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article number 433
article date 03-26-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Understanding and Enjoying Our Desert Southwest
by Dr. Dan Q. Posin, illustrated by David Burnside

From Dr. Dan Q. Posin’s 1963 book, “Man and the Desert.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Posin explains deserts around the world in this book. We used four chapters which mention the United States Desert Southwest. The first section of this article, “THE DESERTS OF NORTH AMERICA” was a later chapter in the book as Dr. Posin used early chapters to explain desert creation and life. We add three of these early chapters to this article.


The Desert country of North America is confined largely to the southwestern quarter of the United States and the northern part of Mexico. Visitors to Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and lower California know that these areas contain some of the most striking scenery in the entire world.

The soil is harsh and burned; the landscape is covered with pinon, cactus, mesquite, yucca, and sagebrush; everywhere there are huge mesas lifting stratified rim-rocks into a golden sky. Everywhere lies the story of North America, set forth boldly in the Earth by the endless erosion.


This is a breathtaking country, partly because it is so beautiful. It is also literally breathtaking because it is so high above sea level that the thin air makes it difficult to breathe.

Most Americans who travel west eventually reach the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest of Arizona—they are adjoining national monuments, and both are Deserts—not a land of shifting sand, but a place of shifting color.

The story of one North American Desert is roughly the story of them all, since all of them are roughly in about the same region.

There was a time when a vast flourishing forest sloped southward and westward from a towering range of mountains to the shores of the mighty sea. It was a dense jungle, lush with fern trees, giant pines, and huge-leafed undergrowth.


Through its dripping aisles stalked the great hungry lizards, hunting and being hunted. In the upper terraces flew the bats, the amphibious squirrels, and strange birds with both feathers and scales. The muck below was home to a host of amorphous (shapeless) creatures still awaiting their cue to climb forth onto the stage of life.

At one time there was a vast flourishing forest.

It came to pass that pressures under the forest grew too great to contain. At some distant time, long, long ago, the land began to heave and tremble. The sigh of creation became a crescending roar. The outer mountains crashed in an awesome storm of shattered stone.

Out of the dust climbed a whole new mountain range, shrieking upward into a chaotic sky.

The dumb, uncomprehending life of the forest cowered in the primordial mud, but their time and purpose was over—the molten stone that had floated their bit of vegetated crust was being forced from beneath them outward to the belching fissures.

Thus all life of the time perished as the sea roared in over the sinking forest. Presently, the mountains cooled and the waters subsided. The swirling dust settled everywhere—into the sea to form silt and onto the new heights to form soil.

The molten mountains finally cooled.

Now, where the stupendous forest had stood, rolled the murky waters of a new ocean. To the east had risen a soaring spine—the divide of a continent.

The Triassic period had come to an end. It would be 200 million years in the future, before the vast jungle would know again its ancient heritage of sunlight and air.

A forest was petrifying and a Desert was being painted. A place of peace and beauty was being prepared in the greatest of all manufacturing plants.

Only the ancient conifers survived, after a fashion, in the slime of the ages. In the beginning, mineral-filled water seeped through the fallen trunks, cell by cell, until the wood was saturated. Layer after layer of silt settled through the sea, until the fallen forest was buried beneath a half-mile of sea-bottom mud.


In the meantime, all about, the earth was wrinkling its crust to form more of the Rockies, and farther west, the high Sierras. The Arizona sea drained gradually, as, with the mountains, its floor rose skyward. When all of the briny water was gone, the sun beat relentlessly upon the muddy miles and made a Desert.

Far below the surface, inner and outer heat and immense pressures eventually removed all traces of water.

Where the mineral-filled water had been, there remained only minerals. The buried forest became trees of agate, jasper, onyx, amethyst, crystal, and carnelian—the stones and colors of creation itself. For thousands of years the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert remained buried—the land that time forgot.

The Petrified Forest remained buried for millions of years.

But finally the rains came and the winds blew. Nature undid her own handiwork, in a manner of speaking. Little by little the softer crusts wore away in centuries of erosion; little by little the stone trees began emerging again into sunlight and air.

With the stone forest came the Desert, its folded hills and ridged ravines sprinkled with the rainbow dust of a thousand unnamed hues.

Man, too, had emerged from the shadows and taken his place in the magnificent order of nature. He found this land that time forgot, and set it aside as a place to be preserved.

To walk among the fallen giants is to feel a sense of marvel and sense of awe. Man can hurl a satellite around the sun where it may orbit indefinitely, unnoticed and unimportant to the universe that surrounds it. This is a phenomenal achievement. But Man, for all his knowledge, has neither the skill nor the wisdom to make a Petrified Forest or a Painted Desert.

The Indians have legends about the Petrified Forest. The Hopi, being the most imaginative, say that a dawn goddess went hunting in the original forest. By twilight, she had taken only a rabbit.

