I had always thought that deserts had sand dunes, complete with Lawrence of Arabia and the French Foreign Legion. I was disappointed at first to learn that there are some deserts which have no dunes, and are instead hard ground with gullies, cracks, cliffs, boulders, arroyos, hills, nipple peaks, and even caves. I learned that what defines a desert is not the terrain, but the lack moisture. The Chihuahuan Desert, bounded by the Chisos mountains, has little moisture. It is located in Southwest Texas and is known as Big Bend Country.
Many people visit this wonder, for it is a National Park. Most gravitate to the mountains as I used to. But hiking mountains becomes more and more of a struggle as you age. The desert offers an apparent easy out for hikers.
It takes a while to understand the desert.
This desert is a violent place. Storms brew up out of nowhere and lightning crashes without warning. A rain cloud spotted miles away suddenly produces a tumbling flood in the canyon where you are hiking. The landscape is eerie, with many traps and pitfalls for the unwary. You climb over tumbled rocks and boulders from a prehistoric volcano, and slip and slid down the side of canyon, only to become snagged in seemingly attacking bed of cactus. The desert doesn’t welcome visitors. And it doesn’t fight to keep them away. It simply doesn’t care. You can laugh, cry, or die – and the desert simply doesn’t care. And that indifference is the worse kind of welcome.
There are rules for those wandering into the desert. Carry a compass. Carry lots of water. Hike slowly. Always, unlike me, travel in pairs. Always know where you are – memorize landmarks. When confronted by a mountain lion that may have wandered down from the Chisos, stand your ground and curse at it and throw rocks. It works. When confronted by a bear, be calm and slowly back away. If you find yourself trapped in a pack of javelina (wild pig), don’t worry about it. They won’t notice you unless you get within two feet, then they will run. When you meet a rattlesnake, apologize for the disturbance, and make a detour. When you meet a family of hare, stop and laugh at their antics.
Above all, don’t fear the desert. Just know that it isn’t going to take care of you.
And there is more to the desert that you should know. The human inhabitants – the desert rats. They live there, in places like Terlingua and Study Butte (pronounced Stoody Boot) and Breaking Wind Ranch. They are rock hounds, photographers, geology buffs, cactus gardeners, and tour guides. They tolerate visitors. And they will tell you the truth of the desert if you shut up and open your ears and listen carefully.
You come to understand the relationship between you and the desert when you become lost miles away from where you want to be. And only one-third of one of your two canteens still has water. It then dawns on you. This isn’t a game. There is no one to rescue you. No camel riding Bedouin tribe will stumble upon you. There isn’t a secret enclave of Apache that watches over everything. No, it isn’t a game. People die here. Dozens die here each year – mostly Mexican immigrants trying to gain entry into the country by crossing the desert.
Lost. It is times like this that the sweat pours off of you. It is only May, and the temperature scorches at 100 degrees. One of the things that you learn is that you go slowly in the desert. You even panic slow. You sit. Sit for thirty minutes. It takes that long. For ten minutes you worry. Then you begin to observe for the next ten minutes. You look at the angle of the sun, and where you were in relation to that peak when you entered, and did you see that huge flowering cactus earlier? The last ten minutes is needed to assimilate your observations and to gently formulate a plan.
If you accept the desert, you will know that it is a lonely place. And that is the magnet. For each of us is truly alone too. The difference is we try to hide it and cover it up with pretend relationships and forced hobbies and the stuff of civilization. We fear our loneliness. The desert teaches us that it is okay to be alone.
If you sit upon a bluff for two or three hours and soak – absorb what is within your site and smell and hearing – you won’t fear so much.
I prefer mountains and streams and trees. I love the snowcapped Rockies, but I wish they would lower the elevation a little bit so I could breathe easier. I enjoy hiking the Adirondacks in New York, and climbing down to the water falls at Petit Jean, Arkansas. I love the rustle of the wind through the trees and the smell of it all. But, once every few years, the magnet pulls.
Is there beauty in the desert? Sure, I could talk of the unimaginable canopy of stars at night, or the awesome brilliance of a desert sunset. I could point out the desert flowers and the starkness of the land or the purple hue of the mountains in the distance. The desert has an intrinsic beauty.
But, that doesn’t dig deep enough. It also offers the opportunity for peace. And composure. And reevaluation. And coming to terms. And knowing that it doesn’t care about you – so you have to care about yourself. That, I think, is the real beauty of the desert.