The Mojave Desert. The name evokes images of heat, thirst, discomfort or death. But all of that changes when you bring your chair, a cooler of drinks, a jug of water, and camp down a deserted road. The mood changes to peace, solitude, wonder and awe. And when the sun goes down, you’ve never knew there were so many stars in the heavens above!
Two weeks before, I was backpacking through the desert while carrying 6 liters of water. At the end of the day, I simply collapsed and cowboy camped wherever I found a suitable place. Too tired to star gaze and enjoy my surroundings, my thoughts were taken up as to finding where the next possible water source might be. That desert became my adversary.
This time, the desert experience would be different. After recovering from the backpacking trip at a friend’s house in the L.A. area, I set off again for the the quiet solitude of the Mojave. It took a few hours to drive out of the megalopolis to get to Hwy. 395. That road hugs the base of the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, with the desert to the east in the rainshadow of the the Sierras. On the drive north, I listened to game 5 of the NBA finals. Satisfied with an exciting Bucks win over the Suns, I set out to find a dirt road in which to drive out into the desert and find a suitable spot to relax.
I found one just a few hundred yards off of the highway. A strong katabatic wind blew down off of the mountains and across the dry, flat plains where I was camped. I faced my camp chair to the east and let the wind blow on my back. I planned to journal here, but the wind was strong enough to blow paper out of a spiral notebook, so I put away the notebook and instead took notes with my eyes, ears and nose. The air was pungent with the smell of creosote bush and sage. High cirrus clouds moved high overhead from the southwest; a different direction than the katabatic wind at my back. The sun was low in the sky and I watched the shadows creep ever eastward. A waxing half moon was already high overhead. Occasionally, I could hear the roar of a semi truck speeding north on the highway.
An Enchanted Desert Place
The stress of driving on crowded Southern California roads was now behind me, and the strong breeze blew away any angst that I had earlier in the day. The sun would be setting behind the mountains soon. I awaited with anticipation for what secrets the desert night sky would reveal. I wanted this feeling to last for a long time, so I lit the stove and made a cup of strong tea, even though it was still hot outside. It was too windy to set up the tent, so I just sipped tea while relaxing in my camp chair while waiting for the stars.
Time to sit and just be….be alone to take in the sights, smells, and noises of the wind rushing through the desert vegetation and appreciate being alive in the moment. Time to process all of the myriad of things that are swimming around in my head. With no agenda to get somewhere or fear of dying of thirst, the desert can be a wonderful place of discovery. And for taking inventory of one’s life….
The sun set behind the mountains and a few of the bright stars and the planet Venus started to appear in the twilight of the sky. I had just downloaded an app called Starwalk on my mobile phone, so I opened it up to study the night sky. When pointing it toward the heavens, it would not only reveal the name of the stars, but connect the stars to show pictures of animals. I sat in the chair for a long time, just looking up at the stars and thinking about how the light that I was seeing from them was emanated long ago in the past. The desert night sky can sure make one feel insignificant in relation to the cosmos!
Centuries before, the place that I am sitting was part of Alta California and was claimed by the Spanish colonial empire. Now, as it is part of the United States, those who live in the Chihuahua and Sonora deserts on the other side of the border in Mexico, refer to anything on this side of the border as “El Norte” (the North). El Norte offers the hope of a better life, even though environmental conditions may still be bleak. Peoples in Central America and Mexico dream of coming to “El Norte”.
Being here in El Norte allows me to dream of other deserts around the world that I have visited. I realized that many, but not all, of the magical moments I have experienced in this life occurred in a desert landscape. As I looked up again at the stars, I imagined other desert dwellers looking up at the same time and wondered what they were feeling. Immediately I thought first of the deserts in the Western Hemisphere, where it would also be dark at this time.
Just then, a meteorite flew across the heavens and died out in a blaze of glory! Too early to the one of the Persieds, which come in August. I always thought that my preferred method to leave this planet would be to be somewhere wonderful and looking up at the sky and be hit by a meteor. No suffering, and enjoyment of life up until the last minute. But how likely is that to happen?
That jolted me to remember my first visit to Joshua Tree National Park in southern California. The unique trees contrasted with matchless rock formations and interspersed with teddy bear cholla made for quite an interesting and unforgettable landscape!