When she tried to build a fire to cook the small creature, all the wood on the ground about was too wet to burn. In a rage, she cursed the forest into sudden stone and was killed as the fantastic trees fell and shattered around her.

About the year 500 A.D., some American Indians came into the Petrified Forest and built dwellings with the stone tree fragments.

More than 200 ruins of inhabited sites have been found. Most noted of these, from a contemporary viewpoint, is Agate House. Once it may have sheltered a royal household, or it may have been a jeweled temple to some aboriginal god.

Whatever it may have been, it was built of petrified logs great sections of jasper, agate, and onyx tree trunks. It has been partially restored, and can be seen today half a mile from the auto highway that enters the Petrified Forest.

The American Indian never developed a written language. Since they left little record of their passage, the origin of the red man is obscure and the events of their times lost—except as legend. Some of the Indians who lived in the Petrified Forest put carvings on a rock.

Whether these drawings and sketches say something, or are just prehistoric “doodlings” on stone, has never been determined—and perhaps never shall be. In his need to classify everything as something, Man calls this rock “Newspaper Rock” a monument to a secret in a land that time forgot.

The men who established the Petrified Forest as a national monument—to save the stone trees from souvenir hunters and road builders gave descriptive names to general areas, and these words are glimpses of Man’s capacity to dream and wonder.

Forty feet of a giant trunk spans a deep ravine, and this is called Agate Bridge. One area is called the Jasper Forest; another, the Crystal Forest; and still another, the Rainbow Forest. Thus classified is nature’s remarkable product of 100 million years.

A petrified tree.

North of the Petrified Forest lies the Painted Desert. The two places are connected by a highway. For awhile, the road wanders irresolutely around a beautiful mesa top. But suddenly the viewer is confronted with a breathtaking view of extraordinary beauty.

If the sun is overhead, the scene seems a bit flat. The empty reaches seem without end or character — white and virtually shadowless. But the air is clean and touched with the scent of sage. The horizon is so far away the eye strains to see it, and the sky is a golden sort of blue.

Then the sun tilts past its zenith and each magic crystal on the Desert begins to busily refract its own particular color. Out of the white drabness rises a shimmering, incredible rainbow mist.

Shadows develop, and the miles become ripples, ridges, and ravines. Hues without name come and go like a rippling curtain as the Earth inches around in its eternal orbit.

The Painted Desert.

There are colors that flame and melt. Some are livid, some are so subtle they can be sensed rather than seen. Some exist and expire at the same instant—like an indescribable flash of some strange lightning. Rare on this Earth, surely, are places of such radiant beauty.

Sunset on the Painted Desert is a glory, a blazing immolation of another day the end of another instant as time is reckoned in eternity. Shadows from the western horizon sweep forward like a quiet benediction.

There is a moment of serene, pervading twilight—a sensuous instant of blue and purple. The far-flung banners of the sunken sun gild the clouds and make of them great golden cathedrals sailing in a fading sky. Then the shimmering land darkens and fades into a star-touched sea of night.

And nothing at day’s end is as sobering as the silhouette of a winging bird, wheeling against the darkening sky pursing without comprehending—as do those who watch.



Wherever there lies a Desert, there is an apparently empty desolation of dry land and brassy sky. It is a grandeur of loneliness, a majesty of sweeping distances, a panorama of sparkling silence. Often there is no obvious evidence of animal life. Only the Desert plants stand quietly in the hot sun.

But at night the Desert becomes cool, and sounds of stealthy movements rise in the darkness.

There is plenty of dry country. About one-seventh of all the Earth’s land surface is Desert. Nearly eight million square miles now stand idle in the baking sun or freezing wind, comprising altogether a region larger than North America.

Surely, Man, the miracle worker, the moulder of nature, the dreamer of great dreams, will sooner or later conceive of a way to convert to his own use the lean and hungry wasteland.

There is much sun and little water in the desert.

Most people picture a Desert as a sea of shifting sand—great dunes piled one upon another in an unending confusion. Maybe this is the motion picture influence. Indeed, few landscapes of the dry country lend themselves to story telling so handsomely as do the “walking hills” of the Sahara Desert.

But the Sahara is only one of the Earth’s great sand Deserts, and only one of several different kinds of Desert.

Each of Earth’s seven continents contains at least one Desert (even the ice-covered miles of Antarctica could, in a sense, be called a Desert), and Africa has two of them.

Far south of the sandy Sahara lies the South African Kalahari. The most impressive aspect of the Kalahari is its sere, silent, brush-covered landscape. There is no sand to speak of, only a few scraggly trees and an unbroken, flat, lonely wasteland carpeted with low, dried-out bushes.

The Kalahari is green in the African spring, and many lovely flowers bloom briefly. But the magic comes and goes within a few days. The rest of the year the dry acres parch still drier every day.

