It’s official–in 2015 I have spent more time away from my house than I have spent living in it. This has been a year of travel and new experiences. The opportunity to spend a few days in the desert Southwest came up, and I went.
My friend John goes to the desert at least once a year, and returns with stories and beautiful photographs of slot canyons, colorful mountain views, and petroglyphs. A few weeks ago when he off-handedly asked if I wanted to go to Death Valley in November, I didn’t have to consider the idea for very long.
We spent three days backpacking in the Pinto Valley Wilderness in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. We set up camp near a tiny spring welling up through sandstone, and proceeded to explore the big wide valley. Coming from the Northwest where the land is covered with vegetation, I was struck over and over by the geology of the place. It’s as if the Earth’s bone structure has been revealed by the dry climate. Looking at the expanse of rock, one can’t help but notice the sense of time. How long it took for sediment to pile up in layers, be uplifted and broken and worn down to create new layers! Millions of years, yet the process continued under our feet. We crossed wash after wash, observing where infrequent rains drain the water away, leaving sand and boulders behind.
Days were warm and nights were cold. In the mornings we were glad to feel the sun, but by noon were seeking shade. We found distances deceiving and tried to determine why. Something about the clear light, the angle of the sun, the lack of obstacles. What appeared to be far away could be walked to in what felt like a short time.
The first petroglyph we spotted was a bird’s foot on a big boulder near a wash that drained down to the Colorado River. Again and again in our travels we were told that no one knows what the petroglyphs mean or exactly who made them. But I intuitively felt that some were markers, some were maps, some were calendars. How did people interact with the landscape that sustained them? How did they express that interaction in a creative visual way? A part of my mind was eager to interpret and place meaning on the pecked-out marks that we found. Petroglyphs are made by chipping through the desert varnish on rocks (a patina of iron, manganese, and cyanobacteria activated by water). I found them fascinating, and was especially impressed by a leaf motif. The people who made these had to be close observers of their world.
I saw desert bighorn sheep twice, peering down at me from their rocky heights. They are sturdy, blending in with the color of the rock except for their white rear-ends and goldish curved horns. They move with the softest clatter of hooves upon stone, finding browse with apparent ease. The ground was scattered with their pellets, an indicator that they are year-round residents. Later we would find many images of them on canyon walls.
After hiking out of Pinto Valley, we moved on to Valley of Fire State Park. Compared to the solitude of the wilderness (except for the constant stream of aircraft flying in and out of Las Vegas), camping in a developed campground was quite a contrast. Darkness at 5 pm brought the smell of campfire smoke and the hum of generators. We sat into the night, looking at bright stars in the moonless sky until our necks ached. The Leonid meteor shower is on, and seeing those streaks of light is such a treat.
We found more rock art in Petroglyph Canyon, which has a short trail for tourists to walk when they are ready to get out of their cars. But for me, the rock formations around White Domes and Rainbow Vista were the jaw-dropping attraction. John and I both ran out of words to express our amazement at discovering the next thing around the corner. The Aztec sandstone was laid down in the Jurassic period (145 to 201 million years ago) when dinosaurs walked the planet and wind deposited layers of sand throughout what is now Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. Over time, sand dunes were pressed into solid rock which rose, tilted, and weathered into fantastic formations. It is a land of stripes, red and yellow and purplish and nearly white. I could not get enough of looking at them, finding the warm reds and creams so attractive against the bright blue sky. My eyes and brain were collecting and storing up sunlight and vibrant colors for the long dark Pacific Northwest winter.
There was still more to see and experience. I wanted to return to Mojave National Preserve, which I had visited in 2009 to attend a botanical drawing workshop. Death Valley wasn’t going to work out for us, since recent storms had damaged many of the roads. We found evidence of storms in the preserve as well. Our basecamp was at Hole in the Wall campground, where there is a water supply–something to consider when traveling in the desert. Here the rock is tuff and basalt from ancient volcanoes. I was reminded of how many plants in the Mojave have thorns when I saw all the cholla and only had partial success at avoiding it. The tiny barbed spines ended up in my fingers, a pair of socks, and the tent ground cloth. Sigh. Walking through the mesquite was also an exercise in evasive tactics.
I loved seeing the barrel cactus with their reddish spines. These spines are the cactus version of leaves, and not as dangerous to my tender hide as cholla. I could actually touch them and found them stiff, with the same texture as fingernails.
We explored below rocky cliffs and found more rock art including some pictographs in sheltered places. These were made with naturally occurring pigments, in this case iron oxide red and kaolin white. There was very much a sense of ceremony around images and I felt hushed and reverent. Tried to imagine the people’s lives when the art was made. I am certain that their language did not have a word for art–it would have been so much a part of how they lived. The lines were the width of a finger, and I was deeply touched by the human-ness of it. I too can make marks with my fingers, and I too have an affinity for pigment. There was a jolt of connection across centuries. And a firm desire to leave things as they are.
The last morning in camp (only four days ago), we woke to a partly cloudy sky. The weather was changing. We drank coffee. I spotted a roadrunner in the wash below, and we both waited to hear the “meep meep!” from the cartoon character. Something about the bird’s alert posture was very familiar. The trip wound down with a visit to Kelso Dunes and the visitor center at the small town of Kelso. Wind had picked up and clouds scudded across the sky, casting changeable shadows on the mountain ranges and wide expanse of creosote bushes.
By late afternoon we were on our way to Las Vegas so I could get on a plane in the morning. Dark clouds piled up against the horizon and the storm broke in gusts of wind and rain. The desert spell was broken by traffic and glittering lights. As I flew away to the north next day, I saw that the clouds had left a dusting of snow on the highest peaks.
Windblown and dry, I returned home feeling a deep warmth in my bones. It snowed as I slept that first night in my own bed in a week. The warmth and light of the desert are still with me as we turn toward the longest night of the year.