79 – Two Kinds of Desert

I left Brawley and drove east to Tucson, or nearabouts. The temperatures were in the 90’s and the landscape was dead, or if it wasn’t dead it was dying. Nothing but sand, and the road scoured clean from its blowing incessantly. Some gaunt, skeletal, shrubs, all looking very much stressed by their existence in this demanding environment. About thirty minutes east of Brawley are the Algodones Dunes. The highway splits the dunes into two parts; on the north side is the wilderness which is accessed by a dirt road on its eastern edge, and to the south is the recreation area which allows for dune buggies, dirt bikes, jeeps and anything else capable of taking on the waves of loose sand that are the dunes. Stopping at an overlook off of Hwy. 78, I was fascinated to watch the goings on: all these many and various motorized vehicles zooming and zipping up and over and atop these sand hills, across the landscape for miles around. It’s a form of recreation that doesn’t interest me to pursue myself, but seems quintessentially American, and so fascinates me from the standpoint of the purpose of my trip, which is to discover and photograph things symbolic or representational of America.

I stayed long enough until I felt like I saw all I needed to see and took enough photos to satisfy my curiosity and amazement at the area, before moving along to the wilderness area, which is why I came out all this way in the first place. Interestingly, I think I like the representational aspects of the dirt bikes and dune buggies—tiny specks some of them, like they are themselves mere grains of sand, in this enormous, stark landscape—more.

I was pleasantly surprised despite not hiking all the way to the dunes, which began a couple of miles from the dirt access road. Between these two places was a firmly packed sandy plain spotted with hardy, woody shrubs and bushes (skeletal and gaunt ones too), many of which were leafless and lifeless looking—sticks and twigs bundled together and stuck into the ground by some unseen hand—though many others were not, but were in fact quite sizeable, green even, and lush, which gradually became looser mounds, undulating and dune-like as I moved westward. Feeling the slight pressure of a schedule on my mind I unfortunately did not spend as much time as I would have liked in the dunes (nor walked as far), but I was happy to experience all that I was able in that short time, and to have seen and heard what little wildlife I did in such a vast, dry place. That wildlife included some sort of grasshopper, which was fairly numerous based on their soundings I heard, a Black-tailed jackrabbit, and a Zebra-tailed lizard, several of which I saw scurrying away from me, black and white striped tail erect like a flag. Additionally, I heard some sort of songbird (a sparrow likely) but didn’t see it. I’m going to post up some pictures below of these different places that share the same name and are only separated by a highway, yet are so very obviously different in their appearance and intent of use.

After fixing a flat tire with the help of a couple of nearby Border Patrol agents (my car apparently only came equipped with a jack, no bar for turning said jack, and also no wrench for removing the lugs from the wheel) I continued east where I would end up in Casa Grande in a room large enough to host a yoga class, at a cheap motel owned and recently renovated by Motel 6. In between the dunes and the motel were, strangely enough, a cotton field, corn field, as well as other crops being grown in of all places a desert. Truly baffling that in this extremely arid part of Arizona that there should be any sort of agriculture, but particularly cotton which requires copious amounts of water.

And then there is the Sonoran Desert, beautiful with its forests of Saguaro Cacti (and a sprinkling of a few other low growing shrubs), the only specks of green in this blackened, clay-colored monotony of small mountains and large hills, all jagged like broken teeth, bursting upward like tumors through the skin of the earth, like an inversion of a ragged wound torn into the flesh of an earthly body. Inhospitable. Violent. Primeval. Raw. A landscape of barbarism if there ever was one. I met a skinny, dirty, bearded man with a kind and inward looking countenance at a rest stop, though, where I thought to make a cup of coffee. It was a nice opportunity for a conversation with a fascinating individual, and a time to relax and soak in the landscape, instead of being locked in my car viewing everything through a windshield like watching a television screen, and appreciate it for what it is, which is something absolutely magical. A place where no life should exist, yet has sprung up. A place that no human should see and live to tell of it. Like going to the moon without a suit that preserves some form of atmosphere breathable, hospitable.


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