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


In the steel heat of a monsoon sky
thunder wells up inside
the clouds: dark noise
wrapped in waiting
for the first rain since the doves
arrived from their tropical
winters. Along the wash

the walking trail’s a trickle
of dry concrete
flanked by grass and gravel
all the way to where the houses
turn to desert
and the nighthawk sleeps.
The inner light of trees

illuminates the street
as the sun falls low behind them
and the sky displays
a palette ranging gray
to cumulous white with a gilded
edge. Against the oncoming
dark, the palm fronds

become a green not
of this Earth, and for a moment
an Apocalypse glows
in the eucalyptus, but each day
ends like this when storms
are building out of reach
and darkness is a pointed wing.

By David Chorlton

nighthawk on fencepost

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 of common nighthawk by Steve Byland

Lessons in the Wind

windy day sky and bunchgrass scrubOut the window, a bright-burning circle of sun cut into a cobalt sky. The dogs seem to notice, too. They smash their noses against the sliding-glass door eager for their daily romp. The day is cool with a slight breeze, so off we go into the fields. We walk too far, stay too long and the harsh evening winds descend. Dust devils swirl and tumble weeds bounce across the earth. The leaves of the silver sage shake and the air fills with its sharp scent. A gust blows. My ears turn cold and crimson. My hair ― a wild lion’s mane.

The dogs run through bunchgrass that stands taller than their shoulders. I call to them, but the wind hushes my voice. As the sun and the temperature lowers, I turn back towards home. The wind pushes against me. My pace is slow. Grueling. I can’t see the dogs, but somehow they meet me at the gate, panting ― their long, pink tongues hanging out of their mouths. I’m wind-weary and disheveled, but full of endorphin-flowing exhilaration.

A tree falls on Tyler’s house. My student’s and I can hear the wind rage outside the classroom. A freight-train wind, we call it. Gusts up to 60-80 mph are not unusual here in the high desert. We are writing stories, when someone says, “Tyler, a tree just fell on your house.” We look out the window, and there it is, the tree thrust inside the shattered roof. Tyler walks out of the classroom. We watch him from the window. He crosses the street. Stares at his ruined home. That night, his family moves out of the house until the tree is removed and the roof is repaired.

That same day, I find our camper in the middle of the long, gravel driveway that leads to our home. The wind had grabbed the camper, tossed it like a tumble weed. It landed on its back, its feet sticking up. I stop my truck, get out and walk over to check the damages. I peer through the window. Everything is upside down. The clothes that hung from a rod in the closet spread across the ceiling, which is now the floor and littered with broken dishes, pots and pans. Later, the ruined camper will be hauled off, and a new one will replace it.

As the sun sets and the night grows black, I listen to the winds howl, rattle the old stove pipe like brittle bones. The stove-vents clap and the windows shake, keeping me from sleep. Living in this land of wind, I see its power. The wind brings change; it tears down the old, and from the wreckage, new directions flow.

Kandi MaxwellKandi Maxwell lives and writes in the Sierra foothills of Northern California. She walks through forests, soaks and splashes in rivers, lakes and hot springs, and bends frequently in downward dog. She is a retired high school English teacher. Her work has been published in Fair Haven Literary Review, KYSO Flash, The Raven’s Perch, One in Four, Foliate Oak, and others. Her work has been nominated for The Best American Essay series.

Photo by the author

Synthesis Of Light

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Raven, Two Views

Alone, its kind
shunning the gregarious life
of crows, its sparse cries
bringing no reply, raven circles
between street and chaparral—
now closed, night-dark atop
a power pole, now flashing silver
above creosote bush, now back
to land on wires, swaying.

Parked car at the curb, raven
clings with yellow feet
to the narrow ledge holding
the driver window in place,
topples, nearly falls, flaps
wings, balances, beak pressed
close to its shadow self
in the glass. Pressed close and, yes —

By Diane Lee Moomey

Diane has lived and wandered around the US and Canada, and now dips her gardener’s hands in California dirt. A regular reader at San Francisco Bay Area poetry venues, Diane has published prose and poetry, most recently in Mezzo Cammin, Peacock Journal, The Sand Hill Review, California Poetry Quarterly, Caesura and Red Wheelbarrow, and has been nominated for a Pushcart prize. She won first prize and an Honorable Mention in the Sonnet category of the 2016 Soul Making Keats Literary Contest, and first prize in the Creative Non-Fiction category of the same competition.

To read more, please visit her page at Poets & Writers.