Though I’ve lived most of my life amid the soft, damp greens of the Northeast, I often feel most alive in the sharp, dry reds of the desert.
Being in the desert requires that we look at life through a different lens. Time and space, light and shadow all seem to work differently there. A single rainfall can bring a seemingly barren landscape to life with rich, colorful wildflowers. The sun feels hotter, the nights feel colder, and there are more stars in the sky than you can even imagine. Though I’ve lived most of my life amid the soft, damp greens of the Northeast, I often feel most alive in the sharp, dry reds of the desert. Since I only get to see the desert as a visitor, I try to capture the feeling of my times there in my journal. Writing notes helps me focus on what I see, hear, and feel around me, and even just a few scribbled words can bring back a moment when I need it most, summoning the glow of seemingly translucent hoodoos in the red-rock desert on a gray New England winter’s day. Here are a few of my favorite moments from days and nights spent in the desert over the last few years.
April in the Sonoran Desert
Standing in the shade of a little stand of mountain laurels, at the bottom of a mostly dry wash at the base of the McDowell Mountains north of Phoenix, I could hear the sound of water rushing over rocks. Even more astonishing to me than this little spring in the middle of a sun-blasted mountainside, I heard the liquid whistling song of a Western Tanager.
I caught a glimpse of his fiery red head and orange back as he hopped through the branches and out of sight. I’d never seen one before outside of the high-country pine forests. He must have been on his way north, practicing his song for the ladies he hoped to meet in some piney hillside bosque. A Wilson’s Warbler flitted by, chasing like a madman after whatever insects it was gleaning, and disappeared into the shade before I could point him out to anyone. These little islands of green are life-savers for these birds as they make their way across the desert each spring and fall.
Life in the desert almost seems as if it has been distilled, concentrating the essential and magnifying the beautiful. A trickle of water attracts teeming life; thorns are sharper, red flowers are brighter red, and a paloverde bush doesn’t just have green leaves, it has green branches.
June in the Santa Catalina Mountains
Went for a jog at first light to try to beat the heat. I love having this huge empty space to myself, trying to run as softly and easily as the coyotes, which seem to float like smoke over the hills. Stopped at the top of a ridge—I’ll say it was to admire the view so I don’t have to admit it was to catch my breath—and saw the early morning light shining on a Vermilion Flycatcher, a bird whose head and body are an almost impossibly bright red. As I trotted back down the trail, for a few minutes it was all mine—the golden light on the poppies, the Phainopepla on his perch, the butterflies that came with last week’s rain—and I belonged to the desert, running light as the wind, the sun already hot on my face, the whole day ahead of me.
July in Bryce Canyon
With the sun getting low in the sky, the red in the walls of Bryce Canyon above me deepened. Although the park’s most obviously spectacular features are all accessible from its day-use trails, I was hoping for a more intimate relationship with the canyon. Being inside of the view for sunset was a good start. I set up my bedroll under the open sky and settled in for the night. I expected to see a few stars after dark, but got an even better show.
Although the park’s most obviously spectacular features are all accessible from its day-use trails, I was hoping for a more intimate relationship with the canyon.
First, a single blue dragonfly hovered just over my head for a moment. It looked like a ghost in the half-light, just a flash of wings and then it was gone. Then a succession of hummingbirds appeared above my head one or two at a time, wings whistling and buzzing as they swooped and dived, sipping tiny insects out of the air. In the fading light, I caught a few last flashes of color—reds, greens, purples—before my private, living fireworks flew off.
November in the Panamint Mountains, Death Valley National Park
A few minutes into an early morning hike on the trail to the summit of Wildrose Peak, I discovered that my fingers were cracked and bleeding from the cold, parched air. The first stretch of the trail was still in shade. There were no birds, and the only sound I could hear when I stopped was my heart pounding from exertion and altitude. When I reached the top of the first ridge and crossed into the sun, I suddenly smelled the fragrance of the pines and junipers, and began to see Mountain Chickadees and Juniper Titmice feasting on pine nuts. I could hear them, too, as they chattered.
A few minutes later I got my first glimpse of Death Valley, more than 9,000 vertical feet below me. It’s like standing on the border of two different worlds: cold wind and jagged rocks above, warm breezes and pancake salt plains below.
February in the Sonoran Desert
I hiked up into the McDowell Sonoran Preserve first thing this morning. The hills are awash in a sea of gold. The Mexican poppies are in full bloom. No matter how many times I see it, it still takes my breath away. The ocotillos are spectacular this year, too. I love the way their red flowers punctuate the yellow of the poppies. I stopped to admire a nice big ocotillo up close. I was not the only one whose eye the blooms had caught. A pair of male Anna’s Hummingbirds were buzz-diving and chasing and squeaking, each trying to claim the flowers for his own. A sensible female took her time feeding while the boys were brawling. When the sun caught the male’s iridescent chins just right, they flashed the same red as the blossoms on the ocotillo. A lovely day at any scale, from the panoramic sweep of the poppies to the sprawling ocotillo to the tiny living jewels flying from bloom to bloom.
March, Back in the Sonoran
At first glance, the desert often seems to be about solitude, even for the creatures that make their home there: a lone hawk wheeling in the sky, a solitary coyote loping across a rocky ridge. But the closer you look, the more you see that the desert is a place of communities and relationships. The Gila Woodpeckers that knock holes in saguaros aren’t attacking the saguaro, they’re attacking the insects that infest the saguaro. At the cost of a few holes here and there, the cactus gets an exterminator to deal with its pest problem. The woodpecker gets a meal and a place to carve out a little nest hole.
The closer you look, the more you see that the desert is a place of communities and relationships.
When the woodpeckers moved on to a new hole, the tiny little Elf Owl comes along and takes up residence. I missed seeing the woodpeckers today, but found a likely hole and decided to stake it out at dusk. As the light began to fade, I could just make out a tiny little pair of eyes peering out of the hole. As the sun slipped down past the horizon, the owl popped out of the hole and flapped off. It landed on another cactus just a few yards off, and I could just make him out in the half-light.
He seemed almost impossibly small, like a toy owl, the size of a garden sparrow. He sat on his perch, making a little barking call, and a few minutes later his mate popped out and flew off too. In the high lonesome desert, there’s a place for everyone: the Elf Owl and her mate, the unseen woodpecker that left behind his hole, and the solitary wanderer, exploring the drylands with open eyes and an open heart.
April in the California High Desert
I spent too long hiking this afternoon, and since I didn’t get on the road until late, I arrived at tonight’s campground here in the national forest after dark. It was chilly but I didn’t want to be bothered putting up a tent, so I just put on an extra layer of fleece and my warmest hat and got out my bedroll. My laziness paid off. When I put my head back to get ready for sleep, I looked up and saw what I swear was every star that ever was. The Milky Way actually looked milky, with a haze of stars too distant to appear as individuals to the naked eye.
As the sun rose over the horizon, the grays and blacks of dawn gave way to the colors of morning.
I fell asleep with the roar of the creek in my ears. When I awoke, just before sunrise, the creek was nearly silent. The torrent of snowmelt had calmed to a gently tumbling brook in the cool of the night. As the sun rose over the horizon, the grays and blacks of dawn gave way to the colors of morning. Another day in the desert.
Jake Miller, author of more than a dozen books on nature, science, the outdoors, and community, is a lifelong beginner naturalist and gardener.