I grew up in Western New York, surrounded by maple trees and corn fields and snow – nice enough. In 2002, when I was twenty years old, I headed out West on a geology program. I got to see mountains and forests and the ocean – nice enough. But when I first saw a desert – not the desolate, barren wasteland setting you see in films, nor the sinuous oasis-dappled dunes that you see in photos of the Sahara, but flat scrubbly rocky nothingness baking under a hot brown sun – I finally felt small, human, alive.
I believe in deserts, in those harsh, honest expanses that have the power to inspire both fear and fascination.
I believe in an immeasurably distant horizon, in violent thunderstorms, in coyote skulls bleached a blinding white.
I believe in a tenuous balance between alive and not, which is easy to forget about while sipping a glass of water at a restaurant or while driving in an air-conditioned car. And hard to ignore in a desert. Deserts assail the senses – with blinding sunlight, freezing nights, howling winds, living up to their reputation for desolation. But deserts can also feature sunsets that stretch through the entire color spectrum and rains that release a delicious pungency from sage. People just have to be willing to look and breathe deeply.
Those who do will be richly rewarded, perhaps provided with a new perspective on their relationship with their environment. After discovering this for myself, I’ve worked for a few seasons at Petrified Forest National Park trying to get visitors to slow down, to help them break through misconceptions and appreciate subtler dimensions of the Painted Desert. Some people are enraptured by the scenery; some intrigued by the geology; some amazed by the ability of plants, animals, and humans to survive in such an unforgiving place. When these people hop back on Interstate-40 and continue along their way, I can’t help but believe that they’ve learned about more than photography or history or ecosystems, because I believe in juniper gnarling out of solid sandstone under a turquoise sky;
I believe in the tenacity and creativity and beauty of life;
and, most of all, I believe in the power of deserts to make us feel naked in and amazed by this world.
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