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  • Writer's pictureBryan Donoghue

Ode To The Desert

A Northeasterner’s Journey to Experiencing and Embracing the American Southwest

The desert sun beats down through wispy clouds on the cracked scrubby plains of the Chihuahuan Desert in Lobo, Texas

Chihuahuan Desert: Lobo, TX - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue


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We’re a long way from craggy New England shorelines, illuminated by rustic lighthouses guiding Atlantic mariners to safe ports for centuries. We’re a long way from the snowy peaks of New Hampshire, home to some of the highest wind speeds and most unpredictable weather on the planet. We’re a long way from the lush wilds of Maine, thousands of acres of forest interrupted only by the occasional lake and maybe a cabin or two.

We’re a long way from the idyllic suburbs of Connecticut, where “a good place to raise a family” gives way to children lashing out with petty crime to alleviate the never-ending march of sameness and crushing boredom. We’re a long way from the dark, gritty rock clubs of Boston, the gang vocals of the crowd screaming along in unity with arms around shoulders and fists raised in the air. We’re a long way from post-last-call at a seedy bar in Brooklyn, regret rushing in as the door opens to the stark gray flood of predawn, illuminating the streets and shedding light on the poor decisions made the night before.

Hell, we’re a long way from everything. We’re in the middle of the %$@#$ desert. So vast, so foreign, so alien. The polar ecological opposite of anything I ever experienced while growing up in the Northeast. And I am utterly enraptured by the newness and novelty of it all.

The sun sets over the Superstition Mountains Northeast of Phoenix, Arizona, yet still firmly encased in the Sonoran Desert. The sun is blasting yellows and oranges across the entire horizon

Sonoran Desert: Tortilla Flat, AZ - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue

No one told me about the haze that settles across the broad reaches of the desert, clearly visible yet somehow still not obstructing the view of the horizon, hundreds of miles away.

Not enough people told me how goddamn cold it gets at night. Of course I had heard the stories, but I’m from the frigid, blizzard-ravaged, ice-encrusted hills of New England - how bad could it be? But just like a dry heat is still really f’ing hot; a dry cold is really f’ing cold - it shouldn’t be as bad as back East but it absolutely chills you straight to the bone.

Everyone told me about the sunsets, but I didn’t truly believe them until I first arrived in Arizona, to witness furious fire and brimstone splashing across the evening sky, cotton candy cumulus painted across the horizon; staying illuminated for what seems like hours on end every night.

A brutal Mojave desert sun beats down on two sturdy Joshua Trees in Zzyzx, California

Mojave Desert: Zzyzx, CA - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue

Over the past year alone I’ve been to three of the four Great Deserts of the United States, with only the Great Basin of northern Nevada evading my grasp. Shortly after I first entered the Sonoran Desert I shouted with delight as I saw my first Saguaro cactus - by the time I got to Phoenix I had seen literally millions, and that number increased to inconceivable proportions as I picked my way down towards Tucson. I’ve paid my respects to the squat Joshua Trees of the Mojave, witnessed them parched by the blistering sun in the low reaches and blanketed by snow at the desert’s higher elevations all within the span of a single day. I’ve blasted my way across the Chihuahuan Desert in West Texas - driving across the entire expanse in a single day one way, stopping to camp in the wind-fried scrublands the other.

Each desert could not possibly be more different than the others, yet there is one commonality throughout them all that I can’t seem to get out of my head - none of them look anything like the clear vision of ‘desert’ I had in my head growing up. There have been no endless stretches of sun-washed golden sands rolling into gentle Saharan dunes. I have yet to witness a mirage (at least as far as I’m aware). I have not encountered a single Djinn or Ifrit, not even so much as a Whirling Dervish. There have been no prototypical oases, no palm-ringed crystalline pools (minus the blatantly fake man-made ones scattered around the Palm Springs area). We were promised camels, dammit.

Saguaro cacti stand watch over a brilliant cloud-laced sunset in Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Arizona, deep in the Sonoran desert.

Sonoran Desert: Tucson, AZ - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue

Sure, these preconceived notions were foolishly formed by preadolescent visions of Tattooine, cartoons, mythology, and video games; but with the nearest desert over 2,000 miles away from my hometown such images were all I had to work with. I certainly intend to find my way to the glorious African and Asian deserts of my mind’s eye at some point in my life, but now I realize I still have so much exploring to do in the breathtakingly beautiful deserts of my home country. While this domestic exploration started out as a Covid-forced alternative to prohibited international travel, it now seems to be a wonderful way to wait out the exorbitant airfare prices and nightmarish airport experiences that abound as the world begins to wander again.

So back into the Mojave I go this weekend, armed with the floppiest of wide-brimmed hats, the darkest of sunglasses, twin holsters housing twin water bottles dangling from my hips, and bandoliers of sunscreen bottles draped across my chest. There is so much more of these deserts to see, to explore, to experience - and I want to bear witness to all of it. I may have to cover up every last inch of my skin to ensure proper sun protection (should be fun in 120+ degree heat) - but it’s worth every bit of discomfort to be able to appreciate this biome, which could not possibly be any more different than the mossy humid forests of my youth.

Grey and black stormclouds are fleeing into the distance over the Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada, leaving drenched red rocks and a solitary newborn flower in their wake

Mojave Desert: Valley of Fire, NV - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue


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