Our first encounter with an American desert came in driving Interstate 15 north from Los Angeles to Las Vegas through the High Mojave. Where we expected to find Lawrence of Arabia waving from atop a sand dune, we instead crossed a moonscape of barren rocks and tumbleweed half-hidden under a mountain of ghost housing, discarded junk and furniture, assorted car trash, and reams of toilet paper trailing off in the desiccated breeze.
It wasn’t until 15 years later that we actually left the highway and discovered the hidden wonders of Death Valley and the Mojave National Preserve. Two novels came out of our many adventures: Until I Die, where Iris and Charlie hide out from the law in an abandoned mining camp and fight off a Manson-like family; and Cat Flight From Birdland, where Alec and his favorite lesbian couple, Midge and Alice, hide $9,999,900 stolen from Bulgarian mobsters in a sand dune north of Stovepipe Wells.
We trekked every inch of these spectacular locations, most often at 5:30AM as the sun was still thinking about rising. Fortunately, we didn’t understand the silly risks we were taking until long afterward. The first thing you learn in climbing a slot canyon filled with rock falls—and with 30 pounds of photo equipment on your back—is that what goes up might or might not, depending on your luck, come down.
Another old cliché sums up the desert experience: less is more. The subtlety of the landscape means you have to actively seek out its treasures. In our modern, spoon-fed version of tourism, this ensures that 99% of travelers will sail onward to the nearest slot machine with hardly a glance in their rear-view mirror. But if you do your research and watch out for stray snakes, scorpions, fire ants, black widows, hungry desert cats, and Mansonites, there is nowhere in the world where nature so openly bares her under-processed soul.