Silent Desert

I’m writing from the breakfast room at the Baymont Inn & Suites in Tempe/Scottsdale, AZ.  I’ve been so busy again these last couple of days that I haven’t given myself anytime to write – there was always more surfing to do, places to go or people to meet. Since House of Trestles it’s been go-go-go, and my lack of contact has kept family and friends in the dark about where I am and what I’m doing. Last night I called my family from the hotel and my Dad asked if I was in Mexico.

Since Trestles I actually have been south of the border, as well as San Diego and Joshua Tree National Park; I’ll focus this post on Joshua Tree because it follows my last post chronologically.

When I asked Adam to describe our time in Joshua Tree, he started his recap by saying: “we spent two days in the desert and only went to Denny’s three times.” This made me laugh; it’s true, but when I look back on the experience I remember it feeling so strange and remote.   The park is bordered by an oasis town called 29 Palms, and although we drove here for supplies and three large meals I felt as if we were far away from everything the minute we crossed back across the park border.

We stayed in a campsite called Jumbo Rocks – named for the massive stacks of boulders that are strewn haphazardly for miles around it. The site was within one of these large rock clusters, and our tent was bordered on three sides by looming geologic formations that made me feel small and secluded. These rocks acted as a natural divider between us and other sites – blocking the view and, bizarrely, blocking all sound from neighboring RVs and tents. I could walk out from our place of privacy and see people camped out only ten feet from us, but when I retreated back to the tent I could hear nothing.


The silence was the strangest part of my experience in the desert – even more than the giant rocks, strange spiny vegetation and seemingly-endless horizon. The latter features made the desert all the more surreal, but the silence made me feel as though I had left the Earth entirely.

It’s a cliche to describe the desert as alien -I read about people having similar reactions when I was researching hikes and destinations to do within the park but never fully believed them to be sincere; the accounts seemed exaggerated and intended for dramatic effect. The silence that I experienced, however, was so jarring and unnatural that it felt truly otherworldly. Now I’m another person perpetuating the cliche – you have to visit the desert in person to understand it, I think.

I remember the first time that I noticed the silence: it was on the first hike that we took into the desert and it took me by total surprise. We had been scrambling up rock piles and taking pictures from high vantage points, talking loudly and playing music from a portable speaker attached to the camelback. The area that we had found had been almost entirely empty, but we turned off the music when we ran into another group of hikers. They passed us down into a crevice and their voices were immediately swallowed by the rocks, leaving us without noise or distraction for the first time since arriving to the desert.

The silence made me stop in my tracks. I listened as hard as I could, yearning to hear anything at all but there was nothing: no animals, no wind and no sound of other visitors. Everything was utterly still and silent. After a moment of listening I began to hear my heart beat – a steady thumping that became deafening the more that I focused on it.

I had a sudden, unexpected moment of panic, which was perpetuated by my increasing heart rate – the thumping was getting louder and faster with each second. It was all that I could hear, and all that I could focus on. all After a couple of seconds I had to break the silence in order to avoid the sheer terror of staying in that all-encompassing silence any longer. It had probably been less than a minute since we had met the other hikers and turned off the music, but in that time I had shifted from normalcy to having a total panic attack.

After that, I began to get more used to being in that silence. It even got to the point where it became kind of peaceful – especially at the moment of first waking up in the tent with no disturbances. We began to take hikes without the speakers, taking long moments without talking just to appreciate the lack sound – I would recommend this practice to anyone planning on visiting Joshua tree or somewhere similar, the silence really is part of the desert experience.

We only hiked one actual trail in Joshua tree – a 2 mile path through nothing to an old, underwhelming mining shack. Our favorite spots we found by just walking towards sites on the horizon. Everything around us was so flat and spread out that we could go in most directions without any obstacles. One of the first highlights of the trip was finding a shallow crater at the top of one of the tallest rock piles – it faced west off of a high cliff and caught all of the afternoon sunlight. We called it the sun pool, and we spent over an hour sitting in it and basking in the sunlight like lizards.


We found several other exciting rock climbs over the course of our two day visit. Another one of my personal favorites was a site called Hidden Valley that had some of the U.S.’s most renowned climbing and bouldering. We could climb almost a thousand feet up by scrambling between boulders. The climbs were precarious enough that I could get a real rush of adrenaline, but not steep enough that our routes would have required ropes (not most of them at least). There was one climb, however, where the way back down wasn’t immediately obvious and we both considered the terrifying possibility of being stranded up on a rock pile with no cell phone service and no one within shouting distance to help us.

I did my best to capture the magnitude of the landscape with the pictures that I took, but most of them don’t do it justice.


At night, we were treated to some truly magnificent sunsets from our campsite. All we had to do was climb the rocks adjacent to our tent in order to see the full 360 degree horizon lit up with color. In a funny way, these sunsets reminded me of art projects that I used to do in elementary school; they look almost like a collage – the dark horizon like a dark paper cutout that someone had pasted over a watercolor background. If I was artistic, I would create a painting of this sunset using this technique.


Another crazy desert phenomenon is how fast the temperature drops after sunset. In the space of several hours between afternoon and sunset it went from being hot:


to extremely cold:


This picture was taken early in the morning immediately after waking up. I had slept wearing these clothes with a sleeping bag, and had still felt chilly.

Each night, before retiring to the tent we would cook dinner over the fire and play a game of chess. I hope I’ll always remember camping nights like this, they’ve been some of my favorite parts of the entire trip.


Overall, being in the desert was one of the most fascinating and strange experiences of my life. I would go back to visit, but I don’t know if I could ever live in a place like this without going insane.

One thought on “Silent Desert

  1. Nice new territory for me in your desert blog, Elias. I don’t remember being in Joshua Tree but we saw something like it last year in the Utah landscape, though we were staying with friends in comfortable circumstances and didn’t feel the cold/hot sensation or experience the silence as acutely as you did. Thanks for bringing that out. All’s well on this end after a big Thanksgiving celebration – but nothing happened that could rival the Buffalo Turkey Trot. That has to happen again someday! Take care,
    Big Bill


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