quiet times on the high desert   21 comments

wind-worn pink cliffs along Kanab Creek

I continue with the account of our travels through Utah in November. The last post featured several of the old buildings encountered along Route 89 between Sevier and Kanab.

Based on the writings and photos in this blog, it probably seems as though the dogs and I are always on the move. While it’s true that we do cover a lot of distance during our autumn travels, as often as possible, I try find suitable places where we can rest and also do a little exploring. Over the past three migrations, the high desert region around Kanab has become yet another home to us. Yes, if you travel enough times through an area, you will become grounded by that place. You’ll get to know where to find fresh produce, the location of the regional BLM office and local library, the gas station where your Canadian credit card will work without a hassle at the self serve pumps. Stay a little longer and you’ll learn the short cuts from one part of the county to another, talk to local people and find out about interesting sights that aren’t described in any tourist guide, meet other travelers who share the secret locations of their favourite campsites, hiking trails, or rock art sites. Stay in a place less than three days and chances are that you will miss out on all of the above.

section of cliff showing cross-bedded layers of Navajo sandstone

The area where we camp is on the high desert west of Kanab, at an elevation of about 6000 feet (1800 meters). The geology is fascinating – wind-eroded layers of Navajo sandstone forming undulating cliffs of yellow through pink. It’s a place of sagebrush, juniper and pinyon. I’ve posted more than the usual number of photos because I wanted to share how it feels to wander through this landscape. I tried to narrow it down to the usual 4 or 5, but soon realized this was an impossible task. Even with this collection, it seems that I’m not doing the place justice. You will just have to go there yourself.

Sage and Sabrina in the van – by early morning light

When in this region, I usually camp at a little BLM site. As we travel through either very early or late in the season, we are most often alone, or see only another camper or two. That’s how I prefer it to be. When camped alone, I leave the blinds pushed up so that we can gaze out upon the landscape, and watch the moon and stars wheel across the night sky.

a Ponderosa pine looms above the van, catching the first warm rays of sunlight

We awake to the sound of Ravens investigating our campsite – a common event when camped in the high desert. Lying in bed, I watch the dawn light illuminate the bark of a towering Ponderosa, staining it a rosy pink. I notice that the leader and several other branches are missing. It seems a wonder that this grove of tall trees manages to survive in such an arid place.

the view out the back window of our van

The dogs and I are in no hurry to rise as, in spite of the warm rays of light, it is yet quite cold. We lie looking out across the landscape, watching as the sun climbs higher. Soon the air temperature in the van will rise rapidly. Our neighbour from last night drives off to put in a day of work at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. He had stopped around the previous evening to say hello to Sage and Sabrina. We stood talking a short while. He told me he drives quite a long distance to stay in this area while doing volunteer work for a couple of weeks three times each year. He has been doing this for the five years since his wife died. He says it is therapeutic – it helps him to feel better. There’s another lone man camped nearby, also volunteering at the sanctuary. I wonder about his story. Is it similar? I ponder over how strange it is that I cross paths with others such as myself – people whose lives have been so radically disrupted by fate – all of us now searching for some way to find meaning in what remains.

one of the more treed areas of the Coral Pink Sand Dunes region

Our campsite borders on a geologic feature known as the Coral Pink Sand Dunes. Some areas of the dunes are now preserved for nature observation and scientific study. Other large sections are now part of an extensive ORV trail system that spans hundreds of miles of southwest Utah. This unusual landscape is home to several rare species of flora and fauna. It is the only place where the rare Coral Pink Sand Dunes Tiger Beetle (Cicindela limbata albissima) can be found.

what looks to be a spider den in the sand

By day, the dogs and I go for walks on the nearby sand dunes. There are animal tracks everywhere. It seems that even the smallest expanse of sand is criss-crossed by mice, rabbit, deer, birds, beetles or any one of a number of other creatures that forage about between the sagebrush and other vegetation.

what look to be beetle tracks intersecting with those of a small rodent

People often say to me that they don’t like the desert because it’s so dry and lifeless. I wonder that we can be thinking of the same place. Their desert is a silent, hostile place, devoid of all life. My desert is filled with the scurrying of tiny lizards, the slow and ponderous progress of pinacate beetles, the chirps, whistles and songs of birds, and the busy foraging of rodents and other wildlife. Can these two visions of one place exist in parallel?

stalks of grass – perhaps Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis) – if you know, please leave a comment

By November, daylight hours become noticeably less. We end our walks by four so that I have time to cook dinner and clean up before darkness falls. I sit in my folding chair while the dogs stretch out on mats that I put down to keep their coats free of sand and stickers. Most nights, we share the same food. I’ve found they do better and keep well on my own cooking as opposed to purchased dog foods. After clean-up, we go for a last walk of the day and then find a place to watch as the sun sets and the stars come out to play. That is how we live our days on the high desert.

