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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
there is also a comfort in the desert’s immensity and human
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
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.
|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|