Los Desiertos de Sud America
My mind wandered to the Dali Desert in the Altiplano of Bolivia that I visited 14 years ago, with four French tourists and a Bolivian guide and a cook. I remember that trip fondly. My thoughts drifted to each of those six people. I hoped that each of their lives have taken them on an enriching path!
From the Bolivian desert, my mind wandered in a Southeasterly direction to the Patagonia desert east of the Andes Mountains in Southern Argentina. I remembered seeing Penguins next to Guanacos at Punta Tombo in 2009. That really blew my mind the first time I saw that! If you had taken these two animals out of the photo, you might be able to convince yourself that you were in the deserts of Southeastern Oregon. But with them together, you must be on the coast of Patagonia!
I recalled my first night in the republic of Chile on the fringes of the Atacama desert, the driest desert in the world. I was at first disappointed that I could not go all the way to Arica or Antofagasta on the Pacific coast, but then treasured my night on the Altiplano in Lauca National Park near the Bolivian border. The lack of oxygen at that altitude left my mind in a perpetual dreamlike state!
North American Deserts
That thought took me to Southeastern Oregon and Northern Nevada….to the Black Rock Desert and to the Alvord Desert. In this same chair that I am now sitting, I had previously gazed across the Nevada desert near the Oregon border just last year! I closed my eyes and could almost feel the warm waters of Bog Hot Spring soaking my tired muscles. For wildlife, I exchanged a guanaco for a pronghorn antelope.
The Desert Takes me to Other Places
I stopped and remembered how the stillness of the desert allowed me to focus on the important people in my life. In my mind, I traveled to the many places that I assume they are at this moment. My thoughts took me to Connecticut, Georgia, and Alabama as I thought of family. Remembering good friends took me to Missouri, Indiana, Maine, Washington state, New Jersey, Alaska, New York, Kentucky, California, and my home state of Oregon. Then, my thoughts drifted to people I know in Barcelona, France, Portugal, Bolivia, Australia, United Kingdom, Panama, Nicaragua, and Canada, to name a few. Wow! I really did pile up some frequent flyer miles while sitting in this chair in the desert!
When I contemplated the therapeutic properties that a desert can have on a person, my mind drifted back to the year 1978, when I spent my first summer abroad living in Mexico. Aguascalientes was a city sitting smack dab in the middle of Mexico, on the Altiplano at 6,800′ in elevation. It was desert-like there, and I think it only rained once the whole summer of 1978. That same summer, I dreamed in Spanish for the first time in my life. It was an experience that helped shape the rest of my life, and it happened in a desert! Now, I’m in an American desert daydreaming in two languages of places where Spanish is spoken….
The Deserts of Africa
Now my mind began to wander to other deserts I have visited. Namibia, in Southwest Africa is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, mostly because of its desert landscapes. Namibia is home to two deserts, the Namib and the Kalahari. The picture below is of the Dead Vlei (A Dutch word for swamp), in Namib-Naukluft National Park. What was once a swamp in the desert was cut off from its ephemeral streams by shifting sand dunes hundreds of years ago. The trees died and are now somewhat petrified in the dry desert air. It is one of the most iconic images I have ever photographed and witnessed! And considering all the things I’ve had the privilege of seeing in my lifetime, that is saying a LOT!
Below, is a map of the deserts of the world. Notice that many of them lie near 23.5 degrees North and South of the Equator, where sinking air inhibits cloud formation (Great Australian Desert; Sahara Desert; Arabian Desert). The deserts that trend more in a north-south direction are usually on the leeward side of a mountain range that is perpendicular to wind flow, such as the Andes Mountains in South America. A few others are just far inland, a LONG way from a major source of water (Gobi, Turkestan). A cold ocean current on the west coast of continents also helps to stabilize the atmosphere and inhibit the formation of rain clouds.
Further into Namibia, we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, at 23.5 degrees south latitude. Both of the tropical lines, Capricorn and Cancer, lie 23.5 degrees away from the equator and are places where rising air at the equator sinks and compresses, inhibiting cloud development and rain. Usually, you will find deserts at these latitudes. We were happy to check this off of our life list and share a moment of love beneath the sign…
One of our other stops in the Namibian desert was Spitzkoppe, a group of granite peaks rising above the low desert. Namibia used to be a German colony, and the native Damara people lived in the area. There are paintings of bushmen art on some of the rock walls.
