Desert Musings

“The heat was hot and the ground was dry But the air was full of sound” from “A Horse With No Name” by Dewey Bunnell

From the very first time that I visited our Southwest, it became clear that the “barren” deserts were far from barren. Not unlike the areas of the eastern coastal plain that are dubbed “pine barrens”, the label is as inaccurate and misleading as it is evocative. And with a few notable exceptions, the southwestern desert does not resemble the dunescape depicted in old movies about the French Foreign Legion, or Lawrence of Arabia, or even, well, Dune. There is a lot of life, beauty, majesty, and yes, heat, in our deserts.

I recently spent some time camping before monsoon season, under the open skies in the area of the country where three of our four major desert systems, the Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan converge. That geographic and ecological merge takes place in the ”three-corner” area where Nevada, Utah and Arizona come together. This area covers from portions of the north rim of the Grand Canyon, northwest through the Valley of Fire, and northeast towards Zion National Park. Flora and fauna representative of all three eco-systems can overlap here, making it an extremely interesting destination for a desert naturalist. Although daytime temperatures quickly soared into triple digits, once topping out at 127 degrees, it strangely enhanced the experience of spending time in these environments. In this type of heat, there are not herds of critters thundering down most arroyos. However a quiet approach and practiced observation can reveal not only uniquely beautiful landscapes and vegetation, but the birds, animals and insects that inhabit the region. Add a good pair of binoculars, and a cooler (read shady) place to rest and scan, and you can check off even more boxes on your life lists or field guides if so inclined.

Author's son by desert wilderness signThe Colorado River and it’s impoundments, Lakes Mead and Mojave are the best known and most popular recreational water in this region, and with good reason. Lake Mead National Recreation Area offers water-based sports and eco-tourism opportunities surrounded by desert habitat remote enough to be inhabited by the occasional Gila monster. But this is not the only water here, although fishable options require a little more exploration. You can find fish in various parks in or near Las Vegas, like the oasis that is Floyd Lamb State Park near Tule Springs. However, my favorite spots in the region are near St. George in southwest Utah. In the foothills above the town, it was a unique experience to catch a few largemouth bass in 114 degree temperatures on my last trip. Obviously water temperatures were much lower, but the lack of cover and discernible structure left few options for places where fish might congregate. In this case, it was a few floating weed mats that provided secure ambush points for the bass to forage from. Terrestrial creatures similarly seek out protection and cover in their sun baked desert home. And although the sighting of a Gila monster or even a desert tortoise is rare, there are plenty of other critters scurrying about, hiding in the mesquite and creosote or scrambling amongst the crevices in the sandstone rocks.

On this trip, we hiked up to and camped on a high butte in the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Recreation area, administered by the Bureau of Land Management. In the Parashant, dispersed camping (primitive/backpack) is allowed, and we spent our nights in the Mount Bangs/Paiute Wilderness portion. The view on all sides of seemingly endless desert was serene as the light faded, the grub sizzled in the fry pan, and the temperature moderated somewhat. The air would began to stir, and the first of seemingly endless waves of cooling breezes arrived. Aromatic winds of varying velocity and sound would sweep up and onto the butte with us all night. As the desert disappeared beyond our immediate campsite, small creatures like pack rats, whiptail lizards and geckos could be seen in the beam of a lantern at times.

And far away from the light pollution, and unobstructed by an overhead tent roof, the magnificent June night sky presented itself. As we laid back on tarps and accordion sleeping pads, our entire field of vision was consumed by stars. Clusters, constellations, the Milky Way and even three meteors, provided the evening’s entertainment. The display was almost surrealistic, and it seemed as if a giant talking head of Neil DeGrasse Tyson might suddenly materialize to help explain exactly what we were witnessing. But in a way, no explanation was required to savor the experience. The visual art of the southwest night sky in this setting was visceral. Perhaps somewhat like walking into a room in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and confronting a wall size Jackson Pollack painting for the first time. Just seeing and feeling can be enough in both cases.

campsite in desertAs dawn approached, the waning wind and the morning calls of the birds worked like an alarm clock, stirring me off my sleeping pad and coaxing me to the east facing edge of the butte. Sitting on my haunches with my arms wrapped around my knees, I sat waiting for the world, as far as I could see, to awaken. Of all the beauty that you can encounter in the desert, this time of day takes a back seat to none. As spectacular as the red rock formations or distant peaks and neighboring mesas and buttes can be bathed in full sunlight, this is something else yet again. The light of false dawn through daybreak offers an opportunity to see this desert world revealed through yet another magical and incremental lens. As the sky begins to glow over the farthest ridge line, you can imagine you feel the warmth rise up the slope towards you. As the sun crests the rocks and begins it’s slow pursuit of the shadows across the valley floor, you no longer need to imagine the heat, increasingly an unmistakeable but pleasant warmth at this hour. The few places that will hold shade during the sunrise are now becoming clearly defined. Picking my way carefully down the rocky slope, I sought to find footfalls that would not disturb the somewhat delicate crust of the desert soil.

