So You Want to Live in the Desert?

Landscape 1-10

Our last house lay cradled in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains. The neighborhood terraced up the slope behind our property, ending three blocks away at the edge of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. From the path that emerged from our end of the development—marked by a dead, two-armed Saguaro that traced fat black ink strokes against the sunset—trails traced their way up into the desert: Lost Dog Wash; the Anasazi Spur and the Sunrise Trailhead; the Ringtail and Old Jeep Trails; Tom Thumb’s Trailhead and the Marcus Landslide Trail. A short hike over a low rise and the city disappeared behind us. Before us a sea of ironwood cholla, saguaros, barrelhead cactus, ocotillos and creosote crested like waves.

Cholla in the Storm
Sea of ironwood cholla with a storm heading in, one form of the notorious “jumping cactus.”

I loved the idea of living so close to the desert. We’d been a ten-minute drive from the preserve in the previous house, and though we’d had our share of javelinas and coyotes wandering down into the neighborhood, the mountain seemed removed. We could not feel its pulse. So when circumstances dictated a change anyway, we went with our gut desire to live in the desert, not just near it. On a March day in 2007, we rumbled up the long slope of a road called Via Linda—Pretty Way—to our new home.

Looking east from our front yard. The foundation of a pretty yard here is gravel and river rock.

It was magnificent. We hiked the trails. We collected pieces of quartz from the upper elevations—the rocks spilled down one side of the mountain from a white waterfall of an outcropping two hours up the trail. At night, we ambled up the long, dark avenue bisecting the neighborhood until we reached the end of the pavement. We crossed over into the desert and paused, listening to the silence undergirding the night sounds. From our patio, we watched the hawks circling overhead, and reeled at the panorama of stars undiminished by the brighter lights below.

Yours Truly with North Scottsdale and Phoenix in the distance from the McDowell Mountains


The professor heading out on the Anasazi Spur just past a magnificent ocotillo

We had wildlife adventures. Coming round a corner before Halloween one year, we surprised a herd of javelina nibbling on pumpkins in a neighbor’s yard. We froze. They bolted. Stampeding towards us, they parted at the last moment and disappeared into the brush on the other side of the road.

Another time, heading up the avenue in the dark, we saw a parked car ahead with its lights on full beam. “Assholes,” I said to my husband. “What the hell are they doing?” The next moment the profile of a deer split the glare in two. It bounded into the brush at the side of the road and emerged with its young before hightailing it back into the dark mountains. The people in the car had been trying to locate the fawn, they explained when we reached them.

All this beauty so near. Geckos and hummingbirds and coyotes howling at the moon.

And treacherous creatures of a more insidious nature.

One night as I snuggled up to my husband in our bed, I felt a thin whisper on my leg. I had just enough time to wonder if I had felt it or not, when the hypodermic jab of a needle in my upper arm jolted me upright. “Fuck,” I wailed. I’ve been stung! I’ve been stung!

“What?” My husband hollered, still sleep drunk. “What happened?”

“There’s a scorpion in the bed,” I said, throwing off the covers and bounding out of bed.

“Hold on,” he said. “Are you sure? Maybe it was a needle from the cactus. We were re-potting those plants today. It could have gotten on you .”

“No!” I said. “That was no cactus needle. I’m sure of it.” Still brushing myself off and shaking my hair out, I danced around wondering if the fucker was on the floor now.”

My husband jumped up and circled around the bed. “There it is,” he said. “Get a shoe, quick.” It lay motionless at the foot of the mattress, primeval, repellent,  oblivious to its own danger. A whack and it was no more.

The scorpions sabotaged my desert mountain experience. I was later stung in a chair while convalescing from the flu. My daughter was stung in her bed and had to be taken to the emergency room. One of them crawled out of a pot my husband had held close to his chest a moment before. I could never relax when coming into the house or getting up in the night time, when slipping my foot into a shoe or opening a cupboard. I once found a dead one in the dishwasher and another in my china cabinet. The specter of the evil things haunted the house. I sensed them seething behind the walls. The “Scorpion Slayer” we hired (his business name) could only marginally keep them at bay. We moved after five years. I still worry about the young family that snapped up the house in a short sale in 2012.

On a footnote…if you happen to be thinking of moving to Arizona someday, read this NY Times article on the reality of sharing space with these truly creepy critters.

This reverie was stimulated by Charli Mills’s latest flash fiction challenge:

May 4, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) include insects in a story. Periwinkles, bees laden with pollen, ants building hills. What can insects add to a story? Do they foreshadow, set a tone, provide a scientific point of interest or a mystical element? Let you inner periwinkles fly!

So, here’s my flash.

The Sting

Cleaning day in the new house. The feel of fine grit in the bathtub. She scrubbed, like a woman she’d seen in Oaxaca grinding corn on a stone metate.

Then, Ow! What the hell? A sliver of glass? She turned to the sink and threw her rag down. Inspected the finger. No blood. Only a suffusion under the skin, as if the tip were blushing.

