The desert makes me sane.
All emotions tied to home vanish immediately. The slate is, at the same time, wiped clean and doodled upon in earnest. What was important in Portland – work, politics, even my attachment to the Townsend’s Warbler – disappears into the void and becomes untenable.
Business concerns are replaced with sand, and Ravens, and desert skies. Worries of home maintenance are replaced with wonder at granite and palm trees. Even my affection is redirected as my bird crush for the warbler shifts to California Thrashers and Black-throated Sparrows.
Only the Song Sparrow is there to steady me, help me transition from the wet west to the desert west. As I sit near a spring under a creosote bush, absorbing the new world around me, a sparrow pops in, sings, forages, and disappears into the brush. Although he sings with a Sonoran Desert dialect, he’s still unmistakably Song Sparrow: undeniably connecting me to my other life.
That connection is not essential here for my happiness. I’m manic. Nearly giddy from the stimuli of the desert. It’s not just the warmer temperatures, or the sunshine, or the star show at night; it’s the newness of it all. This is not my first trip to the desert. I am in fact a desert-pilgrim and make regular trips – annually when possible. So, I’ve seen these plants before, heard these bird songs, and had this sand in my shoes. No, perhaps it’s not the fresh environment. It’s the open space, the nakedness of terrain that stirs my soul.
The horizon is always visible and distant, the geology exposed. I can read the history of the land. The formation of the granite batholith, the pluton’s exposure and uplift, the exfoliation and cracking of the granite, the feldspar pebbles that become sand, are like large-print letters on a page of a favorite book.
And the sand sparkles. With granitic parent rock comes mica, fool’s gold, and flakes small and large are mixed with the pebbles as glitter on a Valentine’s card. It’s a Valentine for me, the child in me that remembers running barefoot on granitic soil, learning to swim in granite basins filled with snowmelt, diving underwater to retrieve quartzite stones from the lakebed. But that was in the mountains, this is the desert and the water is scarce.
The plants and animals respond to the meager water supply with amazing adaptations. Nothing here grows too big. Roosevelt elk are big, Douglas fir are big, even the fungi are big in the Pacific Northwest. In the desert, the big horn sheep – the region’s largest animal – are small, the most diminutive of their species. Trees, what trees? Only bushes with tiny leaves are found in the desert proper.
While cottonwoods are found in some springs, in the Anza Borrego desert the predominant water-dependent tree is the California fan palm. Large by desert standards, but still tiny compared to the conifers of the wet west. And the leaves. The majority of shrubs bear only tiny moisture-greedy leaves. All adaptations that fill my mind and soul with joy at I traipse through the canyons and across the ridges of this region.
Then, then, there’s the solitude. Be prepared to unplug! Not only will your modern-age electronic devices be detached from the grid, but you’ll not see a stop light, or hear sirens or train whistles. Only the occasional jumbo jet far overhead reminds you that civilization still exists. If you need company, find an oasis. Humans congregate near the water as does much of the wildlife. But, I urge you, head on up that ridge, follow that wash to its head, and you will see only yourself. You’ll know who you are or perish. I choose the former and that’s what I love about this place. With all the trappings of urban life stripped away, without the input and demands of others on my shoulders, I can see myself as clearly as the horizon.