13 March 2016

My Desert Solitaire

I recall feeling perplexed as a child in elementary school, or perhaps even younger, whenever we’d learn about the seasons and silly rhymes like “April showers bring May flowers.”  The four traditional seasons and the nursery rhymes with origins in England (or perhaps New England) didn’t match my experience growing up in the Sonoran Desert.  And when a desert was depicted in popular culture, i.e., Snoopy’s desert-dwelling cousin, Spike, from Needles, California, that didn’t feel authentic to me, either.  For a long time, I wanted to flee the desert.  It was too hot, too dry, too boring.  I had a different image in my mind of a beautiful location and a more tolerable climate.  Eventually I made my way to a mountain town and live in a semi-arid climate, a combination of chaparral and juniper-piñon forest, which I love and truly feels like home.

But I do long for the desert and will always be a desert rat.  I’m pretty sure this longing was born mostly when I became a desert backpacker.  I’ve logged many miles in the Grand Canyon, both on corridor and backcountry routes.  I’ve done some backpacking elsewhere in other desert areas, including Aravaipa, the Superstition Mountains, and Paria Canyon.  And while I’ve day-hiked in most of the western states of the US, I don’t think I’ve actually backpacked in a non-desert location.  I’m not sure I’d know how to deal with a soaked tent or gear, or such an abundance of water that I wouldn’t have to depart camp in the morning having calculated precisely how much water I’ll need for the remainder of the day’s miles.

Of the deserts in the American Southwest, the Sonoran is, without question, the lushest, with massive cacti like the saguaro and true trees like mesquite and palo verde.  I used to think the Mojave and Chihuahua were ugly in comparison.  Now, though, I can find a beauty in the starkness of those deserts as well.  We’ve just returned home from a spring break camping trip to Joshua Tree National Park in the higher elevations of the Mojave, which is beautiful in unique ways.  It is striking, though not in the same manners as Death Valley – but its granite boulders, mining ruins, palm oases, and iconic trees are worth contemplating.

One of my favorite books, The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, is set in the middle of the Sahara Desert.  That desert has always seemed mythical and magical to me, in terms of its history, culture, beauty, and immensity, even before I read this book, with stunning sand dunes, shimmering oases, camel caravans, and exotic people.  A favorite line:  Ce qui embellit le désert, c’est qu’il cache un puits quelque part.  (What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere, it hides a well.)  When I read this book with my French students, I remind them that the entire book is an allegory, and so a well or source of water in the desert signifies something quite precious, something life-affirming and valuable.  This quote, to me, signifies the true beauty of the desert.  Of course, Saint-Ex was speaking of more than just the desert; the water source in the desert is one of many motifs throughout the book of something barely visible, which only a unique few can perceive.  The well perhaps represents the rarity of true friendship, of true connection with another individual, which is often ephemeral and rare, and nourishes, just like a spring in the desert. 

The desert requires focus, attention, and an investment of time and respect.  If you glide through or over it in the comfort of your air-conditioned car or airplane, it seems harsh, monotonous, and never-ending.  But if you travel through it on foot, prepared for the obstacles you may encounter, you’ll notice much that otherwise might escape your perception.  It is a quiet place, especially at the height of the day’s heat.  You’ll hear birdsong early or late in the day, coyotes after dusk.  Flowers of every color are on display, some showy and others miniscule.  You’ll see life:  insects, birds, and reptiles, mostly, but also mammals like coyotes or big horn sheep if you linger long enough in the right locations.  You’ll note how the sun, especially at the low angle of dawn or dusk, amplifies the hues of everything, especially exposed rocks, canyon walls, or mountain ranges.  Because of the lack of vegetation, compared to a pine forest, for example, the desert feels immense.  It is easy to feel insignificant there, and that may cause unease at first.  But there is also a comfort in the desert’s immensity and human insignificance.  When hiking in the desert, you reduce your load to the essentials.  The same is true of the burdens carried within:  what holds meaning?  what matters most?  how can I lay down the rest, the nonessentials?  The desert leaves you alone and is indifferent to your plight, allowing the chatter and noise of the world to drop away.  I am grateful for this, as one of its most significant offerings is solitude, which I hold close to my heart, quietly.

Joshua Trees
Wall Street Stamp Mill ruins (gold mining operation)
Chimney near Lost Horse Stamp Mill
Granite and sky near Indian Cove
Yucca with 49 Palms Oasis in distance
49 Palms Oasis with sun flares
Desert Globemallow, Spaeralcea ambigua
The aptly named Yellow Bee Plant, Cleome lutea, with a honeybee, Apis mellifera