Spring, of course, is the premier time to be in the desert. That’s when all that lives and was grey begins to blush with green, and when the cactus blooms. It’s when the normally drab as dishwater creosote bushes that stretch on for entire states at a time become enpixalated with tiny yellow flowers nestled amid new green leaves no larger than a bee's wing. And most memorably, that’s when the seeds of annuals sprout throw rugs of purple, white, orange and yellow in washes, sandy bottom lands, and other places moist enough to germinate seeds deposited a year, a decade, even twenty-five years before.
When to arrive at a given part of the desesrt depends on many things. Altitude will play its part, as will, most crucially, how much rain has fallen over how long a period during the winter months. And also on what you wish to see, as different types of plants have their respective seasons to flower, and not all of these overlap. As a generality, for annuals, come early. For cactus, come late.
Life and the exigencies of earning a living being what they are, my arrival in the Colorado and Mohave deserts of southern California had all to do with opportunity and little to do with floral optimization. I had agreed to speak at a couple of open source conferences in San Francisco that conveniently fell about a week apart, and that provided a reasonable excuse to hold over and head out.
And so, last week I flew to Palm Springs, rented a four wheel drive, and took to the outback with a duffle of camping gear, leaving quite a few other things behind, metaphorical as well as tangible. A Styrofoam cooler (Circle K’s are best), a poly tarp, a can of stove fuel, and a folding chair bought locally completed the kit. A few groceries would maintain the body, and, for the soul, perhaps some beer.
I never bring a tent, as it rarely rains in the desert, and there are never any bothersome insects. Tents are too confining and isolating in any event,and a tarp is more versatile by far. Tied between convenient trees or tall bushes, it becomes a ramada during the heat of the day, providing welcome shade. At night, it can be rigged as a windbreak when necessary, or – in late summer – as a lean-to to provide protection from the thunderstorms that form in the warm updrafts of the day, providing more entertainment than rain during the early part of the night.
But first, I needed to escape from the airport and the sprawl that everywhere in the southwest is burgeoning at an accelerating speed. The valley south and east of what a few decades ago was a small town has filled in greatly with houses, shopping malls and more since last I passed this way. The prime culprits, I assume, are the aging baby boomers that are also swarming into southwest Utah, southern Arizona, and indeed anywhere that is warm and sunny when it’s cold and gray in New England, the Midwest, and Canada.
But roads head off in every direction, and enough of them still end up in the right places, at least for now. The one I was looking for was an unmarked, one lane, notionally paved track that headed across the creosote bush flats until it met the wall of mountains that lies north of town, and then up a winding canyon wash. Soon the islands of paving, standing tall like miniature mesas amid the sand and gravel, became less frequent, the balance long since washed away by the torrents that would follow any thunderstorm that made a direct hit on the steep slopes above.
For the next hour, I wound my way between boulders, eased my way between, around and over other obstructions, and after a dozen miles of serpentine driving in due course emerged some three thousand feet higher and ten degrees cooler on to the public land above. High on this alluvial plane, the terrain was subdued, as the change in altitude had set the relative season back by several weeks. Outside of Palm Springs, there had been much more color. On each side of the back roads down below, narrow bands of brittlebush were in full yellow bloom, nurtured by the moisture that runs off the road to right and left each time it rains, doubling the water otherwise available for a few feet to either side. Sand verbena, a multiflowered plant, also ran riot, more bloom than plant and standing only a few inches above the ground.
But up above, the flowering process was only just beginning. At about 4,000 feet, I encountered the first Joshua trees, and these are early bloomers. On the ends of many branches, what could pass for a surprisingly large, pale artichoke could be found, its outer sepals tinged purple, while the marble-like buds of blossoms inside were still a pale, soft green. Those flower clusters that were further along were elongated, and thick petals were unfurling themselves, turning a milky white in the process.
Now the dirt track passed over enormous alluvial fans of granite particles that together had once comprised a mountain. Now, only ragged vestiges of the line of peaks remainide, standing a mere hundred feet tall, casting shadows across their deconstructed remnants. As far as the eye could see, a smooth surface stretched to the horizon, now sloping gently downward, now back up once again, endlessly repeating the same cycle as it passed between crags of stone that rose like islands above the spaces between.
Against these dry-sea islands, broken rock lay where it had fallen. Beyond this surrounding reef of stone, there was nothing but an infinity of crystals of feldspar and quartz that, over a mile, transitioned imperceptibly into a fine silt. As it did, it became less able to retain moisture, and so the vegetation changed as well. At first, there were Joshua trees, cholla and barrel cacti. By the end, only creosote bushes could direct their roots deep enough to reach the water table itself.
Below this gently sloping surface, cliffs and slopes plunged unseen, the roots of these same mountains, now buried beneath the unimaginable volume of rock and sand that had been blasted by lightning, split by frost, or simply eroded away, grain by grain, with the infinite patience of time. The rubble and grit that once stood tall and solid now ran deep and loose, forming negative images of their former composite selves. Like a sine wave tracing itself throughout geologic time, the mountains that had risen up now dove down, creating upside down versions of themselves as many thousands of feet deep as they had once been tall. For all anyone might know, the ruins of ancient, unknown civilizations might lie buried in the depths of these valleys that had not seen the light of day since dinosaurs walked the earth.
Once, on a flight to a meeting in Helsinki, I flew over the vast Greenland ice sheet, and could see the peaks of mountains that must have stood more than two miles high, but barely showing above the endless white expanse. The visual effect was much the same. But in the frozen north, the color contrast made clear the state of affairs. Here, the reality was less obvious, and, as with oceanic islands, what lay below could only be imagined.
But this ocean was turning green with the coming spring. As far as one could see, the sparse Joshua tree forest extended into the distance, each tree separated from its neighbors by fifty or a hundred feet, as close as the arid environment would allow. Together, they cast long shadows away from the setting sun until they disappeared on the sea-straight horizon of gravel and sand that stretched between mountainous islands. With time, these islands, like their volcanic cousins in the Pacific, will finally be lost to view, submerged forever and forgotten below the gently rolling waves of a featureless sea of their own making, until the cycle begins once again.
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