Three Corners of Earth, Part 1 of 3

Where the Dissimilar Meets the Dissimilar

Pine Valley There are a handful of places on the world where it seems the wonders of the planet converge upon each other into a metamorphic climax. Where glaciers meet the sea in Alaska, for example, or where the Amazon meets the Andes. Utah's Dixie, an area in the far southwestern corner of the state where the Basin and Range province, the Colorado Plateau and the Mojave Desert converge into a surreal pile of rocks, flora and fauna, is another such place.

I do not mean to say this is the heart of the desert; the desert, of course, has no heart, no center, no apex and few, if any, answers. Rather, what we have here is a simple melding of otherwise dissimilar climates, landscapes and territories. Their human histories, though, are largely intertwined.

I think it is one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

A Cold Morning in the Mountains, er, Desert

Joshua Tree It's a cold morning. Real cold, for mid-March. The thermometer I laid out on the truck last night now says 13 degrees. The sun is coming up over the mountains on my left. All around in Mountain Meadow, the place where I am camped, the mountains and valleys are coming alive. The coyote calls of night are gone. Cows bellow. Deer tracks in the snow surround the truck. The sun slowly reveals frosted snow, sage and junipers. The frost on the snow glitters.

I didn't arrive here until late last night, well into the time when AM radio stations from all around the West fill the airwaves. I fell asleep in the truck with the seat laid back listening to a call-in show from Los Angeles where callers argued with a guest who believed it was the state's responsibility to erect sound walls along freeways. Looking around, bleary-eyed and hungry, it seems unlikely that that conversation could have invaded such a place.

When I said the Basin and Range, the Colorado Plateau and the Mojave Desert converge in southwestern Utah, what I meant to say is that over the course of perhaps three dozen miles they all meet. For the three to join in a single point would be too good to be true.

However, when people try to point to an area where the three come together, they often point to the mountain range that rises in front of me, the Pine Valley Mountains. Rising from just 2,500 feet to over 10,000 feet, the Pine Valley Mountains, often snow-covered and always formidable, serve as a constant reminder for the abrupt changes in Utah's topography.

East of the range sits Zion National Park. With its canyons so deep the sun never shines and its bright red pinnacles that Mormons called Kolob - the land where God lives - Zion is to many the embodiment of the Colorado Plateau. North of the mountains, visible for over a hundred miles in the midday sun, stretch the limitless bounds of the Basin and Range province, a vast area covering nearly all of Nevada and the western third of Utah with alternating long thin valleys and mountains. And south of the Pine Valley Mountains, starting near the sunbird community of St. George and lasting until Arizona's border with Mexico, shimmers the red and tan Mojave Desert. The Pine Valley Mountains themselves, which geologically are mostly quartzite and most closely resemble the island mountains of the Colorado Plateau are, really, nothing of their surroundings. Like any other mountain wilderness - high, silent and clean - they just simply are. I know, not a good explanation.

Warmth came slowly to Mountain Meadow, where cold air seems to pool. The inside of the truck is crusted in ice, probably from my condensed breath. Only with the defroster on high for five minutes do breaks in the frost begin to appear on the windshield. The drive into the Pine Valley Mountains is beautiful and short; the trailhead parking lot already has a smattering of cars. A man from the town of Pine Valley, just a few miles back, makes a brisk walk by. He is swinging a golf club as he walks. He stops to pet Porter, sniffs the air, and says, This is nice, with an emphasis on 'nice' as though for the first time in his life he has found reason to use the word.

Like Arms Raised to Heaven

Jeff's Truck How therapeutic is the smell of suntan lotion on the eleventh week of winter? It's wonderful, and up on top of the mountain I put on more than I need because I like the smell so much. Up here, the winds of winter still blow even though the sun is strong; deep snow and powder-frosted trees belie spring's onset. In haste, I race back to the truck.

Down in Veyo, a tiny log cabin town at the foot of the mountains (gas: expensive), dogs ride in the backs of trucks next to hay and baling wire. I left the main road, which leads to St. George, and took a windy narrow road down through Gunlock and across the Santa Clara River again. Down here the big cottonwoods along the river are just beginning to green up. On a straight stretch in the road I look down at my dash-mounted altimeter: 3,500 feet above sea level! I have to think hard to remember the last time I drove to an elevation this low. (Yikes! The air down here is heavy.)

