Arid Valleys = Heaven

“You call this desert? Plants grow.”

My Saudi students had a point. In their desert, that wasn’t the case. On a school field trip, we hiked up to a seasonal waterfall and oasis, a small spring in the cleft of a fault line, the kind of spring that was everywhere in this desert and everywhere in the Laguna Mountains to the west. The Anza Borrego desert east of San Diego the result a “rain shadow” created by that small range of mountains. Because of their altitude, they keep most of the years moisture for themselves. I’ve stood on mountain trails that rim the desert and have had one hand in rain and the other in sunshine. It’s a very clear line.

My student was right, really. The place is arid, but not barren. It was hard for me to call it a desert, too. In spring the bottom — the desert floor — was covered in flowers. Every living thing in that place was an opportunist, though most of the flowers had a predictable season. Not really “spring.” It was more, “after a few weeks of rain.” Some plants — the Ocotillo for one — would bloom if any water hit their roots. Their blossoms are bright red “flames” at the end of green candles.


Flash flooding is common. The thunderstorms that hit the Laguna Mountains in winter often made it over the top. One year a localized rain was so heavy that hundreds of palm trees in this very oasis — Palm Canyon — where I’d hiked with my students years before were washed down to the bottom of the valley, onto the flat. Hiking with a friend after the flood, I was stunned to see them, huge trunks wedged between boulders.

I camped in various spots in that desert many times, usually in a VW camper van my ex and I had for a while. It was fun to look at the stars — we bought a telescope — and hike through the washes and the rocky canyons.

I live in a similar place now, though several thousand feet higher in altitude. The San Luis Valley is in the rain shadow of two mountain ranges. Storms from the west get tangled in the San Juan Mountains and storms from the east get caught in the Sangre de Cristos. This valley is “littered” with springs where the two ranges pull apart. It is also arid but not barren.

Both places have been home to humans for thousands of years. Both have rocky outcroppings where ancient people left “messages.” Both are home to “borregos” — mountain sheep. In both places, a “river runs through it” — narrow feeder streams of the Colorado River thread their way along the eastern edge of the Anza Borrego, while the Rio Grande meanders through the San Luis Valley. To the far east of the Anza Borrego is a dune field where Hollywood directors have often filmed desert scenes. To the far east of the San Luis Valley there is also a dune field — Great Sand Dunes National Park


Great Sand Dunes National Park

I used to escape San Diego whenever I could to go to the desert in the winter. I like the wide vistas, the sunshine, the emptiness. And now? I live in the largest alpine valley in the world.

P.S. I also just realized that I have written a compare/contrast essay, so if you’re an English teacher and want to use it for a class, be my guest. :p

9 thoughts on “Arid Valleys = Heaven

  1. Love the photos. We do not have deserts in Switzerland, not that I want one, but there are such interesting plants and formations – a photographer’s delight.

    • I only took one of these — I have photos of Anza Borrego somewhere, but I don’t think they made it to this laptop when my last one died (RIP). I took the photo of Great Sand Dues. It is really fun to take photos in the desert. The landscape is fascinating and then the light at the beginning and end of day is wonderful. I have found my good camera but, so far, I keep using my phone.

  2. The dessert in Israel was nearly identical to the Sonoran. It even has the same cactus, brought over by Franciscan monks in the 15th century.

    I never saw the Sahara, but we got the sand. Every year, the winds would blow up from the Sahara and cover Jerusalem in grit. It was part of the hot weather summer thing. All you could do was lie on the ground and try not to breathe.

  3. If I were still teaching, I’d take you up on your offer, Martha; this piece is a classic compare/contrast essay. Though I live surrounded by aspen and pine studded mountains, I appreciate the desert as well. I feel like I can see the skeleton of the earth, its bones, when I explore one; and life abounds if I am aware and watching. Also, the light can be glorious.

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