“Polish comes from the cities; wisdom from the desert.” —Frank Herbert
I live in the desert southwest, a transition zone between the stark aridity of the Mojave and the peak and valley topography of the Great Basin. For five months of the year we bake in waves of heat, so warm and dry it’s often like living at the bottom of an oven. Even for the most avid desert lover like me, by the time September rolls around the heat has sapped so much from me I wait, literally counting the days, until the heat breaks and the cool weather sweeps in like aloe on a burn.
Yes, it’s that magical season, when the serpents and lizards sleep, the sun becomes a friend rather than a foe, and the desert’s deepest reaches open up in the shorter days and frigid nights: Winter.
In the summers I seek the higher ground, the only relief from the throbbing heat—the rugged peaks of the basin. Up there above 10,000’ feet among bristlecones, cool winds, and scudding clouds, the break from the heat is palpable. But I love the serenity of the deep desert, the graininess of red sandstone to the touch, cliff trees sprouting from crevices at impossible angles, the cry of ravens as they float on thermals—watching, always watching. So many birds pass through in spring and fall on their migrations, but the raven is the only one who stays throughout, wise, intelligent bird that it is—a survivor, whether summer drought or winter storm.
Here where we only get four inches of rain a year, snow is a special treat. The look of new snow on red rock is a study in brilliant contrasts: the moisture draws color from the rock, deepening its redness, while simultaneously brightening the snow’s glare. Moving through a desert canyon after snow calms the soul, truly. In the still, cool air, sounds travel like gunshots.
I’ve had many memorable moments hiking through the desert in these cooler months. I’ve woken on open ground with my sleeping bag crackling with snow crystals. Years ago on a cold January day, running a canyon just for the pure joy of having it and its silence to myself alone, I turned a corner and skidded to a halt. Not twenty feet away a bighorn sheep stared at me in shock. I don’t know who was more surprised. After a second’s glance, he turned and leapt, climbing about three hundred feet of sheer cliff in no time at all. Another time, navigating a tough canyon, I emerged only to confront a massive storm moving toward me from the closest range, and ran three miles through harsh wind and blinding snow. Scrambling out of a slickrock canyon on a frigid December day, I topped out on a red Stonehenge, in whose center sat a frozen pond. I spent a few minutes sliding around it in my hiking boots, laughing, a curious raven watching from a nearby tree. One of the strangest and funniest moments came on a 16-mile hike across the central Mojave a day after a big snow. Crossing a large open space denuded by cattle grazing, I saw something ahead of me in the center of the trail. As I got closer I realized it was a little snowman someone built and left there for who knows what reason. It had a tennis-ball sized body with sagebrush arms, rocks for eyes, nose, and mouth, and a little beret made from a circle of dried cowpie. I still kick myself for not having a camera that day.
The desert is always full of little surprises like that. When it’s 118 degrees, it’s nearly suicidal to explore these canyons, shifting dunes that resonate with each footstep, ancient seabeds, places where geology played its dangerous evolution before humankind was a blink in the universe’s great eye. But in winter the desert opens its arms to those who seek its secrets.
I enjoy it now, knowing the heat is coming back too soon—knowing, too, that at each summer’s end the desert waits, like patient wisdom, cool and immutable, ready to inspire.