Thoughts on the Desert Southwest

Driving the one hundred miles of uninterrupted Mojave Desert from 29 Palms to Parker I spun up a few thoughts about the southwest.

I’m a cheesehead who graduated to Minnesota, so I have no ‘born-with’ knowledge or notions about the desert. I first traveled the southwest a couple of decades ago, and at the time was not impressed. After a couple of weeks of brown mountains, brown rocks, brown dirt, and dried up shrubs, I was ready to get back to someplace green. As I’ve written before, after a few trips, an appreciation for the shades of brown has developed, and I now enjoy touring the area.

My first thought is on the difference between the various desert ecosystems: Great Basin, Colorado/Sonoran, Mojave, Chihuahuan etc. On the surface they’re all just rocks, sand, cacti and scrub. Once you start paying closer attention to the environment (and read the signage along the park trails), you can begin to appreciate the variety of plants, animals, soils and geology; much like one can appreciate the subtle differences between northern and southern hardwood forests, or the dramatic difference between northern hardwood and northern boreal forests. For example, joshua trees only grow in the Mojave above a certain altitude, saguaro only in the Sonoran Desert, etc.

Second thought – every time I’ve been out here, I’ve noticed the air pollution. Seems like out here, smog and haze migrating east from coastal California (and China) are a fact or life. Grand vistas are hazed over. Visibility is poorer than decades ago. West coast urban and industrial areas have exported and externalized their pollution eastward, to the detriment of the downwind residents. California has the strictest controls on pollution and has led the world in the issue for decades, yet the southwest desert is still hazed with smog – the closer to Los Angeles the worse the smog.

Coachella Valley Smog

We’ve seen haze/smog information signage in Big Bend National Park, Dinosaur National Monument, and now Joshua Tree, all showing the degradation in visibility over time caused by pollution from points west.

When California implements stricter air pollution rules, some factions in the US go bananas and attack California as being communist/socialist/authoritarian or whatever. Those factions apparently either don’t mind a hazy view and childhood asthma or haven’t yet made the association between pollution, haze and health.

Haze, Mojave Desert

Third thought – The desert is littered with trash. Outside of the National Parks and other intentionally maintained areas, there are plastic bottles, grocery bags and miscellaneous litter nearly always within sight. Perhaps there is no more litter here than north and east of here, but where there is tall grass and woods the litter tends to disappear from view. Where it’s open and windy, the stuff spreads. Where there is no cover, it’s far more visible. Where it’s dry, it doesn’t rot or rust away.

Some of the dispersed camping areas are trashed – bad enough that the BLM has had to close them. The ‘leave no trace’ ethos is not strong among some of us. Cleaning up thousands of acres of desert or manually de-littering a hundred-mile stretch of desert highway would be a herculean task. The glass will be here for millennia, and much of the plastic and metal will be here a long time before it degrades. We’re stuck with it, I guess.

Final thought – Ramshackle homesteads. Every place I’ve been has run-down, junk-strewn properties. But for some reason it seems worse out in the desert. Maybe there is no more than other places, but the openness makes it easier to see and more distracting, or maybe there is less incentive to maintain one’s property. Dunno. It’s interesting though, that in places one can drive for dozens of miles and not see a single well-maintained homestead.

I suspect that a ‘feature’ of living in remote areas is the lack of rules that normally come with living in populated areas. I get the idea of living where ‘nobody gonna tell me what I can’t do’ attitude, but in that case, nobody is telling your trailer-trash neighbor what they can’t do either. Cities have poor, run-down areas also – but in that case, the city generally has the ability to force a minimal standard on the maintenance of the property. Not so much here.

On a lighter note – we caught a few desert blooms – first at an Arizona rest area, and later in the desert near the Colorado River.

I was suspicious that the flowers near the rest area were cultivated for fooling tourists, but we saw the same blooms later in the wild, so maybe they were real.

We took advantage of a gap in the cold weather and zipped across AZ, NM, and Oklahoma on I-40, then up through Missouri & home. Just in time for another cold snap.






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