My image of “the desert” as a child growing up in Indiana was of a monochromatic, endless sea of sand littered with broken wagon wheels and sun bleached cow skulls. Looking in the distance you would see the air shimmering in the lethal heat and with each dry breath your throat would draw tighter.
But standing here in the southwest corner of Utah where three deserts collide that is not what I see in front of me and my throat feels fine. The desert I’m looking at is not monochromatic; it is a continuum of color like those large boxes of crayons with the sharpener in back. There is plenty of tan but there is also lots of pink, red, orange and green. The highest peaks are grayish-white with some capped in black basalt, a calling card left behind by the volcanoes that once filled the valley with lava. That brings up the other surprise; there are mountains in the desert. Some are flat topped mesas while others are large, pointed solitary peaks but the cutest are a ridge of small, jagged peaks my wife calls, “the baby teeth”.
One thing that is consistent with my childhood image of a desert is the presence of cacti. In southwest Utah most of the cacti you see are Barrel, Hedgehog and Prickly Pear not the large Saguaro that looks like a man standing with his arms raised. But what I didn’t expect are the beautiful buds and flowers that cover these cacti each spring. Their blossoms vary from light pink to purple and their translucent petals have the texture of crepe paper. They look oddly gentle compared to the thick-skinned, thorny plants they spring from.
Of course there are snakes, scorpions, tarantulas and lizards along with the endangered leathery-necked desert tortoise. Until recently I had never seen a scorpion in the wild. I made my first sighting while on a scorpion walk at Snow Canyon State Park. If you want to see scorpions in the wild it’s best to go out after dark as they are nocturnal. The other trick is to bring a black light. It turns out that their exoskeletons glow a florescent yellow under the black light. We found our scorpions hidden under scrubs just a few inches from the trail.
Oh yeah there is sand out here in the desert but it’s not the large drifting dunes I pictured as a kid. In fact most of the sand isn’t even tan, it’s more pinkish-red and rests in thin layers upon the firm sandstone that predominates in this region. No, this is not the bland western desert I envisioned as a child. This desert is full of color, life and beauty in the spring and surrounded by snow-capped peaks in the winter. But it is dry and can get very hot in July and August so bring plenty of water to avoid ending up like one of those cows.