Desert Adventures by Moonlight

Shooting star across arid lands.
Shooting star across arid lands.

Many moons ago I moved to California with a healthy appetite for outdoor adventure, primed with stories of the exploits of great adventurers past, like those of John Muir and Ansel Adams. It was in my first year as a Californian that I had a chance encounter with an uncommonly optimistic fellow by the name of Cleveland Storrs. While Cleveland didn't have the legendary status of Muir or Adams, he embodied the same spirit of exploration for which they were so admired. It was only natural that with our mutual love of the outdoors he and I would become good friends over the years, going on many trips together. But I can say that without a doubt, the most rewarding, inspiring and enlightening of our travels were those taken under the cloak of night, venturing into the great desert landscapes of southern California.

Great adventurers past.
Great adventurers past.

The spark that fueled my enthusiasm for hiking by night was a short exchange the first day I met Cleveland in San Diego. We were a good match he and I. While I was ready to learn what my new home could offer me in the ways of weekend getaways, Cleveland had decades of experience hiking and living in California. During that brief conversation, Cleveland divulged that when he got the itch to get away from the chaos of life in the city (as we all do sometimes) he would take his motorcycle out into the desert east of San Diego and camp there alone under the stars.

"Wow," I thought to myself, not only was Cleveland brave enough to go camping alone, he had experienced arid lands the likes of which I'd only seen in photographs. The desert was a far departure from the humble, pine-covered Adirondack high peaks region to which was accustomed from my backpacking days as a younger man. And so in the spirit of experiencing new things, it wasn't very long thereafter that we teamed up and decided to head out there together.

Now admittedly the first few trips to the desert didn't pack the inspirational punch that I had hoped for. We took a few unfathomably sweltering hikes through Anza Borrego's well-marked canyon trails, tip-toeing around cholla cactus patches and double fisting water jugs as we stumbled along in a near heat stroke induced delirium. What was the point of desert hiking anyways? Where were the gentle swaying trees, the babbling brooks, the lush greenery...where was the Julie Andrews twirling through a sea of colorful wildflowers with snowcapped mountain backdrop?

Adirondack stream.
Adirondack stream.

Thinking back to my earlier days of exploring nature on my first ever overnight backpacking trips, I recall countless times being soaked like a sponge by unrelenting downpours in the high peaks region of the Adirondacks. But despite the ponchos and soaked smartwool socks, it was the precipitation that gave rise to all of the natural features I found most appealing about hiking in the first place: the high country streams, waterfalls, green forests, mossy rocks and fern-laden meadows. It was these deciduous elements of the east coast mountain experience that came to be the very definition of the great outdoors for me at the time. What I had gathered from my first few desert trips, by contrast, felt like nothing more than a vast space of lifelessness baking to a crisp under a cloudless sky. The desert seemed to me like nature's attempt to take all things that moved with vibrant life and turn them into immobile features of the landscape. How cruel!

Badlands as seen from Font's Point
Badlands as seen from Font's Point

So, what was I missing? Many notable artists, writers and poets were moved enough to well, move to the American Southwest (not to mention this region was the spiritual homeland of several Pueblo tribes for centuries before the arrival of Europeans). It was within these bizarre, almost uninhabitable lands that they had found a well of inspiration for their work and life. Meanwhile, the only inspiration I found on those first few trips was the inspiration to plan a longer road trip elsewhere- perhaps somewhere I could dip my feet in a stream hopping rock to rock, or at least to be surrounded by a friendlier species of bush that was not out to prick your toes!

Impressionistic painting of desert landscape.
Impressionistic painting of desert landscape.

One fateful night, however, my attitude toward the desert would open up to a lifelong passion and exuberance that I hold with me to this day. Cleveland and I arrived at an off the beaten path campground in Anza Borrego one late Friday evening. This was after a long work week hammering away at the keyboard in my cramped cubicle. When the hum of the engine eventually ceased after countless hours driving down windy roads, we stepped out and felt an energy in our surroundings the likes of which I had never felt before.

The campground and in fact the entire end of the park where we set up shop was completely devoid of other people, and comfortably situated at the resting point between three sandstone hills. The texture beneath our feet was formed from luxuriously soft sand, and a symphony of stars streaked across the night sky above our heads. Over the hills on west side of our camp was the long, gentle downward slope of the vast desert floor, stretching as far as the eye could see. Meanwhile, over to the east was a cavernous maze of arroyos (ancient, dried riverbeds meandering in every direction imaginable). The moon was full glowing with a brilliant orange, starting its patient ascent over a nearby peak on the horizon (a mountain we would later affectionately call the "Holy Mountain" for the swiss cheese like polkadotted holes around its base). What was a mostly beige and faint pastel colored desert landscape by day, was now bathed in silvery moonlight reflecting off the sand beneath us. The crystal content of the rocks around us sparkled, illuminating an infinite array of possible paths into the wild. And just moments after we set up camp, we were further greeted with several highly visible meteorites streaking brightly across the night sky.

As tired as we were after such a long day, we decided it was best to eat and then venture out into the night. So after a satisfying dinner of fried organic sausages and top quality mustard, we set out on our walk with our bellies full and flashlights packed away (the shimmering moonlight would be our guiding light this evening). We made our way through a narrow passage that would lead us out to where the desert floor opened up, bending its way through a path carved by a freshwater stream eons ago. It was just a matter of minutes after we made it out to the desert floor that we were met with a gentle, warm breeze billowing from the west. The heat of the day absorbed by the metals in the surrounding rock was now radiating up from below us, allowing us to walk comfortably in shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops.

