by Captain Wayne
Notes Of An Amateur Naturalist And Devoted Desert Rat
Eastern Oregon's desert is a friendly desert. It is not so stark and featureless as to be monotonous to the eye and soul. Nor is it so wretchedly blazing hot as the Mojave. Neither is it so powdery dry that it does not support an occasional tree here and there. In fact, Lake County's rimrocks and higher hills are generally mantled with the quaint, resiny little Western Juniper tree. The Junipers with their multitudes of small blue berries seem to occupy an ecological niche in the Great Basin similar to that of the Mojave's Joshua trees or the Sonoran desert's giant Saguaro cactus and exotic Palo Verde trees. A comparison could perhaps even be made to the Agave, dominant large plant of the Chihuahan desert.
Like the Short Horned lizard, the Juniper is a part of eastern Oregon's unique character, as are the rimrocks, Rabbitbrush, Sage and a multitude of other things that come together to create that uniqueness.
That first Short Horned lizard did not indulge in the peculiar behavior of spurting blood from the eyes. Actually, no Horned lizard of any specie that I have ever handled has ever performed this much spoken of act. I halfway suspect that the behavior results only from severe mishandling or even injury.
The lizard was surprisingly soft and warm in my hand. When placed upon the warm sandy ground it clumsily scampered away, it's two and a half inches of tan and gray pancake shaped body wriggling into the shade of a sagebrush clump where it cocked it's head to regard me with a glittering little black eye. It, like the Juniper and the Townsend's Ground squirrels swiftly creeping across the sand to their burrows, are a part of a much larger web of life encompassing their desert world.
Fort Rock itself, along with another sizeable rock outcropping in the nearby Lost forest, is also home to the Sideblotched lizard, a colorful little jewel of an animal. These small and swift lizards are perhaps the most northerly ranging of the finely beaded scaled lizards so typical of the southern deserts. Finding these brightly colored reptiles in Oregon brought back vivid memories of my childhood explorations of the Mojave Joshua Tree forests where they were so abundant. It seems that all of the major deserts share at least a few common species of plants and animals.
Eastern Oregon Sagebrush country was the first desert that I ever became acquainted with, and for this reason, it still holds a special charm for me with it's volcanic landscapes and multi-colored rim rocks. Not to mention the enchanting Ponderosa Pine transition woodlands of it's mountain borders.
This is a land of gently blending contrasts as well as sharp differentiation. It causes one to gaze out at the silver\green Sage plains and black cinder cones with a feeling of timeless peace, a serenity that soothes the heart and mind.
Whether I walk the borders of arid alkali flats, or amidst fragrant Junipers, I always get the feeling that time is standing still in this corner of the world.
Night falls in this open and quiet land with a profusion of starlight. As I look at them from the warmth of my sleeping bag, those scintillant stars nearly always call forth visions of one or another of the girls that I have loved during my life, or perhaps, one that I had only wished to love. These visions vary from intensely erotic to the unbearably sad. I have often wondered why it is that the most beautiful of places have this eerie way of awakening the saddest parts of a man's heart.
A lack of suspended moisture in the atmosphere I am told, is what makes the desert stars so sparklingly lovely. I tend to disregard that lackluster explanation in favor of embracing the romance and mystery, savoring my visions of cowboys and lovely Mexican maidens riding through the moonlight as distant thunder booms.
That is a recurring theme in my desert imaginings. Perhaps someday when I die, I will awaken on the back of a magnifiscent black steed in the frosty moonlight of an unknown supernatural desert. On the saddle behind me, her thin arms locked around my waist, a raven haired girl with fiery red lips and liquid black eyes. Together we will ride off to explore stark ghostly mountains under strange stars.
Yeah, I wax overly romantic, but I think it is the nature of those of us who love these wild and free lands. I am one of those who find beauty, romance, mystery and love, to be inseparable.
Moving south from eastern Oregon, the nature of the world changes. More and more the farther you go, you seem to catch the whimsical scent of old Mexico. It finally seems to reach it's peak with the great Saguaros in the hot Arizona night. That is the sultry land of the Whiptail lizard and the Tarantula, the Diamondback and the Gila Monster. A land much brighter of mood than the melancholy Oregon Desert that seems so lost in time.
The all pervasive stillness is still there. It is present in all of the arid lands. When you fall in love with the desert, you marry a silent partner who speaks without words, in sounds of subtlety. The messages come in whispers that tantalize the soul.
The whispers of the Oregon Outback are sadder, more plaintive than the night calls of Sonora, although those too have a special brand of melancholy that is only halfway masked by the outward gaiety. I would have to say, if eastern Oregon is my wife, then the Sonoran desert is my mistress. The other deserts? My Concubines. Wistful lovers who beckon in restless dreams.
The enchantment grows as the moody beauty intensifies.
By the time we reached the pull off at the Dumont Dunes, I could see the sere ranges bordering the deep graben of Death Valley.
The dunes themselves are worthy of days of exploration and contemplation. The coarse grayish sand is firm underfoot, allowing for ease of hiking, lovely in the soft glow of evening. These sediments were blown out of the dry bed of the ancient Amargosa river.
My thoughts were interrupted by a change in the colorse around me. The purple eastern peaks were now highlighted with trimmings of flaming red and gold. I turned westward to see the burning glory of the most incredible sunset I have ever seen in deep but brilliant shades of red and violet.
Once again I was mystified by that queer sensation. The quickening of heart and breath. The moistening of eyes. That profound sad hollowness within the chest. No words would come, no lucid thoughts. Just the awareness of a beauty too heartbreakingly great to fully comprehend. This was a time for mute silence. A time to thank whatever mysterious and inscrutable power that ultimately rules the universe for the privelage of being alive.
