Desert Southwest

Valley of Fire

Valley of Fire and Thorns

From Las Vegas to the Valley of Fire, we contemplate a really big thorn in the foot, and the pleasure of travel with danger.

Above: Scene from Valley of Fire State Park, in Southern Nevada.


am on a walk with my four year old boy in Springs Preserve, a 180-acre cultural center in Las Vegas.  We are walking on a hard, sandy soil when suddenly my boy shrieks in the most horrible terror I have ever heard.

I turn to him and drop to his level.  What’s wrong?  I ask.  But I can already see that he has stepped on a dried branch with one-inch thorns.  All six have penetrated cleanly through his thick-soled hiking shoes.  He is crying so hard that his tears are like projectiles out of his eyes.  I tell him that I have to take off his shoe very carefully, and please stay very still. 

Annas Hummingbird in Henderson, Nevada

Male Anna's Hummingbird, in breeding plumage at the preserve ponds near the water treatment facility, in Henderson, Nevada.

Slowly, I take off the shoe – the thorns have hardly penetrated his skin – somehow the rubber traction and thick soles of his shoes have absorbed almost a full inch of thorns.  But I can understand it is not the pain, but the shock of something so unexpected.  Luckily, I have a cold grape drink in my backpack, and after he sips on it for a few minutes, his tears turn to contemplation and he asks me if the outdoor survival personality Bear Grylls got thorns in his feet when he was a boy.

I thought about the answer for a minute, and then told him that of course Bear Grylls got thorns in his feet when he was a boy, but that if he got spikes that were that big, he might have grown up to be as tough as you.

While other parts of the United States and Canada retreat into the cold tones of winter, the desert landscapes here seem so bright in the dead of winter.

Many frown on the desert southwest for its lack of clear seasons.  They often also say the same of the pacific northwest, where I live, and where it drizzles under gray skies for many months each year.  While walking in the Valley of Fire State Park, northeast of Las Vegas, I consider the mournful tone of the winter dweller, perhaps captured best by actress Anna Neagle, “What, I sometimes wonder, would it be like if I lived in a country where winter is a matter of a few chilly days and a few weeks' rain; where the sun is never far away, and the flowers bloom all year long? ”

Cracks in the Earth

Sandstone details from Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada.

Do we need change in the season?  Or is it okay for a place to be eternally agreeable, and somewhat the same?  I think back to my son’s injury a few days earlier. I have been reading in the news these many stories of horrible things happening to cruise ships.  Diseases, illnesses, ships being towed, passengers falling overboard drunk, and being lost forever at sea, and worse, entire ships capsizing.  And I realize that the cruise passenger enjoys that kind of travel because it supposedly protects them from any ordinary confrontation of travel – the cruise is advertised as always sunny, with flowers blooming all year long.  So when these really bad things happen on cruises, you have to think that those passengers’ lives are totally upended; their experiences totally ruined. By opting for traveling in a bubble, in a weird sort of way, their predicaments are always the more awful.

In travel, we need those bad things to happen to us.  We need something painful, every once in a while, to remind us of the dangers of travel, and to make us alive.  There is nowhere in the world that truly has no seasons, no change.  And in travel too, you can try very hard to be safe, to be aware.  But to isolate yourself from it is to isolate yourself from the very pleasure of it.

Maybe I don’t have four seasons back home in the Pacific Northwest.  But by perpetually traveling, I’m always borrowing other peoples’ seasons, and that’s good enough for me.

Explore more in the Desert Southwest

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We are walking on a hard, sandy soil when suddenly my boy shrieks in pain.

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