I think I have been an Arizonan for three years. But maybe I’ve been an Arizonian. According to linguist and professor Elly Van Gelderen of ASU, both statements are simultaneously true. Either way, I have collected a lot of stones and roamed over a lot of the southeastern Arizona landscape and I have learned a few things.
In 2003, on my second trip out here, my wife and I stayed at a very pleasant resort on Esplendor Drive in Rio Rico. Determined to have the full Western experience, we signed up for a trail ride. The resort directed us to meet a young cowhand, who had trailered three saddled horses over to a trailhead on Pendleton Drive. From there we rode northeast, with a packed lunch and some water, into the foothills of the San Cayetano Mountains. This is a compact range about 20 miles north of Nogales and west of the Grosvenor Hills, at the south end of the Santa Ritas.
Reade, our guide, observed that everything in the desert either bites you, pricks you or stings you. I don’t know how many times I have silently repeated that to myself. Right now something is irritating my thigh under my front pocket and I have to stop and think, “Did I pick something up off of the ground and mistakenly put it in my pocket?” That thing may have long since been tossed into the trash, but something grabby in nature, and probably invisible to boot, stayed behind. It is now registering, like a tiny lightning bolt, into my nervous system. It will not pay to look for the irritant because… invisibility.
I was once offered a free lobe off of a cactus that had blown over at a neighbor’s house. I looked closely at it and wondered how, and why, a cactus would evolve out here to not have any pricks or sticks on it. How did it protect its water? I wisely grabbed a pair of gloves to handle it. That cactus had vanishingly small, hair-like bristles. Those gloves are still uselessly stored with other pairs of gloves that I have gone through here. Sometimes I look at them and, not seeing any stickers, I put them on only to quickly take them off and cast them aside.
This place is tough on gloves.
Fortunately, I have moved out of range of the jumping cholla, which does seem to be able to leap and find me, at least over short distances.
Unfortunately, while harvesting grapes for some friends, I discovered tribulus terrestris, which sounds like the name of some perfectly horrible Roman general but is, in fact, a Class C noxious weed on the Arizona Noxious Weed List. Otherwise known as goatheads, they are small and easy to ignore until you offer them a bit of flesh.
Some other lessons learned: Side pockets in car doors are for show only, unless you are transporting lead. No important paper should ever be put there unless you are willing, and have the time, to run 40mph to retrieve it in either Cochise or Pima County. It depends on which way the wind is blowing.
While here I’ve also been disabused of a myth or two.
Myth One was that of the slow-moving, but deliberate, and laconic cowboy. When you live in a world where unfriendly snakes are a real possibility you tend to want to know exactly where your feet are hitting the ground. It is also good to keep the idle chatter to a minimum, the better to hear a rattled warning.
Myth Two is that by watching the weather radar you can tell if it has just rained, if it is going to rain, or if it is, indeed, raining. The situation was first described to me by a many-generation resident when I first got here. They said that rain will look as if it is coming for you, full bore, then suddenly it will shift or disappear outright.
I remember walking away from that conversation and smugly thinking that the fine art of radar interpretation had not yet reached southeastern Arizona. Three years on, I have learned that even if your address is swimming in a sea of slow-moving green, or the oranges and reds of heavier showers are heading your way, it would be best to not declare that it is raining until the ground has darkened, and you can inhale that wonderfully intoxicating aroma of the desert, wetted.
Keith Krizan can be contacted at email@example.com