On the desert plain surrounding our butte, chuckwallas and banded geckos were present, probably in greater numbers than The few I noted among the brush, small cacti and rocks. Being quick enough and pretty well camouflaged, horned lizards were even more difficult to spot, and unfortunately not a hint of a Gila monster. No tarantulas either, but a few scorpions scouted the terrain much the same as I did. Voles darted in and out of a few sagebrush varieties, and a raven called from a small juniper bush. The birds were wary and distant, but the one phainopepla I identified was the first I’d ever seen. It was feeding on the random buzzing flies that popped up occasionally in the area. That wasn’t really too surprising, but the number of whitish, gray and muted brown colored butterflies was unexpected, considering the relative scarcity of plants in flower. Exploring slowly around the buttes where we camped at night in the relative cool of dawn and early morning, always revealed a varied mix of interesting desert species.

I found it interesting that the yelping and howls of coyotes were not among the sounds we heard in the evenings, although they were certainly present. Our major encounter with a larger mammal came on our final day, when we sought out the relative cool of the mountains in Spring Mountains Recreation Area, part of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in Nevada. I say relative, because although the trail to the summit of Mount Charleston led to snow and ice fields, the trek upwards began at the trailhead lot where the afternoon temperature read 101 degrees. It was nearby in the Willow Creek section of the Spring Mountains that we encountered the megafauna of our trip, a herd of six mustangs. Slowly moving through a sea of scrub some fifty meters in front of us, the largest mare led four of the wild horses on their pre-selected vector. The large roan stallion slowly walked in our direction, positioning himself between us and the the rest of the herd. Calmly, but alertly watching us watching him. When the other horses had made their way deeper into the desert, he turned and followed them down a dry wash, around a hillock, and out of sight. A horse with no name perhaps, but he will always be “Unforgettable”, a fitting enough moniker, my mind.


Photos by the author

Synthesis Of Light

1
The way Sabrina (almost six-years-old) lays on her bed
and plays her iPad for half an hour. Like the way an owl
can turn his head totally around since he/she has no eye
ligaments or nerves to keep the eyes moving without
the head. Sabrina loves playing dolls with me, her father,
and she has a doll house that we use sometimes.
Mainly we talk, as if plants have ears, and I heard
they do, by means of flowers. Our talking among flowers
it is best to do so directly, and their brighter flowers
will improve the garden.

2
The mountains hold everything providing light,
whether it be clear or dark—stars whisper to
the moon, like when you talk to me, and shine
right back to us, up on the mountain top,
arriving at six a.m. The sun rises over the edge
of the mountain before its full body is seen.
As its body illustrates pops from the sun’s
surface and day-lilies outside the coffeehouse,
we will drink dark roast decaf and talk to each
other like a window opening and no one disturbs
the hush of the window opening but a crowd
is heard in the background. I want to hold
your hand and do so. I want to toss your hair
with love twirls and tell everything in silence
since we first started dating and married not
yet whole in ourselves. It takes time to grow,
and the sunlight illustrates through those
day-lilies ripening outside as we stare out
the window until we rise, get another cup,
and go out and trust in the day ahead to guide
and shape us into who we want us to be.

3
There is nothing
I will not do to keep
light on your face
until the sun
deepens its fade
into stars
and moon of eve,
and then we will
both grow even
then, even any
-time. I just want
you loved by me
to see our dreams
coming true
as day-lilies held,
squeezed tight,
and planted even more
due to the sun
and dark at night
with the sun again
in the a.m. preparing
its heat and day-lilies
opening once the light
turns to both itself
and heat
for the afternoon
calling lemonade
to quench
our thirst appearing
as the first
light of morning.

