Why go into the desert?

I’m often asked a question that’s very hard for me to answer. Edward Abbey answers the question better than anyone could:

Why go into the desert? That sun, roaring at you all day long. The fetid tepid vapid little waterholes slowly evaporating — full of cannibal beetles, spotted toads, hair worms, liver flukes — and down at the bottom, invariably, the pale drowned cadaver of a ten-inch centipede. Those pink rattlesnakes down in The Canyon, those diamondback monsters thick as a cat skinner’s wrist that lurk in the shady places along the trail,those unpleasant solpugids and unnecessary Jerusalem crickets that scurry on dirty feet across your face at night. Why? The rain that comes down like lead shot and wrecks the trail before you, those sudden rockfalls of obscure origin that crash like thunder ten feet behind you in the heart of a dead-still afternoon. Why? The ubiquitous vultures, so patient — but only so patient. The ragweed, the tumbleweed, the jimsonweed, the snakeweed. The scorpion in your shoe at dawn. The dreary wind that seldom stops, the manic-depressive mesquite trees waving their arms at you on moonlight nights. Sand in the soup du jour. Halazone tablets in your canteen. The barren hills that always go up, which is bad, or go down, which is worse.

Why go to Starvation Creek, Poverty Knoll, Buzzard Gulch, Wolf Hole, Bitter Springs Last Chance Canyon, Dungeon Canyon, Whipsaw Flat, Dead Horse Point, Scorpion Flat, Dead Man Draw, Stinking Spring, Camino del Diablo, Hell Hole Canyon, Jornado del Muerto,… Death Valley? I think of a homemade sign I once saw at a fork in the rocky road somewhere in the boondocks of western Texas:

Hartung’s Road

Take the Other

A good sign. One would have liked to meet Mr. Hartung. But I didn’t. I respected his need for privacy. I had that need — as who doesn’t these days?

Well then, why indeed go walking into the desert when you could be strolling along the golden beaches of California or camping by a streak of pure Rocky Mountain spring water in colorful Colorado or loafing through a laurel slick in the high blue misty hills of North Carolina?

Some time ago a friend and I took a walk around the base of a mountain up in Coconino County, Arizona. About halfway around this mountain, on the third or fourth day, we paused for a while — two days — by the side of a stream which the Navajos call Nasja, perhaps because of the strange amber color of the water. (Caused by juniper roots — the water seemed safe enough to drink.) On our second day there I walked down the stream, alone, to look at the canyon beyond. I entered the canyon and followed it for half the day, three or four miles maybe, until it became a gorge so deep, narrow and dark, full of water and the inevitable quagmires of quicksand, that I turned around and looked for a way out. A way different from the way I’d come, which was crooked and uncomfortable and buried. I wanted to see what was up on the top of this world. I found a sort of chimney flue on the east wall, which looked feasible, and sweated and cursed my way up through that for an unreasonable distance until I reached a point where one could walk upright, like a human being. Another 300 feet of scrambling brought me to the rim of the canyon. No one, I felt certain, had ever departed Nasja Canyon by that route before.

But someone had. I found near the summit an arrow sign, three feet long, formed of stones pointing off in to the north, toward those same old purple vistas, so grand, immense and mysterious, of more canyons, more mesas and plateaus, more mountains, more cloud-dappled sun-spangled leagues of desert sand and rock, under the same old, same true wide and aching sky.

The arrow pointed “into” the north. But what was it pointing at? I looked at the sign closely and saw that those dark, desert-varnished stones had been in place for a long, long time; they rested in compacted dust. I followed the direction suggested and came promptly, within a hundred yards, to the rim of another canyon and a drop-off straight down of a good 500 feet. Not that way, surely. Across this canyon was nothing of any unusual interest that I could see — only more of the familiar sun blasted sandstone, a few scrubby clumps of blackbrush and prickly pear, a few acres of nothing where only a lizard could graze surrounded by a few square miles of more nothingness of interest chiefly to horned toads. I returned to the arrow and checked again, this time with field glasses, looking away toward the north for 10, 20, 40 miles into the distance. I studied the scene with care, looking for an ancient Indian ruin, a significant cairn, perhaps an abandoned mine, a hidden treasure, the mother of all mother lodes…

But there was nothing out there. Nothing at all. Nothing but the desert. Nothing but the world.

That’s why.


Edward Abbey, Tin Cup Mesa, Utah