In the desert far outside Tucson you might be lucky enough to spot a Kangaroo Rat. It’s a cute little thing that looks more like a mouse than a rat, but it’s neither. He belongs to a different order of the rodent family and has twenty teeth, whereas mice and rats have sixteen. But he has the same soft brown fur, beady little eyes. At the end of his tail, there’s a dark tuft of hair, like a lion’s.
His most interesting feature, though, is that he never drinks water. He instead eats seeds that provide starch, a hydrocarbon containing hydrogen. Oxygen is abundant in the atmosphere. This resourceful animal puts them together. Aitch two oh. The tuft on his tail serves as a rudder, helps him to make quick movements to avoid capture by hawks or other predators. If you’d clip off the end of his tail, he wouldn’t be as evasive.
The accounts of early Spanish desert explorers contain very little descriptions of landscape, they speak almost exclusively of hostile native savages, hunger, thirst, and death. These days you may drive twenty or thirty miles out of the city, park, carefully climb over a barbed-wire fence, and take a long walk. You may quickly get the sense there’s something here that’s strange, scary, and almost impossible to describe.
At high noon the heat is breathtakingly oppressive. If you were to take out a sandwich from your lunch bag, the bread would in seconds become brittle in the hot, zero humidity atmosphere. They call it desert toast.
Stop. Look around. It’s like a vast planted garden, with plenty of space around each plant, bush or cactus stand. The towering saguaros are dispersed, only three or four to an acre. Nothing grows in the shadows they cast because their roots fan out great distances only about a foot under the soil, and they quickly absorb whatever scant rainfall that comes, leaving nothing for competitors. Prickly pear, mesquite, agave, yucca, canaigre, and sagebrush spread out endlessly in a monotonous dotted pattern, and in the far distance are flat bluish mountains. The sun is a fierce white glare, and you blink.
Where’s the romance in this harshness? There is none.
Except late in the afternoon, when that formerly dangerous life-threatening sun now throws soft red and gold onto all surfaces. You see a multitude of shadows that provide depth, relief, three dimensions, wonderful variations of texture, tone and mood. Heat dissipates slowly, providing rising thermals for the outstretched wings of a solitary hawk. The sun descends into the mountains and the sky is transformed into deep shades of indigo, purple, yellow and scarlet.
Thousands of stars gradually appear, and the air becomes cold.
You know if you don’t build a fire soon, you’ll freeze to death.