• Otter Views: Just Deserts

    by Tom Stevens

    Some of my living relatives live in the desert, so periodically I travel south to see them. Sometimes I go by air; other times I drive. Last month’s was a driving trip, because I had two deserts to visit, and only one has air service.

    That one, Palm Springs, doesn’t really qualify as a desert, though the surrounding badlands suggest it started out as one. But somewhere along the line, visionary empire builders dammed the Colorado River. Most of the water coursed to Las Vegas; but some of it burbled into the Coachella Valley.

    There it irrigates a hundred emerald green golf courses and a thousand gated communities, creating a low-rise Dubai of startling contrasts. On one side of the street, golfers launch tee shots over sparkling water hazards teeming with ducks. On the other side, windblown tumbleweeds stack up along a batten fence.

    Having only visited the Coachella Valley, I’ve never shared the residents’ certainty that theirs is an enduring oasis. I look around and think: if the aquifer dries up, this place will revert to sandstorms and gila monsters in a hurry. Of course, the same could be said about much of the west, but Palm Springs really makes the point.

    This may have to do with its mountains. Stark and severe, they surround the oasis towns and tower over them, rising summit after summit into a hazy purple distance. The valley walls are steep and crumbly, deeply gullied, pitilessly sun-baked. You couldn’t pack enough water to scale them on foot, yet masochistic bicyclists make that climb daily on a serpentine highway.

    The mountains may be a cyclists’ Mecca, but they felt ominous to me. Treeless, craggy and wind-scoured, they make the verdant flats seem transitory, almost accidental. Spring snow capped the two tallest peaks during my Palm Springs visit, but even that was evaporating, leaving just enough moisture to form a mirage.

    To me, the Coachella seems as fragile as a mirage, but the valley’s good burghers are unfazed by a doomsayer from the coast. They zip merrily across the irrigated desert in shiny late-model cars, passing cities strung like trade beads along the valley floor. Water tumbles and sparkles everywhere — in gatehouse waterfalls and shopping mall spillways; in golf course ponds and flower bed fountains. One hotel ferries its guests by gondola through a little Venice of linked lagoons.

    Like Las Vegas, the Coachella Valley is a proud American idea: a sprawling desert oasis that enjoys life to the fullest and recognizes few limits. I was going to say “no limits,” but my latest trip revealed that some residents and businesses have switched over to low-water desert landscaping. Maybe the aquifer is showing some stress.ऀ

    Viewing true desert landscaping requires a trip to Joshua Tree National Park, my second destination. I’d never been there, and it was (sort of) on my way back, so I made a loop into the high desert. This took me through some lonesome-looking places with no water features at all: the Morongo and Yucca Valleys and the towns of Joshua Tree and Twenty Nine Palms.

    The park itself is vast, nearly 800,000 acres at the confluence of the Mojave and Colorado deserts. It’s so big a 37-mile “California Riding and Hiking Trail” only skirts a tenth of the park’s land area. Paved and dirt roads access perhaps another third, offering views of distant mountains, scenic rock formations, spidery ocotillo plants, and the tall, spiky, many-armed yucca plants called Joshua trees. There are a lot of those.

    Spring break and Easter vacation had propelled enough collegians and young families into the park to fill its nine campsites, so I hiked a few miles into the desert and pitched my tent in a shallow draw. I had hoped to lie low and observe critters pictured in the park brochure: coyotes, kit foxes, tortoises, road runners, iguanas, kangaroo rats, even the western diamondback rattler. No, maybe not the rattler.

    In a day and a night, all I saw were lizards and beetles. I’m sure more exotic desert denizens were there, too, but I don’t have the eye for them. That’s when it’s good to have someone along who knows the territory, who can say: “Shhh. Over there. A red-tailed kit fox.” I can see whales spouting miles out at sea, but a western screech owl in the next Joshua tree? Forget it.

    By the time I staggered back to the visitor center parking lot and gratefully thumped my pack down into the truck bed, I had been in one hot, dry, drab desert or another for a week. I was eager to get back to the fog and the coast. But the road map showed hundreds of miles still to go – mostly through desert. And so, giddyup.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on April 5, 2013

    Topics: Otter Views

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