Get Off The Highway

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For those who think that Arizona is nothing but a vast desert, they’ve never gotten off the highway.

My cousin wrote me an email, about their trip through Arizona. They moved from Northern California to Tennessee, taking almost 2 weeks to make the trip. After staying in Las Vegas for a few nights and crossing over the Hoover dam, she wrote, “I don’t understand  why anyone would want to live in such a barren and ugly place. Geeeesh.”

I was offended by her words, for awhile, until I began to understand a few things about people like her. First, most people who travel through a desert are coming from places that don’t look like here and are almost shocked at the difference of scenery – a sharp contrast to their mountains of green trees, grasses and, usually, homes and civilization everywhere. Second, the majority of people are unable to see past the obvious shades of brown and sand, and instead see the desert greens, reds and purples that us desert lovers live for.

Thinking back on my own life, I too felt the same way as she did about the desert for so long. I had grown up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, surrounded by rolling hills covered in grasses, scrub oaks, the occasional pine, and even palm trees. Bushes, vines and flowers no matter what time of year.  Snow, just less than an hour away. Lakes to water ski, rivers to float, camping 10 months out of the year.

After 20 years of living there, I moved by myself to Southern California, which, if you know your California History, was at one time, also a desert. I lived within 30 minutes of the beach, and on days when the wind was just right, I could even smell it. It wasn’t always a good smell.

When I first moved there, I could even see the mountains to the north. Over time, the smog and air quality got so bad that when we were able to see the mountains a very few days out of the year,  it was a big deal. It also meant that the winds were blowing in from over those mountains, and that meant that it was hot, dry and it probably smelled too. It also meant that myself and everyone around me were suffering from sinus problems brought on by “the Santa Anas”.

I got married and started a family. We were happily living in a nice area in suburbia. Then my little family went through a bit of a serious situation. We had been renting a home and the owner decided he wanted to move back into it. We found a home to buy and started the process. Then, 4 weeks into it, the mortgage broker “dropped the ball” and we found ourselves homeless.

Luckily we had family, and one family member happened to own a little condo in a golf community of Palm Desert.  We had left our rented home at the end of August, and as you desert dwellers know, the desert changes, dramatically beginning mid September and into October. I had no idea.

First, it begins to cools down. Enough to make the days PERFECT for any outdoor activity. Day and night, no jacket required. A little rain comes. The winds stop. Flowers start to bloom. The air is clear. So clear you can see all the colors of the mountains around you. And the colors are bright, vivid, right out of the crayon box.

If you’ve never been in the desert when it rains, you are missing out on something that you have to experience for yourself. No one, not even I, can describe the experience enough for you to be able to say “oh I see”, or “I understand”. You can’t. You won’t. You have to be there. Really.

The air changes, the desert sounds different. And the desert smells so good when it rains.

They say it’s a plant, the creosote that makes that smell. If that’s the case, then I need to fill my house with this plant. If someone could bottle it, or make it into incense, or one of those scent rods, I’d be all over it. 

And that was it; I fell in love with the desert.  A few years later we bought that little condo. We would go every weekend we could, hiking the canyons, shopping, eating at great restaurants.  As the snow birds arrived the waits would get longer, the traffic thicker. We watched over time as the housing market grew, new homes and developments popped up everywhere. Traffic got worse. The whole place became more and more crowded. We started renting out the condo during “the season” from November to May, which left us going June to October, while it was empty and hot.

 We got used to the heat.  We drank more water. Got our golf or other outdoor activities done early in the morning or later in the evening. We acclimated. We loved it.  And if we had not gone through those few weeks of insanity, instability; we never would have discovered the desert.

Three years ago, we came out to Tucson for a wedding. Driving out Interstate 10 from California, there is nothing. Nothing, if you are only staring out the window, expecting to see nothing. Looking for nothing.  But, because we were travelling with a very observant 8 year old, we saw so much more.

We noticed that the majestic saguaros that grace the Arizona license plate, don’t grow in California. You don’t see them until you cross the state line, and then suddenly there are hundreds of them.  And then from the state line to Phoenix, you pass through several mountain ranges, and can see more in the distances.  For a moment if you look at the right time, you can even see the waters of the gulf of Mexico.

The mountains and the ranges have shapes and names. South Mountain, Dinosaur Mountain, The Superstitions, Four Peaks, Weavers Needle, Granite Mountain, Black Mountain, and those are just a few around Phoenix. The list goes on and on.  They are colorful; with reds, purples, blues, browns, layer upon layer of history, time.  Lots of them. Again, something you don’t expect a “desert” to have.

We moved to North Scottsdale at the beginning of the summer and experienced heat.  Yes, it was hot. Yes, we sweat. We drank lots of water. We have air conditioning.  We have also experienced our first monsoon season.  I would have never thought that the desert could be so green in the middle of the summer. The lightning is amazing, the rain is powerful.

We watched the August meteor shower from our view deck. Living out where we live, where it is still relatively dark at night, we were able to see 18 shooting stars in a little less than 2 hours. That is the most I’ve ever seen in the 20 years I’ve been looking.

We have one of those giant saguaros in front of our home. It is taller than our roof, and has 5 arms. I’ve been told that this cactus could be anywhere from 400 to 550 years old.  That is quite a feat, considering where it is growing. In a desert, where water is scarce and unpredictable, where the temperatures can get to 110 degrees for weeks at a time.  Every morning I talk to the saguaro, thanking “the big guy” for being here.  For being my reminder that this place I chose to live in, is a place where only the strong survive.

The sky seems bluer. The sun rises and sun sets are colorful, stunning. They make you stop and take notice.  They make me stop and be grateful.  Grateful that I got off the highway.


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