Saturday, August 4, 2012

High Desert - A Word Picture

This is a shadowless land. There is an austere beauty here that demands respect, although to one accustomed to the lush greenery of a wet climate admiration comes slowly, tempered by the knowledge that there is no forgiveness.

The sky stretches taut from horizon to horizon, shading from a white that follows the sun to blue so deep it seems like space itself. Clouds are architectural wonders, stacked in brilliant towers that make unfulfilled promises of rain. The land shimmers in low waves of gold, touched by browns and greens subtly blended so that crests and hollows are defined by color, rising to pale yellow and darkened to dusty greens wherever water settles in minuscule amounts. Mountains slump on the western horizon, so confident in their grandeur that they have no need to stand tall. Buttes occasionally jut up lonesome in the plain as if they were misplaced when the mountains rose.

This landscape is defined by the absence of water. Travellers in times past mapped out tiny springs and moved between them like children on hopscotch boards. Missing one could mean death, scattered bones beside a trail the only marker. Some learned the thorny secret to pulling water from desert plants, but even the prickly pear is stingy; sage and grass give up nothing. The harshness of the plants is belied by the musicality of their names: ocotillo, agave, juniper, sage, broom, brush, yucca.

Waterways are hidden in gullies, arroyos, ravines, and gulches -- words that, like the clouds, evoke dreams of torrential rain. Rare creeks are scribed in dark green twists across the bright land: the brushy tops of trees that rise tentatively above the plain. There one can descend into the cool shade of hundred-year-old cottonwoods, unkempt grandfathers whose spring seeds fly like false snow. The moist air in a cottonwood grotto is perfumed by leaf mulch and the smell of ancient rain drawn up through ten million years of geology.

The asphalt bleaches to the light gray of old bones, running straight for a hundred miles. Telephone poles impose an angular regularity on the scene, the lines between rising and falling with meditative grace. Lordly hawks perch occasionally on the wires or swing in high circles on invisible thermal columns. Barbed wire fences -- no sharper than the cactus they separate -- line both sides, hemming in cattle in shades of brown, grazing industriously. Occasionally they are joined by startling black brethren that look like standing shadows. The same expanses sometimes conceal pronghorn, camouflaged with unpredictable bands of brown and white. They stand aloof from the domesticated beasts, masters of the land and dismissive of fences and human boundaries.

Occasionally thunderstorms sweep across the plain with cinematic drama. Clouds pile upon each other in a symphony of grays -- blue, green, pink, dove -- their shadows racing across the land faster than the swiftest of horses. Sheets of rain drop earthward, blown much like laundry on the line, concealing and revealing the land below. Lightning, jagged in every direction, highlights the landscape and brightens inside the clouds so that their glow is reminiscent of atomic blasts. The plains open up to the redemption of rain, and the water-carved channels fill quickly with roiling mud, racing as far as possible even as the liquid begins to sink into the sand below.

Within minutes the rain passes and again this antique land shines without shadow below the indifferent sun.


  1. Love this, I could see it all. You write so well.

  2. WOW Yanz! Beautiful and sweepingly evocative. I can smell the rain. (Funny, I had just "liked" your photo of your drive last week when I noticed your blog post.) This is exquisite writing!

  3. The most poetic of descriptions of that overwhelmingly gorgeous landscape!