Asia’s great Desert is the Gobi—a vast, high country plateau swept by bitter cold winds. The gale goes on day after day, year after year; it is always a wasteland of howling, freezing storms. There is sand in the Gobi, in ancient pockets and crevasses, but mostly the landscape is composed of bare and naked boulders—acres upon acres of wind-worn rocks.

Australia’s Desert is cold, high, and dry, too, with some sand and boulders, although not nearly as forbidding as the Gobi. Chiefly, the outback (as the Australians call it) is scrub country. The low trees, or high brush, somehow take nourishment from the baked, waterless Earth and flourish in this unlikely place.

The outback is wild and desolate country, where a man can be hopelessly lost only a few miles from safety.


The dry country of the middle east—Asia Minor—seems more like the Sahara than most other Deserts. The plains of Saudi Arabia are covered with restless dunes; fingers of the wind run softly through the sand and make a constant rustle of movement.

The Desert is never really quiet; nature in the dry country always whispers words for those who will hear her. For those who love the Desert—and there are many who do—nature has a mystical symphony of sounds and movement.

Europe’s Russian steppes (which overlap eastward into Asia) are not quite a true Desert, but their total rainfall is so light that the country is dry and unproductive. A coarse, brittle species of grass covers the lonely prairie. There are solitary trees and a few small groves here and there across the weary Desert miles, but mostly the steppes are empty and desolate.

People live on the fringes of the steppes. Where water can be found and poured upon the thirsty Earth, the soil is rich and fertile.

North America’s Desert country, once upon a time, was covered by a sea. When the Earth underwent some vast internal change, the sea bottom lifted and the water drained away. The sediment of the sea hardened into stone; the winds of time etched away the soft stone and left the hard stone standing in spectacular majesty.

The American southwest is the most beautiful and colorful of all the Earth’s varied Deserts.

Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus in full bloom.

Finally, on the weird Pacific coasts of South America lie the strangest of all Deserts—the arid mountains facing the ocean, and tipping their parched and pockmarked plateaus downward toward the sea.

This is the Atacama, a place of ghostly whispers and monstrous echoes, a place of sly breezes whistling among the barren pinnacles and eroded spires; a Desert to chill the blood of the visitor, a place of bleak and fog-strung nothingness hanging forever onto the sterile mountains.

But always, if nothing else, the Desert accents the rich variety of nature: a vast expanse of seemingly dry and empty wasteland, as contrasted to luxurious green and surf-kissed coastlines.

For an even more extreme contrast, consider the super-humid, steaming, perspiring, dripping jungles. In the Desert, only small patches of specialized plant life take root and survive. In the jungle, life abounds, multiplies, and overwhelms.

In the jungle, where everything necessary for plant and animal life is so abundant, swarms of living things struggle for elbow room. In the Desert there is elbow room—and to spare, a thousand times over; the struggle is for food and water. The dwellers in the Desert practice their cunning, not so much against each other as against nature.

Into every Desert some rain must fall, sooner or later, somewhere. But even after it rains, all is often lost; over-head the hot, greedy sun quickly recaptures the new-fallen moisture from the baking surface of the Desert. In a huge sigh of evaporation, the waters return to the sky; patiently the Earth resumes its long thirst.

And in yet another way the Desert is defeated after a rainfall. The soil is packed so hard, and is so very dry, that rain may fall in torrents for a substantial length of time—only to run off into valleys and canyons within moments. A torrential storm can come and go, and within hours there will be little sign of its passing.

Often heavy rains run off into canyons or valleys.

By definition, an annual rainfall of less than ten inches produces “desert” conditions. Where the rate of evaporation is very high and the soil is very tightly packed (as in the American Southwest), an annual rainfall of 20 inches and a constant flood of sunshine still produce conditions that create a Desert.

All the Deserts of the Earth have some things in common, but they are not all the same. All Deserts are dry and, for the most part, arid and barren, with sparse vegetation and fewer inhabitants than other land areas.

But some Deserts, like the Gobi, are cold; others are extremely hot. Some Desert areas, like Death Valley in California, are below sea level; while other Deserts are high, cold plateaus. In Desert lands, as in other regions, nature has shown her preference for variety.


To understand the Deserts, Man must first know the origin and nature of Deserts more precisely. One thing is clear at the outset: the Deserts were not always there. They came into existence during the uplift of the Earth’s lofty mountain ranges. Most scientists agree that this happened within the past one to five million years.

The world’s large Desert regions are geographically about 25 degrees north and south of the equator. Some of these regions (like Asia’s Gobi) are high altitude Deserts. The weather there is nearly always cold and windy. Other regions (like California’s Death Valley) are at or below sea level, and, hence, immensely hot.

Deserts occur where mountain ranges intercept and deflect moisture-bearing air currents. For instance, California’s Sierra Nevada range creates a barrier that helped create the desert country of the American Southwest.

