Wednesday, May 03, 2006
In the Desert
I returned from CA at dawn yesterday from my first prolonged encounter with the desert. A friend just wrote me saying that the desert always made him feel small. I can understand that. The scale of the thing is just enormous. And one of the feelings I always seem to get from wilderness trips is a sense of perspective. Backpacking reduces life to its essentials: food and shelter. Sadly, it's usually missing a third essential: sex. (Insert Brokeback Mountain joke here.) We do cheat on the essentials by using all sorts of fancy gear, but we don't get much practice at this type of stuff. And while food becomes one of the main focuses of the day, we certainly don't catch it ourselves. That involves skill way beyond what I posses, and I can't imagine the lengths one would have to go to in the desert (catching a jackrabbit would be a good, if very difficult, start).
But I digress. I can see how the desert could make one feel small, but what struck me most about it was its stillness. We were there during wildflower season: at what seemed to be the peak of plantlife in the area. Still, while the calls of birds were common, missing was the rustling of trees. Nothing had leaves. All was spiny, thin, lacking in much surface area. There was wind, but the overall effect was one of almost overwhelming quiet. Every sound seemed to stand out in isolation. And the sun and heat being what it is, moving quickly is often not a good idea. For much of the day, there is no shade, and the animals seek shelter from the sun. Even the lizards and snakes, who sun themselves for energy, retreat under rocks during the hottest part of the day.
I learned the wisdom of this on our second day, a day in which we gained somewhere approaching 1,000 ft. in elevation. We started the morning with an unencumbered hike further down the trail, then returned to wait out the worst of the day in our tents. 2:00 seemed like a fair time to head out. But the two hours or so it took to make the climb under the unrelenting sun sapped me like nothing I've quite experienced before. When we reached the plateau and had finished climbing, I felt as if I had lost a good deal of my lung capacity. I couldn't breathe too deeply without coughing, and I felt flushed and dehydrated. I drank water greedily. It was another few hours, after the sun's power had begun to wane, and after I had sat in the shade of a massive granite boulder group and slugged down nearly two liters of water, that I began to feel better. Still, I felt somewhat asthmatic until the next day.
Which is to say that I think my discovery on this trip (one which some might call self evident) is that the desert does not reward frantic effort. It is a place of waiting. Slowness, stillness. And whether the heat, the constant sunlight or all the sand in the air and in my lungs were responsible for my condition, had I followed the example of the animals that live in the desert, I might have been slightly more comfortable.
I make it sound like I had some kind of gruelling time. I actually loved it. I enjoyed the conversation, the scenery was the best I've seen since I camped in the Sierras, and sleeping under the stars without a tent or hordes of insects to bother me was incredible. The night sky is not something I get to appreciate often here in NYC.
We did well, all in all. We carried in 10-12 liters of water each and used almost all of it. I don't think a trip much longer than 2 days/2 nights would be feasible. After all, I don;t relish the idea of carrying more than 12 liters of water. And we did not see a single drip of water while we were out there. It is, after all, a desert.
newts (or something like them)
larger lizards of unspecified species
a few other birds I can't name
a snake (smallish. can't remember the name)
Flies large and small
Red ants (whether fire ants or not, I don't know. What I do know is that I was not happy to pick up my pack to discover I had set it down on a red ant hill and that it was now crawling with ants)
A tick (happily not in my vicinity)
Coyotes (though their tracks were evident in several places)
High Temperature: around 85
Low: around 50