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Meditation on Western Deserts

The great dry lands of the West can expand your view of the world—and yourself.

Furnace Creek Inn, Death Valley
Photo caption
A Death Valley oasis, Furnace Creek Inn operates mid-October to mid-May.

The desert is the quintessential Western landscape. Other environments—the giant sequoias, the snowcapped Rockies, the plunging coast—may have a firmer hold on Hallmark, but our empty dry lands occupy a crucial place in the national consciousness. From the saguaro-studded Sonoran to the Joshua tree–haunted Mojave to the sweeping sagebrush kingdom of the Great Basin, the austere visage of the desert is vital to freedom-loving Americans, who prize wide-open spaces where conventional rules don't apply.

This is ironic because, biologically speaking, the desert is the most conservative environment on Earth. The one thing that all deserts share is an enormous restriction: aridity. Under such unsupportive conditions, plants and animals have a hard time, but the upside from a human viewpoint is that there's nothing and nobody there to get in your way. For many desert aficionados, this is the primary allure of the place. In the latter half of the 20th century, as the nation's population exploded, its urban centers expanded, and its crowd-pleasing coast and spongelike mountains got overrun, the desert was the only place where you could still be alone.

The idea of desert as refuge is counterintuitive. In history and metaphor, the desert is a realm of trial and exile, a wasteland fit only for mystics and misanthropes. Today, by contrast, it's celebrated as a wonderland: an uncluttered Eden free of contagion, a habitat of hardy flora and resourceful fauna, a multi-ring geological circus whose gaudiness is amplified by an absence of adornment. What was once dismissed as a murderous dump is now recognized—and certified by the California Desert Protection Act of 1994—as a fragile ecosystem that requires eons to recover from abuse.

This shifting view of the desert—from a place thought worthless to a place thought priceless—is emblematic of a basic shift in Americans' attitude toward their environment. It also hints at the sense of paradox that the desert exudes. How is it possible to find refuge in a place where you feel so exposed? How can a landscape that appears indomitable be so vulnerable? The tension between such contradictory ideas contributes to the desert's most confounding feeling: a palpable sense of mystery in a place that, on the surface, seems to have nothing to hide.

My own relationship with the desert might be examined as a case in point. On my first trip through it, en route to Los Angeles after 22 years on the Atlantic seaboard, I felt like a fish out of water. The region seemed an enormous vacuum—a terrestrial version of outer space, among whose otherworldly aspects was an atmosphere of total silence. Ten years later, when I was finally ready to face the challenge of a naked landscape, I mustered the courage to visit Death Valley—the lowest, hottest, driest place in North America—where every plant and person seemed remarkable simply because it was there. When I stopped at an isolated ranch to ask how far it was to a spring, the lean and bearded caretaker, clad only in gym shorts and accompanied by a mule that was trained to lie down and roll over, replied, "About two beers." Obviously, the desert was governed by unique laws and eccentric aesthetics.

In time I became addicted to it, returning every spring and fall to the layer cake–like mesas of the East Mojave. I made all manner of discoveries there, from cactus gardens to abandoned train stations to Indian petroglyphs to the Mojave phone booth—an unassuming installation in the middle of nowhere, ultimately uprooted after its number got onto the Internet. During one brief stop I made at the booth on my way to the Cima cinder cones, its telephone never stopped ringing; I took one call from a New York banker, and my companion spoke to someone in Scotland. "I didn't expect anybody to answer," the latter caller exclaimed. "This is going to cost a lot of money!"

Eventually I wrote a book about the Mojave, and on every one of my research trips a pattern repeated itself. I'd always bring along my camera, which at first would seem a dumb idea: At home I'd be locked in an intellectual mindset, devoid of visual motivation. But the desert presented pictures without prompting, and on these sojourns I was an early riser, heading out at first light to be in position when the sun came up. ("If you miss dawn, you miss the desert," an elderly rancher once told me.) One spring morning in the Granite Mountains, I found myself in a flowering shrub garden when the first rays of sun hit the plants; within minutes, I heard the hum of hundreds of bees, which were soon joined by a profusion of migrating butterflies. Standing amid this natural riot, I felt privileged to be alive on the planet.

Many of my happiest moments have occurred after such experiences, when the light thinned out and I quit shooting and hiked back to my truck. Sitting in the shade of a piñon pine, eating breakfast while the day warmed up before I broke camp and moved on, my consciousness consisting completely of attention to the world around me, I felt utterly unhurried and independent. At the risk of resorting to cliché, I think of this as a desert Zen state: total contentment with the present moment, unobstructed by distractions or demands.

Car camping had always been anathema to me, but since water weighs eight pounds per gallon—and in these remote parts I could drive to places less trammeled than the John Muir Trail—in the desert I was attached to my truck. Then came the California Desert Protection Act, which (among other things) established 4 million acres of official wilderness, closing 69 areas to motorized travel and changing the East Mojave into the Mojave National Preserve. By that time, I'd joined an organization called Desert Survivors—environmentalists who love arid terrain so much that they hike into it carrying enough water for several days. I began walking into waterless wilderness with food, shelter, clothing, and 25 pounds of liquid on my back.

What I found was a state inconceivable not only from a car but even on the bootworn byways of the High Sierra. Hiking in this stripped-down landscape reduced everything to a five-point essence: sun, shade, water, wind, and weight. The reward was an unparalleled sense of solitude, plus views that encompassed a sizable percentage of southeastern California. From the crest of the Granite Mountains, for example, I could see 75 miles to Mount San Jacinto near Palm Springs; in the foreground, smoke plumes rose from the dun-toned territory of the Marine base near Twentynine Palms, but the sound of the explosions took two minutes to arrive.

One New Year's Eve, I camped with a group of Survivors in the Mojave's Kelso Dunes. At sunset the ambience of these sand formations—the third tallest in the United States—was perfectly still, but later, in the middle of the night, a fast-paced rainstorm blew through, pelting my tent with pebble sounds and coaxing up the creosote smell that makes desert-lovers swoon. At one point I thought I heard the yelps of rowdy New Year's revelers, but it turned out to be a band of coyotes. Obviously, two-footed merrymakers would have had to backpack in.

Engaging the desert in this way, step by hard-earned step, focuses the sweeping character of the place on a microscopic scale. In such a parched, pristine milieu, intense effort has a cleansing effect, purifying the body in a continuous cycle of de- and rehydration. But the effects aren't merely physical. When you're trudging across sunbaked sand, climbing a treeless slope, bushwhacking through a thicket of shrubs that have more points than leaves, the trick is to not obsess about getting somewhere but simply to be in an environment that despite its adversity—indeed, because of it—is inimitable and extraordinary. In everyday life this is a hard thing to remember, but in the desert it's a form of enlightenment that occurs as a matter of course.

Photography courtesy of Xanterra Parks and Resorts

This article was first published in January 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.