Now and again a hill breaks the monotony. It is not an old Appalachian hill, worn smooth by time and the
elements. It is still, as geological time is reckoned, quite a young hill, all angles and sharp edges casting crisp contour shadows under the pitiless desert sunlight.
In the distance—always in the distance, like mirages that have no substantive reality—purple jags of low mountains zipper the horizon. Roads run parallel to these distant monuments, but not toward them. If you went off-road, arrowed toward the mountains on horseback, galloping across the mineral flats and spiky vegetation, would you reach them before thirst closed your throat?
The mountains’ indistinct remoteness discourages such mad feats of exploration.
The distant mountains are the only indistinct elements of the landscape. Everything else—the flat sands, the serrated foliage, the sharp-edged, youthful hills, the limpid air, the sky so starkly clean—is in startling focus. Everything unmistakable for what it is.
That is a road, that is a cactus, that is a desert bird vectoring in the clear sky, those are the bleached bones of some unlucky creature. There are no illusions here in the desert, no disguises, nothing to filter or mediate or prettify the images you see.
In a world increasingly filtered through the manipulated images of marketing, media, virtual reality, whimsical architecture, and even our own smart phone apps, deserts might be one of the few places left on the planet where what you see is, genuinely, what you see.
Hence the alien quality of the desert, the sensation of viewing the landscape of the moon. Overlook the few billboards and occasional mining plant, and desert travelers might be navigating a lunar surface.
But there is life here, though it is often camouflaged. Life blends with its surroundings by imitating the angled patterns and washed-out colors of the land, or by burrowing under the parched soil.
In a land of difficult beauty, life must melt into the wan world, or dig under it, to survive.