Sunday, January 18, 2015

Desert Mind

There is something primal and soothing and elemental about being in the desert. I'm not talking about experiencing it via an air-conditioned car or condo, but rather being right up against the sand and soil, cactus and yucca. 
Having been raised on the coast, I didn't understand how rich and subversively alive the desert really is until college, when a ornithology class trip called for going to the UC research station in the eastern Mojave. Our class drove south in our friend Mat's Ford Econoline van, heading relatively deep into the desert backcountry.
The Research Station (in my memory) was a fairly straightforward house, nestled among some boulders.  A couple of grad students were calling the main house home, and our teachers were given priority when it came to claiming the spare bedroom. We undergrad visitors could use the kitchen and bathrooms, but bedded down for the night outside with our Thermarests and multi-season sleeping bags, our mouths hanging open at the site of all those stars above, distracting us away from the lumpy earth surface until we fell asleep.
My friend Sam and I slept with our binoculars, so that in the morning we wouldn't miss a thing when birds started singing and flying at the first hint of sunrise. The desert, it turns out, is so very alive with animals who know how to utilize scarce water. We saw jackrabbit and deer, rattlesnake and Phainopepla, warbler and kingbird and more that trip, my inauguration into desert life wonder. 
Hundreds of bird species come through the desert, gleaning seeds, or haunting the sporadic springs that make it all livable. And of course, there are all the reptiles: king and rattlesnakes, lizards and tortoise. We saw  a Gila monster out back that research station house, and went out on late-night sidewinder tracking jaunts with one of the grad students, watching him expertly catch snakes to which he would affix small radio transmitters. Where do sidewinders really go at night? Now there's a question.
Thus began my sporadically consummated (but nonetheless avid) love affair with desert landscapes, adding to my list of mountain and coastline, island and river valley.
A few months after that first desert trip, some climber friends and I went to Joshua Tree in the southern reaches of the Mojave to camp and scramble and climb. I'd just had surgery for a thyroid issue, but I was determined to go, the stitches still tender in my neck at night as I slept in my tent, taking rest near the ground more healing to my mind and body than a sickbed. Which spells out my love of landscape in a nutshell: when in doubt, or at a loss or tired or otherwise not 100%,  get off the pavement and put my feet on tangible ground.
The subtler qualities of desert ground, the quiet and starkness, the life pulsing of activity at the edge of the stillness, is why, when given the chance to take a vacation, a real one, we opted for a week in Joshua Tree. Albeit,  the tent has been foregone for a refurbished 'homesteader cabin' 10 miles from town. It's winter, so the snakes and turtles are underground, but as usual, the desert is so very alive, doing it's at once spare and bold dance between hot and cold, smooth and sharp, still and active. Earth- colored and spindly plants, complex with multi-faceted seed pods and delicate flowers intersperse the sand. Kingbirds and hummingbirds and the shiny black Phainopepla are easy to sea, flying up washes. The stars at night are more plentiful that I remember, the sunrise and sunsets inspiring salutations. This morning I watched the sun do its slow, steady, turn on, the sky going gray, then blue, then pink, until the globe of white hit the horizon in a spill of bright light, a forgot, for a few minutes, about time.

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