The road up into McDowell Mountain Park is only about seven miles long (mostly uphill), a dead-ender that comes to a halt at a gate on the top of a small mountain plateau. I turned onto the road on one of those spontaneous navigational whims. I had planned an entirely different route; then, at the last second, something willed me to turn and explore. I had been part way up this road a couple of days earlier in the car with my family on a hike, so the first part of the road wasn’t completely unknown to me. Yet riding it on a bicycle in the early morning is, of course, a totally different experience from the hot afternoon car trip.
I encountered only two vehicles the whole way up and down, both park rangers who gave me the casual wave and smile. With no traffic to distract me, I could really look and listen. I noticed things that I hadn’t a few days before in the car. Impossibly cute desert bunnies dashed for cover. Lizards and chipmunky critters zipped across the corner of my line of vision and then were gone.I rode down the middle of the road, scanning the landscape, practising in my head the names of cacti I was trying to learn: saguaro, buckhorn, teddybear cholla, ocotillo. The sun was just over the mountains; the shadows were long, gigantic.
But it was the sounds that struck me the most. Roadrunners skittered across the pavement. Bits of sandy gravel crunched under the wheels. And birds—mostly unseen—chirped and squawked from every direction.
They call this desert the Sonoran. I don’t know the origin of the name, but this morning I started to wonder if it comes from the same root as the word sonorous, as in producing sound. Turns out that desert silence isn’t silent at all.