Edward Abbey Desert Solitaire in the Pinacate Biosphere Reserve

by Audrey Medina

The first rays of daylight creep across the jagged black landscape, pushing shadows back beyond the dormant volcano to the sea. The birds have been singing for more than an hour, their solos building to a crescendo just before dawn. Loggerhead shrikes, red-eyed phainopeplas, canon wrens, tiny gray darters. Slowly, the chorus dwindles with the rising temperature.

I sit in my lawn chair by the fire, still wearing my sleeping bag. The sun rises into my eyes, and I only have a few more minutes alone with the desert while my friends are asleep. I sit and listen. The wind is picking up. Somewhere out there, coyotes are yapping. God’s dogs, Edward Abbey called them. They remind me of him, and that wildness still exists, out here and everywhere, even in cities and suburbs, everywhere that coyotes hunt.

My friends begin to wake up, stretching the sleep and last night’s tequila out of their heads. We’re camped in the sand, sheltered from an incessant wind by a toe of black, chunky lava, forty feet high. In an obscure corner of the Sonoran Desert, between the Mexican border and the Sea of Cortez, the Pinacate Biosphere Reserve, as its now known, is the result of several dozen eruptions and the viscous flow of molten rock. The source of most of this lava lies a mile or so to the west, buried knee-deep in it. A domed volcanic mountain, El Pinacate resembles the shell of a Pinacate beetle.

Abbey caught his first glimpse of the desert Southwest from a boxcar in 1944, on his first hitchhiking and train-jumping trip from Pennsylvania to California. He was 17, and it was love at first sight. The Pinacate was Abbey’s favorite amongst the many desert landscapes that he came to know so well.  He wrote:

This region is the bleakest, flattest, hottest, grittiest, grimmest, dreariest, ugliest, most useless, most senseless desert of them all. It is the villain among badlands, most wasted of wastelands, most foreboding of forbidden realms. At least in the Southwest, the Pinacate desert is the final test of desert rathood; it is here that we learn who is a true rat and who is essentially is only a desert mouse.

Testing rathood for ourselves, we head up the mountain. First, though, we need to cross the flows. We put cameras, lunch, and water into our packs and we’re off. Up, over, and across the lava, more of a scramble than a hike, the flows are covered with knee-high high lumps, bumps, and jags.

We follow ancient footpaths when we find them. I wonder how barefoot people made it across. But many did. An early group, called the Mal Pais, were followed by the Sand Papago, traveling Jesuits, goatherds, woodcutters, a few scientists, and assorted desert rats. Forty thousand years of human history. No one has lived here since 1912, when the last lonely Sand Papago moved north to the Gila River.

Abbey’s first visit to the Pinacate was with a biologist friend in March of 1968, to look at the spring wildflowers at their peak. His first book of nonfiction, Desert Solitaire, had recently been published. Even though it was just a brief trip down from Tucson, and he didn’t have time to climb El Pinacate, Abbey understood its appeal.

Why should anyone go out of his way to contemplate the Pinacate country, El Gran Desierto, this ultimate wasteland? One answer might be that very few people ever do go out there . . . But this is not an answer, only an evasion. Perhaps the explanation is that the appeal of the Pinacate country lies in its total lack of any obvious appeal. In its emptiness. In its vast, desolate nothingness.

This emptiness, though, is only empty of water, and therefore, people and buildings.

But it is full of lava.

Black, elongated hummocks of it. Craters, two dozen of them, pock the landscape. Over the course of a million years, they belched their gases and magma to the surface. Formless clumps twisted into streamlined sculptures as they arced. Gases rose out of the cooling lava. Small watery globs squirted up and piled around the fumaroles. Green, white, orange, and brown oxide patches decorate each tower.

Lava poured from fissures, and covered seven hundred and fifty square miles of desert. Chunky blocks, big as houses, rafted down streams of molten rock.

It’s a moonscape. NASA thought that it was such an authentic moonscape that they brought astronauts here for training before they were stuffed into a rocket and shot off to the Sea of Tranquility. As it turns out, the surface of the moon is more like a walk on the beach than a lava field.

How does anything survive here at all? Two or three inches of rain in a year; sometimes the clouds forget to pass by. No permanent water, only a couple of deep puddles in the rock, tinajas, that dry up before summer. The sun is hard; days of 120 and 130 degrees Fahrenheit are not uncommon. Now, in late March, it is 90 degrees.