High mountains act as a barrier to the moist air masses coming from the ocean. The stony ramparts force the ocean winds to rise. In rising, the moist air expands and cools because the air pressure is less at higher altitudes. Condensation occurs and rain falls on the “windward” side of the mountains. Thus, these particular regions are among the rainiest on Earth.

On the opposite side of these mountains, the blowing winds or drifting air masses are dry, since they have been drained of rain on the windward side. So, on the lee side, there lie some of the driest regions on our planet, and these regions are the Earth’s natural Deserts.

Tall mountains intercept moist air from the sea.

In some places, however, there are Deserts on the windward side of mountains. For instance, the long, narrow strip of Desert land along the western coast of South America.

There, on the coast of Peru, lies a foggy Desert—a phenomenon unique on Earth. The cold Humboldt ocean current sweeps northward from the Antarctic and cools the warm Pacific breezes, causing condensation and creating heavy fog. When it reaches the land, the chilled, misty air is warmed, and its moisture capacity increases.

The damp fog blows inland, dissipating rapidly without raining. Lima, the capital of Peru, is sometimes referred to as “Foggy Heights” (its elevation is 11,000 feet above sea level). Yet its total rainfall averages less than three inches every year.

Nature’s paradoxes are many, and one most striking is a stream or river coursing through an arid Desert. A well known example is the Nile, slowing silently through mile and mile of parched and barren Sahara sands.

The Nile flowing through the Sahara.

Another is America’s beautiful Colorado, rising in the high country, carving and incomparable gorge, and flowing across a dead and burning land before finally uniting with the sea.

Many Deserts lie over underground rivers—streams that seem to have deliberately sought the Earth’s protection from the gargantuan thirst of the sun. Sometime, the underground water bubbles forth and creates and oasis of green trees and shrubs in the bleak desolation of the Desert. Sometimes the path of such underground water can be determined by a brief line of trees or foliage accenting the sandy wastes.

Thick growth of datepalms, many kinds of tropical vegetables, grains, and small fruits can be grown in a genuine Desert oasis. In fact, an oasis may be so substantial that a large permanent population can thrive there, complete with homes, farms, and trading centers.


A particularly intriguing Desert region in the United States lies west and south of Salt Lake in the Great Basin region of Utah. Eons ago this vast area was covered by water which ran off into the sea when the forces of nature lifted the land upward. The basin floor is parched and barren, yet, in many places, when water is provided by irrigation, the soil proves to be rich, fertile, and productive.

In Illinois and Indiana much talk is heard of Lake Michigan’s beautiful sand dunes. In southern Colorado, 35,000 acres of sand have been set aside as the Great Sand Dunes National Monument.

Sand dunes are called “walking hills” by writers and poets, for, with every wandering breeze that passes some sand arises and goes with it. The dunes, wherever they may be, shift and move with an eternal restlessness; the landscape in such a place changes every hour. But sand dunes, great or small, are not typical Deserts.

Europe itself has no actual Desert, but some areas of Europe around the Caspian and Black seas are dry enough to be “near-deserts.” There are semi-arid regions in Europe’s Caucasus and the Soviet Ukraine.

Besides the Gobi in Asia, there are Deserts in India, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran.

The largest Desert on Earth is the African Sahara. Below the equator, in Africa, there lies another and different kind of Desert called the Kalahari. Broad sweeps of the African veldt (field) are “near-desert” country.

South America’s principal Deserts are in Chile, along the Pacific coast, in the Argentine Pampas, and in the Argentine state of Patagonia.

Australia’s vast interior country is almost entirely a Desert, and very little of it has been thoroughly explored by civilized Man.

An oasis.

The nature of local plants and animals differs widely from one Desert to another. Thus, the bush cactus, which is a common inhabitant of the American southwest, is found nowhere at all in the Great Gobi Desert, stretching halfway across Asia.

The saguaro cactus—found only in Arizona—is a 20 to 30 foot tree covered with horny spines; it is beautiful to behold in the stark, austere setting of the Desert.

Desert plants have survived and flourished in their harsh environment in ways that beautifully illustrate the adaptability of living things. They develop huge spreading root systems to extract every drop of water that works its way into the ground. Mesquite roots, for instance, penetrate deeply into the hardpan soil for 30 to 40 feet or more.

Some varieties of North American cactus have root systems eight to ten feet in diameter, but hardly more than a few inches deep. Other desert plants, like the yucca, have a tuber-like taproot that extends into the dry Earth as much as 12 to 15 feet.

Date palm.

Desert plant life is characterized by gummy stems and small leaves. The sticky sap that oozes from the stems seals moisture within and discourages hungry insects. The plant’s small leaves are relatively few in number. The leaves are big enough to draw in the carbon dioxide necessary to sustain the plant, but still small enough to waste only a minimum of precious moisture in “breathing.”

Some plants common to the North American Desert are the beautiful yucca, greasewood, mesquite, creosote bush, and a bewildering variety of the cactus family.

