re a little piece of perfection encapsulated in a single image or sentence or smell or feeling, a memory too good to let go.  This Moment was perfect because the air was clear and everything was green and the water was flowing and the sun felt just warm enough on skin and it heated the rocks just right, and we were lying there poised like Abercrombie models on the big flat rock and all of a sudden a duck flew by.  A bloody mallard duck.  For those of you who don’t understand, I will let you know that mallard ducks don’t happen in Arizona, not out in the wilderness.  That mallard made it a Moment and I won’t readily forget it.

The creek hasn’t been the same since it flooded.  I don’t remember how many years ago it flooded, but it did, and all our favorite spots were terraformed beyond recognition by a wall of inconsiderate water.  Nature at her best, the bitch.  She gouged a whole new path for the water to go and marred everything we loved irreparably, in a single night.  Out here in the desert, the water commands respect.


  1. I was just waiting for you to add your line to the story :)

  2. Haha, it popped right in my head as I read it... great memories.. You and I should go give the place a proper goodbye before you move, even if the landscapes changed, it's still "the creek"