The Land of Clear Light

Warm, windswept, unfettered, ever-changing—North America's four great desert regions hide untold possibilities for classic winter adventure. They may be scorching and sere, with prickly dangers over every horizon, but if you know where to go—and how to explore wisely—you'll find these 500,000 square miles of desolation downright hospitable.

America's Sandbox: the dunes of California's Death Valley     Photo: Bill Stevenson/Image State

Water From A Stone

The Desert Always Provides

There is nothing I desire more than this. I am moving through the desert, walking the barrens of southwest Arizona to the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge. The thought of water is potent, almost obscene—and when I find it, it is never passed with a casual glance. It is stared at. Admired. It becomes as powerful as fire.
My hat brim leaves a curve of midday shade across my face; from under it I watch the plain open in front of me. With my friend Irvin Fernandez, the manager of a wildlife refuge in California, I am taking three weeks to cross a couple hundred miles of daylong basins and volcanic peaks that stand as sheer as icebergs. I am careful about who I travel with out here. Irvin is a person to trust, a man who knows how to set a broken bone and care for the swell of a rattlesnake bite. Our eyes follow the terrain in the same way, trained to find any sign of water. We each carry only what we need for the day, so if we don't find water now, we can last three, maybe five days until hallucinatory thirst overwhelms our bodies, until our tongues swell and our minds shrink and we collapse on the ground. But that won't happen. Irvin is already a half-day's walk ahead of me, scouting for a new source.

Every time we leave a water hole, there's a feeling of free fall as we stretch across the desert in search of the next. These holes are not marked on any maps. They are sequestered up in the peaks, perched among capsized boulders and the stern postures of saguaro cacti. I figure I have ten miles to go before catching up with Irvin. My boots in the gravel make the sound of cracking walnuts as I head toward a thumb of rock a thousand feet tall where I will meet him by dark. I abandon the thought of his failure or success. There will be water. The desert always provides, even if a few days late.

I was born in the desert, as were my parents, and most of my grandparents. I grew up in love with its lethal desolation. The silence and starkness always seemed impenetrable, yet I could somehow walk out into it. I could pause in a dry, sandy wash, smelling the heat, absolutely still. Every venture felt like a miracle.

The deserts of North America—the Mojave, Chihuahuan, Sonoran, and Great Basin—range from apricot to garlic, spanning a total of more than 500,000 square miles. The Sonoran is rich with tiny-leaved trees and giant, columnar cacti, while the sparse and open Mojave is home to strange and twisted Joshua trees with grass-skirt trunks. Rugged shrubland of agaves and yuccas marks the Chihuahuan, and the wildly diverse Great Basin is sagebrush basins in one spot, a hive of bare canyons and cliffs in another.

These places are where you come to see what the inside of your planet looks like—the ribs, scapulas, and tender membranes brought to the surface. I've spent decades piecing together a Gray's Anatomy of the desert, filling notebooks: 120 consecutive days in the Grand Canyon, an entire winter on foot in the canyonlands of southern Utah, 37 days across the Cabeza Prieta of southwest Arizona, and thousands of other miles walking here and there.

I have found in all of this travel that common definitions don't work for the desert. When you return and say the word "creek," you have to explain that it is not the pastoral creek that we have in our minds. The rare creeks of the Chihuahuan Desert in southeast Arizona flow only at night in the high heat of summer. During the day their gravel beds are fruitlessly passed over, mistaken for dry washes. Somehow, at night, there are fish.

The desert guards every one of its oddities. Near roads I frequently find abandoned couches unraveling under the sun, and hulks of washing machines as ancient and pitted as Sputnik. I have to smile at these. People come to dump their sins, but nothing washes away.

I arrive at our landmark just before sunset. My partner sits atop his pack as if floating on it, lost at sea. I know instantly that he has found water ahead. Otherwise, he would have unloaded his gear for a camp. "About a mile from here" is his greeting.

We reach the water hole, a depression in the canyon floor, in the blue of dusk. Dragonflies are dabbing invisible eggs into the pool. So primed for this ritual are desert dragonflies that they will drop their eggs onto the reflective hoods of cars if there is no true water source nearby. About 800 gallons, this is rainwater four months old. We do not cool our foreheads with it. We take only what we need and then back away, as if bowing out of a church.

The next morning we explore above the water hole, working up into the narrow canyon. On the ground we find something completely unexpected, the dead fan of a palm tree. Picking it up as if it were the wing of some great bird, we study it carefully. Palms are mythological in this part of the desert, as strange as gnomes.

Rounding the next bend is like discovering a forest of candelabras. Two dozen palm trees are crowded back here, and I feel the familiar cold flush of adrenaline in my body, the one that tells me to pay attention, that I may never see such a thing again. Tall and seductively thin, the palms soar 40 feet up against the rhyolite walls. There are places in this desert that have not seen rain in seven years. Yet here is a tropical holdout, leftovers from 10,000 years ago.

A breeze comes through and the canyon erupts into the sound of a waterfall. The leaves splash and shudder against each other, a sound that I never dared imagine in this desert. I close my eyes and stand as still as possible, because suddenly this will end, and the desert will again be dry.

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