Why I Walk in the Desert
Anza Borrego Desert
by Bill Sullivan
I once had an uncle who referred to automobiles as machines. I always thought that a funny if not old-fashioned expression.
Later, in a high school physics class, a teacher explained that machines were things for doing work. I thought back on my uncle and how he said automobiles were machines.
I continue to think about all of that as I take time to interrupt my city routines of working and doing chores around my home and drive to the desert. One thing I have noticed is that it is difficult if not impossible to fully experience the desert (to say nothing of the forests, the mountains, the rivers and anything else in nature) when driving in an automobile.
After parking my car and starting to walk, I began to realize that the natural world is an orgy of the senses just waiting to happen. The automobile is, as my uncle put it, a machine. It does the useful work of speeding us out to the desert when our schedules limit the time we can spend out there.
But there comes a time when a person should put his machine away and come to the party, or orgy if you want to call it that. Start breathing, touching, listening, and seeing, in other words. I stop short of adding the sense of taste to my list, although I've seen people out there trying to bite and chew on things. I suppose that's a matter of preference.
Walk down the road, or across open country off the road, and listen to the sound of your feet crunching on the desert sand. Stop and listen to the desert silence. Listen to the cheery greetings of birds like the cactus wren or the phainopepla, or to the distress calls of quail.
Walk out there and you start to see flowers too tiny to view unless you are right next to them. And on the flowers, if you look closely, you see insects busily doing what insects do while they have a chance, eating leaves, gathering pollen. You may see a fat centipede, or a colorful tarantula hawk (it's an insect, not a bird).
Another reason for walking out there is to enjoy the smells of desert plants. The smell of sage immediately comes to mind, but absolutely wonderful is the smell of the creosote bush after a rain. If you ever walk in a place where the desert apricot is in bloom and its fragrance able to be enjoyed, you will always remember it. Likewise, the smoke tree.
I also walk out there to touch things like rocks, the soil, and different plants. I like to be touched by the wind, especially when gusts play with my hat and I find it a merry game trying to keep it on my head. One avoids touching the cholla, of course. A walker learns that some soil, like sand, is soft. Some is slippery when wet. Some is hard and dry.
These are some of the reasons why I walk in the desert. I find new reasons every time I go out.
To my walking equipment I have added a small backpack and tent, and lightweight sleeping bag so I can walk away from my car and all other cars and spend the night in solitude, or perhaps with a companion provided it's someone who doesn't talk too much or too loud. When I go out there, I conduct myself as a visitor to someone else's house interested in observing all I can about that house. I don't build campfires, I don't carry a guitar, and I don't sing songs. I go to bed early so I can get up early.
The joys of looking at stars in a clear desert sky at night are well known, but a desert camper also enjoys the sounds of owls busily singing their songs, hoping to coax a mouse or rat out into the open so they can make a meal for themselves and perhaps their families. A camper also hears the barking of coyotes celebrating a kill or staking territory. A camper also knows the joys of basking in the moonlight after the moon rises.
By spending the night out there, you are able to enjoy both of the two most beautiful, and photographical, times of day, late afternoon and early morning. Sunrises and sunsets are like souffles. You never can quite be sure how they will turn out.
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