“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.
The 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.
As 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