Onward, up the hill. Coyote tracks cross the fine, brown dust. I don’t see the mammals, but their traces are here. Kangaroo rat holes, rabbit droppings, mouse tracks in the sand. Reptiles, Chuckwalla, those desert dragons. Their sole defense is to wedge into a crack in a rock and bloat themselves with air. The Papago used sharpened sticks to deflate them for dinner.

Lizards. Side-blotched, whiptails, collared, leopard, and zebra tails. Horned toads too. And black-tailed rattlesnakes. The previous afternoon, five feet of olive-brown scales warned me from beneath a creosote bush. A rat-sized lump in its middle gave further proof of small mammals. Brown-gray patches ran along its spine. The fine black tail ended in a set of whirring rattles. Lethargic from digesting the rat, it began to slide away in search of a less visited piece of shade. My friend distracted it with a long stick while I reached down and gripped its buzzing rattle in my palm.

Soil, when it forms, blows away. Sand collects in the troughs between the flows, out of the ceaseless wind. A week before we arrived, it rained, and the desert bloomed. Sand verbena and popcorn flowers grow in the troughs. The larger plants grow wherever they can find water. In a dry wash, palo verde. On rubbly slopes and flows, teddy bear cholla, barrel cactus, staghorn cholla, saguaro. Creosote, saltbush, ocotillo.

Strange, spiney ocotillo. Neither a tree nor a cactus, the ocotillo is a life form all its own. A dozen or so hard, dry spires, sometimes reaching upward of ten feet, are covered with rows of spines. After a rain, it quickly covers itself with tiny, soft, round leaves, and scarlet flames flower at its tips. Until the rain dries up. Then, just as quickly, the leaves fall off, and its branches wait for the rain to come again.

The secret to survival is lack of water in El Pinacate. There is life here. Every form, however, has learned to covet water, to conserve energy, to wait.

Rectangular chips of white quartz, half the size of a domino, dot the slopes of some of the craters. Papagos and early travelers carried the chips and bits of shell to mark their trails across the desert. On my first trip here, I stuck one in my pack for a souvenir. Two years later, I’ve brought it back. It was wrong to even borrow it, and lucky for me, the local ghosts are merciful.

Four hours into the hike, we reach the top of Pinacate Peak. Barely four thousand feet above the sea, it yields a view of fifty miles in any direction. We sign the logbook at the top, and I flip backwards, but don’t see Abbey’s name; this book is new. He made it to the peak on his second visit, in May of 1969, commenting that it wasn’t much of a climb, more of a long hike, and that every hiking club in southern California had signed the book. Desert rats are far and few between, but they all seem to climb this hill eventually.

To the north, a jagged, gray exposure of granitic terrain rises above the desert. The Hornaday Mountains, the legendary home of mountain lions, whitetail deer, and desert bighorn sheep. Named to honor William Hornaday, who, earlier in the century, led hunting parties here and all but annihilated the wildlife.

West. El Gran Desierto. A modest name for an ocean of shifting sand dunes. This erg(an Arabic word), stretches from the base of Pinacate Peak to the Colorado River, more than a hundred miles away. It is the only erg in the Western Hemisphere.

Southwest. That shimmering blue mirage, the Sea of Cortez. The single highway through this desert ends in Puerta Penasco, the fishing village. Cold beer on shaded verandas. Ice. Fresh shrimp. Civilization. Across the Sea, on a clear day, the faint hills of Baja.

To the East. Lava.

Overhead, there are no clouds. Not even a jet trail. Just blue, 360 degrees of it, all around the horizon. Pure, clear, spotless blue. Ravens flap by at eye level, grawking at us. Higher up, the small black curves of turkey vultures spiral on the rising air.

After lunch, and a rest, we descend. There is no gasoline or fresh water within 50 miles; shade is scarce; the sun is hard.

The desert rat has learned to love the kind of country that most people find unlovable. Call the desert barren, harsh, bitter, dreary and gloomy, acrid and arid, lifeless, hopeless, ugly as sin, ghastly as the gates of hell – he will happily agree with you. Because in his heart lies the secret belief that the awful desert is really sweet and loveable, that the ugly is really beautiful, that hell is home.

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