The spectacle took it's luxurious time to unfold and end, but end it did, and darkness fell over this vast natural cathedral. Stars winked into sight by the hundreds. We took to the road again.
Sometime after dark we came to Death Valley Junction. Aaron wanted to go on into the valley, but since the temperature was still in the 90's up in these mountains, I prudently declined. Explorations of Death Valley could wait for another trip, during a more temperate season. Trying to sleep at Picacho Peak Park Arizona a day earlier had been next to impossible because of the lingering night time heat. Death Valley, being the continuously hottest place on Earth, was out of the question.
Soon we entered the Nevada Mojave through an area known as the Amargosa desert. Unfortuneatly the night had gotten very dark and I could see very little of the landscape along the road side. Just widely spaced small towns and the occasional revolving red lights of Cathouses. Aaron grew sleepy and dozed off in the passenger seat while I drove.
Our side excursion into California that day, had been fueled in part, by a desire to see Joshua Trees. We did not go far enough, nor in the right direction, turning Northeast from Barstow. Now suddenly, many miles from where I had first seen them as a child at Edwards, we were driving through the thickest forest of Joshua Trees I had ever seen. They rivaled the dense stands near Lancaster California. On both sides of the road twisted branches of the giant Yuccas protruded from dusty darkness. I woke my sleeping boy and pointed them out to him.
It was a final salute from the Mojave, a sort of goodbye wave. For soon the Joshua Trees and Creosote bushes faded away to be replaced with Humboldt Desert Shadscale and Greasewood.
It is an oppressive 100 degrees farenheit as we pull of to the little park ranger's office. Above us looms Picacho Peak and we are at the Arizona state park of the same name. The heat is not comfortable, but bearable. Not like the east Mojave blast furnace that my son and I will drive through the next day.
Inside the small building a pretty woman waits upon us, accepting our money for an overnight stay in the park. I notice a wall plaque. There are the dead remains of arthropods on it with their names labeled below. These are creatures that live here. Things such as an eight inch venomous centipede as thick as your thumb, or a Wolf Spider that is almost as large as the Tarantula pinned next to it. The dessicated body of a huge Pepsis wasp. Scorpions. I am very glad that my tent can be closed up so that not even a flea can gain access.
There are no enormous eye aching distances in this part of southeast Arizona, but lots of up and down instead. Bony hills and small mountains with platoons and regiments of Saguaro cacti marching up and down the crumbly bajadas. Indeed, the big cacti seem to sprout wherever there is a patch of dirt to sprout from. Their green arms grope for the sky, or sometimes twist downwards towards the brown and stony Earth.
This is the first time I have ever seen the giant cactus forest and I like it. It is a cozy kind of desert that does not make you feel insignificant like those huge open flats of the Great Basin and Northern Arizona. Here everything seems comfortingly close, as if placed on display.
Although I have never been here before, I recognize many ot the things around me from the great numbers of books, articles and essays I have read about the Sonoran Desert. I am one of the modern breed of Desert Rats. A Desert Rat who studies the lands that he loves.
From the moment we entered Cactus country, somewhere around nine or ten a.m near Tonto Basin, I was entranced. The Sonoran Desert embodies that feeling that I like about deserts, that sensation of being on another world. This indeed is a world apart. There is nothing else on Earth just like it. Like the other deserts, the Sonoran too bears it's indelible stamp of individuality. It too, is fragile, a popular destination for cactus rustlers who would strip the land of it's spirit by carting off all of it's cacti, up to and including the majestic Saguaro. Vacationers often dig up cacti and transplant them in their far away yards where the climate may be completely different. The cacti seldom thrive in lusher, wetter climes. Nor do they survive cold weather well. At best, they barely hang on for a few years, looking sickly and generally wretched.
There are many strange and wonderous plants here. Aside from the stately and yet somewhat comical Saguaros, there are other cacti such as the Engelmann Prickly Pear, almost as numerous as their giant cousins. Their big spiny pads are adorned with the tasty red fruits that give them their names.
Wickedly spined Jumping Cholla lurk in every nook and cranny, waiting to deliver a painful surprise to the unwary who stumble up against them. These twisted and spindly relatives of the Prickly Pear are so covered with one and a half inch long spines, that from a few feet away they appear to be covered with thick golden fur. The illusion is quickly ruined for anyone who is unwise enough to touch one.
The Cholla is without doubt, the most unforgiving plant in the American Deserts. Each of it's multitudes of vicious spines are covered with a great many tiny backward pointing barbs. The implications of this are made painfully clear if you get a hand or foot full of them.
One of my best friends reports from a trip where he passed through New Mexico one summer. He and his traveling partner got out to look at the big Cholla bushes scattering the landscape and his companion immediately impaled his hand upon one of the bristly cactus joints. The hapless man tried to remove the cactus branch by shaking his hand. The effect disasterous. The section of spiny cactus merely caterpillared up his arm, impaling him ever more severely. They finally removed it by prying it off with sticks.
Walking down a dry wash later in early evening, I quickly manage to step on a fallen Cholla joint. As if some guardian spirit were looking out for me, I manage to stop my foot's downward pressure just as the tips of the barbs are barely tickling my soles. The spines had passed completely through my tough sneaker soles with virtually no resistance. The proverbial hot knife through butter. I pry off the attacking vegetable with a stick, counting my lucky stars.
My son proved to be not so fortunate. The next day he is destined to unobservantly jam his forearms deep into a Pencil Cholla in an effort to capture a seemingly clever lizard who had sought refuge there. Aaron's eye-bulging shriek echoes across the plains near Gila Bend. Had I been wearing a toupee, it would have leaped off of my skull at the sound of that blood curdling scream. It takes Aaron several minutes to extricate his spine furred arms. Then begins the horror of barb removal. He will never look at the Chollas in quite the same way.