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The Payoff

I’m savoring this season. It’s changeable–one day it’s raining, and then it doesn’t rain again until the next day, unless it rains all night.

It’s nice to live by a river that resembles one. I will remember it longingly after the Hassayampa returns to its arid state, and the lush wildflowers are gone from the moor.

You can go years without seeing even a trickle in the Hassayampa, or the Salt, or the lower Gila. I may not live to see this much climate again. My health is okay, but prolonged water is just that rare.

Coyotes are wearing galoshes. Roadrunners can’t get traction.

It is traditional to make light of Arizona’s rivers, “dry river” being a pretty obvious gag. Liars have been riding this horse since the 1850s, when J. Ross Browne reported that the capricious Colorado “could scarcely fall any lower without going entirely through its own bottom.”

An ethical liar will usually point out that when the rivers do actually transport water, there’s hell to pay. The rivers have hurt some people this year.

Here in Wickenburg, the Hassayampa took away one man’s house, and got into some low-lying mobile homes.

National networks have sent reporters–floating reporters–to Oak Creek and the Verde River, into which Oak Creek flows. The Verde is one of few Arizona rivers that flow year-round, but it usually doesn’t come into your house.

Storms batter southern California, and move right on over here. Friends and relatives see the news and call or message to see if we’re okay. We’re fine.

The Hassayampa keeps flowing as though there is a melting glacier, or a bad leak, in the Bradshaw Mountains where the river originates.

The Hassayampa ate a key road on its east bank in Wickenburg, and threatened to take out U.S. 60 (Grand Avenue) about six miles south of town. Six days ago, I was driving to Sun City because I had to see a dentist. My tongue had gotten wrapped around my eye teeth, and I couldn’t see what I was talking about.

I rounded a bend on U.S. 60 where trees have always screened the river from view. Suddenly, there was a naked river beside me.

The Hassayampa had washed away the trees and was eating the bank between the river and the highway. Since then, the Arizona Department of Transportation has been feeding rock and dirt to the river, like a ritual sacrifice, giving it something to chew on besides the highway.

You might have noticed that spring arrives here a month before it shows up on the calendar, and the game begins, led by botanists and hotographers: Will spring wildflowers put on a show, or amount to zilch, as they did last year?

It’s showtime. Those are Mexican gold poppies in the photograph above, taken two days ago near the south edge of Wickenburg. They are the first of zillions.

Loving the desert is an acquired taste. I’m no expert, but I have begun to learn the names of flowers, the order in which they appear, the rhythm of a desert spring. The weeds started early this year, and they are hip-deep to a telphone pole.

Lupine gives us a little blue along the roadsides. I’ve been hunkering in the weeds to look at a tiny blue flower that can’t be more than a quarter-inch in diameter. I don’t have a name for it, and you might call its color lavender. I’m a little color-blind.

Desert mallow, a.k.a. globe mallow, has small orange blossoms on tall, weedy plants that grow so fast, I got only a fuzzy image. The Picacho Vine drags its gourds along the ground with such rapidity that they look like little animals creeping through the other weeds. There are Purple Figments, and the magenta Schimmelman’s Epithet, whose color is so vivid that it echoes.

Sacred Datura is also known as loco weed. It is large, white, beautiful, and poisonous.

The Desert Sunflower looks like a small scale model of the Kansas variety; the Dune Sunflower has wider, more ragged petals. Later in the season, the white Prickly Poppy will be everywhere. It’s Miss Ellie’s favorite.

Last year, wildflowers were so scarce that I had to bore indulgent friends with e-mails of cactus blossoms. Nothing else was blooming.

Now, I’m not ashamed of the golden bloom of staghorn cholla. It’s gorgeous, but it will pretty much bloom when it’s supposed to. Wildflowers are fickle, not so predictable.

It will be a novel spring. Fortunately for those on my e-mail list, my ardor can’t last much past June 1, when the saguaro blossom ends the cycle, and we all go dormant for the summer.

Last 5 posts by Jim Cook

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