The Great American Desert

The vast deserts of North America have seeped into our consciousness to become universal symbols of arid lands. Somehow we recognise all deserts in the silhouette of a Joshua tree, or in the twenty-metre frame of a saguaro cactus casting its shadow across a waterless expanse. Alongside rattlesnakes, heroes, drifters and the desperate find their homes in these harsh places, reinforcing our fascination for desert extremes.

“There are two deserts,” wrote Randall Henderson, journalist and founding editor of Desert Magazine. “One is a grim desolate wasteland. It is the home of venomous reptiles and stinging insects, of vicious thorn-bearing plants and trees, and of unbearable heat. This is the desert seen by the stranger speeding along the highway, impatient to be ‘out of this damnable country’.”

The other desert—the real Desert—is not for the eyes of the superficial observer, or the fearful soul or the cynic.”

“It is a land, the character of which is hidden except to those who come with friendliness and understanding. To these the Desert offers rare gifts: health-giving sunshine—a sky that is studded with diamonds—a breeze that bears no poison—a landscape of pastel colours such as no artist can duplicate— thorn-covered plants which during countless ages have clung tenaciously to life through heat and drought and wind and the depredations of thirsty animals, and yet each season send forth blossoms of exquisite colouring as a symbol of courage that has triumphed over terrifying obstacles.”

Randall reported from what he called the ‘Great American Desert’, stretching across Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, California and Utah, for more than sixty years. His personal project, Desert Magazine, chronicled what it meant to be a desert dweller and to experience the hidden generosity of the land. The desert that the magazine depicted was more than the aggregate of arid geography, it was an entire state of mind.

“Heaven and the desert have the same number of people,” wrote one fan in a letter to the editor, during the early days of the magazine.

The eroded landscape of Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park, California.

Writers like Randall championed the desert country. Film directors, past and present, have elevated it to an iconic symbol of hope, struggle and destiny. Cinema classics like Paris, Texas, Easy Rider and John Ford’s westerns build upon the mythology surrounding the Great American Desert and expose it as a character in its own right.

“How long have I been gone… Do you know?” Travis Henderson asks his brother Walt, after emerging from the desert in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. “Four years,” Walt replies. “Is four years a long time?” Travis enquires, still under the enigmatic hold of parched sands and mirages flickering in the distance.

The concept of the Great American Desert is of one vast entity, starting somewhere in the far west of Texas and steamrolling towards California.

But there are nuances to the desert and at least four distinguishable arid expanses across the United States. These are the Great Basin Desert (covering parts of Nevada, Utah, Idaho and California), the Mojave Desert (southern Nevada, south-western Utah and eastern California), the Sonoran Desert (south-western Arizona and south-eastern California) and the Chihuahuan Desert (south-eastern New Mexico and west Texas). The four main zones are characterised by their plant communities, geology and rainfall.

The Mojave Desert is known for its Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) and geological features made famous by films. “The Mojave is a big desert and a frightening one,” wrote John Steinbeck. “It’s as though nature tested a man for endurance and constancy to prove whether he was good enough to get to California.” All the extremes of the desert are present here, in the soaring temperatures of Death Valley, in the eroded curves of Zabriskie Point and in the salt flats of Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America.

Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point was shot in Death Valley. Parts of the original Star Wars and Return of the Jedi were filmed there, too. These movies make use of the radical landscape, its apparent lifelessness, but life appears in epic forms all across the Mojave. Despite the harsh conditions, there are 2,000 recorded plant species within the desert, including the cholla cactus, California fan palms (Washingtonia filifera), creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) and the signature Joshua tree.

An Opuntia species flowering in Death Valley.
Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park is the lowest point in North America at 86 metres below sea level.
Death Valley is steeped in the rich folklore of the American desert.
Vast sand dunes of Death Valley.
Monument Valley is iconic of the American West. It is located on the border of Arizona and Utah.
Red earth and expansive skies seen from the plains.
Monument Valley has been the location for many Hollywood movies, from Thelma & Louise to Easy Rider and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Palm Canyon is a 24-kilometre long oasis of native California fan palms (Washingtonia filifera) within the Colorado Desert of southern California.
Andreas Canyon, which neighbours Palm Canyon, is a 15-minute drive from Palm Springs, California.
The typical landscape of the Colorado Desert, part of the greater Sonora Desert. This vista shows Andreas Canyon, near the town of Indian Canyons on the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation.

Cross into Utah and you’ll find Monument Valley, part of the Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin Desert. Here the valley floor is painted red with iron oxide and stone buttes rise skyward, remnants of a forgotten earth. This country is synonymous with John Ford, John Wayne and US Route 163. Moreover, this is Navajo land. Trees are few and far between, but purple sage (Salvia dorrii) grows here, alongside Navajo tea (Thelesperma megapotamicum) and tumbleweeds.

Returning to California, Palm Canyon emerges, oasis-like within the dry Sonoran Desert. Palm Canyon and its twin, Andreas Canyon, are just 15 minutes’ drive from Palm Springs within the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation. Groves of Californian fan palms dominate the landscape and the groundwater supply in the canyons. But inside their skirts of dead leaves, whole ecosystems exist of woodrats, snakes, lizards, insects and owls.

The fan palms are relics of another era, a tropical past. They tell secrets of evolving landscapes and the tenacity of life.

These two things, evolution and tenacity, form the beating heart of all deserts.

A jack rabbit, near the Joshua Tree National Park.