Desert Sanity

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.Santa Rosa mountains horizon

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.

Granite with mica flakesThe 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.blair valley lake bed

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. small big hornTorote tiny leaves

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.

And, I like what I see.DSCN3698


7 thoughts on “Desert Sanity

  1. Deserts are interesting places. I think you either love them or hate them. It depends on where you go, how long you stay and how closely you observe all the things that are happening around you.

    • The desert truly is a fascinating place. The adaptations of plants and animals to survive in an extreme environment really adds to the appeal of the place. It’s also fabulous for wildlife spotting since many of the animals congregate near water. Because of that there’s a great concentration of life and interactions between species that are not as easily observed in the woods of home.

  2. Hi Sharon! So nice to see you here, you’re lovely comments are so welcome and appreciated. I’m glad you were transported to this place along with me. It’s a corner of the Sonoran Desert, a giant state park in California, just east of San Diego, called Anza Borrego Desert State Park. It’s huge (600,000 acres) diverse (as it includes some 5000’+ mountains and near sea level alkali basins). Most of all it’s fairly undiscovered and few others are there midweek in January so it’s easy to find solitude and see uninterrupted. I immersed myself so much that it was hard to extract myself and come home. The adjustment to the city was a little rough.

  3. I can feel you breathe in all this great expanse! And I feel myself sharing in your journey as you leave all the things that entrap us at home. I truly felt the burden lighten out in this open space. And what beauty awaits. Where is this desert? It is also a learning experience for me to take this walk with you. And I too like what I see…Hugs, Sharon

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