To escape the bustle of Yuma, the dogs and I would drive east over Telegraph Pass, drop down into Dome Valley, and wander farther east on foot over a dirt road into the Muggins Mountains. Except along their dry arroyos, these were mostly barren formations, rugged and bleak as the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Benches below the range’s sharp peaks and ridges were broad fields of nothing but fine black rock: desert pavement. (Picture the most superfluous attempt at xeriscaping by a slovenly Southwestern homeowner.) Even creosote struggled here, and the saguaro was almost non-existent. The dominant hues and shades were browns, tans, dull greens, and whites. Rarely did I hear birdsong. The buzz of an occasional fly marred the silence. In mid-November, while most of America prepared to gird its loins against another long season of rain, slush, and snow, this queer land of timeless sunlight, aridity, and vacant sky went on, serenely meditating on its indifference.
Meanwhile, the heart of Dome Valley was a lush three-mile-wide belt of crops that ran for a dozen miles southeast to northwest. The belt traced the course of the Gila River, once one of the Southwest’s most vibrant rivers from its source in southwestern New Mexico’s Black Range to its termination at the Colorado River in Yuma. Buddy and I camped along its lively waters not far from its source fifteen years earlier. Today, the river is strangled by a dam in Coolidge, Arizona, and, downstream, nearly starved by the agricultural demands of the Phoenix, Arizona, region. To get to the Muggins, the dogs and I had to cross a bridge that spanned the Gila near Ligurta, Arizona. From the bridge, we observed not a river but rather what appeared to be a series of narrow, stagnant puddles cushioned on both sides by a broad, treeless bottomland of green and brown grasses. In the Dome Valley, and perhaps beyond to the Colorado, the river seemed to vanish entirely, reimagining itself as a maze of concrete canals and earthen ditches, all blanketed with cauliflower, wheat, lemons, and cotton.