It is the last day of September and at three o’ clock in the afternoon it is 103 degrees, even though the skies are overcast. The hills around me rise up like the mountains of Mordor, made of burnt, tortured rock. The few plants are equally inhospitable. Most are covered in spines while those with flowers are buzzing madly with what appear to be bees on methamphetamine, undoubtedly the Africanized honey bees that made their first appearance in the area two years ago. Other than the bees the world is quiet, waiting silently for the sun to set and the heat to ease.
Beaver Dam Wash is the lowest point in Utah. It lies at the confluence of the Great Basin, Colorado Plateau, and Mojave Desert ecosystems although for the most part it is only the latter that is evident. The Mojave Desert ecosystem is classed as a hot desert, one in which the precipitation falls mainly as rain, rather than snow as in cold deserts. The indicator specie for this ecosystem is the Joshua tree. I should be surrounded by a forest of them but this area has been very badly burned in a series of fires over the last decade. All that remains is the occasional badly charred stump, protruding from a landscape more lunar than earthly.
I move from the foothills above the wash to its bottom, a wide green ribbon of life. There is little water in the broad course but enough to make a difference: the stream’s boundaries are marked by groves of cottonwood, mesquite, and catclaw acacia. The wash has been spared by the fires but was transformed by a flood of nearly biblical proportions early in 2005. Flood detritus is ubiquitous here but where there is water Mother Nature nurtures and heals. Life flourishes despite the heat. Gambel’s quail run back and forth in the shadows while white-crowned sparrows call to each other from the brush. A phainopepla, glossy black and elegant, watches me with blood-colored eyes as I make my way carefully through the mesquite and acacia but not carefully enough – the vegetation is dense and the thorns are sharp and unforgiving of those that approach too closely. I hear the call of a verdin and then it appears, bearing golden acacia leaves. It is autumn in the rest of the Great Basin and soon it will snow in the high country, but Fall remains weeks away in the hot desert, while winter is only a whisper in the wind.