She did other chores. The finger grew numb. Still she didn’t realize. Returning, she picked the rag up. The evil thing lay in the bowl, flat, segmented, pincered, its barbed tail ready to strike.

Ugghhh. I can hardly bear to look at a picture of it.




20 thoughts on “So You Want to Live in the Desert?

  1. Jeanne, I loved the story you told of your time in the desert and your photographs had me wanting to visit. Once the scorpions came into the picture the desire left me but what absolutely beautiful countryside. There is something about a desert that is irresistible. Loved your flash. When I read it on Charli’s site I had no idea a scorpion was coming (I’d thought possibly spider) so it came as a great twist when it was revealed. Reading it here I knew what was coming from your preceding memoir. Cheers Irene

    1. Thanks for stopping by Irene. I urge you to visit Arizona and I want to assure you I have not seen one scorpion in the house where I live now, even though it is a ten-minute walk from another desert mountain preserve. I believe some houses just happen to be built over an active area. Also if you have lots of palm trees–which we did–you are likely to see the nasty critters since they live in the bark. It really is a uniquely beautiful state, and not only for the desert. Pines, lakes, and meadows up in the high country too. And glad I gave you that small surprise at the end!

  2. Having experienced these in Nevada, I felt the sting! I never really relax when visiting the desert. I enjoyed the beauty of Nevada through the ranches my family worked, and my husband’s hometown, but I’m a mountain girl at heart. Your photos are gorgeous and I might visit during the dormant season. The NYT article has me shivering!

    1. It’s true one shouldn’t relax in the desert. Along with the scorpions, snakes are a present danger. (Got a long one in our back yard once; it disappeared before we could figure out what to do with it.) But just as you learn to turn your bear radar (which sounds terrifying to me) most sensible folks here take caution when hiking. (Though you always do see those idiots who traipse out in their flip-flops.) From what I’ve read scorpions don’t like the cold. And our cold would be a cool spring day for an Idahoan. January through April/May is gorgeous. You are always welcome to visit. As for me, I do dream of popping in on you in Idaho.

        1. January is very nice. April you get the blooms. Anytime really between end of October and May is superb. Then the heat comes. Popped into the hundreds here this week after an amazingly cool spring. Now I long for cooler climes. Though if you get up before sunrise it’s pleasant 🙂 Probably a nice time to visit Idaho?!

  3. Oh Jeanne. I’m surprised you lasted so long with those scorpions about. How perfectly scary. But the scenery is so beautiful. I have been to a few desert areas in Australia and, while they are also beautiful, they are quite different from yours. You mentioned the names of many plants and animals that I am not familiar with, and will have to take some time to investigate.
    You flash is perfectly timed, taking us calmly to the horrific ending.

    1. The scenery was stunning Norah so it did make up for my underlying angst. My husband and I were talking about countries we really wanted to see and Australia came up number one the other day. It seems your outback does have similarities to our desert but so distinct at the same time….we have no dingoes :-/ (I will refrain from quoting the famous Meryl Streep line here!) And I do love our plants. Such unique forms…and the way the particular green hues contrast with the various red/sand/ocher landscapes. Thanks for the thumbs-up on the flash too. Glad the ending worked!

  4. I have been missing Arizona something terrible the last few weeks (I lived in Tucson for several years) and have even been trolling the real estate ads just for fun. I was lucky to have never had to deal with scorpions, although my driveway was apparently a javelina crossing ground. Every night, without fail, they showed up. I miss them too.

    But not the scorpions. They aren’t part of my memories. I don’t think we have them up in my part of the country, but just in case, I don’t think I will do any cleaning today 😉

    1. And where is “up in your part of the country”? Interesting that you lived in Tucson. When the congestion up here in the big metropolis gets on my nerves, I love jotting down there. The Catalina Mountains are so beautiful and the city has that wonderful Mexican influence. It retains something Phoenix lost in the 60s I think, though the suburbs to the north now look just like the endless subdivisions here. I tried to leave Phoenix forever and stayed away for 18 years. I missed the vistas though and was eventually drawn back. Hope you visit sometime!

      1. I am on the Great Plains, where Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa, and Minnesota all converge. Most people think of long vistas of flat grasslands, but I am actually in the Missouri River valley, so vibrant green rolling hills are my backdrop, complete with an array of wildlife (no scorpions, but I do have a tiger salamander living in my basement, Great Horned owls in my trees, and a skunk who likes to roam my lane at night).

        1. Beautiful country, the Plains. My parents were from North Dakota and I was born in St. Paul. I’ve done the drive up north from AZ on different routes many times, though mostly a little further west. It must be beautiful, a great river valley, something I’d like to experience more. I imagine great trees rustling in the wind and yes, the green rolling hills. And storms! I know they can be devastating but that is one thing we don’t get enough of here. I miss thunder 🙂

          1. There is nothing like a summer storm sweeping across the Great Plains. It’s not just thunder and rain, it’s raw power and fury. It’s actually thundering here this morning (despite the vibrantly bright sunny day), and every time the windows rattle, it sends shivers up my spine.

