Between Dirt And Sand
Thirty-five years ago the desert of southeastern California inspired the album cover of Joshua Tree, and I wrote about it when I was a fledgling blogger (see Desert Dust from October 2011) when I travelled to Death Valley. I’ve driven back and forth to California again since then, but the hottest place on Earth has not been on my itinerary. What I have seen since then, however, are a myriad of deserts. Granted, I grew up in one (see One Hundred Years from March 2012), but don’t let the cactus and the tumbling tumbleweeds fool you. I saw more dry thistles blowing across the road in North Dakota than I ever did in the Grand Canyon State.
So what qualifies as a desert? Truthfully, every desert is a little different – some dramatically so. Think Sahara. American deserts certainly do not look like northern Africa, with the occasional mini exception like Great Sand Dunes National Park (see Sand And Snow And Snapshots from March 2021) or White Sands National Park (see Traveling With Boys from November 2011). There’s the high desert, which includes both elevation and snow, which may sound oxymoronic, but Four Corners would be the perfect example (see Monument Valley from April 2021). Certain animals may epitomize the desert, such as the howling coyote on a butte, but they have expanded their territory to include every state except Hawaii. Deserts aren’t what you think.
All The Deserts Here
As I turn left after Lone Pine cruising through the Inyo County desert, I am only a handful of miles from the tallest mountain in the lower forty-eight. Here I’m pushing 4,000 feet above sea level, and over there Mount Whitney rises to fourteen-and-a-half thousand feet. I am surrounded by sorry scrub brush and crumbly dirt, and holes that may house mice, or perhaps snakes, or neither, just the pits where they might avoid the sunlight. It’s harsh and empty. Even the Joshua trees are few and far between, but the scenery changes swiftly. The desert in which I drive changes abruptly. I thread rocky mountains (not the Rocky Mountains, to be clear) that unexpectedly increase in elevation, and wind into buttes of layered rock. What scrub hid the holes an hour earlier transitions to rocks only.
My rental takes me downhill through changing colors, along which R2-D2 strolled in his film debut, and eventually twists to Panamint Springs and the straightaway of flat, scenic heat. The temperature increases bouncing off the sand, until I reach the far side of the dry bed that streaks from its last flash flood. I pass larger rocks on the way to sea level at Stovepipe Wells the temperature conversely reflects the elevation. I lack the courage to off road, to explore the facets of this desert – from its lava to its cactus – and to experience more than just observe. If I want to return to the desert, any desert, Death Valley includes them all.