Desert. From ecclesiastical Latin. Dēsertum. “Abandoned place.”

The word conjures up images of vast sand dunes, blurred footsteps leading to the top. There, some poor soul lies prostrate, skin parched and blistered from the ray guns of a merciless sun.

Lands of little rain, uninhabited, lifeless. That, I must admit, covered my initial definition of deserts.

Yet there are deserts and then there are deserts. I’ve lived in a few. Or at least close enough:

      • The semi-arid Sacramento Valley.
      • The Channeled Scablands of eastern Washington state.
      • The Tehuacan Desert surrounding Puebla, Mexico.
      • The high desert of Laramie, Wyoming.
      • The manmade desert that now covers most of Haiti.
      • The Sahara Desert, lapping at the coastal city of Rabat, Morocco.
      • Once more, the endless Sahara enveloping Burkina Faso, in West Africa.

Then, in the aftermath of a long dark night of the soul, I found myself entrenched in the Sonoran Desert of the American Southwest, which proved to be unlike any other desert I’ve experienced. Saguaro cacti, standing straight as sentinels guarding the precious jewels of a king, exist only here. Their arms seemed to beckon me from the beginning, welcoming me. The lushness of this desert surprised me.  I hungered to learn all about this place that seems to reach down into my heart, dabbing at my wounds, healing the sores. As I read, the words of I. M. Pei resonated:

In northern architecture – the cathedrals of Europe and all the little churches – the details, the carving of stone, become necessary because the light is not there to help you very much. You have to enrich surfaces. The desert reduces form to its simplest nature. There is no need for gargoyles or flying buttresses in the desert.

I reach back, seeking cobwebby memories of the past. Many before me retreated to the desert, too.

A few of the books feeding me on this journey:

Desert Solitaire (Edward Abbey)

The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide (Eric Magrane and Christopher Cokinos, eds.)

The Wisdom of the Desert (Thomas Merton)

Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert (Terry Tempest Williams)

Up close and personal. Saguaro cactus, Catalina Foothills, Arizona (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)


  1. Great to read you again, Cynthia–but the Sahara does not quite lap at the outskirts of Rabat, Morocco. It is actually southeast of Casablanca, over the High Atlas Mountains from Marrakech, about a 6 hour drive from the coast, if memory serves me right! I will actually be in the Moroccan desert in a month’s time. My favorite road, the Kasbah Trail, on the eastern slope of the Atlas, is now dotted with Air B and Bs, some golf courses (yes!), and a few oases, I hope..Bon appetit!


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