Fifty-five minutes after leaving the trailhead in the mountains - literally, 55 minutes - I pull the truck off the road. Just up ahead there is a bump in the pavement. Arizona.

This is one of the great oddities of Utah. Less than an hour ago I was on skis in the Pine Valley Mountains and in two feet of snow. There were icicles in the trees. Now, as I unload the back of the truck to find a pair of shorts, I set my still-wet skis and ski boots down on ground that in a snowy decade might see two inches of snow. The jugs of water in the truck still have ice floating in them. The sleeping bag is still cold.

This is the Mojave. Specifically, this is the Beaver Dam Wash, just about the lowest spot in Utah at about 2,800 feet. (The lowest spot is a few miles to the west, actually at the bottom of the wash, which the western word for a stream that almost never has any water in it.) The pines, junipers and fir trees of the Pine Valley Mountains are long gone. Down here we have cholla, barrel cactus and Joshua trees.

Beaver Dam Sunset Now, Joshua trees, Yucca brevifolia, are about the last tree in the world you would associate with Utah. Found only in this tiny corner of the state, Joshua Trees can live to be 200 years old. Early Mormon settlers called them 'Joshua' because they seem to lift their arms in praise as did the Biblical Joshua. On the Beaver Dam slope, which leads downhill to Arizona and Nevada, old trees stand on desert slopes like patriarchal grandfathers, frazzled with arms and tufted, yellowed sharp leaves. Young plants consist of a single stem which has one growing point. After it produces a flower stalk, that point dies and the stem does not grow any more. But the plant responds by branching - by sprouting a new stem near the tip of the old one.

The Joshua Tree is home to as many as 25 different species of birds. Scott's orioles hang their nests from the short, stiff leaves. Northern flickers excavate nest holes in the trunks, which other birds later occupy. Fallen branches, as they decay, are consumed by termites, which in turn are eaten by night lizards, who live under the protective cover of the Joshua tree bark.

Next to the Joshua trees in this sublime afternoon sun are clusters of sweet-smelling creosote and desert agave. The agave, often found in the shadows of the Joshua tree here on the Beaver Dam slope, live most of their life as a low cluster of leaves. Then, once about every 30 years, a flowing stalk shoots up about ten feet in the air in a brilliant display of flowers and humming bees. Then, after the season is over, the stalk withers and yellows and the plant is done flowering. Early settlers thought, though, that this flowering occurred only once every century, and the agave is commonly called a 'century plant' due to this misnomer.

The other showy desert plant on the Beaver Dam is the cholla. Word to the unwise: Don't come anywhere near the cholla. A fight is sure to ensue and you will lose. Reaching as high as ten feet, this bright beautiful plant has a bad reputation for ending up stuck to clothes or animals. This, in fact, is how the plant disperses itself from place to place. The cholla, Opuntia fulgida, proliferates by means of fallen joints and can form vast thickets, especially further south in Arizona. Porter, thankfully, steered clear.

Hmmm, 96 Miles to Vegas

Road Sign for Las Vegas The entire southwestern slope of the Beaver Dam Mountains is a complex biological community found nowhere else in the state, part of it due to its low elevation and part to the proximity of the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau, each of which offer their own plant and animal species. This small slice of the Mojave Desert is also home the desert tortoise, who can live for decades, plus peregrine falcons, a few Gila monsters, iguanas, rattlesnakes and night lizards.

It is really a stunning, slanted-sun afternoon, warm and comforting. My nose, numbed by six months of winter, is being slowly activated by the surrounding 5,000 acres of creosote. I get out of the truck and walk up to this green sign along the road. It says, Las Vegas 96. It's been a long time since I was in Las Vegas. It's only 5:30. I turn the truck off so it's real quiet then turn the radio on and hit scan. A half-dozen Las Vegas radio stations beaming across the desert come in crystal clear. 'Extreme Radio 107.5' The city is a draw. But I turn the truck back around and go to find a camping spot in the desert behind me.

Part 2 | Part 3

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