The warm desert wind swept up from the chaparral. Wrapping around my face before continuing its journey into the canyon, the place where I was heading. Another gust comes from the opposite direction, the canyon itself. A see-sawing of wind. A vibratory force. Alternating current. An invisible infinity symbol. The Mobius. Lightly whistling at times. Ever-bearing weight at others.
I was tracking up a wash. A magical place that appears bone dry but it’s surrounded by vegetation. What feeds it? At different elevations, the hidden aquafer emerges. Clear, cool, running water, disappearing beneath the rocks a hundred feet above and a hundred feet below. Feeding Mohave Lupine, Sky Pilot, Scarlet Gilia, the Mexican Silene. Manzanita, with its dark, reddish-brown bark. Bordered by purple Fairy Dusters. A scattered box of crayons, melting into the brown, dusty earth.
As lush and diverse as the growth is here, one might wonder whether this should be called a desert at all. But there are different types of deserts. And this is not a desert like the ones I’ve encountered in the furthest southern points. So harsh that the ability to adapt can be short lived, as will you be if you’re stranded there.
Those deserts are bone dry and barren. Every plant a spiky throwback to the distant past. Where evolution stopped. They tear at your ankles as you walk. Shred your pants. Gouge your skin. Like a pack of hungry wolves, they go for your Achilles tendons. To bring you down. Cripple you for the kill. The earth soaks up your blood with a never-ending thirst. The dryness, suffocating.
But where I’m at there are multiple biomes. Sky Islands, so called because of the diversity that lives in each mountain range. Volcanic uprisings now differentially worn by wind and rains. Rhyolite columns stand like ancient warriors in the altitudes above the lowlands, guarding the pine forests and their inhabitants.
And at the base of, or threading through the canyons, Sycamore, Willow, and Cottonwood paint ribbons of green along creaks, streams or rivers.
At mid-altitude, there are Pinon, Juniper, and Mesquite trees, as well as Emory and Silverleaf Oaks. And in between these islands can be grasslands. Vast stretches. Tan waves of vegetation below blue skies and billowing clouds. The land undulates, alive.
In other outstretching plains below the floating islands lie infinite reaches of scoured desert floors. Fictitious trails through Saguaro cacti, like standing in a perpetual hall of mirrors. Where do they all lead?
Here, the sun bearing down causes an evolutionary reversion to the reptilian form. Just basking in that sun raises your heart rate. Exhaling water vapor that’s evaporated before you can see it. Your skin desiccates and takes on the shape of scales. It becomes armor you will need in this battle.
To tread here you must do continual 360-degree spotting, take snapshots in your mind, tracing landmarks for the path of your return. At some point, your memory banks are full and the terrain all starts looking the same, and you must decide whether to turn around or march into oblivion. Blood and brain broiling. Unforgiving beauty.
Rising from that depth, the air cools again. The humidity rises. Plants flourish. Bare rocks become canvases, covered with Petroglyphs from those who knew how to survive here, how to build a community here, how to chart the stars here. The songs of their storytelling still echo through the canyons.
For now, I’ll tread through the scrub land, rising into the pines and I’ll sit with my friends. The deer, the javelina, the coyote, the falcon, the hawks, and my brothers the Owls. And we’ll share the tales of our ancestors, for just a while longer.
Photos: I decided to include a few photos to go with my words. Sometimes words aren’t enough to carry you there, to reveal the contrasts, the infinite beauty.