“It is in the desert that Nature shows us its most uncompromising face. The magnificent play of the shadows, the comforting flood in light, and the gold glow of sand are there, of course, but only when the sun is low in the horizon. During the hours in-between, the sunlight is hard and unflattering, and it is then that the desert reveals its cruel side: equally beautiful, but disquieting.” – Arita Baaijens, Desert Songs
The city of Ridgecrest sits in the high desert of Eastern California, tucked between the Sierra Nevada, Cosos, Argus, and El Paso mountain ranges. It’s the type of place you transit through, the town itself is there solely to support the nearby military testing facility at China Lake. The climate is hot and dry, the landscape nearly featureless out to the horizons.
Brandon and I found ourselves there for the weekend; it would be the staging grounds for our trip to Death Valley National Park. Luckily, there seemed to be plenty of sights in the area. One which interested us was intriguingly named Fossil Falls. Formed by the dual forces of volcanic flows and the runoff from melting glaciers, the resulting rock formations are smooth and alien things tucked into a bleak landscape.
The surfaces of the basalt flows are impossibly smooth, worn down by the tirelessness of water. Even though I’ve traveled through other deserts in Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Iran, and the US, I still found myself surprised by the abundance of life thriving in the cracks and holes around us. Chuckwallas basked in the heat of the sun on rocks, waddling with surprising speed to the safety of crevices and burrows whenever someone stepped to close. Smaller lizards darted across porous stone, furtively looking for insects while keeping close watch on the skies overhead.
The next day took us past the Trona Pinnacles on our way to Death Valley. A short drive from Ridgecrest, the Pinnacles are a dusty five mile drive along a dirt road stemming from the highway. Visible from miles away, the cluster of tufa spires was formed from calcium carbonate generated by the interaction of underground springs and other bodies of water.
Now, they linger and crumble with the passing of time. When compared to the shifting sands of the Gobi, this desert landscape changes at a relatively glacial rate, the rocks worn slowly by the wind and the rain.
The variety of terrains which exist in the world still amazes me. When people think of the desert, they think of miles upon miles of barren sand dunes. But the sands are deceiving and hide a beauty that must be sought out. Hidden in the folds and tucked into valleys, there is life; beneath the menace of the relentless sun and scorching heat, there is beauty…
…even in a place like Ridgecrest.
For a truly inspirational peek into someone’s passionate, yet turbulent relationship with the desert, I highly recommend this interview Amy Gigi Alexander did with the explorer Arita Baaijens. It’s long, but one of the most rewarding reads I’ve come across.
Have you ever encountered beauty in a place you least expected it? Where was it and what did you find? Share in the comments below!