Life in Desert Places

“And the desert, the dry and sun-lashed desert, is a good school in which to observe the cleverness and the infinite variety of techniques of survival under pitiless opposition.  Life could not change the sun or water the desert, so it changed itself.”

In all our travels, we’ve discovered that a lot of places don’t quite live up to the expectations created by their reputations. Florence, for example, was a disappointment. Or Madrid–meh. But Joshua Tree is not one of those places. It is everything it’s cracked up to be: gorgeous landscape, great hiking and climbing, and surprisingly abundant wildlife and plant life.

As we drove in the yucca were in bloom, huge flags of white flowers on one long stem, towering up to 12 feet above the ground.  Today we saw the whole desert abloom.  Pink, purple blue; yellow, orange, white.  Alissa grew up in LA but she’d never seen any of these flowers before.  It was a cool day, 70F in mid-afternoon, so the birds and lizards were out enjoying the sun as well. We were amazed by the colors and the smells, and we felt fortunate; this only happens for a few weeks out of every year, and we were there to see it.

We’ve also seen quite a bit of wildlife along the way.  In the Petrified Forest we saw an antelope cross our path; as the sun was setting he leisurely meandered up to the road and then ambled across it, oblivious first to our screeching brakes and then to our panicked bumbling with the camera.

In the Painted Desert we saw coyote tracks, and coming down the pass south of Prescott on Highway 9 we saw the real thing cross the road.  We’ve seen roadrunners and enormous hawks and several kinds of lizards whose names we are too ignorant to know.  There is so much variety here, in a place that we so often envision as barren.

We hiked to Lost Palms and Mastadon Peak, we climbed Skull Rock and saw the Hidden Valley. And even in the places that looked devoid of life at first glance, we found small surprises: a rock quail perched atop Skull Rock, lizards sprawled in the sun or digging tunnels in the shade; wildflowers clinging to the south sides of sheer cliffs, oases of water between palm trees, and even wild lilies in Hidden Valley.

There are stories of Hidden Valley being used by cattle rustlers and thieves of various stripes; tough, sun-browned men who were hard enough to eke out a living in a place where those they stole from were too soft to follow. Just one of the infinite variety of survival techniques Steinbeck mentioned. And it’s not so far from here to the origins of our species, who sprang from watered valleys in the middle of vast deserts, and developed their own ingenious techniques to change their environment in ways the desert-dwelling plants and animals could never have conceived.

Later as we roasted marshmallows around the campfire, Alissa asked how our primal ancestors would feel if they could see us using their primary tool, fire, to roast marshmallows. Matt said if they’d had marshmallows, they’d have done the same. Even with the marshmallows and the fancy tent and the fast car, when we’re out here under the vast sky full of stars, listening to the coyotes sing to the moon, it’s easy to feel that we’re not so distant from them after all.

Desert Nights

“At night in this waterless air the stars come down just out of reach of your fingers. In such a place lived the hermits of the early church piercing to infinity with unlittered minds. The great concepts of oneness and majestic order seem always to be born in the desert. The quiet counting of the stars, and observation of their movements, came first from desert places.”

In the Petrified Forest

We left New Mexico behind and flew across Arizona to the Painted Desert, on the border of the Navajo Nation. We planned to spend the night in our tent beneath the dome of desert stars.

Brigitte at the Petrified Forest Visitor Center attempted to derail our plans. “You’ll need to hike in,” she told us.

“Yep, no problem.”

“OK. But you’ll need to carry all your gear and your water.” She stared us down. “For the whole trip.”

“Yep, we’ve got it.”

“OK. But you’ll need a lot of water; it gets really hot out there.”

“We’ve got a gallon for each of us per day.”

“Huh. OK. Well, you’ll have to go at least a mile out from the trailhead. And you’re on your own; there’s no trail, no markers.”

“No problem, we’ve got a GPS.”

“OK. But you’ll need to pack all your trash out with you.”

“We always do.”

Desert Wildlife

By this time she’d decided we were OK. We could tell she had to go through that spiel with everyone and that at some point the would-be campers, presented with all these obstacles, must give up. We know this because she told us this was the first time she’d had to fill out all the paperwork. It was a lot of paperwork. We had to sign our lives away for one night of camping in the Painted Desert.

After we passed the first test with Brigitte, we had to stop and see Bill at the Painted Desert Inn. This was where we would leave the RX8 overnight. There was a sticker on the door of the inn for our benefit: “No firearms allowed inside.” We were in there for 15 minutes or so, during which time he told the same story to three different couples three different times in response to the same question:

“How old is this building?”

There would be a pause while Bill sucked his front teeth. “Well,” another pause, “we’re not too sure. The guy that built this,” he said before pausing to chew the inside of his lip, “he homesteaded first. He registered the Inn with the government in 1924, but he homesteaded the year earlier.” This was an exceptionally long speech, and Bill needed a break to roll his tongue around a bit. Then he took a deep breath in through his nose. “So, it could be 87, or maybe 86 years old.”

As he told this story for the second time while we waited for our turn to speak to him, we browsed the shelves of souvenirs. The main room of the inn with its fantastic views over the desert floor below, a room that had once been a place for sitting and conversing and enjoying the subtle fluctuations of the light over the cliffs and wadis below, was now populated with shelves of T-shirts and coffee mugs, racks of postcards, and one particularly gruesome stand packed with plastic rattlesnakes and stuffed jackalopes. Everything strategically designed to provide hard evidence that the buyer had been there, done that.

After he wrapped up his story for the third time, Bill gave us our instructions in his own idiosyncratic way. “Leave the car by seven tonight,” he instructed before a long pause in which he chewed his lip and punched the keys on the cash register for yet another customer, “And don’t come back before eight in the morning.”

Losing the Light

It’s impossible to describe a night in the desert wilderness adequately. The light from the setting sun turns everything red. As the sun goes down in the west it draws the purple night haze up from the eastern horizon behind it; we watched it bleed slowly across the sky as we raced to set up our tent. The stars seemed to hang in the blackness just above our heads, as if we could reach out and touch them if we tried. They pulse like they’re alive, like they’re watching; it’s easy to see why so many people out here think they spot UFOs. If you stare at the same patch of sky long enough, more and more stars appear, and you realize there really isn’t a single bit of darkness up there. Then the moon comes up and steals the light from the stars, blotting them out with a reflection so bright it casts shadows. We spent the night watching the stars through the tent mesh and listening to the wind and the crickets.