Aridity is baked into the people and places of the American Southwest. We possess a dry demeanor influenced by a landscape that is often cracked and weathered by wind, water and time. You see it in our faces and you feel it on the ground, but we hardly have a vocabulary for the extreme version of heat and drought we are now living through.
In Castle Valley, according to our town’s weather keeper, we have had 47 days this summer where the temperature exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter, and the average high was 107 degrees. At its peak the heat reached a sweltering 114 degrees. From Texas to Phoenix to the Four Corners, where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet, there has been no relief.
You notice things in sustained heat. Paying attention is a strategy for survival. Down by the Colorado River, the sand that is usually supple is now gray like concrete and as unyielding. My footprints leave no impression. Willows that border the river appear as tattered drapes, silver-green, hiding birds like yellow-breasted chats and summer warblers held hostage by the sun. The red rock landscape I love and have lived in for a quarter of a century is a blistering terrain. The heat bears down on our shoulders with the weight of a burning world.
We can hide from the heat in the desert in our air-conditioned homes, ours cooled by a heat pump powered by solar panels. But there is no place on Earth where we can escape the climate emergency for the duration. This is not being a doomer. This is dwelling with the facts that mirror our experience. A U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation report tells us the average temperatures in the Colorado River Basin are “projected to increase by five to six degrees Fahrenheit during the 21st century” and even more in the upper Colorado Basin, where Castle Valley sits. With climate change heightening extreme temperatures, drought, fires and floods, we find ourselves entangled in a cascade of consequences.
Farther south, our Diné (Navajo) neighbors who have lived with desert heat through the generations are installing solar panels on their homes for greater efficiency, though some have no electricity and running water at all. This can be life-threatening. Many throughout our desert communities are confronting the possibility that this untenable sustained heat and drought will force us to leave.
Here in the Castle Valley blast furnace, we are sandwiched between red cliffs and mesas that absorb the heat and radiate it back to us. It is not a conversation; it is a scalding. We are being broiled in beauty. The morning songs of meadowlarks and Say’s phoebes have gone silent, and only roosters can be counted on, calling forth the apocalypse accompanied by the predawn chorus of sizzling insects.
And what an array of insects and spiders have appeared this summer. Insects are coldblooded, and their body temperatures depend on the outside temperatures. In summer, they flourish, growing, mating, reproducing, multiplying quickly, especially in the heat. Entomologists around the globe have warned that insect populations and activity will increase with rising temperatures. With the wet spring and the plants that flourished from it, the locusts are thriving, eating everything in sight down to nubbins. Walking through thigh-high grass in the valley creates clouds of grasshoppers moving like an army advancing in the heat of war.
What are we to believe but the promise of days that are even hotter as we squint into heat waves that blur the horizon, turning our minds into dust. I can’t think, I can only watch what is before me: a tarantula hawk wasp with a blue-black body and bright orange wings draped over its ominous stinger. My eyes focus as it drags a four-inch green locust across our porch at a rapid clip. What else does one do in the stinking hot desert? For over 15 minutes, I keep up with the assassin speeding to its burrow over rocks and in between prickly pear cacti where it finally lays the locust down.
When you are living in relentless heat, you become easily distracted, irritable. The fans, swamp coolers and heat pumps we have in our homes can only take you so far out of the malaise. You feel you have become worthless, listless, prostrate for much of the afternoon, watching clouds as you pray for rain. If prone to hypochondriac tendencies, you feel certain you are terminal with multiple forms of cancer all fighting your blood cells at once. You become limp, despondent and slow-moving like a lizard at high noon.
Your taste in entertainment changes. I find the only thing I can digest with any sort of comprehension because it requires none is “The Kardashians.” I can now recite their names from the oldest to the youngest: Kim, Khloé, Kendall, Kylie — and the mom — I have forgotten one — I guess I can’t name them after all. This is what happens. Your eyes can’t even follow faces on a screen, much less words on a page.
Time is irrelevant. Clocks and calendars become the sun and moon. I take long night walks. My eyes pull color out of the dark. Red cliffs become blue. The green shining eyes of deer create boundaries I do not cross. Shooting stars are the script of hallucinations. Coyotes howl.
You lose your mind. Life becomes the mirage on the horizon — the shimmering line between what is real and what is imagined is faintly drawn. A hundred ravens fly by and disappear into the folds of the cliffs. Did they or didn’t they? Jack rabbits run straight through barbed wire fences without a pause. True or false?
You look in the mirror and your face cracks. Wrinkles become crevasses that no cream can cure. You start looking like the landscape itself, red, burned and peeling. You are eroding. You curse the swamp cooler for its clamoring and dream of a landscape of ice. You take cold showers. You suck on rocks.
But then, in the first week of August, suddenly a desert plant, sacred datura, explodes with large white trumpet blooms. Its tendrils and perfume seduce sphinx moths into pollinating them at night, igniting the darkness like lit candles. In midafternoon, the desert smells like rain, petrichor, a blessed word that means there will be water. Winds touch our parched lips, and we watch clouds gathering and darkening as temperatures drop.
We stay outside, mesmerized by the approaching storm, and when it hits, the rains come. We stand against the gusts of wind, watching the dry brittle willow branches waving wildly as the rain falls faster, harder, bending and breaking all that could snap. We run inside not for cover but to find as many pitchers and bowls as we can carry to the porch to catch rainwater for the mourning doves that have been panting in the shadows day after day.
My husband and I finally sit down in the rain, our backs against the front door, and watch lightning strike all around us. We begin counting, “One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three,” and the crack of thunder begins. We hope the rains last long enough to quell any sparks that will ignite the grasses that could consume us on another day. Within minutes, the rain stops, the sky opens to blue and we await the rainbow that will arch over the valley like a homecoming banner.
I walk the wet ground toward Round Mountain and address the weather gods frankly: “I will never leave, please don’t make me leave, what if we are forced to leave?” What if the Colorado River runs dry and our aquifer beneath our valley floor dries up and we have no water to drink? What if our house is taken by fire? A year ago, flash floods roared within 50 feet of our home.
Where would we go?
The next morning, we find a dead garter snake outside our front door in the shape of a question mark.
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Terry Tempest Williams is the author of “When Women Were Birds” and is the writer in residence at Harvard Divinity School.