Lessons Learned from the Desert

My trip to Arizona marked the first time I had been to the desert since 6th grade, and from the moment I knew I was going to Phoenix for the Troy-Bilt #Saturday6, the desert was all I could think about. Following the trip, I've had dreams about the desert almost every single night. If you could have seen me darting around the Desert Botanical Garden with my camera perpetually glued to my face, you would have seen a little boy caught up in the miracle of the natural world.

I'd like to think that my mother taught me to love nature, but the desert was really to blame. I spent three to four very important years of my childhood exploring the dry streambeds and creosote bushes of the Mojave desert, and came to see nature as the very best kind of Easter egg hunt; where under sun-baked rocks I found both friend and foe lurking in the shadows. Lizards and toads were obviously my best of friends, but scorpions, snakes and big butted black widows were to be respected and feared.

While I later found that it was highly illegal, I kept all sorts of lizards as pets. But hear me out. Were it not for my intervention, the neighbor kids would have blown them up with firecrackers or dissected them alive... so I prefer to think that I rescued them from a grisly fate and allowed them to be my friends. When the other kids wouldn't talk to me on account of my coke bottle glasses and beaming braces-filled smile, I could always count on 'Puffy' the horned lizard to nod at my stories with kind approval. "Don't listen to those mean kids, Steve. Your Lisa Frank folder and neon pink fanny pack are totally rad."

Chihuly sculptures guarding the entrance

When the van dropped us off at Desert Botanical Garden, I saw a scene unlike anything I had ever seen in the barren wasteland of my childhood. It turns out that Phoenix gets almost twice as much rainfall as my former home of Barstow, and it showed. The red clay hillsides were starting to turn bright green after the spring rains, and tropical trees and succulents bloomed all over the gardens in flushes of intense reds and pale purples. Compared to the Mojave's Joshua trees and tumbleweed studded sands, the Sonora was a veritable rainforest. If only I knew what I was missing!

But if there's anything the desert taught me, it was gratitude. From an early age I learned to give thanks for every drop of rain and the shortest of shadows. Gardeners are pretty grateful as it is, but I suspect that gardeners in the desert are even more so. In my agile imagination, a rivulet rolling along a sandy ditch became a waterfall with endless possibilities. The rocks that grownups took for granted were lovingly brushed clean of debris, collected and catalogued in shoeboxes as if they were precious gemstones. The sparse setting of sand and stone made each and every flower shine as if it were on display in an austere gallery; and the sight of a hummingbird or a butterfly became a cause for celebration.

At the Desert Botanical Garden, there was lots of cause for celebration. Anna's hummingbirds flitted about blooming wildflowers and shrubs, cactus wrens called from their nests and bumblebees jostled for coveted positions in the tubular flowers of Aloes and Gasteria. A quail strutted in the underbrush alongside rabbits and ground squirrels, indifferent to my presence. It seemed like all the animals of the desert were ready to get their freak on for spring.

It was sensory overload. Many of the plants growing there were already familiar to me because I grow them in my own Florida garden, yet whenever my mouth opened I became illiterate in botanical Latin and babbled like an idiot. Maybe the nostalgia was getting to be a bit too much, but for a moment I thought I saw my mother there. Her features were tight and inflated, much like my mothers once she started on steroids for Lupus, she wore a wig like that of my mother's - and she was in a powered wheelchair. Like my mom. The resemblance was so uncanny that I found myself taking photos before I realized what I was doing.

I only saw one lizard, but it would have gone unnoticed were it not for the expert lizard-tracking skills I learned as a kid. Surprisingly there were no boy scout badges to award such talents in my day, but maybe things have changed. It was a spiny lizard, which I used to treasure for their iridescent blue throats and bellies that glimmered when exposed. I leapt out in front of my group and announced my discovery with childlike glee, but nobody shared in my enthusiasm. Apparently they still don't have a badge for lizard tracking. Too bad.

A male Anna's hummingbird singing in a Joshua tree

A dry stream bed

Water dribbling down the face of a rock

Riding back to the hotel in sunset, I recalled a sobering lesson from my mother in my desert days. The town of Barstow California was a dustbin that caught the debris of Hollywood's shattered dreams and the lost riches of Las Vegas, filled with vagabonds who once listened to the voices in their head urging them to 'go west young man', only to find themselves mired in poverty and shame. Unfortunately, this meant that there was a lot of crime. My mother's purse was stolen from a church pew and found emptied in a dumpster, and my sister and I attended a Catholic school solely for the protection of its barbed wire fences.

One day on our regular trip to the grocery store, my mother and found one of the town's many homeless men outside as we always did. But this time, I insisted we helped. While she was touched, she warned that he would only use it to buy beer... so I offered up my entire allowance to help. My mother walked me back to the crumpled man, who accepted my five dollar bill with a sheepish 'God bless."

But compassionate as my mom was, she knew a thing or two about how the world worked. When our errands were done, she made sure to take a detour to the grocery store where the man still slumped - but with a new bottle of liquor by his side. It was already half empty, I cynically thought to myself.

That experience stuck with me throughout life, but instead of learning not to put much faith in humanity, it made me realize how little money has to do with happiness. How easy is it to let it blow through your fingers when you're constantly seeking for something more? By most standards our family was poor, but you try telling that to the little boy dancing in a desert rain as if it were manna from heaven, counting the rocks in his collection and counting his blessings. By making me grateful, the desert has made me very rich.



  1. It is wonderful to read about someone getting as much from this place as I always have.

  2. Funny, I was just going through photos trying to decide which ones to include in my post about this garden (how will I ever choose?). Beautiful shots Steve!


  3. I visited here a number of years ago. It was my first visit to the desert and to this botanical garden. It was stunning! I took tons of photos and developed multiple rolls of film. For an Iowa girl arriving after a long winter it was a treat. I remember arriving back home and looking at the grass greening up along the roadsides and wondered "how do they water all this?!" Grass of course in Phoenix being watered mostly by periodic flooding by the city.
    Steve your post also speaks to the importance of exposing children to nature. I don't mean scheduled activities either but flat our fun play.

  4. What a beautifully eloquent and touching post. It is evident that you are able to allow yourself to be fully consumed in the beauty of nature surrounding you, and allow it to guide you in reflecting on a life of important lessons and teachings.
    Thanks for sharing.

  5. Beautiful photos! The purple cactus are especially pretty. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Nice post and beautiful photos Steve.

  7. I had to reread and review this post. This post was pure poetry.

  8. I moved to the desert seven months ago- to a place I never, ever wanted to even visit. But already it has won me over, and continues to each passing day. The beauty feels more impressive to me because it's so surprising. Thanks for this post, my sentiments exactly!!


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