Further north in Namibia will take you to Etosha National Park. It is under the influence of the subtropical high pressure system most of the year, but has a brief rainy season when the Inter-tropical Convergence Zone moves into the area seasonally from the equatorial latitudes. The shallow lakes dry up in the dry season and are still home to abundant wildlife, with many species present. The picture below shows Wildebeest, Impala, and an Oryx (Gemsbok).
Besides all of the ungulates and predators in Etosha, Ostriches also wander the desert there. The Khoisan name for the bird is Nandu, which is now a word in Spanish. The Spanish had never seen an ostrich, and they adopted the Khoisan word into their language once they saw them in southern Africa.
Dreams and Memories of Asia
From Africa, my mind wandered to the East, where I spent a couple of days in Dubai, UAE a few years ago. Seeing such a modern city in the middle of a desert wasteland was quite an experience. Beth and I went up to the 125th floor of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. We could have gone to the top at the 150th floor, but we were already high enough. You know you are high up when you look down and see planes flying at a lower altitude than where you are standing!
WHOA! Another meteor flew low across the sky. The flaming streak seemed like it was barely overhead. I waited to hear a crashing thud against the desert floor, but I heard nothing…I re-think my earlier statement; I still wouldn’t mind being taken out by a meteor, but please Lord….NOT TONIGHT! I have too many things I still want to do before that happens to me!
The only other desert I’ve been to on the Asian continent is the Kyzylkum desert in Western Uzbekistan. Kizil Kum means “Red Sand” in Uzbek and other Turkic languages. We spent a couple of nights in Sentyab, a rural village in the mountains.
Another impressive sight in the deserts of Western Uzbekistan is the Registan. The Registan was the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand and the capital of Amir Timur’s empire. The name comes from Arabic and Persian, meaning “Sandy Place”.
Deserts and Places Yet to Come
Since I have had so many fond memories of deserts in my lifetime, I thought about a couple more that I haven’t seen yet that are on my bucket list. One is the Takla Makan desert in Western China. The Takla Makan is a deep depression, ringed on three sides by high mountains. It is too far inland to have any moisture come from the east, and the westerly winds which are already dry, have all of the rest of their moisture squeezed out by the high mountains. The Takla Makan lies on the path of the ancient Silk Road and was a barrier to East-West travel. The other Asian desert I would like to see is the Gobi. I did read Helen Thayer’s book “Walking the Gobi” last summer, but I wouldn’t want to recreate her epic journey. One or two weeks there should be enough to satisfy my curiosity.
I ended up drinking more cups of strong tea and staying up until almost three o’clock in the morning virtually traveling the deserts of the world from my chair in El Norte. I didn’t want this magical night to ever end. How ironic that many people in other deserts of the world are dreaming about coming to America and here I was sitting here dreaming about being where they were. Finally, I rolled out a sleeping bag onto the soft sand. I didn’t even need to put a pad down, but burrowed into the sand and made a contour that would fit my body.
Before I drifted off to sleep, I again thought of many of my friends and many of the people I have met. As I looked up to the heavens full of stars, I hoped that some of them were looking up too. The Milky Way stretched across the sky. It was like the heavens invited a bunch of stars to gather for a concert! A feeling of contentment washed over me. I pondered the idea that I had to come to a desert to quench my spiritual thirst. With my soul refreshed, I allowed my body to drift off into sleep, in contact with the earth around me. When your thirst is quenched, how wonderful a place the desert can be!
Estoy aqui descansando en El Norte….
Viajando virtualmente a otros lugares de nuestro mundo…
Pensando en amigos, familia, y colegos…
Disfrutando de la naturaleza…
Me siento muy contento, y llena de tranquilidad………
Que no amemos de solo palabra, ni de lengua….
Sino de hecho, y de verdad….
Here are some links to places that I have already written about in previous posts that are mentioned in this story. Click on any one to read the full story about that place…
Bernardo: Hombre de Bolivia (Bolivian Altiplano-Tupiza, San Vincente, Salar de Uyuni)
Ethereal Altiplano- A Natural High on My first night in Chile (Lauca National Park, Atacama Desert)
The Rainbow Bridge in the Desert (California PCT-Section C)