The desert is no place to be barefoot. Not this desert anyway. Tarantulas, scorpions, vinegaroons, cone-nosed kissing beetles, centipedes, velvet ants: every creeping thing is poisonous. And those are just the invertebrates. Of the thirty-two species of rattlesnakes that inhabit the Americas, thirteen call Arizona home. That includes the Mojave rattler, crotalus scutulatus. While not so large as the western diamondback, the Mojave delivers a venom payload with a toxicity second to none in its genus. And they are always agitated. Then there is our poisonous lizard, the Gila monster. No one in Arizona has died of a Gila monster bite in a century. But everyone agrees that they will clamp onto your foot with their tiny, putrid, infected teeth, then, grinding through your skin to the bone, release its load of toxin. If you’re ever lucky enough to find one, that is.
If those don’t send you scurrying to the medicine cabinet or the emergency room, we have an assortment of spiny plants. Sharp sticks or leaves or pads drop from teddy bear cholla, prickly pear, agave, sotol, and ocotillo. And then there is my nemesis: puncture vine. Tribulus terrestris is an invasive ground-hugging exotic. It’s shiny green vines and cheerful yellow flowers give no hint of seeds sharp and hard enough to puncture a tire. Common names for the drought-loving caltrop include devil’s weed, devil’s thorn, and devil’s eyelash. Here we just call them goat heads. Don’t wonder if you’ve ever stepped on its mature ovule. You’ll know.
All that is still not enough to keep this hillbilly in shoes. But the hot, dry dirt is. High in clay, and low in oxygen, it is inorganic as well as alkaline. That alone is unpleasant enough. But it compacts into near mineral hardness. To top it off, the surface is usually strewn with sharp tiny bits of volcanic rock, a friable, decomposed granite. In short, it is unpleasant to the touch. To the sole.
So the typical desert dweller wears Chacos or Tevas. The cholos and hipsters and frat boys scuffle around in shower sandals and white socks. The hippie chicks strap on Birkenstocks. Hardly anybody who hasn’t been out in the desert seeking psylocybin goes barefoot.
And then the rains come.
Sometime in July the planetary weather gears click into a new pattern. Over the preceding months, a subtropical ridge has shifted north from Mexico. Now it forms a sweeping curve from the Rio Grande’s Big Bend to the Sangre de Christo Range in southern Colorado. This creates a large high pressure system over the midwest, turning their weather hot and dry. That rotation sweeps air off the Gulf of Mexico up across the Chihuahuan Desert into Arizona. Flow from the Pacific joins it, bringing humidity to the desert. Then, if a few other things come together–if the midwest has had a wet spring; if rain has fallen further south along the Gulf flow; if the snow pack in the western Rockies has, for the most part, evaporated; if a low pressure system develops over the Four Corners area; and if the Pacific is not too cool–huge convective storms come to our desert. This is seasonal. A true monsoon.
The rising heat picks up the low level moisture sending vapor upward. Clouds form, appearing at first as wisps over the mountains. Then the chubascos build in earnest. Thunderheads rise to 40,000 feet, from a base of huge, roiling clouds. Lightning sends jagged, crackling veins of electricity skyward. The thunderheads collapse, sending down drenching, bone-chilling rainfall. Those downdrafts create updrafts, generating more storms, some over the valley now. This goes on all afternoon, storm clouds and storms, rising and falling, now here, now there. And sometimes, if you are lucky, where you are.
This happens once or twice and now the dirt under your feet takes on a different feel. It cools. It breaths. It feels looser, more organic.
It is time to go barefoot.
My time is evenings after work. While I wait for a bed of coals to heat on the grille, I nurse a beer and sit with my feet in the dirt. My bare feet in the wet dirt creates a connection following a sinuous line back through time and across a continent. My mind won’t pick up any particular temporal threads, or settle on one place. But a soothing cosmic vibe eases my jangled nerves into a place where boys in dungarees wade in ponds or relax in shaded woods. A word rises up through my brain like a bubble in a creek: languid. I give in to a state of languor.
If the chicken takes long enough to cook I might read. After the most recent rain I started again through a cheap PDF copy of Pablo Neruda. Neruda wrote in one poem:
“I want to do to you what spring does with the cherry trees.”
You cannot ignore a line of poetry like that–so charged with passion, hope, sensuality, and an almost unbearable gentleness. So I didn’t ignore it: I sought more Pablo. He rewarded me with a line he must have written about my own lover:
“As if you were on fire from within
The moon lives in the lining of your skin.”
And tonight, because the air carries a light warmth, because the mesquite trees are pregnant with beans, their weight pulling the boughs to the ground, because the clouds are scudding away to make room for the sunset, because my mind relaxes enough to feel it, he rewards me with this:
“I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way
than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.”
At some point the chicken stops spitting fat into the coals. As the smoke clears, the sun sails below the burned-out porphyritic hills. It paints the clouds, mixing salmon and peach blow with other colors too delicate to name. Then comes a pause, like a pendulum at the top of its swing. The sun reels in its masterpiece. The colors fade. The din of cicadas tapers off. The air shifts from warm to the slightest hint of cool, as if a child unwrapped a popsicle in the next yard. The pendulum starts down, pushing the day into darkness.
I turn off the e-reader screen and collect the chicken from the grille. Tomorrow will be a tangle of frayed nerves, the metronome of the clock, the rush of the deadline. But tonight I am barefoot.