Letter From The Desert: Monsoooooon

The iguanas have been seeking shade, and the leopard lizards. When the dog heaves herself mid-walk into the shade of a creosote bush, or of one of my neighbors' oleanders, there is a scurry of lizards deciding to move before 55 pounds of dog lands upon them. Quail rampage more or less heedless of the sun, but the heat and dry has taken its toll on them as well: unlike the last few summers, almost no young have joined their ranks this year. I set the hose to trickle beneath the mesquite out front, which lost a few leaves while I was away; roadrunners and jackrabbits arrive to drink from it.

My friends, it is hot in the Mojave. These are days that separate the local wheat from the tourist chaff; it is suddenly possible to get breakfast in town on the weekends and the number of Winnebagos per square meter has dropped closer to that unattainable zero.

It is important these days to stay hydrated, to refrain from leaving pets and other relations in parked vehicles, to always wear sunscreen or even more effective, clothes. Those measures will help you endure the summer.

But why endure when you can enjoy? My first years in Joshua Tree were largely spent in the company of someone who hated the heat, and made that known at frequent intervals. As I am often amenable to persuasion, her complaints made me resent the heat all the more, by the same means in which a person enduring a wait on a crowded platform is made less happy by nearby strangers moaning about the train being late. After she left the desert, I found myself wondering if that might work in reverse. If complaints about the heat made me less tolerant of the heat, perhaps expressions of delight might likewise persuade me that I enjoy triple-digit temperatures in the Mojave.

It worked. For the past two summers, when I find myself noticing a day being especially warm, I have been telling myself that I enjoy the heat. The hotter the better, I tell myself; at 107°F, I tell myself, it is as if the entire desert atmosphere is giving me a warm and loving hug. Which does not stop for hours.

This self-persuasion strategy falters at about 116°F. I have thought that hearing someone else extoll the pleasures of heat might get me up to around 120°, given the mechanics of group persuasion, but so far I have not found anyone in my circles that deeply disturbed. Or maybe they're just all indoors.

When temps here have exceeded around 105° for a few days in sequence, a kind of desert alchemy begins. The air is baked by unrepentant sun. The soil reaches surface temperatures well in excess of the air temps, which heats the air further. Thus begins a phenomenon, convection, that is essentially the same that you see when adding a dash of cream to your hot coffee and watching it mix itself in without your stirring it. Hot air rises. Doing so, it creates an area of lower air pressure closer to the ground. Nature, like my dog, abhors a vacuum, and thus air from the surrounding regions moves in to equalize that pressure differential. One of the closest surrounding regions is the Sea of Cortez, just one small mountain range away from my backyard. That sea air brings moisture to the desert, and in rising it draws in more sea air, which heats and rises and brings in more, and cooling as it rises that increasingly moist air forms towering clouds over the desert's mountain ranges, which southerly winds propel across the desert from there.

A threshold is reached, usually in mid-afternoon, and those clouds give up torrents of rain. Lightning flashes punctuate the sudden dark overcast. Thunder rolls across the desert. The dog heads for the bedroom closet. Fat raindrops make stochastic patterns on the desiccated desert soil, then merge, and then the rain intensifies, and tortoises emerge to seek their traditional puddling spots, and then it begins to rain harder still.

The air is literally electric. The temperature drops by 20 degrees. The relative humidity triples. All around you the desert is suddenly alive. Small, dark clouds trailing curtains of dark rain drift across the landscape like giant jellyfish. Mojave men-of-war with million-volt stings. Birds begin to sing. Predatory wasps alight on catclaw, drinking water off the seed pods. The air fills with the scent of wet summer creosote, a pungent camphor and turpentine and vegetative smell.

It's the desert's Carnaval, is what it is; a cathartic release of tension slow-built over weeks. It is, for those of us not yet persuaded of the glories of summer heat, a reminder that the best days in the desert are full of passionate intensity, while the worst lack all convection.

The storms here started yesterday, and I finally — after ten years living here — finally noticed that the smell of monsoon-washed creosote is entirely different from that of winter-wet creosote. It's about the same magnitude of difference as that between chewing a stick of gum and falling face-first into a vat of spearmint leaves. I like the winter smell of creosote. I notice it, and I recall Gary Paul Nabhan's book The Desert Smells Like Rain, named for what a Tohono O'odham youngster told Nabhan about how the scent even of warm dry creosote brings to mind the stronger scents of wetter weather. I resolve, when noticing winter-wet creosote's smell, to spend some time sticking my face into handy local shrubs and breathing deeply. It is a lovely thing, and I enjoy it greatly and it makes me think about chemistry and botany and ethnography and then I usually go on to think about how old creosotes are, and then I think of something else.

The smell of monsoon-washed creosote allows no such idle intellectualizing. It is a sledgehammer to the soul. One need not find a nearby creosote into which to stick one's face: the scent is ubiquitous. It seeps past weatherstripping and into your clothing. Forget about "noticing" the smell. Would you "notice" a flash flood sweeping you down an arroyo? I stepped outside after the rain yesterday, stupidly unawares, and suddenly found myself in my backyard in Nipton in June 2008, moving boxes of post-divorce possessions from the Jeep into the little house I'd live in for the rest of the year. It was the first time I'd smelled creosote after a monsoon. My former life in shards and my new one still wreathed in uncertainty. I was at once grieving for what I'd lost and eagerly looking forward to what came next, at intervals ecstatic about finally living in the desert.

Still true. Still true.

For those of you who will be in or near Los Angeles this coming weekend, I will be on a panel with my friends Kim Stringfellow and Matthew Leivas at the Autry Museum in Griffith Park on Sunday, July 15 at 11 am, to talk about public perception of the desert 50 years after the publication of Ed Abbey's Desert Solitaire. Details are here. The event is not precisely free, because you have to pay to get into the museum, but there's no additional charge for the event and then you get to check out some of the wonderful exhibits, a couple of which I was peripherally involved in.

Also, lest I forget the really important things, here is a picture of the dog.

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