By Greg Illes
Originally published in November, 2014
Soon, my wife and I will hit the road again. Even though it’s not the ideal season for traveling, our summer has been consumed with tasks and projects, so we’re RV-deprived at this point.
Most folks think of “camping” in terms of lofty trees, babbling brooks, hikes in the deep forest. We like those places, for sure — but we also have a love for something almost diametrically opposed to the charm of a wooded campsite: the desert. We probably travel to the desert even more than we go to the mountains or seashores that are closer to our central California homestead.
Most people who are unfamiliar with desert travel are a bit puzzled. Why in the world would you want to go there? There’s nothing there! Well, yes and no. There is certainly not much in the way of woods and streams (although many surprises can be found). But the very essence of nothingness can, in itself, be part of the appeal much of the time.
In its central character, the desert provides an empty, open, vast space that is paralleled only by the open sea. There is quiet, there is room to think, and there is time and an undemanding environment that let the mind and spirit wander. There is no place on earth that is, for us, more conducive to personal peace than the enormous expanse of the desert.
And enormous it is. In the southwestern United States, there are vast expanses of desert terrain. Much of it is dry and nearly featureless; some is strikingly beautiful, such as the lower areas of Utah and Canyon Country, and the incredible spring wildflower blooms in the eastern Sierra Nevada.
THE DESERT IS ALSO EASY TO ACCESS. Most of the desert southwest is freely available to the traveler via Bureau of Land Management (BLM) access. Old ranching and mining roads crisscross many areas, making exploration simple and attractive.
There are also times and places where there is truly something there in the desert. For example, far to the east in Nevada, among the dry sage and rabbit brush, is a miles-long riparian environment, complete with kelly green cottonwood trees and gurgling streams, that follows the drainage from the top of Great Basin National Park. Down in the Anza Borrego Desert, spring ocotillo cactus blooms color the landscape like an artist’s palette. And always, somewhere on the flank of a mountain ridge line, there’s a splash of green clinging jealously to a spring seepage. History buffs and casual explorers will also enjoy the many human artifacts left over from mining days gone by.
There are certainly times of year when desert travel is not so appealing. Summer months at lower elevations can be devastatingly hot, with temps over 100 F common for weeks or months on end.
For a dyed-in-the-wool desert rat, it’s hard to convey the beauty and serenity of such a land which, initially, seems so abrasive and unattractive. Perhaps I’ve done a decent job in these few paragraphs, and you find yourself tempted to try out a desert foray sometime.