          2. I can just feel those storms now the way you describe them. And I remember the wind sweeping across the plains (strains of “Ohlahoma!” here). The power of the unrestrained force, nothing blocking it for a hundred miles. Thought I would get knocked off my feet in a small town intersection once in ND. I will enjoy your morning storm vicariously C. Jai. If we get anything except a spring rain, it will be in the summer Monsoon season. Then we are just as apt to get a load of dust as we are rain, but the electrical storms are stupendous. And now that we’re on the topic, I wonder if Charli has done storms as a prompt? Hmmm….

  5. Oh Jeanne, it has been far too long since you and I chatted, my fault entirely. I have not blogged for a month and done very little visiting, mostly at the Ranch but even then this is the first week I’ve posted a flash over there for a little while. Since taking up the workshop in London once a week and spending more time with Mum – and trying to edit and revise my memoir, ha, what else?! – well, so much for blogging. This week I have plans to blog, then my back went out…and well, so much for my doom and gloom. Feeling a bit better today…and I have so much wanted to re-connect with you over at your pad. I have always been fascinated with the American desert. And wouldn’t you know it, I am working on a chapter about my first road trip across the Mojave desert in a Plymouth Charger (’79) driving to Vegas from LA. I was 19, first ever trip to America. I have been trying to remember just how I felt, the menace and the beauty and I write about my fear of scorpions. Bringing us to the present day, my aspie daughter loves to go to the pet shop. Among the cutesy bunnies and guinea pigs, it carries snakes, lizards and yes, scorpions. She worked on me for years before I let her get her corn snake, terrified he would escape. Which he did once, but thank God stayed in her room…she thought she had a poltergeist, ha! Found him sleeping in one of her shoes. But a scorpion? She has teased me for years that she will get one and I tell her in no uncertain terms that if she does, that will be the day I move out. Seriously, how the **** did you survive that…in your bed? Oh Jeanne, you had me hooked not only with your wonderful writing, as always, but with your experiences and your family too!!! No wonder you moved, and I am so relieved that you found another, more beautiful and safer place to live! I love your photos, that wide open blue sky. As you know, I’ve visited Arizona and it is ‘your’ Arizona that I expected to see, but we were in Flagstaff area and the Grand Canyon so it was more mountains and pine trees. Beautiful. And coming from England, I remember the children’s uncle always warning me and them about rattle snakes and black widows. I was terrified of them, but thankfully none of us ever got bitten. Loved your flash…ha, your photo is terrifying too! Loved this post Jeanne, great to hang out with you in your desert life…you are one brave, amazing woman 🙂

    1. Hello Sherri. So good to see you here! But I am not letting you take all the blame for our silence. How I resonated with your comments. At least you have time scheduled for that workshop and are working on your memoir. I try not to feel guilty about letting the blogging slide, but it does bother me as I know I could do so much more with it, and I miss the supportive voices when I sign off for too long. I love your reference to crossing the Mohave at 19. I hav made the drive between Phoenix and the various California cities a dozen times at least. The Mohave is much starker and harsher than our Sonoran desert, but the vistas are amazing. And too funny about the Charger. I had a Plymouth Scamp in the late 70s. I drove it out to LA when I moved there in 1980. Wasn’t it grand, that feeling of freedom and adventure! As for the northern part of the state, what a spectacular area to explore. I do love the variety of AZ landscapes. Wonderful to drive up to “Flag” from here and see how the rising elevation changes the land. Oh, and your daughter’s predilection for creepy-crawlies. I have two stepsons who are into snakes and lizards and related critters. I lived with a fat boa constrictor in the house for a while, and two tarantulas that my stepson Matt would let crawl all over him, including his face. I had to stop by the pet store on my way home from work and buy crickets and baby mice. Ugh! But they are fascinating. I miss you Sherri. Thanks so much for catching up! And for simply reading my scribbles!

  6. Sorry I missed this flash prompt – almost not sorry I missed this post! Fortunately managed to avoid these critters on our very brief trip through Arizona, Utah and Nevada years ago. I don’t think I would have slept quite so well if I’d thought I might find a scorpion in my bed! I have enough of an issue with spiders and none of them bite here!
    But it does have a beauty all of it’s own where you are – those massive skies and wide open space. And the driving was so easy! Great places to explore!

    1. Thanks for stopping by Lisa. I feel we’ve been hanging out all day together since I’ve been popping in and out of your last post. It was just the “prompt” I needed to post on my blog, on a topic I’ve been thinking about for a year: the book proposal as outline or guide to a rewrite. Anyway, yes, Arizona has some insidious fauna but as you know from your trip through here, the landscape can change dramatically. And even in the south central deserts, you can almost forget they are here. That house was the only place I’ve ever had a problem with them. I can’t say I prefer scorpions to spiders…they both make me scream.

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