Animals differ in many ways from Desert to Desert. While camel caravans—with their hard-working riders— are common in the Sahara and the Gobi Deserts, it is the llama that has become the beast of burden in the South American Deserts. In Africa’s Kalahari Desert, the rubbernecked ostrich can be trained to the task of carrying the works of Man.

Wildlife in the Desert varies according to geography. The North American dry country is home to ground squirrels, rabbits, mice, kangaroo rats, pack rats, foxes, bats, and some deer. Wildcats are abundant in the Desert.

Camel, Ostrich and Roadrunner.

The poisonous rattlesnake is found all over the southwest, as is the tortoise, the horned toad, the frightful-looking gila monster, and many other kinds of lizards.

“Sidewinder” rattlesnake.

Of Desert birds, few are more interesting than the wistful, tiny, dwarf owls. The cactus wren makes its home amidst a forest of cactus spines. The wary roadrunner of Arizona is one of America’s most unusual birds.

The great horned owl patrols the Desert each night, on broad, soft wings five feet from tip to tip. The great black turkey buzzards wheel tirelessly in the golden sky, riding the air currents and keeping a keen eye on the Desert below.



Naturally, Deserts are those regions on the Planet Earth where water evaporation equals the rainfall. Yet, it has been mentioned that there may be water somewhere far below the dry sands and rocks of every Desert.

Almost all plants and animals need some water to exist, yet Desert life has learned to flourish with very little or none at all. The alternative is to perish, or go elsewhere for a drink.

Some of the Desert inhabitants, like the camel, can live for a week or more without water. The camel drinks about 25 gallons of water at one time—when it can—but, contrary to folklore, none of the precious moisture is stored in its hump.

In fact, the camel does not store water at all, directly, but merely enriches an ungainly body with the clear juice of life. The docile creature is often called “the ship of the Desert.”

Other parts of the camel’s body are also wonderfully adapted to life in the Desert. Thick lashes shield its large, melancholy eyes from the sun’s glare and the blowing sands. When the wind blows, and sand is whipping around, a camel closes its nostrils to mere slits; the animal’s breath is air-conditioned, so to speak.

The camel has adapted well to Desert life; big two-toed feet keep the creature from sinking into the soft sand. This may well be one of the few instances in nature where big feet are lifesavers.

The camel is well adapted to life in the desert.

A camel’s thick coat of hair protects its body from the sun by day, and from the cold air at night.

The wandering nomads of the Desert use camel’s hair to weave material, for unlike sheep, which are sheared for their wool, camels “moult”—their hair falls out in great clumps. These shaggy fibers are twisted into yarn and then woven or twisted into tents, blankets, clothing, and rope.

The Desert tortoise, like any other tortoise, lives wherever it stops. This creature, or one of its cousins, can be found in any of the world’s true Deserts. Although differing in species and color from continent to continent, the tortoise is the same careful, slow-moving curiosity everywhere.

Where the Earth is blazing hot, the tortoise rests in the shade of its own shell; at night, the turtle creeps forth to eat mice, insects, and enough Desert plants to provide water.


The same is true of other small nocturnal animals of the Desert—they do not drink water, but get it from food. The Desert dwellers usually forage at night. During the heat of day, they sleep under rocks or in burrows well below the ground where it actually is rather cool.

One appealing species of adaptable Desert dwellers is the pack rat, found in the American southwest. It is a rodent, about the same size as ordinary rats familiar to city dwellers. But the Desert animal is fond of “things”—any bright thing it can carry in its expandable cheek pouches or forepaws.

The creature hides its treasures in secret places, spending busy days transporting a piece of shiny quartz from one cache to another. The pack rat does the same with food pinon nuts, pine cones, cactus fruits, and other tid-bits. The little fellow is a natural hoarder and hider.

There are many different kinds of lizards that seem to enjoy life in the Desert; they have a skin with a protective layer of scales, which in some cases enlarge to form spines. The feet of lizards are adapted for scampering swiftly over loose, shifting sand, and the creature’s body may be elongated and slim to make possible a hasty burrowing in an emergency.

All lizards are very interested in other lizards, which is perhaps as it should be. The footed reptiles are also interested in insects—to eat. It can be assumed that the insects take a dim view of this interest, especially if swallowed whole. The larger lizards have no reluctance to eating smaller lizards, and they do.

The horned toad of the American Deserts, incidentally, is really a spiny lizard. Most people have seen this creature; it does greatly resemble a toad with thorns. The spines are natural camouflages. However, they are soft and ineffective as protection. The horned toad is interesting, harmless, and quite at home in the Desert.

The horned toad is really a spiny lizard.

Australia is beset by bush-desert animals called kangaroos—creatures that leap yards at a time with a push from two spring-like legs and a fantastically strong tail. In the land “down under,” the kangaroo is often a real pest. The Deserts of the American southwest have a miniature kangaroo the kangaroo rat. It is not even a distant cousin of the kangaroo, actually, but the resemblance between the two is remarkable.

