My Summer of Water and Smoke

As I write this, I am so sleep deprived that I question my own coherency. But these moments can be a fruitful source of artistic inspiration for me. For example, today, driving to work in a total mental fog, it suddenly dawned on me that my summer has been entirely shaped by water and smoke.

I planned my vacation assuming that British Columbia would once again be on fire, and it would once again send its smoke down to choke Seattle like some toxic gag gift. Boy, was I ever right about that. By the time we flew out of Sea-Tac airport, the sky was already turning brown, and I was having trouble breathing. (Thanks, Canada.)

As we flew past Mount Rainier, the tallest thing in the state of Washington at 14,410 feet, we would not have been wrong to assume that it would loom over the landscape. But it was so socked in with smoke that instead it looked like a tiny island floating on a putrid brown sea. We were lucky to be leaving Seattle, because the air quality here that week was worse than that of Beijing. (Incidentally, poor Beijing! I’d hate to be the world’s poster child for air pollution.)

Arriving in the Sonoran Desert, we spent the week highly focused on what a valuable commodity water is. The very air around you seems to suck moisture out of your body like a vampire. And then a monsoon would appear, like magic, and transform everything, from the landscape to the flora to the temperature. Water, man. What a miracle.

The value of water was also brought home to us by visiting Biosphere 2, which was originally created to determine how we might manage to survive on another planet. The importance of moisture to sustain life could not have been more emphasized. And then we went to Kartchner Caverns, an unbelievably gorgeous cave full of amazing formations that were created over thousands of years by the movement of water.

From there, we went to Glacier National Park, which happened to be on fire, so half the park was closed off from us, and smoke was in the air. And then it wasn’t, due to a torrential, icy downpour which left the mountains covered in snow. And of course, every single feature of this stunning landscape was carved out by the movement of glaciers, which are composed of frozen water.

Water and smoke: the elements of my summer. I wonder what my autumn will be composed of. Surreal.

Mount Rainier
The tip of Mount Rainier.

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Kartchner Caverns State Park, Arizona

No cameras. No cell phones. No food, no drink, no gum or tobacco products. No backpacks, no strollers, no walkers. Have you worn your shoes inside any other cave? If so, you can’t come in. You could introduce white-nose syndrome to our community of 1000 bats. And you can’t touch anything. Your body oils could stop the formations from growing. This is a living, growing cave.

Okay, now you pass through an air lock. This keeps the humidity within the cave at 99%, as opposed to the typical 0% of the Sonoran Desert above. Without this moisture, the cave stops growing. Sure, its formations generally only grow an inch every 750 years, but still, that’s progress.

Next, you pass through an air curtain that blows the lint off your clothing. Lint may not seem like much to you or me, but with all this tourism, it adds up. Then you pass through a hall of mist, to once again combat that lint.

It was all rather intimidating, but well worth the effort. Because after that, you’re treated to about an hour of some of the most gorgeous cave formations on the planet. Kartchner Caverns. Stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, columns, draperies, spar crystals, flowstone, helictites, shields, and cave bacon galore. Golds. Reds. Browns. Whites. A feast for the eyes.

It was hard not to touch. It was hard not to jump over the railings to go exploring. It was hard to grasp the immensity of the formations. One of the columns is 58 feet tall. (At an inch every 750 years, that’s… a heck of a lot of years.)

What kept me respectful was the immense amount of effort it took for people to protect this cave. I strongly suspect such a monumental secret could never be kept in this day and age, but after Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen found this cave in 1974 on land belonging to the Kartchners, they all managed to keep it a secret for another 14 years. But they decided that the best way to protect the cave, oddly enough, would be to develop it. (Let’s face it: if there’s money involved, people take things seriously.) But it was beyond their means, so they approached the governor of the State of Arizona.

Another thing that wouldn’t happen today: the massive amount of behind the scenes political maneuvering it took to turn this place into a state park. Even the state legislature was kept in the dark until the final vote on the bill, because everyone knew that if the information went public, the next thing you knew, the cave would be covered in graffiti and beer cans. So the bill passed in 1988, and Arizona had its park.

And how lucky the public is that this treasure is being preserved so conscientiously. If you ever get a chance, visit these caverns. You’ll be so glad you did. And while there, rejoice in the fact that a vast majority of this cave has still never been touched by human feet, and hopefully never will be.

Since I couldn’t take pictures myself, here are some from the internet, plus one cool photo of a mural we saw in town.

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The Sonoran Desert: Here There Be Thorns

I really must be in love, because on my fiancé’s behest, I was about to fly to Tucson, Arizona. In August. If I wanted to experience 100 degree temperatures, I’d have stayed in Florida. And yet, here I was, on a plane, heading into what felt like the world’s biggest pizza oven.

Ah, but it’s a dry heat. The better to desiccate you with, my dear. It felt as if the inside of my nose was going to crack open and crumble to dust.

And yet, upon arrival, a funny thing happened. I fell in love with the place’s unique beauty. I strongly suspect that Arizonans are treated to more thorns per capita than residents of any other state in the union. Saguaro cactus. Organ pipe cactus. Barrel cactus. It has more plant species than any other desert in the world. Cholla. Prickly Pear. Creosote bush. Bur sage. Palo verde. Mesquite. Ironwood. Acacia. I was enchanted.

And running around amongst that flora was an amazing amount of fauna. An astounding variety of lizards, too quick to be photographed. Turtles. Bats. Rabbits. Coyote. Gila monsters. Hummingbirds. Quail. Roadrunners. Snakes. And lest we forget, the troublesome Javelina.

It seems like life should be impossible in the blistering heat of this desert, and yet there it was, all around me. The terrain was amazing, too, with its mountains and plains and dry washes. And, being monsoon season, when it rained, my goodness, it rained, causing floods where one would think water had never been before. And then the temperature would drop 25 blessed, blessed degrees and the desert would bloom and be as lush as it could ever be.

Would I live in the Sonoran Desert? No. I’d miss moisture and grass and nothing scary to step on when barefoot.

Will I visit again? I hope so! There’s a certain poetry to the place. But I hope I won’t be back in August. Please, God, not in August.

Here are some pictures we took of this beautiful land.

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