Sage and Sabrina rest beside a juniper

Written by bev wigney on December 24th, 2010

21 Responses to 'quiet times on the high desert'

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  1. Your days on the high desert sound magical, therapeutic, cathartic. I feel better and more aligned with the earth just having read your words.


    24 Dec 10 at 5:44 pm

  2. Beautiful photos. Your descriptions are what i feel about the desert also. Barren? It never seems that way to me. I like how the lines of the earth are revealed, not hidden, the colors so intense especially in that part of the SW. I’d love to be there right now — a little snow to enhance the lines


    24 Dec 10 at 10:49 pm

  3. Wishing you joy and peace.



    25 Dec 10 at 3:55 am

  4. I fell in love with the desert way back in 1998 when my Mom and I took an 8,000 + mile road trip from the east to west then north and back again. The past 3 yrs I have taken the journey alone (mom is now 86) and traveled to Utah, went to Best Friends in 2009 its a great sanctuary-The desert is such a special place it re-grounds the ungrounded and puts fire back in the spirit of the defeated.


    25 Dec 10 at 8:09 am

  5. John – Indeed, the high desert is a magical place. So peaceful and yet alive with life. A good place for rest and regeneration.

    Rain – You’re so right about the colors of the desert, especially in that part of Utah. There are certain places that I am drawn back to each year, and this is one of them.

    Dan – Thanks. Wishing you a peaceful time over of the holidays and beyond.

    Sondra – What a wonderful road trip that must have been. So good to make long-lasting memories for both of you. Agree about the desert. It is restorative in so many ways.

    bev wigney

    25 Dec 10 at 10:30 am

  6. As always your photos and descriptions make me want to go there… now. The desert landscape is always so evocative. I like what Rain said, that the landscape is revealed. Yes, that’s so true.

    The dogs look very content, bev. It’s a family journey.

    robin andrea

    25 Dec 10 at 11:16 am

  7. oh my goodness – I’d totally forgotten about the odd circles matt and I found out that way, and this post reminded me. We were camped in northeast utah, on the WY. border. Around our campsite, we found hare tracks, skinned coyote carcasses, and these strange circles in the sand and rock – no idea what they were. I don’t think I have photos of them developed (we used film, and I still have a roll or two not processed, even though it was in 2006). As I recall, though, I think they were kind of craters, not deep, none more than two or three feet across, perfectly circular, no tracks in or out. They were so perfect in form and shape. Ideas what they might be? The phot of the spider den is what prompted the memory.


    25 Dec 10 at 11:35 am

  8. … we were in flaming gorge, and the circles weren’t messy like the above spider den, but they did, I think, have that same kind of pebbly sand marking the ring.


    25 Dec 10 at 11:41 am

  9. robin – I feel that the dogs actually like traveling. It’s just me and them, moving through the world together. It’s a very insular way of living, but probably quite normal feeling to canids.

    megan – Your description sounds rather like the depressions made by rattlesnakes. I take it that there was just the circular depression, but no hole at the center? Here’s a description of a rattlesnake depression from “A Field Guide to Desert Holes” by Pinau Merlin: “Shallow circular depression, usually with a ridge of soild around edges. About 7 to 9 inches in diameter depending on size of snake. Depression usually in fine soil, free of rocks or sticks. Rattlesnakes make a resting for that is a shallow round or oval depression by coiling up and pushing debris out with their heavy bodies. These resting forms can be found out in the open in washes, on trails, or at the base of vegetation.” The author also notes that, if the depression is unmarked by rodent or bird tracks, it is fresh and the snake may be nearby. I would add that I would think larger snakes would make depression much larger than 9 inches in diameter. Last winter, I saw a sidewinder that was in captivity and its depression it was coiled into was probably closer to 12 inches and it wasn’t really all that large a snake. It was very circular though. I can well imagine how the snake would go unnoticed until one had practically stepped on it as it blended in so well with the fine sand around it.

    bev wigney

    25 Dec 10 at 12:08 pm

  10. i got to spend 2 or 3 weeks in the desert outside palm springs in ca when i was (guessing here) 8 thru 12 at easter every year. i would leave the house early and spend all day wandering out there. not quite as varied in flora or fauna as where you are, but still endlessly fascinating.