An Australian kangaroo can leap 20 feet; an Arizona kangaroo rat can leap five feet in an identical fashion. A kangaroo, however, can grow to be six feet tall and weigh 200 pounds, while the best a kangaroo rat can do is a few inches and ounces.

One immensely interesting Desert dweller is the long-eared, long-legged, high-jumping, loud-whistling jackrabbit. Few sights in nature are more hilarious than to see a mangy coyote careening through the sagebrush and cactus after a scared jackrabbit.

Jack Rabbit.

The long-legged bunny fairly flies, in a different direction with each incredible leap, whistling in mortal fright every jump of the way. Back on earth, the coyote skids into cactus, yaps noisily in pain, frustration, and anger, but nevertheless continues pell-mell after the jackrabbit until there is nothing to do but collapse and howl at the moon.

The coyote rarely wins such a race, although it is always ready to run.

Coyotes seldom eat unless hungry. In an emergency, say, like starvation, the animal is not too proud to eat plants, roots, nuts, or even the bark of a shrub.

The coyote’s best known characteristic is his interminable howling across the empty miles. It may be a howl of hatred at some lucky jackrabbit, by now miles away and still jumping, or it may be a howl of loneliness.

Westerners want to exterminate these doglike animals, and when they have succeeded—as they will—one historic element of the American West will have finally vanished forever.

The Desert abounds with birdlife — owls, songbirds, ostriches, eagles, emus, hawks, and roadrunners.

The strangest of these may well be the huge, awkward ostrich. Although definitely a bird, this ungainly creature lost its ability to fly millions of years ago. Instead, it has learned to live and survive on the ground. It is six to eight feet tall, weighs 150 to 200 pounds; and is often used in its native Africa as a beast of burden.

The ostrich can run like a horse, and is often used as such. Ostriches can be trained to race, pulling a sulky buggy; in South Africa ostrich races are quite popular entertainment.

It is true that, when frightened, the ostrich tries to hide by plunging its head into a hole in the ground. It is also true that the female ostrich lays her eggs on top of small ant hills, which keeps her busy rolling eggs back into the nest whenever she gets up for rest or food. It is furthermore true that the ostrich—male and female alike—produces the marvelous feather plumes that have always so tickled ladies of fashion.

The state of Arizona has adopted as its state bird the droll-appearing road runner. It is a wild bird, rather like a scrawny chicken. The odd name comes from the creature’s habit of skittering along the roadside (where running is easy) at an incredible speed.

A road runner can, like the jackrabbit, reduce a hungry coyote to a howling wreck in very short order; like the jackrabbit, the road runner can make angle turns at a terrific pace, while the best a panting coyote can do is to make angle turns with considerable slippage.


The road runner can fly brief distances, but prefers to run rather than expend the energy necessary for flight. If the bird survives as a species for the next thousand years or so, it may well be America’s small-scale answer to Africa’s large-scale ostrich.

And how do the Desert plants live?

For a moment, now, consider the cactus. First, no matter what the shape, all cactus plants are able to store
water. Whenever rain does come to the Desert, the spreading roots lying near the surface of the ground carry moisture to the cactus plant for storage.

Cactus stores water in its fleshy stalks, which in other plants would be called leaves. The flesh of the cactus is yielding and rubbery. When squeezed, the pulp yields water.

Nature taught the cactus how to gather water into itself. Then, to keep the moisture safe from predators, nature endowed the cactus with so many needle-sharp spines that few living creatures could readily reach it.


Cactus is really a beautiful, as well as an amazing, plant. When the spring rains fall on the Desert, the cactus bursts into bloom and what a marvelous sight to see!

The threatening spines protect this fragile beauty very well, indeed. Cactus spines can penetrate a man’s leather boot, or a new tire on an automobile. The seed pods of cactus plants are covered with spines so hair-fine as to be invisible, yet so strong as to pierce human flesh.

The cactus plant has come to be synonymous with the American Desert—either of them often suggests the other.

Certain annual plants—those that bloom, seed, and die in one year—have become adapted to life on the Desert simply by lying patiently dormant as seeds until rain falls, tickling them unto sensibility. Then the seeds quickly germinate, and tiny green plants sprout.

Within a few weeks, the Desert is alive with blossoms and appears to be a colorful, magic carpet. There may be blue lupin, dandelions, clover, creosote bushes which are covered with tiny yellow blossoms, barrel cactus wearing a crown of pale yellow flowers, and, everywhere, an all-pervading fragrance and sparkling clarity unknown outside of the Desert.

Red-Tailed Hawk.

Many people who visit the Desert country—particularly the American Southwest—are tremendously impressed by the visual beauty of the sudden rainstorms.