4
When are you going to the peach tree
again? Like a movie we’ve seen numerous
times because of comedy, lucidness,
and delight in philosophy? I just see you
with an arm around me, which doesn’t
occur often, but does when I need a hug,
and then a couple of minutes is all outstanding.
Under the peach tree you sit so the sunlight
doesn’t pinch your eyes closed, and you
take a bite of a peach that fell and you
had to stretch to catch it. Its own
hunger fills your body, an enormous
task to do so by itself, not because
of you but the peach having to work
through photosynthesis, and the juice
slushes down your skin into your hand
under chin until you sleep in the heat
of afternoon, and I sit and dream
right next to you.

5
After peaches picked from the trees and taken home,
Grandpa makes the best homemade ice cream ever
tasted, even now with specialty ice cream places around
town that could fill streets if not so separated, and I
find you in a dream eating that ice cream before death
rings true to my Grandpa, and the doctors said prepare
for seven more years when the newly formed arteries
and vesicles will run themselves out. Grandma soon
moves to a nursing home after a car crash,
not resembling my own low blood sugar diabetic ones,
and lives as long as her sister did, ten years in the home,
and then the call from the home told my Dad and we
both went out to see her lying in her bed with her eyes
closed and a smile upon her face; she hasn’t looked
this good in ten years, the dementia had left her body
as did her spirit, into heaven, and finally met her love,
Grandpa, over fifteen years apart. I dreamt they simply
walked in parks or sat on chairs and fished, and maybe
even went camping in the fall before it cleared. The light
remained on them both without having to do a thing.
And life seemed to last a blink of a moment looking
back and seeing them together for all the years,
and even past their moving to St. Louis from
Chillicothe after their 50th wedding anniversary.

6
In the phosphorescent morning, as the squirrels
and birds fly to catch a new fresh breath tasting
of the clouds and of fog, a new trip to the western
part of the U.S., and all I need is your breath
to wake me, like the boat that offers its own wake
where water skiers pass into and out of that wake,
and nothing can at this high tide hour. At the lake
there are some smaller mountains, and I’ve hiked
some but not many or often. I’ve never really looked
into the trail situation. I hiked when I went to school
in Flagstaff, sometimes everyday in summer,
but weekends during school hours. It will be great
when we both and Sabrina get to go out there
and see the vastness that awaits. Please let us
have fun on the vortexes too! It’s really windy there.
It’s really windy on the vortex due to the equilibrium
that exists on them. Their trying to continue
feeling from one day to the next, like with meditation.
It’s in the light I see you swimming back at the dock.
I want to be there with you when we otherwise
could be somewhere else doing something else.
It’s not that I don’t want to talk about hiking all I
have done in Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon
as it’s something needing the experience
to understand. I haven’t really been able to find
the words to explain the experience; it’s like
running backward and having people asking
what it’s like, and there’s no answer to give.
In the calmness of the night language can
provide what’s necessary to continue to try
and distill the answers about all the hiking,
and that’s the best I can really do.

7
Only when I write do I shine forth enough beauty…
whether here or not, I’d like to think I do for you.

By Bradley Bates

father and daughter silhouettes at sunset


Photo Copyright: BlueOrange Studio

Tree Dippers

sparrow bending branch to eat seedsThe tree is withstanding a drought of many, many years. Desert downpours and high winds in late summer took one of the top limbs so it is shorter than necessary. And in spite of human intervention of trimming, a passerby may still look up to see the few remaining green, turning brown, yellow and red leaves on otherwise bare branches. They bid hello with a wave while some yellow and gold jewels lay on the ground to marvel at or walk on. But the passerby will not be privy to the homecoming events seen from the sky.

I call them dippers, the sparrows and finches and they have been gone for months it seems. Summer vacation languishing somewhere in a cooler environment perhaps? The fall has come and avenues of branches and limbs of all sizes reach up and out performing beckoning dances to them. Reddish tipped branches wave frantically in a slight breeze. The more mature limbs with leaves of green turning brown and yellow wave back and forth slowly as a whole.

Perches of pleasure await. Seeds attached throughout are being readied for the taking. Then a tweet from the past breaks an otherwise quiet moment. The dippers see the waves of welcome and the wide open branches to gather them in as we do with open arms to another. Daily visits by one or two scouts test a seed here and there. Turning their head sideways and moving outwards they glance at seeds. A taste test proves the gifts are not ready just yet. A slight turn and they are gone. Provision has been made for them elsewhere to check. The tree’s personality at this time of year becomes slow and slower to finish ripening the expected treasurers. Everything in its time.

