It’s strange how deserts turn us into believers. I believe in walking in a landscape of mirages, because you learn humility. I believe in living in a land of little water because life is drawn together.
Terry Tempest Williams
She doesn’t know it, but Terry Tempest Williams and I have a fundamental disagreement.
I have always been a fan of water, and I do think it too can bring us together. As a kid, I was on my local swim team. As a college student, I worked as a water-ski instructor. I lived in Sydney, Australia for a few years because it was so close to the beach.
I love water so much, it was a very long time before I could see the potential and beauty of a “land of little water.” Of course, experience is the best teacher and it took a firsthand experience in the desert to change my mind, unlike my new friend, Rachael Pace, who never needed convincing. Rachael has always been on “Team Desert.”
Rachael is an Arizona native and a seasoned VOBS Instructor. She’s instructed across all of our program sites — the Boundary Waters, the Twin Cities, Texas — but she has a passion for her home environment and is our resident desert ambassador — our own Queen of the Desert. “The Boundary Waters are really beautiful, but I feel the desert is more in my blood.” Rachael wants all of us to join “Team Desert.”
Rachael lived in Tucson, Arizona, a city located in the Sonoran desert, home to the infamous saguaro cacti (the ones you think of when you picture the desert). Then, as an Instructor, Rachael became a seasonal resident of Big Bend National and State Parks. She explains that Big Bend is in the heart of the Chihuahuan desert, where the desert shrub ocotillo reign supreme. The Big Bend desert is special and Rachael explains why.
“What’s really cool about this desert, is that you can look out on a vast expanse of shrub land and you wonder how anything survives. Then, you hike for water, and you come across a stream and discover that suddenly you’re in a totally different ecosystem. In Big Bend Ranch State Park especially, you can hike for water and come across grass and ferns… all the sudden it’s green and lush! It can change dramatically in a few minutes of hiking. And there’s such a variety of plants and animals. When you come across cottonwood trees, you know you’re near a source of year round water. The desert gives you clues. If you pay attention, you can read the desert.”
Rachael wants me (and you) to know that there are three things about Big Bend that she absolutely loves:
Number one. “I love how it can look so bleak at first glance, but then you see all this detail and you discover how alive the desert is. The stereotype is dead brown things, but it’s so much more than that. Ocotillo can look completely dead, but then it rains and the leaves pop out almost instantly. It’s not a seasonal schedule, it’s a rain schedule.”
What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince
Number Two. “The Santa Elena Canyon on the Rio Grande is one of my favorite places in the world. With soaring cliffs so close to the river, you feel very remote. You feel the solitude as you float down this special canyon. It feels like a different world.”
Number Three. “The night sky. Zero light pollution and the sky is usually clear. There are so many stars. Both Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park have been recognized as International Dark Sky Parks. Don’t let the name fool you though, on nights with a full moon, it’s almost bright enough to read by.”
If the desert is holy, it is because it is a forgotten place that allows us to remember the sacred. Perhaps that is why every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self. There is no place to hide, and so we are found.
Terry Tempest Williams