We've had the driest winter in 100 years--not that you, I, nor anyone else should start believing in climate change, a myth promoted by a cabal of evolution-positive, profit-hating "scientists" who want to see us all driving girly cars--and it's been many months since surfaces outdoors have been rinsed by rain, restored to that sparkling state of drenched freshness we seem vaguely to recall from ages past. It's getting to be like Dune around here, a place and time where the old ones talk about having seen water fall from the sky.
My husband had a happy dream the other night, a real Arizonan's dream: He dreamt it rained. He awoke and found it was not so.
When the wind whips up, the dust rises into the air, blurring the knifelike edges of the mountain ridges and making the city lights twinkle despite rock-bottom humidity.
Among the dirt particles hang the spores responsible for my old friend valley fever, coccidioidomycosis. Cocci is an endemic soil-borne fungus that gives most people something like a cold, but it makes some very sick indeed. Wherever soil is disturbed in the Southwest, its spores float in the air. This is an organism I respect, having lost half a lung to it as a teenager in Tempe, where I coughed blood like a doomed Victorian heroine amid the bulldozers and model homes. You can only have valley fever once, but when the air gets hazy, I still feel breathless.
Left to itself, the desert, even when very dry, isn't particularly dusty. The hard summer rains wash what little loose soil there is into low spots and down between the rocks, forming a hard, glinting surface called desert pavement. But you go out and start digging around, you have a city under perpetual construction and, well, see for yourself. Look at the delicate beige haze above the road-widening along North Craycroft Road, or the Big Dig on East Timrod Street (behind the Doubletree Hotel on Alvernon Way), or any bit of desert that's been scraped bare for new houses or a stripmall or a Walgreens (can Tucson ever have enough drug stores?) and then left to blow away.
For example: Work started on a jogging path in our local park early last fall. The city surveyed, came in with heavy machinery, scraped bare a 10-foot-wide strip around the periphery of the park, put in some wiring and then disappeared. For months, the park was encircled by a continuous swathe of fine, loose, churned-up dirt. I'd come home from walking the dog and have to wipe the dust off my shoes before coming in the door--and I am not a neat person.
Now the machinery is back, and the dirt's been re-scraped and, as of last week, sprayed down and neat. We are thankful and do so hope they'll keep going this time.
My mother lives in a condominium complex off Timrod Street just east of Reid Park, where the city has been doing something about storm-water drainage for a year. (The timeline is courtesy of her condominium board. I myself cannot remember when the street wasn't dug up.) For the first few months, I could snake down Timrod between the heavy machinery, trenches, giant sections of culvert and dirt piles, ignoring the fanciful "street closed" signs at each end, pretending for a few blocks that the Accord was a Tundra or Navigator, and I was a lean, white-toothed, Frisbee-playing fun-hog in an SUV commercial. (Actually, years ago, I lived in Southern Utah, where I sampled the four-wheel-drive lifestyle and hated it. Grinding along primitive roads in low gear for hours is entertaining only in the abstract. It got so I'd beg to get out and walk. Or just to stay home.)
But then the road guys got serious and put up big cement slabs that blocked off Timrod completely between North Columbus Boulevard and Alvernon. For a while, we could divert and come in the back way, but now, the side streets are closed, too, and the only route into the complex is through the Doubletree parking lot, to which access is limited by operations on Alvernon that have reduced traffic to one lane each way. We started calling it the Big Dig--after the tunnel project that's paralyzed and bankrupted Boston for more than a decade--after we found ourselves crawling along Alvernon, making a U-turn, then slaloming around delivery trucks, drunks teetering to their cars and maids pushing laundry carts, all just to get to Mom's.
Some days, they work on the Dig; some days, they don't. Latest estimated completion date: May. With luck there won't be any fires or heart attacks in that neighborhood until summer.
But this is Tucson, and there's no point in complaining. Like the song says, all we are is dust (and spores) in the wind.