Coyotes in the Desert

I have the teacher’s edition of the first grade curriculum open in front of me with eager first-grade faces looking up at me from behind their little desks.  I have to give a lesson on carnivores, omnivores, and herbivores. I am substitute-teaching at Condor Elementary School on the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC).  

There’s nothing like accessing prior knowledge when teaching a new concept.  

“Do any of you hear the coyotes at night?”

About 20 heads nod up and down and some reply with an enthusiastic “Yeah!”

“And what do they sound like?”  I knew what their response would be but I couldn’t help myself.  

“Aaaaah – Oooooooh!” Howl about 20 first graders.  Some emphasize their howls with tilting their heads back.

“That’s right!”  I say after the last of them get their howls out.  “Coyotes are carnivores which means they eat other animals.”

I’ve been hearing coyotes howl at night ever since I can remember.  My family would come out to Twentynine Palms to spend the weekend at our small homestead cabin in the outskirts of Twentynine.  It was about 25 minutes to downtown Twentynine Palms with the MCAGCC practically in the backyard. I always associated hearing coyotes as a sign of being in the boonies.

I was surprised when I heard coyotes howl during the first nights at our new home in downtown Twentynine Palms.  It sounded like I had a chorus of coyotes singing for me just outside my gate. Their yip-yips sounded when they celebrated a successful hunt.  One or two of them would cross the street or trot down the road in the early morning. Coyotes are always something to see. Lean and long with coloring to match the desert landscape, they are quite beautiful.  

The coyotes don’t know they are supposed to stay in the boonies.  They are happy to make any quiet place their home. The Twentynine Palms Public Cemetery is surrounded by a chain link fence with large oleanders planted along the perimeter to serve as a windbreak.   People occasionally walk the asphalt paths of the cemetery as it’s a quiet and relatively flat area. I was walking the fence with it’s oleanders one day when movement caught my eye. I walked closer to the side of the fence and startled something out of hiding. Three coyote pups ran out of their den.

“Oh!  I’m sorry, I didn’t know that was your home!”  I tell their retreating figures.

The puppies were cute and small.  They looked like miniature versions of their parents.

We live in-town but we get frequent visits by coyotes.  A large coyote trotted through the alleyway behind our back yard.  A few seconds later two more coyotes followed the first. They were graceful in appearance and purposeful in movement.  Then I remembered that my cat was outside. My 7-year old son spotted the cat high on the limb of a dead tree in the empty lot next door to us.  He’s a smart cat to shimmy up there when those coyotes came through. Coyotes are carnivores after all.

Small dogs and cats keep coyotes well-fed.  I woke to hear my two dogs barking furiously outside at 4:30 in the morning.  I padded over to the blinds in my bedroom window to see what they were barking at.  Both the shepherd and chihuahua mix had their attention fixated at something across the street.  The shepherd’s hackles were raised and his front legs were propped up on our chain link fence.  The chihuahua mix was so excited that she continuously hopped up and down next to the shepherd.  She hopped about a foot or two up the corner of the chain link fence. Then she climbed up the rest of the fence and jumped down on the opposite side and took off like a shot across the street toward the unknown thing.

Once I saw her go over the fence I quickly found my shoes and grabbed the flashlight that we keep above the stove.  I hurried faster when I heard her aggressive barks turn to howls of pain. I opened the front door and went across the street, shining the flash light and looking for our dog.  The light shined on a coyote’s backside trotting down the street away from me. It had our little dog in its mouth and there was nothing I could do. I was incredulous.

One of the most difficult things I had to do was tell my young daughter about what happened to her cherished pet.  A hard lesson to learn.  Living in the desert means I must keep my small pets inside for their own safety. Coyotes are neat to see and a pleasure to hear but they are carnivores and they don’t know they are supposed to stay in the boonies.

Rain in the Desert

“What is that sound?” The librarian asked as she was checking out books.  We all looked around the room with her. Then she said with a knowing smile, “Oh, it’s raining!”  

Everyone in the small library smiled back at her.  It was raining! The kids in line to check in with the summer reading program became excited and agitated.  They asked their mothers if they could go watch the rain from the breezeway windows. One little girl started walking all the way outside before her mother called her back.  “No, sweetheart, stay in the breezeway and watch.”

Adults came in the library through the breezeway and smiled.  Their shirts were speckled with rain. Others finished checking out their library books, looked out at the pouring summer rain, and went outside to their cars with big grins on their faces.  Rain is something special in Twentynine Palms.

The average yearly rainfall is 0.51 inches and the average snowfall is 0.0 inches in Twentynine Palms (US Climate Data).  It’s exceptional when anything falls out of the sky. It actually hailed this past summer and I showed my kids just so they knew what hail looked like (small frozen pellets of ice in case you forgot).  

Kids of all ages clamour to go outside and look as soon as there is precipitation in Twentynine Palms.  Young children perform a wild version of a rain dance as they prance about their wet yards. They skip about the sidewalks and look like they are about ready to sing “Singing in the Rain” like Gene Kelly.  Teachers at all schools know little instruction will happen once moisture starts falling from the sky. There was once a mixture of snow and rain coming down and the high school students asked if they could just please, please open the class room door and look?  The door opened, a few students looked, and like magnets they were pulled outside to feel the magic of cold moisture falling from the sky onto their faces. The whole class soon poured outside. Big teenagers performing their own version of the rain dance.

Rain makes everyone giddy in the desert.  Children at home rush to ask if they can use the umbrella outside in the rain.  The parent does not know where the umbrella is but the kids pull it out from the back of the closet.  They hide under it as the rain pours down, delighting in the novelty of using the umbrella as protection against rain rather than protection against the sun.  Meanwhile the family dog bounds about in the yard and barks at the sky. He’s bewildered and wonders why his head is all wet even after he gives it a good shake.

Rain in the desert often comes in fast and strong.  The roads become small rivers once it begins to rain more than a few sprinkles.  The desert sand cannot absorb much water. That is why there are such high berms along the streets.  Rain water gets funneled along the streets where it is channeled to many of the washes throughout Twentynine Palms.  Sometimes the rain comes down too fast and the channels can’t keep up, creating massive flooding in some parts of the city.  Locals know never to drive through those fast-moving mini rivers. The floodgates on Split Rock Avenue get shut to allow the torrent that flows through there free passage through the city.

The desert is clean after it rains.  It’s as if the desert itself took a shower and scrubbed away all the dust and dirt.  It smells clean.  The creosote bushes gives us their perfume like a natural aftershave.  The mountains glisten and sparkle in the distance. There is no puff of dust as you step on the desert sand.  God watered his cactus garden.

I knew I lived in the desert a while when in the early morning, getting ready for work, I became conscious of a strange sound.  I paused and listened carefully.

“What is that sound?” I mused.

It took me a moment to identify it as the sound of rain falling from the roof onto the ground.  

“Oh, it’s raining!”

A small smile appeared on my face unconsciously as I performed my own rendition of the rain dance.