A desert with many faces

Imagine a two-lane highway. The pavement is pulsing with heat it cannot contain. All around is orange sand; the occasional tumbleweed rolls by. The air conditioning in your car is pumping diligently, saving you from the fierce sun that would surely suck you dry.

Although this was the setting I expected, it was not the desert I encountered. For one thing, the areas of the Southwest my brother and I explored were experiencing a cold spell, dropping temperatures to about 20 degrees lower than average. This, along with my minimal exposure to the desert (I have only been to the Negev in Israel) and the numerous movies I’ve seen, led me to envision one façade for a place that has many faces.

Our first stop was the Grand Canyon, a place everyone has heard of but many Arizonians – at least all of the ones I spoke to – have never been to.

Northern Arizona was frigid, to say the least. It was in the low 30s, and there was snow everywhere: on the sand, speckled up high in glowing orange and brown mountain peaks, caked on the trees and vegetation. In other areas, small hills, named Teepees, ranging in hue from brown to red to purple dominated the landscape. Each color represented the different geological time frame in which the rocks were formed. They gave me the feeling that I was on another planet.

I had been told that the grandeur of the Grand Canyon fades quickly. Nature junkie that I am, I couldn’t imagine this would be true. Yet, it was. I blame it on the cold, mostly. Due to the iciness, hiking was out of the question. Our only mode of sightseeing was by way of shuttle buses, which traveled in loops along the Canyon’s southern rim. The drivers were cheery, and their spiels were so well rehearsed that I nearly felt I was taking a tour of Disney World rather than one of the world’s most treasured natural wonders.

Despite feeling a little detached from its wonder, the Grand Canyon was one of the most awesome sights I’ve ever seen. Learning that the ridges – many of which are shaped symmetrically – were carved out of stone by the might of the raging Colorado river more than several million years ago left me in awe over the grandiosity of nature when left alone for so many years.

The Grand Canyon spans out farther than the eye can see, nearly leading into Utah. Crossing the border from Arizona to Utah was like crossing into a whole new land. Utah had far less shrubby vegetation and a skyline strewn with bare, towering peaks of fiery sandstone. The snow had yet to melt, making the detail of the naturally carved rock more visible to the naked eye from afar. After four hours of driving and a brief stop at the coral-pink sand dunes, we arrived at Bryce Canyon National Park.

Bryce Canyon lies within an orange mountainous terrain interspersed with flatlands dotted with trees. Geologists say that the tall, slender rock formations – named Hoodoos by the natives who once lived nearby – were formed by processes of plate movements within the Earth and the raging of waters above. They look similar to the stalagmites found in caves, only they’re hundreds of feet tall and made of sandstone. Because it was in the low 30s that day with the temperature dropping due to the elevation and snow covering everything, hiking down the canyon in sneakers was not an option. Instead, we took an hour or so to walk around the rim, admiring the stoic presence of formations called “Legend People” by ancestral Native Americans called the Pueblo. According to legend, a mythical figure named Coyote turned the Legend People to stone.

Just two hours west laid our next destination: Zion National Park. My brother and I hadn’t heard much about it. In fact, we only decided to go there after he saw it on a map prior to embarking on our trip. We initially drove through the park, racing the sunset to look for a hotel in a city on the other side. The road hugged the bottoms of enormous cliffs and sandstone mountains alongside the Virgin River, which formed the cliffs long ago. It was refreshing to be experiencing the splendor up close.

Once in Zion National Park, we managed to go on one long hike consisting of three different trails. Thankfully, temperatures were in the low 60s that day. The shaded areas were still covered in snow, while any place the sun touched was melted or melting. At one point we ran into a few young hikers who directed us to a less beaten path.

“It’s not so hard to get through,” one of the guys said. Ironically, it was the most difficult. The trail was only a couple of feet wide, and there was only a chain to hold onto as you hiked downhill on slightly melted, packed snow. Soon after we turned around, in fear of falling off the cliff.

We hiked through trees and cacti on slush and sandstone. I admired the boulders that jutted out all around me, wishing I had my climbing equipment and some real, outside-the-gym rock climbing experience under my belt. Nevertheless, Zion National Park was a unique and breathtaking experience I will never forget.

Our next stop was at the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. The name is a little misleading – after all, there are no forests in the desert. Instead, the park consists of a number of small logs of petrified wood. While the outside of the logs looks like tree bark, the insides reveal swirls of yellows, oranges, whites, reds, purples and browns that come from various elements found in fossils and volcanic ash. After tall trees died and fell, their empty shells were filled with these elements and compounded over millions of years, resulting in rock-hard quartz formations.

The visit, although brief, again reminded me of the rich history of this planet and the wide-ranging forces of nature.

Our final stop was the Saguaro National Park just east of Tucson in the Sonoran Desert. The park’s namesake saguaro cacti dominate the landscape, some nearly two stories tall and weighing up to seven tons. They are the cacti seen in western movies, with tall, spiky green trunks and “arms” that sprout out of the center.

Our hike took nearly four hours. While we saw little wildlife except Africanized bees, the land was filled with a multitude of other forms of cacti. My brother warned that in case of an attack by a swarm, we would have to run half a mile, at least, to lose them. He told me this after one landed on my ankle. It was red like a fire ant and was scaling my sock. Thankfully, it left after a rock swipe without doing any harm.

It was perfect desert hiking weather, with temperatures somewhere in the low 70s. While the land was largely barren, the hundreds of saguaros and other cacti gave character to the place. The scenery was unlike anything I’d ever seen.

In five days we drove 1,800 miles and visited five national parks. Each had its own incomparable qualities and histories millions of years old. The towns between had rich cultures, be they from the Native Americans who once dwelt there freely centuries ago or the Mexicans who left an imprint on the food that could never be reversed. Between the architecture, food, jewelry and art, the Southwest is as distinct as it is diverse.

Being surrounded by such beauty was the perfect way to get my mind off the hustle and bustle of my daily routine of school and work. The feelings of peace and wonder evoked by the sights have yet to leave me. I recommend such a trip to anyone who wants to experience just how diverse this country is. From the canyons to the mountain peaks, one is likely to be inspired by it all.