From the edge of my cot I could lie on my stomach and watch the bands of heat float like hazy ribbons above the sage, pinyon and junpier outside the tent. Hundreds of acres of wilderness stretched out from where I lay. Twenty days into a two-month research project studying migratory songbirds, I was realizing it was that very relentless, unforgiving sun that shaped everything around me. I didn’t learn this from sitting with my eyes closed; I learned this after days and days of watching, sitting, listening and observing: if you want to get to know an environment better, you have to begin to understand those things that shape it. By peeling back these layers you’ll begin to expose a whole new world rich with animals whose tendencies might intrigue or amuse you, a plant that might only bloom by moonlight, or a starlit landscape that abounds with a web of life often tucked away amongst the darkness. If you take a closer look, you’ll begin to redefine your sense of place and join the ranks of a small number of people who really know the landscapes they play in and explore.
The barrage of sun that sent me to my tent also kept most of the high-noon birds perched on cottonwood stems, and practically anything with feet soaked in shade or tucked amongst the smooth red stone and wash bottoms. The only characters that didn't fit the equation for desert “comfortability” were the snakes, ants, moths, bees, butterflies, lizards and Rio Grande turkey: one-hundred degrees was no different than eighty-eight in their eyes.
To expose these details, the subtleties that so often go unnoticed, all you have to do is look, listen and wait—but the drama unfolding in the natural world so often goes unnoticed for that reason. Because it takes patience, a trained eye and patient mind to really see what’s unfolding beneath your very nose. Pause and find a perch or a smooth stone with a vantage point and wait. Dawn and dusk is rush hour for the natural world, and water sources or mineral licks are the Wal Mart and Whole Foods for the furred, skinned, scaled and feathered. Start there, track down a field guide and pair of binoculars and you’ll be on your way. Patience is the only thing between you and observing that thing that will take your breath away.
After a month of patience, perches and calling that wall tent home, I felt like I fit somewhere between the western kingbirds on the cottonwood branch that cast high noon shadows across the old orchard, and the gopher snakes that loved the sun just as much as that resident kangaroo mouse that hid in the cook shack. Without much thought, I rolled out of my midday siesta, packed a jug of water and headed out the door. By now, at high noon on day 21.2 or so, I had become acquainted with the red rock, familiar with the sun, comfortable with the desert, and intrigued by the ebb and flow of desert life. Just like any good trail, mountain or river, it often takes a little looking around to get to know a place, and get a feel for its tendencies and moods.
A month later I was kicking up a plume of dust with my Tacoma pointed west. I had banded nearly 600 song birds across dozens of species, caught a few snakes, swam that muddy Dolores water day in and day out, and peeled back the layers to Utah’s vast sagebrush sea, red rock desert, pinyon and aspen up country. I had learned that May marked the height of the songbird migration, that an elk could run just moments after birth, Wilson’s Warblers came through the floodplain in great flocks, Rio Grande turkeys liked to sleep in the cottonwood down by the old bridge, that a migratory American robin felt just about the size of a burrito when you held it in your hand, that red rock canyons can hang frozen in a silence for hours upon hours only to be broken by a lick of wind or rustle of a single leaf, and that just a light rain can swell bone-dry creeks and inspire a floral bloom of epic proportions.
Two months worth of sunrises and sunsets, miles and miles of wilderness hiked, and unforgettable moments capturing, banding, recording and releasing everything from flycatchers to chats and catbirds to hummingbirds had shaped me. But it took a 60-day honeymoon to fall in love with the place not because there wasn’t attraction at first sight—but because there was simply so much to see, experience, hear, learn, taste, feel, observe and explore. The Utah desert isn’t just the rocks that pepper their horizons, or the smooth red canyons that cast dancing shadows across sagebrush valleys; deserts are a patchwork, complex, moody, hot, cool, windy and calm. To know the desert is to know its seasons and tendencies, obscurities and anomalies. Time, binoculars, a good field guide, jug of water, hat and pair of boots will be the essential tools needed for you to become acquainted with the desert. Sunrises and sunsets will reveal the dawn of two worlds, one dominated by the cool shade, the other by unpolluted darkness where the moon casts shadows and a rich fabric of desert flora and fauna come to life.
While we hit the road, trail, mountains and red rock playground that is the American Southwest, keep in mind there’s a rich and dynamic world of dramas, characters, relationships and epic events taking place all around you. Be it the fall migration of raptors that flood desert skies or the spring rush of songbirds that greet the sun’s easterly rise without fail, the desert is a magical place—one you might just want to spend a 60-day honeymoon with.
Header photo by Jeremiah Watt, all other photos courtesy of Charles Post.