Don’t call the desert empty


In the spareness of a desert hike, you become a Beckett character, faced with big space and big time” — Laurie Stone.

I write for a living, or what amounts to it, and because I’m a dreamer and a fool and one of the luckiest people I know, I also edit a literary magazine dedicated to the Interior West of the United States. Because of the latter, I read an awful lot of what’s written about the region and its landscapes: its chronic winds and temporary washes, tight-lipped lizards and rusted tin cans, as well as its sun, shade, and luck of the draw.

What I’ve found in my reading is the greatest misconception about the West and its deserts is that they’re empty. “Empty” is a word that shows up on an almost daily basis in my inbox. Without fail writers of all stripes eventually find themselves or their characters in the desert where they are often lost, lonely, and scanning the miles of sagebrush and its “sea of emptiness.” Invariably they are “in the middle of nowhere.”

Such phrasing never fails to disappoint me because to my way of thinking they are really in the beginning of everywhere. In contrast, I currently walk the canyons of Manhattan trying to remember the last time I used the word “horizon,” considered a diminishing point, or saw a star that wasn’t stepping out of a limo.

I can understand the misconception of the West by people who have never been left of New Jersey, but if you’re from the West or lived there for any amount of time (roamed its good badlands and driven its bad back roads) how can you call the deserts empty or a nothingness? There’s so much of it. You can’t turn around without bumping into more.

From my perspective, the desert is full, chock-a-block full of beauty, perspective, humility and patience -- the stuff of life. True, there’s greater biodiversity in a rain forest, and more tourists to be found in New York’s Times Square, but you won’t find peace of mind in any greater quantity than when watching the sun rise in the desert, or more sanity than when you’re watching it go down.

Speaking from experience, common sense strikes a person just about as hard as the sun does in the desert, and fear is there as well. Just take that last swig of water or get snake-bit. Forget about the Internet for a moment; in the desert God, the devil, heaven and hell — the very things and places we consider the opposite of nothingness — are everywhere. Even if you don’t believe in such things, you come back from the desert muttering some kind of prayer. Maybe it’s the sight of all those bones bleached by the sun.

Last year, I was sitting at lunch in Bend, Ore., with Dennis Jenkins, an archaeologist from the University of Oregon. He’s spent more time in the desert regions of the West than most tumbleweeds I know. Over a sandwich and beer, we got talking about the desert. Wiping a salt-and-pepper mustache and leveling his blue eyes, he said without prompting, “The desert is honest.”

One more thing, I thought, to add to the list. I think any of us hate to see a place we love misrepresented. Maybe that’s why it’s a sore point with me. Then again, I’m torn. I’m happy to have people think there’s nothing to draw them to the playas, buttes, washes, and scrub of the Interior West. In her collection of essays, Where the Crooked River Rises, Ellen Waterston says, “The high desert country is flat beautiful.” And it is. But sometimes we don’t want people to know. Because you know what happens when they do.

I admit to liking the buzz of New York, the hustle and bustle, the taxis and their horns, the danger, and the feeling that something is going on, somewhere — everywhere — around me; that I’m in the center of things. Then I get back out West and walk into the desert, alone, where things really are going on, and I see how wrong I am.

The desert is full — full of time and space and distance and silence. These things fill it up, spill over the edges. To really see the desert means adjusting one’s ideas of what emptiness and nothingness are. Believe me, in the desert there is so much space it can become claustrophobic. And outside the desert is a lifetime of noise.

Charles Finn is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is the editor of High Desert Journal and shortly after writing this essay, he moved back to the West.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Michael Dax
Michael Dax Subscriber
Mar 21, 2014 10:55 AM
Great article! At first, I scoffed at the title believing the article would follow a tired path merely commenting on the beauty of places that we often consider barren, but I was pleasantly surprised by the more insightful take. As someone who loves the desert, I am embarrassed to admit I related to some of the views the author excoriates here, so thank you for helping me readjust my outlook. Perhaps its the winter blues, but I suddently cannot wait for my next trip to the "middle of nowhere".
Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Mar 25, 2014 03:31 PM
I stepped off the Greyhound from Boulder around midnight; not much of Tucson to see at night in 1978. The next morning I listened to doves mourning the dry air and spare trees, the scant shade of palms and mesquite.

Fast forward 17 years. I visited my point of origin, bounded by the Minnesota River and worn bluffs that slowly rose towards my old, brick urban haunts. Trees towered like desert rainclouds and lawns exhaled grassy humidity. I felt smothered. My final peregrination was 5 years ago, to help my brothers clear my late parents' 45-years-in-one-house stuff collection. Summer was once the essence of childhood joy, but now it clung like wet hair.

I left my mom's peonies and dad's precious lawn to their successors. Four days on the road and the Sonoran Desert finally rose to meet me, saguaro arms extended and every cactus wren chugging. Home is where creosote and sage perfume a rainy night. The desert is not empty. It holds all I need.
The Taylors
The Taylors Subscriber
Mar 25, 2014 04:34 PM
the desert is a big empty. usually. empty of hordes of humans. I guess empty is just an individual's own definition?
Al Dannenbrink
Al Dannenbrink Subscriber
Mar 27, 2014 11:05 AM
The first lesson the desert teaches is that comprehending or understanding it from any kind of an intellectual perspective becomes a hopeless endeavor. After 30+ years of solitary wanderings, graced with an occasional frightening or challenging conundrum, the only constant is that paradox of having an inner deficit of soul fulfilled and spiritual renewal given when I come to these landscapes of wild, "empty" space and solitude.
 Having endured another long, cold blustery Front Range winter, I'm counting down the days until I'm back for more rejuvenation.
Larry Bullock
Larry Bullock
Mar 29, 2014 02:15 PM
     A healthy desert is unexpectedly full of diverse wildlife. The key modifier is "healthy." I would like to make a distinction between a healthy desert and a true wasteland. A desert can be turned into wasteland more easily than other biomes by, for example, "military exercises, dune buggies, grazing livestock and now solar farms." This list is from "The tortoise is collateral damage in the Mojave Desert."
     Folks who think that a desert is empty might be thinking of a wasteland instead.