Now abundant, matured and nourishing to indulge in, the call is made. Limbs are chosen by all and the gifts of bounty are broken into. In contrast, dippers have a personality of frantic it seems — hurry, hurry. Colors of red, yellow, brown and even green flash by as heads bob in and out, moving limb to limb. Using tongue and beak they start at one part of a little round morsel and turn it until the envelope is open. Somehow it looks as though they hold the meaty inside with their beak and with a flick of the head, fling the casing away. With a loving touch of tiny feet and weight of slight bodies on the branches there is no pain for the tree as there was with the trimmers. There is only giving and receiving; acknowledgement, touch, expectation by both.

The desert winter has arrived. The tree will have given the past away for the future. Few leaves are left and seedless branches means less energy used, a time to rest, a season for everything. The eaten gifts will be planted far and wide during the dippers journeys.

Continued cold weather and desert rains mean few leaves to protect the dippers and they will gather on my balcony and window sill. Whether true or not, they look fluffed up against the cold. Now I am able to become a very small part of their world. They are unaware as I get close to look at them through the double-paned window. I have such diversity in coloring, movements and personality sitting before me and I’m given my gift of time to just watch. A break in the rain and scouts announce another source in another area and they are gone. Just as they arrived, they leave with no sound just a tiny mass of moving air.

With the explosion of the spring the dippers may leave on vacation looking for the welcoming wave and open limbs of another. As our desert summer then begins those that stay will be lost in the green canopy of new leaves. The tiny gifts of the future seeds are barely a hint.

As a story in process does not end, nor does nature, nor does learning. For me, the birds of my past years don’t abide where I am now. By the time fall returns I will know more of the dippers. I will welcome them along with the frantic waves of red tipped branches and the slow wave of the green, turning brown and gold.


Diane Steele enjoys watching the simplicity of nature. If left alone nature will do what is needed when needed. To imagine what complexities are involved in all of life is what makes Diane want to explore.

Photo by Vladislav Enshin

As Above, So Below

Sweet meadow grass grows
Where forest used to be. Not all has gone to seed,
While all that is fallow awaits a time of need
To push through dirt, and rocks, and clay
Toward another greening of the day.

Even starlight cast over a midnight lake
Shimmering on rippling waves,
Beds down with ash and mud,
Mingles with fish and bones, and holds
A bit of universe tucked away in stones.

By Cynthia Sidrane

desert stream flows around white boulders


As a desert and mountain dweller and avid hiker, Cynthia Sidrane’s poetry and photography are reflections of the wild, remote and rugged beauty of Arizona deserts, and the Sky Island mountain ranges that rise like miracles from them. Her poems have been published online and in print, including two short-form poetry anthologies: “Pay Attention, A River of Stones,” and “A Blackbird Sings.”

Photo by the author

In the Moment

for Vicky D.

As often as it happens, when
you see a sudden deer
standing still as the mountain it lives on
there’s a silence that runs deep
into the earth
for the moment until
a shiver of sound
is caught in the wide open ears
and the head turns a few degrees
before she runs through summer’s grass
and disappears into the calls
of an oriole in woodland.
Such moments remind us
this is land between granite and grass
with horizons that tilt
beneath storms in their season
and valleys where thirst
runs on a riverbed
until the day the rains draw
toads from underground
to become the beating hearts of night.
This is the time
trees sing to themselves,
when owls are quick and stars
flow across the peaks. Look out
into the universe, take a step
in the moon’s direction
and look back at what surrounds you:
bedrock, cactus ribs, gravel trails
and junipers. After sunrise
you might find a rattlesnake stretching
out on a warming trail, look
a bear in the eyes as he ambles
on the other bank of a stream, or flush
a covey of quail from the shade,
and surprise will be what binds you all
to common ground.

By David Chorlton

cactus and sunset lit butte in Hewitt Canyon, Arizona


David Chorlton is a transplanted European, who has lived in Phoenix since 1978. His poems have appeared in many publications on- and off-line, and reflect his affection for the natural world, as well as occasional bewilderment at aspects of human behavior. His newest collection of poems is Bird on a Wire from Presa Press, and late in 2017 The Bitter Oleander Press will publish Shatter the Bell in my Ear, his translations of poems by Austrian poet Christine Lavant.

Photo by Anton Foltin