As we made our way through the moonlit landscape, we stopped by to admire the ocotillo and cholla families, grouped together as if intentionally placed there for a giant museum exhibit stretching for miles in all directions. Under the soft moonlight, their shapes emerged more clearly than by the bright daylight of the desert sun, revealing details in their design otherwise undetectable. The ocotillo branches would twist and twirl wherever their prickly hearts desired, reaching high toward the sky, and the cholla's fine needles looked almost like a fuzz around the plants when viewed in the soft light.

As we pushed further and further astounded by our surroundings, our conversation would periodically yield for a silent glimpse of the stars above. The distant specks of light were set out along the outstretched arm of the milky way, giving the illusion of a continuum of terrestrial and cosmological space all around. "Exceptional, fantastic, I've never seen so many stars in my life," we would remark.

Sleeping ocotillos.
Sleeping ocotillos.

Peering into our universe above us, it felt only natural to begin to discuss the most profound of life's unanswered questions: the origins of the cosmos and consciousness, whether or not everything was created by an intelligent being or has existed for eternity without the cause for such a brilliant effect. Indeed, we made no more progress cracking these mysteries than perhaps our ancestors did in their attempts, looking up at the same nightsky from another desert land far away from where we stood. But it was a pleasure nonetheless to open discussions up to such broad topics in such a wide open space.

As the time passed into the late hours, we wandered back over to the other side of our arid world, where the arroyos invited us into its maze of enclosing canyon walls. Venturing deeper into the badlands, in the deepest recesses of the arroyos, we reached spaces where the wind would almost cease to be completely. We were protected in the bosom of the canyons of the badlands, and a powerful silence came over our space. This was an auditory experience so deafening that both of our ears began to ring.

How strange it is that even in the dead of night at our homes, one still hears the occasional sound- vents, creeks, or the ambient drone of cars passing on a distant road. But out there in the arroyos of the Anza Borrego badlands there was a new kind of silence, one so profound and still that it seemed the very root of all possible sounds. A meditative moment came about us, assisted by the playful light and shadows of the moon off the surrounding rocks. Patterns and shapes emerged from the whimsical (a giant nose shaped rock complete with nostrils) to abstract sculptures at varying distances, reminiscent of the surreal paintings of Salvador Dali.

I was now learning that the potency of the desert experience is a natural byproduct of the land opening up to the observer, the more present and receptive the observer is to the magic it has to offer. Part of the learning process for me came from allowing the desert to be exactly what it was, and appreciating it without the expectation of something different, like trees or rivers. Perhaps we were also a bit tired as it was starting to get late and had done a 15 good miles of night hiking up to that point. But rather than head straight back to camp, we decided to push onward to see the what the holes of the Holy Mountain looked like up close. And so we set out deeper into the arroyos, bending around with the turn of the ancient riverbeds, each corner revealing a new and exciting room of sculptured, moonlit cliffs and boulders.

When we arrived at Holy Mountain, to our pleasant surprise, the swiss-cheese like features were actually deeper than they appeared from our distant campsite. They were small pod-like oval caves carved into the mountain walls, each with a small puddle of soft sand contained within, creating a natural womb for rest. And so it was there we took our rest, in the perfect silence of the desert night, surrounded by the play of intriguing light and shadow off the rocks around us.

Holy mountain at a distance, by day.
Holy mountain at a distance, by day.

The pod I had chosen was not far up the mountain side, it had a perfectly bowed sandstone rock on which to rest my tired head. Occasionally, a light wind would come swirling around my cave bed, lulling me to sleep. With every breath, I started drifting off into a deeper sleep, as my minds eye filled with vivid images of the various forms of plant life and rocks that I had seen earlier that evening. Each image was presented to me like a slideshow of our travels, changing with the pace that matched our footsteps through the wild that evening: step...family of prickly chollas...step...sparkling moonlit path...step...sculptured canyon walls...step... hey look, it's nose rock!

It's hard to say that a particular nap was a memory worth keeping, but if there was a top 10 list for such a thing, surely this nap would have been a candidate. About an hour later I eventually emerged from my deep sleep more well-rested and satiated than if I had slept in my bed at home. I stretched and took in a deep breath of satisfaction and confided in Cleveland, "Man, this sure beats going out to a noisy bar on a Friday night." And with that, we took our long journey back to the campsite to sleepthrough the rest of what was left of the night, before the sun would illuminate a very different desert world than the one we had the pleasure of exploring that evening.

That night in Anza Borrego was just the first of many to come, each having their own incredible story of adventure to bring home. I'm very grateful to Cleveland for having shown me that the desert can offer a very different kind of adventure than we typically think about when we plan our backpacking trips.

So for those of you out there who may be interested in trying some desert night hiking on your own, I strongly encourage you to grab a near and dear friend and give it a try. While the darkness of the evening can quite naturally seem scary to us (myself included), opening your heart to night hiking gives you the opportunity to cultivate a bank of captivating stories to bring home to friends and family. The writings of John Muir or the breathtaking photographs of Ansel Adams continue to inspire people like me to push further into the unknown and experience adventure on a whole new level. So get out there and make those memories that someday you may share with your grandchildren around a campfire under the cloak of darkness, inspiring the next generation to get out there and explore their own backyards.

Desert Adventures by Moonlight
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