What comes to your mind when you think “desert”? And no, American cheesecake, which I wrote about last week, is a dessert with a double “s”, stressed on the second syllable. Is it a specific place? Or a geographical concept? An experience of your own, maybe?
My go-to online look-up place, Wikipedia, gives a pretty precise definition on the concept: “A desert is a barren area of landscape where little precipitation occurs and, consequently, living conditions are hostile for plant and animal life. The lack of vegetation exposes the unprotected surface of the ground to the processes of denudation.”
Antarctica pops up in my mind. Though there certainly IS animal life there. Think penguins. And seals. And fish. I have stood at the fringes of the Sahara during my husband’s and my honeymoon. It was a seemingly endless stretch of rocky and sandy, yellow landscape without any vegetation. Tough on the eye, for sure. I have flown across the Gobi Desert in the early morning light. It was equally endless and hostile to the eye from above. I have flown in a helicopter across the Nevada Desert with its red or striped rocks, sandy valleys, and only very hardy plants growing there. Kind of depressing.
But only recently, my husband took me over to the deserts of Washington State. Indeed, there are deserts east of the Cascades – and I hadn’t known really how to imagine them, either. Even pictures hardly do them credit. But let me tell you about my impressions – and maybe it inspires you to travel east some time and take in this landscape.
Of course, the Olympic Mountains west of Puget Sound and the Cascades east of it see to it that Western Washington is a landscape of rainforest and rich farmland. So, a trip to the other side of the Cascades should prepare one for a landscape created from the rain shadow of these high mountains. Let me tell all of you, who have never made this trip before – it doesn’t. One moment you are in Leavenworth with its Alpine richness, or in Mazama’s green valley, or in Cle-Elum’s river and lake defined landscape, and the next … an imposing emptiness of a landscape.
Only, it isn’t really empty. There ARE some trees in some places. There are bushes of a gray-green quality that looks like sage. Maybe it IS sage, after all. The landscape is rolling in some places, forbiddingly rocky in others. Above all – it is lonesome. You don’t run into homes for miles if you choose one of the smaller roads. You might even end up on dirt roads that turn into sandy drifts and make you turn around. There is an overpowering feeling of “only the landscape and us”, especially if your cellphone has no more bars.
Maybe you run into a lake all of a sudden. If it is later in the afternoon, the desert around you has already taken on a softer hue. Imagine an ochre, tinged with orange in places, this gray-green brush, bushes with teensy white blossoms, and then the blue of water and sky. If you can, switch off your motor for a while and just take in the colors and the quality of the light. I have rarely experienced anything as soothing as Soap Lake on the Colville Indian Reservation off the Okanogan Valley. (Not to be mixed up with the famous Soap Lake farther south, by the way.)
If you stay on the main roads though, you might experience something of almost Biblical proportion. I have never been to Israel, but I keep thinking their process of turning the desert fertile is pretty much the same as has been done in the Wenatchee, Okanogan, and – above all – the Columbia River Valley. No, I don’t want to go into political and ecological depth here. We all know what’s going on in the news, right?
So, here you end up in one of those valleys, and you find yourself surrounded by a huge, big orchard, by grain fields, by vineyards as far as the eye can see. This incredible strip of fruitful green is dotted by farm houses, interspersed by fenced meadows on which cattle and horses are pasturing. Irrigation ditches crisscross by the roadside. And in the distance … this forbidding desert.
Which is not so very forbidding. Which has treasures of its own for the eyes.
One of these jewels by the way is the Gingko Petrified Forest State Park near Vantage. Have you ever walked a desert ridge in the sundown, surrounded only by rolling landscape of sand and brush, and a murky sky? Desert can be very peaceful, its solitude and quiet refreshing. Sometimes it might be a good thought to go to the desert to recover one’s senses. The desert can be a friend to one’s soul. Sometimes the most unlikely places can grow to our hearts.