It’s Not Just Sand

I have to explain to passengers that the desert is more than sand dunes.

I had some passengers on a helicopter flight a few weeks back who were just visiting the Phoenix area from somewhere back east. At sometime during the flight, they told me they were hoping to see the real desert.

My DesertI was confused. Wickenburg sits in the Sonoran desert. That’s the desert with the big saguaro cacti all over the place. It rains, on average, less than 8 inches a year. The desert can’t get any more real than that.

My passenger clarified. “Well, where’s the sand?”

The sand, unfortunately, is all over the place. In washes, in my front yard, in my shoes and cars, and in my hair and eyes during a dust storm. Sand (and dust) is a part of life here.

But not the kind of sand my passenger was thinking about. He was thinking of sand dunes. You know. Like the kind in movies that take place in the Sahara desert.

I began to understand. His mental picture of the desert included the rolling sand dunes from the movies. The same sand dunes that had hazards like quicksand and oasises with palm trees and ponds of water.

I explained that there were sand dunes in the southwest desert, but they were only part of the desert landscape — not the whole thing. I told him about the big sand dunes west of Yuma on I-8, and the small sand dunes west of Blythe off of I-10 (I’m not even sure if you can see those from the road, but I see them from the helicopter when I fly that way), and the medium sized sand dunes in Death Valley.

Then I put on my tour conductor voice and gave him a summary description of the Sonoran desert landscape, including information about its cacti, trees, animal life, and other features.

Of course, all this has me wondering how many people think the desert is just a big sand dune.

Monument ValleyOne of the things I love about the desert is its diversity. There are so many kinds of desert, each with their own little ecosystem. Drive 50 or 100 miles in any direction and you’re likely to be in a whole different kind of desert. For example, if you drive up route 93 from Wickenburg, you’ll enter another kind of desert where there are no saguaro cacti, but plenty of Joshua trees. Drive up to Monument Valley and you’ll see the layers of underlying rock exposed in magnificent formations, with scrubby trees and bushes hanging on for life in the fine red sand.

Just don’t go down to Phoenix. There isn’t much of the desert left down there, with all the asphalt, golf courses, non-native plants (like palm trees, for heaven’s sake!), and irrigation.

What do you think?