7 Rules of the Arizona Desert

Arizona Desert
The Arizona desert is all sharp edges and oven heat and bad intentions. But a few basic guidelines can make it feel like home. Photo by Rob Zabrowski/Shutterstock.

The Nazis escaped right about where the coyote is watching my dog. My dog, a failure in most basic dog departments, hasn’t noticed the coyote yet, because she’s busy trying to figure out exactly what this rabbit-like smell is. In a minute, the rabbit will break out of the brush, unnoticed, and I’ll offer the dog a drink of water that she won’t take. She’s lived here all her life, but she’s never learned the desert rules.

1. Nothing matters more than water.

I know the rules backwards and forwards, because I grew up in the Arizona desert, this part of the Sonoran that looks like the set of every Western movie you’ve ever seen. Along with all the other kids in my Boy Scout troop, I was strangely smug that I could survive, no matter what. We knew how to dig into the cool sand to rest when the temperature hit 120 degrees. We could build distress signals visible clear to the horizon. We knew what to do about rattlesnake bites (cut parallel, not in an X shape). We knew that cholla spines are barbed, and you can’t pull them out, so you have to push them further in. We figured the stories about the spines working their way to your heart and killing you were probably a lie, but we did know for sure how to get water from barrel cactus pulp, how to build deadfall traps for kangaroo rats and lizards.

Okay, to be honest, we would have died quickly should we ever have needed to actually try these things. My friend Corrine and her Girl Scout troop, no doubt as self-assured as we were, got lost in the desert for three days, with no food but a five-pound bag of watermelon Jolly Rancher candies. “Another day, it would have been Lord of the Flies,” she said, “and a day after that, the desert would have been eating our bones.”

2. Even if you know the rules, the desert is bigger and stronger than you will ever be.

Back then, of course, there was more desert; when I was a kid, friends lived on the edge of town, where their only neighbor was Frank Lloyd Wright, who was already refusing to face the lights of the growing city. Today the town goes on for an hour past where we used to float in the pool and watch the bats, in bunches thick enough to be mistaken for rain clouds, come out at twilight.

Still, even though it’s shrinking fast, every year the desert takes its toll. Helicopters fly in for rescues; hikers dehydrate, fall from ledges, think their cell phones are going to get them out of trouble. It pays to remember …

3. Absolutely everything in the desert would like to kill you.

It’s all sharp edges and oven heat and bad intentions. True story: A guy got drunk and started shooting saguaros. These are the quintessential desert cactus, tall and thin, their arms reaching for the sky like they’re being held up by bandits. Saguaros can grow over 25 feet tall, have roots miles long; and if it has rained recently, their hollow bodies can hold two tons of water.

Guy shoots saguaro. Saguaro falls over and crushes guy. Everybody in the city applauds.

The saguaros here in the park are dying from car exhaust pollution; even so, this is an oasis, several hundred acres of desert in the middle of Phoenix. The zoo and the botanical garden are across the road. People jog here, do orienteering, take nude pictures of each other against the red rocks. Hawks swoop after ground squirrels—one once passed my car, grabbed a squirrel, and headed back into the air ahead of me in less time than it took me to realize I was driving more than 70 miles an hour.