I had initially imagined that the desert in the southwest would consist of giant sand dunes with Saguaro cacti, thirty feet tall, sticking out of the top. So you can imagine my surprise when, as a volunteer for the American Conservation Experience, I spent ten days tramping through the desert and discovered it was anything but my uninformed stereotype. I actually didn’t see a Saguaro cactus for months! But I saw barrel cacti, prickly pear cacti, jumping cholla cacti, and not to paint the desert as a place full of cacti, there was also creosote, mormon tea grass, pinyon pine, tamarisk, cryptobiotic soil, tarantulas, scorpions, burros, big horned sheep, jack rabbits, hawks, rattle snakes, walking sticks, desert tortoises, fire ants and so much more. At night frat style parties of coyotes would surround my tent, yip-ee-ay-yaing to the stars while an owl hooted softly from a nearby tree, signaling to any Navajos in the area that bad news was soon to come. The desert was not what I had expected.
I can’t say that I was immediately infatuated with the desert. Sure it held a certain appeal to me right away, it was so different, so vast, so stark compared to anything else I had ever known. But there were unfamiliar elements that I disliked. I hated that everything in the desert is covered in thorns. Having grown up in the soft and mossy world of the Northwest I was used to being able to run my fingers over trees and through grasses while walking along a trail, used to employing touch as well as my other senses to take in the outdoors. In the desert I learned to look but not touch.
I also found the lack of water in the Southwest off-putting. The Northwest is full of water, creeks, streams, rivers, lakes, inlets, bays, sounds, and ultimately the briny ocean. While there are a number of very important and impressive rivers running through the Southwest, like the roaring Colorado, any lakes you find in Arizona are discovered along with a guilt trip. Since there are only a couple naturally occurring lakes down south most of the existing ones are the result of dams and are undoubtedly covering up gorgeous canyons, special desert habitat, and rare archaeological sites, sacred indigenous places, forever lost under water and sludge. I don’t know about you but I have always had a hard time swimming in these lakes, knowing all the time that they only exist to power large unsustainable desert cities like Phoenix.
In an attempt to embrace my new surroundings I decided to read Edward Abbey’s book, Desert Solitaire, which I had been told was practically a love story about Edward Abbey’s infatuation with the desert. While some of the things he said resonated with me I could not consider myself a desert rat the way he did, and felt attacked when he spoke negatively about forests in his book The Journey Home, saying that there was too much teaming life, to many respiring green organisms in the woods of Montana and Idaho. Not only was I offended by Abbey’s aversion to the outdoors I called home but I continually met people in the Southwest who couldn’t stand other parts of the country. So, in a reactionary attempt to protect my rain fed forest I painted myself as someone who could never be a desert rat.
However, distance makes the heart grow fonder and I found myself appreciating the desert the more time I spent away from it, especially while we were hiking the Appalachian Trail. On the AT, as winter turned to spring and everything began to bloom I began to miss and crave the simplicity of the desert. Without meaning to I found myself mirroring Abbey’s complaints about the forest in my journal. I was annoyed with how much was alive in the forest, it felt cluttered, crowded, messy, and overwhelming. And now, returning to the desert after months away, I realize how much I missed it and the separation has brought into stark relief the exact elements of the desert that make it so magical.
One of the most amazing things about the desert is the fact that you are actually surrounded by more innate mass than living mass. Yes, there are lots of tiny living things in the desert you don’t notice at first, like cryptobiotic soil, which, in a healthy desert, covers most sandy surfaces and creates black tiny butte like structures. But when you sit still in the desert the desert is still with you. All around you are giant rocks and sand stone structures, immobile and diminishingly ancient. And the silence, there may be a bird singing occasionally somewhere very far away, but apart from the wind, everything is quite, calmingly quite. The desert is so big, the sky so wide and the landscape so consuming that you feel small, insignificant, a mere spec on the face of a slowly changing earth. This soothes me since I am prone to worrying about the damage humans inflict on nature. But despite its massive size the desert landscape is a delicate one, an intriguing one and a beautiful one. The desert is the first place I would go if I wanted to be introspective, if I wanted to think, because in a place so clean and simple, so stark and vast, intricate and beautiful, it seems easy to let your thoughts be the same.
As I snuggle down into my sleeping bag for a restful night sleep (because let’s face it, there are no big human eating animals in the desert) I know now, coming back to the desert after some time away, that it is possible to be two things. It is possible to be a desert rat and a lover of trees and grass and moss. It is possible to love the hot desert sun and the Pacific drizzle. So while we can, Kyle and I will sleep under the star filled canopy until we head back to our other home, blanketed in oyster grey clouds.