Monday, January 2, 2012

Desert Musings

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 of 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 arroyo 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 in search for small desert prey, stand your ground and curse at it and throw rocks. It works. Close to the mountain edge one may be 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 have 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.


  1. The desert can be beautiful, but all that brown clashes with my fair skin.

  2. I've been a lot of places, but never the desert...I would love to experience that kind of 'alone' just to catalog all the subtle sensations...

  3. The desert is an amazing place and you have written beautifully of it and the dangers it contains. SWMBO and I once hiked up into the Superstition Mountains for an Easter picnic. It was beautiful but mysterious and we were glad when we finally reached our car to head home.

  4. We've had the great good fortune to live by beaches, in Alaska, by tea-colored creeks in Alabama, and in the desert. Each has its own beauty. I've fallen in love with each setting. Your words about the desert ring true as well as lovely in themselves.

  5. You *almost* made me want to go hiking in the desert. Then I remembered....I don't hike.

  6. Yes I have the desert magnet bug, but it more for my creeping old age and with it those creaky joints. Your excellent writing has permitted me the option of opting in or out of the experience, so far, I'd really like to try it! I love heat!

  7. This was a wonderful thing to read today. :)

  8. There is some stark beauty to the place, isn't there? Which is probably why I've lived in the desert most of my life. My dad loves Missouri the best, but his heart is buried deep in the Nevada scrabble where he had his first job after graduating college. He's both a geology buff and a cactus gardener, too.

    Excellent read.

  9. Beautiful writing and photographs!

  10. Beautiful - in this time of my life, I am starting to think that the desert may be the perfect place to pull myself together.. Have a beautiful day Jerry :)

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