In Tucson, Arizona, visitors at the botanical gardens may walk extensive paths that wend throughout the grounds among a multitude of flora species native to arid regions in various continents. Little signs placed near one plant after another inform the reader of a specie’s name and its habitat, while larger panels feature maps and photographs to accompany more detailed information about the world’s deserts. The Chihuahuan Desert is the subject of one such panel.
One of North America’s largest deserts, the Chihuahuan stretches from north-central Mexico to central New Mexico and from southeastern Arizona to western Texas. As the panel text points out, the Chihuahuan is a cold desert, with elevations ranging between about 2,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level. Summer rains provide the overall region with most of its annual precipitation, with winter snowfall adding a bit of ground moisture for good measure. “The best place to see this desert,” the panel informs the visitor, “is in Big Bend National Park in Texas.”
In early 2007, I first became a denizen of the Chihuahuan Desert, which continues unbroken to the present day, when I moved from Fort Worth to El Paso on the edge of Texas. My residency is hardly noteworthy, though, in the grand scheme of things. Here, the land is shaped by slow time, by geological time. A dozen or so years doesn’t even amount to a half-second in comparison to the on-going mountain building in our desert. Time moves slowly in this colorful, fragrant, warm land. La gente de esta tierra son cuentistas. Indeed, the entire span of human presence throughout this land has been marked by a need to preserve stories, and the storytellers who have inhabited esta tierra over the centuries, whether through pictographs, petroglyphs, corridos, diaries, novels, paintings, architecture, songs, motion pictures, or photographs, have recorded the land’s profound and distinctive features.
Notes on Arid America aligns with this long-standing tradition of storytelling and strives to provide a front porch to visit now and again to share stories about the Trans-Pecos and Big Bend of western Texas, the Rio Grande valley, and the mountains and basins throughout the entire extensive region stretching across three states in the American Southwest and six states in northern Mexico. Over the final ten days in April of 2020, I began ruminating on a number of topics to occupy my mind in the midst of a global public health crisis. If stories about history, photography, literature, architecture and historic preservation, canoeing, trails, and athletics—aspects readily in abundance in Arid America and beyond—then writing a few words about my five decades of observations and sojourns to strike up a conversation might just be worthwhile to narrow the differences we unnecessarily tend to gravitate toward while celebrating a big land.
Troy M. Ainsworth, Las Cruces, New Mexico