The desert. It is a unique land, much different than the vastness of nature for which I usually long. But it is vast and it is nature and I happen to have a great appreciation for it. There is almost something sacred about the earth in the southwestern region of the United States.
In the Northwest where I come from, life is everywhere and it is obvious. Vegetation is quick to take over. Trees, plants, flowers, ferns, ivy. Abundant. The eye could grow tired just separating out each branch from another in the forest. But at first glance in the desert, there is not much to it. The eye might grow tired from staring at the same thing for too long, and most of it is rock and stone and sand. There are no tall trees to restrict your vision. Just expansive space stretching out in colors of brown or yellow or red, depending on what area you are in. And something about this landscape creates a sense of introspection, perhaps because when you have looked outward at sameness for a certain amount of time, the only thing left to do is look inward. I feel a similar way when I stare out at the sea, or even up to the sky. After some time, the characteristics that one might have missed at first start to reveal themselves. In the desert, there is vision. There is also heat; the kind that swells your skin into thickness. Invisible walls of hot air press up against your body, your face, your nose and mouth.
The past two summers I have driven through different portions of the southwest desert on long distance road trips, and recently I revisited this part of the world. Here are some stories…
It’s July 2012. I am accompanying my good friend Jess on a leg of her cross country road trip from San Diego to upstate New York. I hop in her car in Seattle, and from there we drive east into Idaho and Montana, then south through Yosemite to Utah. It’s the last day of my travels with Jess, and tomorrow night I fly out of Denver. We are in the desert outside of Moab. We reach Arches National Park in this July heat and it is almost difficult to do anything but think of the heat.
We don’t spend too much time at Arches. Enough to see some beautiful structures of earth. We spend even less time in Moab, the nearest town. It’s so hot. We find air conditioning in a bar and fill up on water and food before walking the short distance back to the car. Speaking requires too much energy, so we are mostly quiet. There is no escaping the sun. We follow the verbal directions of the bartender to a deep canyon road along the Colorado River, searching for a place to set up camp. We are hot and tired and delirious. The campgrounds we drive past are just ten or twenty yards from the road with the river on the other side. The individual sites blend into one dusty gravel driveway, with nothing to separate one from the next. Desperate for something to cool us down, we put off finding a place to stay while we jump into the cloudy river. Eventually we settle on a campground with some bushes. Our only other neighbors are a group of boy scouts.
By midnight, the air seems to still measure 90 degrees. We lay side by side on top of our sleeping bags staring up at the sky. It is a restless night with the kind of heat that pulls you from sleep just so you can turn to your other side before turning again, and then again. It only makes it worse when the flashes of lightning start to light up above us. I have never witnessed a storm like the one we are now in. Bolts of lightning light up the tall canyon walls above us in short intervals of time. No part of the sky above us is safe from the strikes. Throughout the night, it only gets worse. At 4 or 5 in the morning, we finally get worried as the bolts became brighter and the thunder pounds down on top of us. We unzip our tent just as rain drops start to come down. In the dark, we roll the tent into a ball and shove it into the trunk of the car as fast as we can. Each time the sky lights up, Jess chucks the tent poles she is trying to gather out of fear they will attract the lightning. On the shore of a mighty river at the bottom of deep canyon walls is not an ideal place to feel safe when a storm hits, yet this is where we are. Soon I am behind the wheel and Jess is next to me and rain is crashing down onto the windshield. Lighting continues to drop bolts down around us as though we are in the eye of the storm. I drive. I drive and I drive. But we cannot get out of the storm. It’s on top of us, moving in the same direction as us. Towards Denver. We stay inside that storm for hours, out in barren, open, vast land. Eventually we run into the Rocky Mountains and then drive over them to Denver, just in time for my flight back to Seattle.
It’s summer of 2013. July again. Exactly one year since my trip with Jess. I am back in the desert of the southwest, only this time in new parts. Jon and I have been gone from Seattle for almost a week now. We’ve broken down once already. I drove my first all-nighter through Idaho, Utah and Wyoming. I spent the weekend in Denver with close friends while Jon was at a bachelor party. Afterward, we passed through the Great Sand Dunes National Park and then camped in the Rio Grande National Forest in Colorado. Yesterday, we drove through Durango and Mesa Verde into southwestern Colorado before dipping down into New Mexico through Navajo Nation. All morning we moved westward through Arizona along the old route 66 to the red-stained earth of Sedona.
Sedona is hot. Mother effing hot. Jon and I are so hot we don’t know what to do with ourselves. We just stand here in the middle of nowhere wondering when the heat will stop. It is agonizing and exhausting heat. Silent heat. Time passes at a different pace, until I have almost forgot there even is a thing called time. The terribleness of it becomes fun in a way, almost like when I keep eating spicy Thai food even though I am suffering. Suffering. That’s the word. The suffering heat of the desert almost becomes something fun. I can’t help but laugh. I am delirious. The earth is hard, dry and red. Everywhere, red. No shade and no surrendering to the sun. The open expanse of flatness makes me want to get up higher. So we strip our clothes to underwear and stagger into the thick air up the highest and nearest hill. The thoughts, at least in my mind, become ones of snakes, tarantulas and scorpions. Yet there are none. They are probably hiding from the hot ball of sun that stings the skin on my naked back and neck.
It’s March 2014 and I am on a weekend road trip with Katy to the desert. It’s not as hot as the previous times in the desert. But it is hot. The good kind. We drive her art-mobile out of Mission Beach and head east to the deserts, where we visit the eerie Bombay Beach on the Salton Sea.
We stop for groceries in a small town where English is the second language and it is easy to forget we are not in Mexico. Joshua Tree is full to camping (this is the second time this has happened to me), so we pull off the road on some public land and set up shop in the evening heat of the desert. We find our own path up a hill near our camp, and stepping becomes a game. Placing each foot on the right rocks while also watching for snakes, tarantulas and scorpions is tedious and requires attention, which is easy to turn into a game. Every break in elevation offers a new amazing view and another set of hill. We climb higher and higher until we are able to twirl around in a full circle and see in every direction. We find a spot to sit, plant ourselves facing west and admire the stones that most likely no one has ever set foot on or picked up ever in their entire existence, and suddenly there is a connection. And just like that the sun is gone again and the whole world changes and as she leaves our sky, she takes her blanket of heat with her and we are left with goosebumps on our reddish brown arms. The excitement for a fire and for food cooked on that fire radiates in us both and in no time we are back at camp with a more realistic perspective of where we are and what is around us. Night brings darkness and darkness brings stars, clear and bright.
For me, the desert is a place of nothing and everything.
What about for you? Any cool experiences in the desert? Tell us!