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Stories & Facts

Desert Rain Myths and Oddities

When we had the last series of good rains a few weeks ago, our son who now lives back east wrote to say "There's nothing like a desert rain!" Well, there isn't anything like the wonderful clean smell of the desert, with scent of creosote bushes , borne on soft, damp breezes after a rain. We are always amazed at the instant greening of trees and bushes after a lightning storm. I thought it was because the rain washed dust from the plants as well as the air. My uncle told me it is caused by lightning "fixing" the nitrogen in the air and creating instant fertilizer! Who can forget the desert sky, with the sun breaking through the clouds in long rays, and a complete rainbow arching almost from horizon to horizon? Once, after an evening summer storm, I saw a rainbow made by the full moon, softly glimmering with beautiful pastel colors against the night sky.

Living in the Sonoran desert is full of surprises. My sisters and I were walking after a heavy summer rainstorm when I was a youngster. Suddenly we started hearing baby goats or sheep "maaa...maaaaaa...maa" near us. We looked and looked, going up one little ravine after another, but couldn't find the poor lost babies. We went home and told our uncle, and he practically fell out of his chair laughing.

Folks, meet the spadefoot toad! It burrows down into the ground as the desert dries up after the summer rains, and hibernates. When heavy rain penetrates far enough, it wakes up, comes to the surface and calls for a mate. New babies are born during the brief time there are small pools and puddles. As they dry up the toads burrow down where it will stay cool and hibernate until next time. They are quite small, but have very loud voices, and are one of the fun happenings after a desert rain.

However, as the water table has dropped because of population pressure (water-gobbling golf courses, green lawns, large leafed shade trees) our rivers have also dried up. Now, they only run when there is enough rain to bring enough trickles down from higher ground. Instead of fishing in the Santa Cruz for the indigenous trout that used to live in it, modern Tucsonans have to fish for Sand Trout! Here is a modern myth, as told by my sister:

"Just heard Big Jim Griffith retell the story of the Sand Trout in the Santa Cruz River. He said as the River dried up they developed lungs and their eyes were on stalks so they could see above the sand. People used to fish for them with Horned Toads (lizard) as bait, tying the line around the lizard's armpits and letting them walk up the sand. The Sand Trout would bite, then you would haul them in quickly. By the time you got them in they were scaled and cooked. (He also said you could marinate them in a recipe involving Tequila and ? , whatever!) But he said they have not been seen since the floods of 1983. They all drowned! As an aside he said one person was charged with harming the protected Horned Toad, but he won his case by saying it wasn't against the law to take the Horned Toad for a little walk.

Big Jim strikes again!?!"

Thanks, sis!

Note: "Big Jim" Griffith is a University of Arizona professor, a folklore specialist, and excels in telling tall tales. He is loved by many Tucsonans for the "Tucson Meet Yourself" ethnic festival which he originated and organized each year for 25 years. While he has retired from the festival, it is continuing under new sponsorship and a new name. "Big Jim" is a Tucson Treasure!

Pat Grames