Why I like the desert


Like most Americans, or indeed most contemporary humans, I spent a lot of time reading about the desert before I experienced it firsthand. I have some hazy memories of a family swing through the Colorado Plateau of Utah when I was eight, spotty visions I can now place as the chopped steps on the traverse into Hidden Canyon in Zion, an obscure perennial creek in Dinosaur, the Fremont River in Capitol Reef. These do not count. I could only start to get to know the desert, to judge it on my own merits, as a budding adult in college. By then the images of Desert Solitaire were colored by the frenetic emptiness of late teenage years, and by my obsession, the activity which at the time most defined my life and often harshly highlighted the lack of self-certainty back then, rock climbing.  Fortunately climbing tends to provide good views, especially in the desert.  It’s hard to appreciate, from any vantage, the roundabout path erosion took when cutting Onion Creek, but a summit in the Fischer towers helps to clear the air.  One tends to see important things faster when the past few hours featured multiple near falls on X-rated “easy” 5.8.  It was a good start on contemplating what Abbey called “…”this monstrous and inhuman spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space…”

In the Bundy era all public lands employees must live a little closer to the edge, but the Bureau of Land Management has relative to the Forest Service and National Park Service always been maligned.  And correctly, sometimes, it did not earn the nickname Bureau of Livestock and Mining for no reason, just as the NPS has occasionally deservedly been called the Dark Service.  The BLM has always had, and I imagine always will have, less affection directed towards it because of the vast generality of its holding, and with few exceptions the lack of proper trees growing upon them.  Americans like forests, instinctively recognizing in them both the roots of our countries vital economic past and the more basic hunter-gatherer fecundity they pass along to their inhabitants.  The North American temperate forests only exist, in their ancestral majesty, within small pockets held back from the axe by terrain or circumstance, but most people live near enough to their weedy, pale cousins that the spectre of a squirrel passing between Lake Erie and the Ohio without touching the ground is at least imaginable.


The desert has none of these virtues, and it has only been in the combined wake of the Colorado River Compact, World War II, and the interstate highway system that industrial arrogance has become so unbridled as to allow many millions of people to live within the American desert.  Or at least on islands within that ocean, built green and black from asphalt and irrigation.  Phoenix, Vegas, Tucson, St. George, and even more tenuous islands like Moab and Grand Junction are not really in the desert.  At least insofar as their urban confines combine with the designated destinations of National Parks and Monuments to make the intervening spaces, which is to say the vast majority of the desert, disappear from the view of those forced to travel through it with any regularity.

In short; we love the forest because we tamed it long ago.  The unruly exceptions, like the railroad-swallowing rainforests of coastal Alaska, are conveniently very far away.  I’m not sure their is any American alive who can truly recall what the prairie looked like.  It has been buried and transmogrified as definitively as the spring-fed meadows which caused Las Vegas to earn its name.  The desert has rebuffed this treatment, which rightfully makes us uneasy.  Forested mountains decently conceal their un-humanity, while in the Grand Canyon or Book Cliffs all lack of hospitality is left strewn about, carelessly open to incidental viewing.  This is why, metaphysically, Zion and Arches remain the most popular of the “mighty 5” destination parks in the Utah desert.  In Zion wildness is confined by the depth of the main canyon, in Arches it is wrapped up in and staked down to the arches and towers.  In both cases one dead-end road keeps the world from growing to large and disorderly.

For those who spend enough time within the desert, and put down enough experiential anchor points that understanding becomes possible, obsession generally follows.  And it is generally a compulsion of such enduring greediness that peakbaggers are put to shame.  As Abbey wrote “I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally, as a man desires a beautiful woman.”  A good choice of words, which he immediately follows with “An insane wish? Perhaps not-at least there’s nothing else, no one human, to dispute possession with me.”  At the end of the road I think the appeal of the desert lies for me not in its mystery, but in its obviousness.  The desert of the Colorado Plateau pulls no punches, and in most places is laid out plain for all to see, who can.  Places like the Grand Canyon, King Mesa, and Grand Gulch may appear hopelessly corrugated and convoluted, but all their secrets are in fact not secrets at all.  They’re just hard for most of us to see well.

6 responses to “Why I like the desert”

  1. Thank you Dave. I really appreciate you writing this post. It’s really absolutely fascinating to me. I would have never thought I would be interested in the desert. (In fact, I remember commenting once to Kevin Timm when he was helping me decide on a purchase how the desert probably isn’t much fun…what an ignorant comment in hindsight.) Instagram, for whatever it’s downsides, has exposed me to a lot of pictures of Zion, Arches, and Bryce, and left me with a huge desire to see them, although it will be a good while before I can.

    The appeal I think is what you hit on here, and also coincides with a strange, not fear, but perhaps mistrust. The landscapes look so fascinating, so foreign that I would love to see and experience something completely unknown, and yet beautiful, to me. At the same time I often find myself thinking, “it must be so easy to mess up there…how much water must one carry when biking through there?…how could you ever start a fire?” That same wonder though is part of the allure.

    Anyway, thank you again. When I imagine heaven I often imagine a place like Glacier, or the Canadian Rockies to the north, forests and mountains and beautiful pristine lakes. So it was startling to me when you chose to leave it (it shouldn’t have been if for the reason that people move for a myriad of reasons outside landscape most often), and yet were also so excited by something the complete opposite in many ways.

  2. Great work, Dave. As a fellow desert dweller I’m right there with you. Because, unlike a forest, you can see the desert all at once the desert is scary and honest. This is a good thing– after all, the whole point of the wilderness is that it is scary and honest.

  3. “For those who spend enough time within the desert, and put down enough experiential anchor points that understanding becomes possible, obsession generally follows.”

    I’ve been obsessed for 40 years. Nice post.

  4. Agree with Nick, that last paragraph nails it and is why despite living in Colorado I haven’t backpacked in the mountains in over 4 years…just too much to see (or see again…if you go to the mountains in July you miss the columbines and orchids in the canyons) out in the rocks.

  5. What Brendan said. Ive found myself struggling to travel to other locales because there is so much to see/experience in just a few hours drive from home. As much as moving back to the Pacific Northwest (all my family, job prospects, new nieces etc.) makes sense in my life I can’t seem to cut my ties with the desert. My rational brain in constant struggle with the irrational nature of clinging to a pile of rocks.

  6. People who love trees should try moving off trail in some Texas hardwood bottomlands. A few hundred yards of being shredded by briars and they might re-evaluate.

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