    25 Dec 10 at 12:21 pm

  11. hmmm. I will have to see if I Can find some photos online of rattlesnake Depressions. We didn’t see any snakes; there were a lot of the rings. I actually can’t remember now if they were tiny cones, or wide depressions. Of course, the other one who saw them is not here to ask. I think we saw two different things – some cones of fine sand, and some wide smooth circular depressions. No holes in them, that I remember. I think if we had seen holes they wouldn’t have seemed such a mystery, so I vote for no holes.


    25 Dec 10 at 1:17 pm

  12. megan – the other thing that you find in the desert are depressions – more cone shaped – in which the quail and other birds have dust baths. Those would not be all that large. Also, some birds and rodents dig down to find things in the sand and that tends to result in a cone-shaped depression with nothing much in the center as what you are seeing is the result of digging down to get an insect larva or other edible. The book on desert holes is quite interesting as it makes you think about all of the different kinds of holes that you see when wandering about in the desert — and there are many. I also have a small book entitled “Scats and Tracks of the Desert Southwest” (Halfpenny), Falcon Press. It’s another useful field guide that I haul around in my mobile field guide library (a big box under the bed in my van). (-:

    bev wigney

    25 Dec 10 at 1:29 pm

  13. as always, your photographs are beautiful, but then where you get to go, it would be hard to have a bad one. such beauty. the colors of the earth, the sunlight. all the world is a sanctuary. i wish you peace.


    25 Dec 10 at 1:29 pm

  14. roger – Over the past decade or so, I have grown to love the desert – actually, I hesitate to call it “the desert” as the types of desert are as varied as forests – and all are so fascinating in their own way. You’re fortunate to have had those times to wander. I think that young people very much benefit from those early experiences with nature.

    WnS – Thank you. It’s true. It is difficult to make the places that I travel look anything but beautiful — or at least, I think so. Peace to you too.

    bev wigney

    25 Dec 10 at 1:42 pm

  15. I love that curled grass photo, with the sun blazing on the side, Bev – that’s a prize! Greetings from Bishops Mills! It’s a sunny day with several cm of snow from before the Solstice, and I’m working at painting this year’s egg for the Cooks’ christmas tree.


    25 Dec 10 at 1:43 pm

  16. Hi Aleta – The curled grass kept me occupied for a couple of minutes, shooting it from different angles. I just loved the way that the curls caught the sunlight. Neat, eh? Glad you stopped by for a visit. I can just image what it must be like in Bishops, with the winter sun and the snow. In a way, I do miss our northern winters, but just a little! I hope you’ll be posting a photo of the latest egg for the Cook’s tree! (-:

    bev wigney

    25 Dec 10 at 1:50 pm

  17. cones – pyramids, rather than depressions. Built up sand.
    I should get that film developed. But I think I couldn’t take it right now, so maybe I will just not have photo documentation to jog my memory….


    25 Dec 10 at 2:55 pm

  18. megan – okay, now I get it. How about this. The Desert Holes book describes mounds of dirt with no entrance hold, several mounds in an area, as being made by Botta’s pocket gopher (Thomomys bottae). It says that they dig tunnels and push out piles of dirt periodically. The mounds can be either round of oblong, about 6 inches high and 8 to 16 inches in diameter. Exit holes are covered with a cap of dirt. Maybe something along that lines. Yeah, don’t get the film developed until or unless you feel inclined. I actually have a couple of old rolls of film sitting around from about a decade ago. The pictures are probably no good now, so I don’t think about them anymore – but haven’t tossed them out either!

    bev wigney

    25 Dec 10 at 3:08 pm

  19. ah, gophers. I think we saw both things – the rings and the cones. Probably the creatures of the rings ate the creatures of the cones.


    25 Dec 10 at 3:11 pm

  20. megan – yes, actually, that would be pretty much how it works. I remember one time, encountering some unusually large black rat snakes on a trail north of Kingston, Ontario. In the same area, there was about the highest concentration of chipmunks popping in and out of holes in the rock, that I have seen just about anywhere in my travels. Somehow, I think there was some connection! (-:

    bev wigney

    25 Dec 10 at 3:17 pm

  21. thanks, as always, for the splendid shots you share of your journey and for the education you offer. the dogs must just love that you are their leader – they have such an interesting life!


    27 Dec 10 at 12:11 am

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