Scorched by the searing rays of a west Texas sun, the desolate Chihuahuan Desert suffers the midsummer inferno of 114 degrees Fahrenheit in stoical silence. It’s late afternoon, and the sky—a deep, featureless ocean of blue—offers little in the way of relief. Then, as if taking mercy on the scattered clumps of wrinkled prickly pear, solar-fried lechuguilla, and pale creosote bush, a cooler breeze begins to stir.
Billowing clouds begin to form, piling high in the sky, giant, ethereal mountains of moisture. Among them, bolts of lightning crackle back and forth, as the clouds quickly condense into bruising shades of blue and gray. The breeze freshens smartly, moving with new strength across the darkened landscape.
Suddenly, curtains of rain, sent sideways by the howling wind, sweep and slash the land for a period of 14 to 20 surreal minutes, then abruptly cease. Almost immediately, the desert plants begin to swell in size, soaking up the rain right before your eyes. The sun, peeking out as the storm’s dark curtain of clouds dissipates, sets the scene aglow once again, this time with billions of tiny, dazzling points of light that glitter on the leggy, thorn-covered branches of ocotillo and the wax-coated spears of lechuguilla.
Moments later, a faint breeze sends forth an incredibly fresh, aromatic fragrance. The desert plants celebrate the rain by exuding an airborne elixir so invigorating and sensual that no man-made perfume could ever replicate it. Chief among them, the creosote bush—with its quarter- to half-inch, sage-colored, waxy leaves and spindly limbs, which seldom reach more than five feet in height—boasts one of the most potent and aromatic arrays of chemicals in the plant world. One of these, a toxic compound secreted by the plant’s roots into the soil, keeps all other thirsty plants—including members of its own species—at a respectable distance, a trait that endows the Chihuahuan Desert with an odd sense of order and evenly-spaced symmetry.
Cactus wrens, roadrunners, and mockingbirds emerge from hidden shelters, alternately sipping and splashing in small, ephemeral pools of rainwater while lizards slurp droplets of moisture still clinging to the rocks. Cactus mice, jackrabbits, snakes, and other desert denizens, equally refreshed by the moisture in their burrows underground, will sally forth after dark.
From the January 2004 issue.