Coachella Valley, California
Braided through the story of the Coachella Valley, in the Colorado Desert, the lowest, hottest, most arid desert in North America, is the story of water. The northwestern end of the valley washes up against mountains on three sides, marking the upper limits of the Colorado Desert. These mountains, including the two highest peaks in Southern California, create our rainshadow, but are also our rain collectors.
This long, deep valley was once part of the Gulf of California, finally cut off from the sea by the Colorado River as it spewed its load of red silt into the gulf, creating a dam near what is now the Mexican border. Sand eroded from the surrounding mountains now fills the valley, reaching down thousands of feet, and cradles an aquifer of fossil water, from times when the climate was more tropical and rain fell on a lush landscape of palms and ferns, and later on giant sloths and saber-toothed cats.
As the climate became drier, the fan palms retreated into canyons or followed fault lines, wherever springs and seeps flowed to the surface. I love hiking in and around these oases, where palms, cottonwoods, and sycamores coexist along streams, and light and shadow play across the trails. Climbing out onto the exposed hillsides above the oases, I enter the domain of cholla cactus, ocotillo, and agave, and also of spring wildflowers like paint splashes across a pebbled canvas.
My actual home is in the flats, on what were once sand dunes left by a retreating ancient lake filled occasionally by the Colorado, when it would dam up its course to the sea and turn inland. How ironic that the river again flows into our valley, but this time via an aqueduct. The water is released into the seasonal Whitewater River at the upper end of the valley to recharge the aquifer. However, the aquifer is overdrawn mainly by agriculture and golf courses, and I worry, because even with Colorado water flowing into the valley, it will never again be filled in this time of little rain.