Secrets of a Desert Wash

Don't stick your hand in there!

Look across a desert landscape and it appears that all is revealed. The dry air provides clarity and distant vistas beckon. Cacti and trees stud the horizon and rocky outcrops jut from the shoulders of bajadas. If another person walks on this landscape you will notice. A coyote trotting a ridge, a red-tailed hawk perched on a saguaro, even a rock squirrel scampering up a boulder are plain to see.
However the desert hides a secret world beyond our view, down in the washes that provide drainage for seasonal rains. Runoff gouges these depressions in the desert floor and brings moisture and nutrients to desert trees that flourish, providing shade and shelter for wildlife. The raging torrents that rush here during monsoon storms carry a load of debris, stacks of sticks and branches and heaps of grit and mud that pile up along the curving banks and behind boulders and trees when the waters recede.
Small mammals and reptiles take up residence in brush piles and burrow in the crumbling soil of the sandy banks of the wash. These residents of holes and crevices are potential meals for predators such as coyotes, owls and hawks that haunt the washes in search of food and shelter. This rich cycle of life exists outside the awareness of most hikers. Sometimes when the trails seem a little crowded, I’ll descend into a wash and trudge through the sandy basin. The slower pace suits me.
This morning in a wash draining the south side of South Mountain I noted packrat nests, an ironwood tree graced with an abundance of verdin nests, and a tiny alcove where a snake had shed its skin. The broad banks of the wash shielded me from the rising sun, and from the rest of civilization. I was free to go slow, to crouch and peer, to stand and listen.
Urban planners in our desert communities provide for flood control by copying Nature’s design. Including a network of unlined washes in city neighborhoods prevents flooding and allows runoff to permeate and refill precious underground aquifers. Manmade arroyos also nurture native plants and provide shelter and throughways for urban wildlife such as quail, coyotes and javelina.

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2 responses to “Secrets of a Desert Wash

  1. I think I recognize this hillside. Going up the trail behind you? It’s been so warm for you folks would imagine lots of the critters are down deep.

  2. You have so captured the wash…one of my favorite places riveled only by a desert river…so peaceful yet so vibrant and so, so spirit sustaining!

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