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.