“The cool evenings and mornings in these arid regions, when the purple shadows of distant mountains are thrown across the plain, have a charm that is unknown beneath more humid skies. The profound stillness of the night in these solitudes is always impressive.”
-Israel C. Russell, U.S. survey geologist, journal entry from 1881
“The desert rat loves the desert because there is something about it that he cannot explain or even name.”
-Edward Abbey, The Ancient Dust (1976)
When dawn breaks on the desert it is a sudden, dramatic, striking thing—the basins flood routinely with light if seldom with water, their playas at once awash with amber glow that soon burns white-hot before midday—simmering, blanching—as our star assumes its ascendency in the sky. Watch the eastface slopes consumed by sunfire from the peaks down—watch the krummholz juniper and low sage alight as the molten sheet pours down the mountainside.
The sun, in its munificence, brings wave upon wave of light to the benighted plain, spilling into the canyons and across the alluvium and onto the leaves of plants like solar rain. It is an energy bonanza—the sunshine capitalists come smartly to attention. Plants, sensing daybreak, open their stomata like so many shop doors and start up their photosynthetic factories, sucking in carbon and assembling sugars while pure, wet oxygen is belched out through the pores. Thus the workday—day work, whatever—begins.
By turns the sun is nourishing, invigorating, desiccating, denaturing. It takes a shine to no one thing, and yet over everything it shines, shines, shines. Its presence—whether benign, salutary, inimical, or an admixture of all three—is felt always, even at night, when that lunar orb rises to moonlight in its stead.
Speaking of night: The desert nocturnal is a dazzling attraction, a nightly revue performed to luminous, smarmingly glowing reviews. Dark skies of the western deserts are world-renowned for their clarity, their breadth, their towering grandiosity. Is it the star-studded cast? The empyrean backdrop? The cricket-nighthawk-burrowing owl ensemble? It is all that, and more.
The darkening Black Rock sky, eclipsed by el sol throughout the day, takes center stage in the gloaming, careful to not reveal the entirety of its starpower at once—a twinkle here, a twinkle there, as the stellar cast appears in desultory fashion, winking into sight. As the lumens out west fade to oblivion, our sad old pockmarked moon rises to prominence, its jaundiced albedo matched only by the pale playa silt. The moonlit proscenium appears as a pancake-flat snowfield, spanning miles. Other cameos emerge via the Milky Way: Venus, Saturn, Mars, Jupiter, all taking star turns in the glittering firmament.
It is a grand show, ever-running, biggest venue on earth—free to those present enough to attend.