The huge cumulus clouds gather over the mountains like a great army, and then march forth over the Desert in stately procession. The rising or the setting sun makes light and shadow patterns on the clouds, until they seem to become towering castles or storm-swept ships. Or even other worlds in outer space.

When the rain starts to fall, it comes down in shimmering patterns that sweep majestically across the dry country. The rain shifts and weaves across the miles of the thirsty land. If the sun shines on the falling rain, a magnificent rainbow appears as if by magic.

The Desert there is so wide and vast that rainstorms are easily seen for 50 miles or more. Sometimes several great rainstorms march across the Desert skies side by side in such a vast procession that the visitor is awed into silence by the sight.

The Desert rainstorms are often accompanied by severe thunder and lightning. The huge, rain-filled clouds are so charged with electricity that several bolts of lightning will crackle to the ground at one time. Within the rainfall area, lightning bolts can crash into and shatter tall cactus plants or up-thrust boulders.

If the observer stands at the edge of the storm’s path, he will see the raging storm as it passes before him. Behind him will be the serene peace, and quiet sunshine, of any Desert day.

Barrel Cactus (left) and Prickly Pear (right).

Dry country storms, with or without rain, thunder, and lightning, are magnificent sights to see. The storm’s panorama of beauty is difficult to describe. Few natural spectacles known to Man are as fascinating and compelling as the sight of a great storm over the Grand Canyon, sometimes, where the gorge is a mile deep, the viewer will see the raging storm far below him.

Desert storms at night are especially impressive. Lightning bolts split the clouds; thunder often roars in a continuous crescendo; the falling rain curtain sweeps furiously across the landscape. The effect is weird and wonderful at the same time, and utterly unforgettable.

So, in a way, there is water, water, everywhere in the Desert. Nature, in majestic wisdom, has brought forth many forms of Desert life. And nature has taught each form exactly what to do to survive in the Desert.

Over the thousands of years that plants and animals have adapted to Desert conditions, Desert men, too, have learned to cope with the harsh demands of the Desert.

But whenever men from outside the Desert have penetrated deeply into Desert lands, they have suffered untold hardship and often death. The hot, blistering sun, the maddening thirst, the miles of trackless wasteland, have often been the undoing of the unwary and the foolish.



At the beginning of the 16th Century, men of the Old World were beginning to reach parts of the New World. The Spanish conquistadors conquered the Aztecs quickly, and made a Spanish royal capital of Mexico City. The northern boundary of New Spain was a dry and barren Desert, presumed by the Spaniards to be a wasteland empty of people.

But in the annals of exploration, few stories are as remarkable as that which brought the Spaniards northward into the American southwest. In the year 1528, a Spanish exploring expedition enroute to New Spain was shipwrecked near the present site of Galveston, Texas.

For the next seven years, the four survivors of the expedition made their way across most of what is now Texas, all of New Mexico and part of Arizona. The men were Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso Maldonado, Andrés Dorantes and an African slave named Estevanico.

The white skins of the three Europeans and the dark skin of the African greatly impressed those American Indians who dwelt in the southwestern Desert; the lost travelers kept moving westward, treated as gods by the native Indians.

By the spring of 1535, the Spaniards had crossed the worst part of the North American Desert. Chance brought them to the Aztec village of Culiacan, and within weeks the four explorers were recounting their marvelous adventures to the Spanish Viceroy in Mexico City.

Like all travelers, perhaps, the long-lost men exaggerated their adventures. They told of seven cities deeply hidden in the northern Desert, where gold, turquoise, copper, and silver were common building materials. The travelers told of the cibola (buffalo) to be found in vast herds, of savage Indians to be saved for the Church, of great lands to be claimed for the Spanish king.

Few men can resist the lure of treasure. The Spaniards in Mexico believed the story of the golden cities of Cibola.

In 1540, after months of preliminary exploration, Captain General Franscisco Vasquez de Coronado led an army into the Desert that is now northern Mexico and southern New Mexico. The soldiers called it “jornada del muerte” (journey of death).


They found Cibola, but the golden cities turned out to be Indian villages made of mud and stones.

Coronado took over an Indian village near the present site of Santa Fe, and called it Villa San Juan de Caballeros. He sent his lieutenants in all directions to search for Cibolan treasure. One officer named Garcia Lopez de Cardonas returned after several months to tell a tale of grim Desert hardship for him and his men.

To the west, Cardonas found no treasure, but he discovered the biggest hole in the ground ever known to man—the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. Historians say Cardonas was the first white man ever to see the world’s greatest natural Desert spectacle.

Another of Coronado’s lieutenants, Hernando Alvarado, marched with a party of soldiers as far east as the Pecos River. They found no treasure in this Desert, either, but they did discover the villages (which the Spaniards called pueblos) of the Tejas Indians.

The Spanish pronounced the Indian word Tejas as “Texas,” which is where the Lone Star state gets its name. Alvarado and his party returned empty handed to Coronado’s headquarters at San Juan de Caballeros.


