Desert Nights in the USA


mojave sunsetMy boyfriend and I graduated from film school physically, mentally, and creatively exhausted. We needed to decompress from the frenzied year of filmmaking. We needed to get away from the city and deadlines. We needed to travel. As storytellers and amateur photographers, nothing is more rejuvenating or affordable than a road trip. Finally free, we packed all of our camping gear, photography equipment, a laptop with our scripts, a bird identification guide, and we hit the open road.

Driving through British Columbian wine country, Alberta’s majestic Waterton Lakes National Park, and the stunning Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan, we uploaded photos and I was texting friends about work projects left behind or taken with us. We crossed into the United States and turned our cell phones off. Our epic tour of National Parks took us through the Beartooth Pass into Yellowstone, past the Grand Tetons, through Arches and Canyonlands, a wild, flash flood in Monument Valley, to a rare condor sighting at the Grand Canyon, and on a hot September evening, the most incredible desert sunset I’ve ever seen.

Rich oranges and pinks glowed through the Joshua tree forest as we drove into the Mojave National Preserve at dusk. Small, rolling mountains were sapphire blue against the setting sun. Usually when we’re on the road, we listen to music and discuss story ideas. After drinking sarsaparilla from Wyoming, we were pitching an idea about Wild West women while heading into our own sunset. And then we stopped talking. We turned the music off. We needed to make it to our campsite before dark, but it didn’t matter anymore. We pulled over.

We let the warm, dry air blow gravel dust around our feet. The sun was setting fast and time was running out to capture the perfect photograph. But we just stood there with our cameras, enjoying the moment. The Joshua trees were strange, with perplexing, fractal shapes silhouetted against the waning daylight. Grasses and wildflowers surrounded us, light reflecting off the creosote shrubs. There was no one else around. I took a deep breath. I closed my eyes. My anxiety about finding our camping spot melted away.

We drove carefully in the last light of the day, watching for desert tortoise on the dusty roads. In the Mojave, free camping sites are available in the desert wilderness. The challenge was to find one of the designated spots, difficult even in the full light of day. We finally stumbled across a gravel road leading to ring of rocks. Using our headlights to illuminate a small patch of sandy earth, we put our tent up in the cool, desert night, completely alone. There was nowhere to plug our technology in. We unpacked very little. I took my shoes off and watched the campfire flames glowing beneath so many stars. We listened to distant coyotes calling across our private piece of the Mojave Preserve. I peed outside in the sand. It was liberating.

Without alarm clocks, the morning sun woke me up. It was already getting hot. Like the animals around us, we found shade during the day. Inside the Kelso Depot museum we read fascinating stories about Mojave, my favourite being the early visitors who made tea out of the wildflowers, only to suffer hallucinations from the toxic nightshade blossoms. I’d photographed those same white flowers, Sacred Datura, earlier. They were so lush despite the intense heat. We hiked out to the Kelso sand dunes to hear them sing, but the heat was extreme and punishing. I’ve never had a drink of cool water feel so refreshing.

Driving back to our perfect camp site, we spotted a slow moving shape at the side of the road. Just as the sun was setting again on the world’s largest Joshua tree forest, a desert tortoise posed for us. I felt instantly protective, I wanted to move it off the road, but touching the tortoise can be fatal for them. We watched him slowly plod along in the orange light. I thought about how old it might be, maybe older than us. Back at our site, we bathed in the fading sunlight and relaxed in solitary bliss. Usually I feel guilty being so unproductive, but I was calm enjoying the serenity of our last night in the desert. When I’m feeling overwhelmed now, I think back to the peacefulness and positive energy of those desert nights. We travelled through many beautiful parks that fall, but nothing reinvigorated and inspired us like the Mojave National Preserve.

About the Author: Rozlyn Young grew up in Fort McMurray, Alberta trying to decide if she would rather be a scientist, writer, or filmmaker. She pursued her love of science first and completed her M.Sc. Roz worked and published in microbiology before attending the Vancouver Film School for screenwriting.

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