how to drown in the desert

“If you have any doubt about it, first know that the desert begins with the creosote.”

Land of Little Rain, Mary Austin


The desert scrubland–covered by small cacti, and dry looking branches–extended for miles in all directions. On one side, bright red rock formations rose straight up from the ground; on the other, different bands of sediment, crushed together for millions of years formed impressive hills. Overhead, the bright blue sun was deceptively warm. Step into a shadow, and all the warmth would dissipate.

I’d expected the desert landscape to be beautiful, but bleak. It was both, but it was also in the desert where I found the first glimmer of hope.

It was impossible to see the details flying into McCarren Airport, but from above, the stark Nevada mountains gave me an idea of it: no matter how much the never-fading lights of the Las Vegas Strip tried to convince visitors otherwise, survival in the Mojave Desert and the Las Vegas Valley was never meant to be easy. Still, the Las Vegas Strip touts itself just that–a place of indulgence and overabundance.


make your own luck


We walked along the Strip in wonder, along with the rest of the Christmas crowds, walking in and out of casinos and hotels. Look, here’s the Eiffel Tower: have some wine, take a ride on the High Roller and see the Strip. Here: come try your luck at this gambling floor, fly through the air on Freemont Street in downtown over fellow wanderers with an open drinks that are more gin than tonic. Eat ‘til your heart explodes at the Heart Attack Grill, watch the fountain display at The Bellagio, take a gondola ride through Venice, and there’s no need to worry about where the water and resources come from.

The Strip felt like an elaborate magic trick being performed by Penn and Teller, but on a larger stage. They dazzled and awed me at their show, and as we drove the winding road up to Red Rock Canyon the next day, I half expected them to appear at the Visitor’s Center and explain that they kept the Strip in abundance using only the power of a creosote.

It would make sense, after all–the creosotes were the dead-looking brushes scattered all over the terrain. They popped up as soon as we left the city limits, and it was a little disheartening to see them. I assumed they’d lived their brief lives and then passed, leaving their corpses in the ground. But the excellent informational panels in the Red Rock Canyon Visitor’s Center explained otherwise–the creosotes were not only alive, but old, and essential to desert survival. Small mammals eat the seeds; amphibians and reptiles use it for shelter.

Bit by bit, as I read more and more of the informational panels, I began to realize my mistake: the Mojave Desert was full of abundance, but identifying it was an intricate process. I’ve never been good with the intricacies of life; I’ve been known to stare exactly at the thing I’m looking for and declare I can’t find it. But maybe seeing small details is a process, because by the middle of our hike on one of the trails, I had started to make out the different plants I learned about in the Visitor’s Center. There was a yucca, over there a blackbrush, and finally, my favorite new plant, the creosote.IMG_6337IMG_6332

the Valley of Fire
the Valley of Fire

In the desert,  the temperature drops quickly as the sun sets, a lesson we’d be taught again when exploring The Valley of Fire the following day. My sister and I put on more layers, and hurried from the petroglyph site to the car. As another panel had noted in the Visitor’s Center display, to survive in the desert required being “master scientists,” as the indigenous people (in the Mojave, first the Kawaiisu Indians and then mostly Southern Paiutes) were. They successfully tracked seasonal water sources, knew where to find edible plants and easy to capture animals.

I’ve been a child of easy abundance for too long, and some habits are hard to break. We hunter-gathered tamales and Marie Calendar pie from restaurants downtown, and as I paddled around in the heated pool at our AirBnB, I thought about the Las Vegas Strip and the surrounding desert. Different people would find beauty and abundance in one or the other, or maybe both, but when it came to the long-term end, I had a feeling it would be the creosote who survived.
LAS VEGAS//stay: AirBnB// see: Penn and Teller, Cirque du Soleleil (any) //eat: Dona Maria’s Tamales+ Marie Calendar//visit: Downtown Container Park//get exploring: Red Rock Canyon+Valley of Fire+Hoover Dam

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