Still another party of explorers went north into the New Mexican Desert country, led by lieutenant Pedro de Tovar. For weeks these determined soldiers searched the high, dry country for gold, but all they found were the poor pueblos of the Hopi Indians.

The North American Desert was an inhospitable land. The intruding Spaniards could live only by robbing the Indians. As a result, many of the Indians died of hunger, and many were enslaved by the Spaniards. But whatever else may be said of the invaders, they had the courage to thoroughly explore a strange and unknown Desert. This is no work for cowards.

It could be said that the Spaniards were not very bright, in spite of their shiny armor. Although the dry air of the Desert evaporates the body’s perspiration moisture quickly, the direct rays of the sun through the thin air are very hot.

Scholars believe that the Spaniards wore their clumsy suits of armor even across the Desert of Death. The men inside must have felt as if they were riding in hot stoves.

Coronado and his men finally admitted defeat in their search for New World treasure. But Man’s lust for gold dies hard. It died especially hard for Coronado and his soldiers.

When the Indians realized the Spaniards wanted only the yellow iron, they thought of a scheme to get rid of the invaders. The Indians told Coronado of a place far to the northeast, called Quivira. It was full of the yellow iron. Coronado took the bait, and an Indian guide led them into the Desert to the east.

Coronado explores the Desert Southwest.

As the Spaniards left the Desert of New Mexico, they entered the dry plains of west Texas. This vast, empty country was without landmarks. The Spanish soldiers left stakes to mark their trail. Historians call this region the staked plains country.

In the discouraging search for Quivira, Coronado and his men reached an Indian village near the present site of Wichita, Kansas. There they killed their Indian guide, and started back to the Rio Grande.

With exhausted and dying men, Coronado eventually reached (in 1542) the royal court in Mexico City. He reported that the northern provinces of New Spain were nothing but dry, hot, and dangerous Deserts.

There was no treasure in Cibola, he said. There was no gold or turquoise except that seen in the Desert sky at sunrise or sunset; no silver except the snowcapped mountains in moonlight; no copper or bronze except the skins of the Indians.

The Viceroy promptly stripped Coronado of his rank and property, and the disgraced conquistador died in poverty in 1554.

The Spanish exploration of the southwestern Desert is one of the greatest adventure stories in American history.

There is high adventure in Man’s exploration of the African Desert country, too.

In the late 18th Century, the world’s curiosity was stirred by legends filtering out of the dark continent—stories of a fabulously rich city on the edge of the Great Sahara Desert. It was called Timbuktu, and it was a great bazaar where gold, ivory, silks, spices, jewels, and slaves could be bought cheaply.

The desert city of Timbuktu.

This legend of riches died hard, too. When Europeans finally located and reached Timbuktu, they found the ancient city a ghost of crumbling ruins. For years it had been, indeed, the caravan crossroads of the Desert Moslems. But the Moors of Morocco had invaded and destroyed Timbuktu late in the 16th Century.

Exploring the Desert for treasure has long been one of Man’s most exciting ventures. But one Man’s treasure may be another Man’s junk. Few who knew the Asian Gobi Desert felt there was gold or silver hidden there. But an American named Roy Chapman Andrews believed the Gobi held treasure of another kind historical.

Andrews believed that the Gobi Desert was the one place in the world so untouched by modern Man that the Earth’s ancient secrets would be still undisturbed.


In 1922, the anthropologist set forth on an expedition into the uncharted Desert wildness of the barren Gobi. It was a journey filled with incredible hardship. The party’s supplies ran out before Andrews had time to find all the answers he wanted.

But he did find some proof of his theory. He brought back with him some fossilized eggs of a dinosaur, and they are on exhibit today in New York’s Museum of Natural History.


Plans for even more extensive exploration of the Gobi were being made just prior to the beginning of World War
II. The plans had to be discontinued because of increasing world-wide tensions.

Since the Gobi lies in the northern provinces of Red China, it has not been possible, so far to get permission from the Chinese government to enter the Desert to carry on scientific investigation.

Some scientists believe that Man may have originated somewhere in the vast reaches of China. After all, the bones of “Peking Man,” certainly one of the earliest fossilized remains of Man, were found in China.

One thing is certain. The Gobi has not always been as bleak and deserted as it is today. What secrets are hidden beneath the shifting sands of the Gobi? Are there ancient caves and campsites perhaps even ancient villages and cities buried beneath the desolate Gobi? What new light could be focused on the dark spot of Man’s development?

Perhaps at some future date, when world tensions have been relaxed, scientific expeditions can once again penetrate the great Gobi. And who knows what startling secrets they may find?

Many pages have been written about men who have explored the Earth’s huge Deserts. Few environments of nature can so test the fortitude and endurance of Man. For those human beings not naturally adapted to life in the dry country, exploring or living on the Desert is a very real hardship.

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