Desert Challenge

By Margie B. Klein

My home is the Mojave desert, southern Nevada, in a suburb of the city of Las Vegas. Often I am asked, “Why do you live in the desert?” and often I tell myself I really don’t know. To say that making a home in a southwestern desert is a challenge – well, that would be an understatement. Like most newcomers, I had no clue about the desert. As I drove across the country headed for Las Vegas from the fertile Midwest, I noticed changes as I moved west. Soon the landscape wasn’t so green and I began to see mountains. Round about Utah, I began to see formations made of giant boulders, and something else that piqued my attention. Sign after sign along the highway said, “No Services,” and I began to panic. A traveler is used to keeping an eye out for rest stops, but it was looking like the surface of the moon. Pretty soon the signs dropped out of sight completely. Then out of the bleakness suddenly appeared The City of Lights. The city of Las Vegas sits in a valley under the gaze of numerous mountain ranges, surrounded by public lands on all sides.

Once I got settled in my newly adopted home, I began to wonder, what on earth was this place – lush oasis or desert mirage? Thus began my learning curve. One of the first things I was educated about was what makes a desert a desert. The first answer is: little water in the ground or in the air – the Mojave in particular only receives four inches of water in a good year. The second answer is: blast furnace winds. Ever hear that saying, “But it’s a dry heat?” Never mind that when it’s over 100 degrees F. The wind here can knock you over and hurl dust devils and tumbleweeds with brute force. Speaking of temperatures, the third answer as to what constitutes a desert is: extreme differences from hot to cold. Summers can top out at over 115 degrees F and winter freezes occur with lows of 20 degrees. When I relocated here, I excitedly got rid of my winter coat, electric blanket, and space heater, only to buy them all again. Since leaving a place at sea level, I went up in elevation to 2500 feet. That changed my tolerance to cold. It surprised me, because after all, I was from Wisconsin.

My daily living was to see some major changes. It’s usually folks back east that get cabin fever in the winter. In the desert southwest, cabin fever happens in the summer. You find yourself stuck indoors most of the time because of the heat. Even if you go out, you search for air-conditioned places to hide out, like movie theaters, restaurants, and casinos. Should you be trapped outside while waiting for a bus or the like, you find any shade you can. It’s funny to see bus riders lined up in the long narrow shade of a single palm tree. Gardeners and passive recreationists like me have to get up very early to snatch a few hours of tolerable temperatures. Speaking of gardening, all I can say is it’s a gamble. There are two abbreviated growing seasons here – late winter to early spring, and fall into early winter. There are still four seasons, but they can be called Cremation, Fall, Cold, and Try Again. How do you find plants that will take the extreme heat, but also survive freezing? There are few, so many things are treated as annuals and there is a lot of replanting. Planting in desert soil is only good for cactus, so if you want a real garden, it’s best to replace it completely, best done in a constructed planter bed. The natural desert dirt contains this thing called caliche. It’s more like concrete and seriously affects the water drainage. Instead of soaking in, water runs off the surface and there is a lot of flooding when it rains. The number one cause of garden plant failure is root rot. People try to compensate for the lack of rain by watering more and end up with dead plants. Personally, I’ve lost many trees and garden plants, and renewed the planter bed soil every year. But it’s a hobby.

There are other things to remember about living in the desert. Water is the most important. I was amazed to find that you had to ask for a glass of water at a restaurant and that there were in-ground sprinkler systems in landscapes. People should always carry water, summer or winter. It’s a very arid environment and the moisture will be sapped right out of you. If you’re crazy enough to hike in the heat, you’ll need two to three times the amount you think you need. While you’re out there, cover yourself from the intense sunlight, for every inch of skin is raw meat to be fried. Watch where you walk out in the desert, as there are many dangerous things on the ground, from rattlesnakes to cactus. When it’s hot outside, the ground is even hotter, so thick-soled hiking shoes are recommended. My first time driving around to view the wildflowers, I got broken-in to these facts. I pulled my truck off on the side of the road and got stuck in the sand. As I walked down the highway to flag down help, I realized that something to drink would have been nice. Fortunately, it was spring, so it wasn’t that hot yet, and I was in a state park, so there would likely be someone along any minute. Car after car waved to me as they passed. Then some nice tourists picked me up. They took me to the ranger station where I found an employee to tow me out of the sand. After that, I made sure that I was extra-prepared on each trip out into the wild desert. Two large coolers of water, a flashlight, a shovel, a whistle, and a blanket for the cold nights went into the back seat. And I got myself a cell phone. The worst mistake made by newbies who get stuck while adventuring is leaving their vehicle. Even if it’s broken down, it’ll be a source of shade, and rescuers are more likely to spot a car than bodies on the ground. 

If your time is spent in the city, you need to consider that super-heated asphalt can melt the rubber on your shoes. It makes senses, then, that it can burn your dog’s feet, too. Every year there are casualties of dogs, children, the elderly, and especially babies, being left inside a hot car with the windows closed for just an hour. Non-living things suffer in the heat and sun as well. Your lawn furniture and outdoor décor may fade or succumb to dry rot in a summer month’s time. Summertime means car batteries fizzle and rearview mirrors melt off the windshield. Electronic devices will sizzle in a short amount of time, so you have to watch where you leave them. Do whatever you can to keep cool, but don’t eat ice cream when it’s 110 degrees because it’ll curdle in your stomach. 

Just as the desert flora and fauna are adapted to the hostile climate, I learned the human adaptations that would make life here bearable. To deal with the intense sun and heat, I procured sun hats, cooling neckerchiefs, spray bottles of water, sunglasses, long-sleeved white shirts, sunblock, and of course tons of water to drink. Dehydration and heat stroke are extremely serious in the summer, with temperatures over 100 degrees and sometimes up to 115. Getting heat sickness is not an experience you’re likely to forget – it happened to me once and I had to be manually cooled down, getting me into shade and covering me with wet cloths. An alternative way to adapt is to limit social activities to the nighttime. Have you ever wondered why desert cities come alive at night?

So humans are able to adapt and nature already is adapted out here. But can the land adapt to so much civilization and development? The desert appears brutal, but the ecology of the environment is quite fragile. With urbanization pushed to the mountains’ edges, there are few parcels left that remain untouched. Three million people reside here now and the tourists are so numerous that land managers can’t keep up with the desecration of the surrounding public lands. Developers are running out of places to blade, and the Lake Mead reservoir that supplies the city’s water has dropped to nearly unrecoverable levels. 

It’s been over 30 years since I moved here, and I have established roots and adapted to the surroundings. I’d go farther to say that I’m an advocate for the Mojave desert, increasing people’s awareness of this hard-mined gem of a place. I believe I’ve stayed so long because there’s nothing like a good challenge to keep you going every day. 

BIO: Margie B. Klein has written nature stories based in the American southwest for over 30 years. She has also shared international travel stories with Wanderlust.

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