It was the last rain that did it: highlighted our engineering flaws.
All we did was remove the tiny fence that we built 20 years ago to keep our little dog safe on the patio. We had meant to remove it for some time–she’s been dead seven years. But we finally got around to it this past May, when there hadn’t been a lick of rain for months. Our friends were aging, hip replacements, knee replacements, and were complaining of having to step over the fence to get to our door. I think I might have neglected to mention that this fence was built without any gap or gate, and so for 20 years had always required stepping over. It was only eighteen inches high, no big deal at 50, bigger deal at 70.
The fence we had built in 2001 was simple—just a top and bottom horizontal rail made of pressure-treated 2 x 4 with quarter-inch hardware cloth in between. We had nestled bricks in the dirt below the bottom rail to provide a base. So, removing the fence required dismantling the fence part and then digging up the bricks, which the 20 years had essentially locked in place. A pickax and shovel did the job, and voila, no more high-stepping over a fence to get to our door. Just nice flat dirt leading to the nice flat stones that had made our patio 25 years ago. Gratitude from our friends flowed like water.
However, we apparently forgot that water flowed like water, too.
In retrospect, Charlie and I both recall having a fleeting thought, an inkling, about the fact that now rain, if it ever rained again (remember the drought of these past years?) had a nice downward path from our driveway to our patio and then a slight slant to the door. Might that not pose a problem? But we were just days away from our annual migration to the northwest for the summer, so neither of us heeded the little warning rattling in the back of our minds.
Throughout the summer months, we heard about some good summer rains back on the desert. There were video postings online of running arroyos, Terlingua Creek back to being an actual creek, rafting in Big Bend resuming as the river once again streamed through the canyons. We were delighted and relieved, knowing that our water tanks were filling.
Our wonderful and nearest neighbors (two miles away) had been checking our house every few weeks for rodents (see “Was It Self Defense?”, Cenizo, Winter 2020) and had reported these much-needed rains that were finally happening. It sounded like maybe a bit of rain had made it through our kitchen door, but they had kindly cleaned that up. And they had much to say about how green and beautiful the revived desert now was. We were excited to head home.
And then the torrential rains happened three days before our return. Our neighbors gave us the bad news that this rain had resulted in what we had had an inkling might happen–mud had flowed into our kitchen. They warned us of the mess that would greet us and advised us what supplies to bring for cleanup. We were dreading what awaited us, but eager to get home to deal with it. We couldn’t charge home because one mile of our five miles of dirt road is always a problem in the rain–bentonite that turns into slick mud much like potter’s clay. So, we had to sit on our dread and wait an extra day for the sun to dry this out before making our way home.
Egads. Mudflats right there in our kitchen. The saltillo tile was hardly even visible through the mud. The good news was that the mud did not flow into the rest of the house (well, just a little), so the mopping and soaking up was confined mostly to the kitchen. Charlie tackled this for the first few hours we were home. Division of labor had me doing our usual clean-up—removing dust covers, making the bed, sweeping and vacuuming the usual accumulation of dust balls and sticky spider webs and dead insects in the rest of our fortunately-not-very-large house, and so on. While Charlie kept mopping and wringing and emptying and refilling the bucket.
And then, almost like a bad punchline to a bad joke, to top off our homecoming, heavy rains were predicted for two days later. In preparation, we scrambled to re-direct the water flow. Our neighbor helped Charlie dig a French drain to divert some of the downhill rain possibility and Charlie re-installed the bricks that we had dug up in dismantling the fence so we would have a barrier again. We kept it low this time, so our friends won’t have much to step over.
We went to sleep that night, listening for the beautiful sound of rain on our roof, excited for the predicted rains so we’d be able to watch our repairs in action. But of course, the desert has its own mind, and all we got was a little drizzle. We know there will be a next time, another big rain, and we’ll get to evaluate our repairs then. And as always with rain on the desert, the maxim “be careful what you wish for” truly applies.
Right now, with flowers blooming out of season on the cholla, every ocotillo totally leafed out, and prickly pear once again fleshy and happy, it’s time to simply celebrate and marvel at how green the desert is. And now that we’ve been reminded how the desert behaves when not in drought, perhaps it’s also time to fix those engineering flaws.