The Desert is More than Sand

I have lived in/visited a fair variety of climates. I’m from Oklahoma, I lived a while in Virginia, spent a summer working at a clinic in Chiapas, Mexico, and lived in Israel for six months as a Moshav volunteer when I was 17 (Judean Hills area, near Abu Ghosh).
When I was in the Marine Corps, I got tossed from coast to coast, spent a little time in Texas and Georgia, a little while in Egypt, then I was deployed twice to Iraq (with brief passage in Kuwait), and a very short stint in Germany. This doesn’t begin to encompass all possible terrains and climates, but here is one small thing I have noticed in all this:
When people say “the desert” they usually mean one of two things–cowboy-cracked-ground-and-cacti, or endless-dunes-of-sand–and this simply doesn’t cover it.
The desert, ladies and gentlemen, has been somewhat stereotyped. It usually only gets to play two roles: Either the vaguely (but not always very accurately) Middle-Eastern sand waste where the wind blows across your face, or the old western back country where the bandits leave you to die and you hold your canteen over your head but only one taunting drop comes out.
And, yes, both of these types of landscapes are beautiful and fascinating, but I confess to getting a little frustrated when sand or cacti are the only things associated with the desert. This particularly applies to stereotypes about the Middle East and its respective deserts.
So I am going to show a little of the types of deserts that inspired the landscape of my story, because they were the landscapes I loved and was most tied to at the time.
The Judean Desert (Israel):


And the Judean Hills (which are scrubby and a bit desert like): This one is a lot like the area where I lived when I was in Israel.


These regions are more rocky and sharp, but instead of sand, they have dust and even soil. Deserts can grow things, believe it or not. Sometimes very beautiful things.
And, of course, the Negev desert (which technically contains 5 separate climates):


Iraqi desert (this is not my photo. I tried to find one sans military personnel and equipment but those are hard to come by in public domain):


This following one is my photo, from one of my deployments. It is an infamous “Red Day” in Iraq. It is not sand on the ground at all, by the way, but a fine, fine dust (we called it moondust) with a pinkish hue, and as the sun sets, the whole atmosphere turns a thick, choking red-orange. The color in the photo is the actual color of the air–no modifications were made. I don’t even know how to make modifications…


Side-note: Iraq has a wide variety of terrains and climates. Desert and dust is just one region, and not the sum of it. I have lost a lot of my deployment photos, otherwise I would provide pictures of the great ancient Al-Furat (the Euphrates) and riverside sunflowers from a rooftop in West-Central Iraq.
Here’s some lovely Red Rock:


This is one of my favorite kinds of desert. Colorful, rugged, and rocky.
Zion National Park:


And another one of Zion National Park area that my husband and I took. This area has several “eco-zones” which means it is desert mixed with other eco-zones. It is very unusual for that number of different eco-zones to be all jammed-packed together. We hiked a few days out through the rugged back-wilderness and it felt almost as though we hiked across countries, the terrain changed so many times.


And, on that same trip, we caught a glimpse of the Painted Desert:


I have not even got to half of the great and strange deserts of the world…I stuck mostly with those with which I myself am personally familiar, but there is much more to be had!
All this to say, it can be easy to use stereotypes of terrains and climates (as it can be easy to use stereotypes of almost anything or anyone) but it lends visceral beauty and richness to dig deeper, and get some of that local dirt under your nails and in the creases in your hands. Taste the mixed air. Smell the unexpected fragrance on the hot wind. The forest is more than trees, the jungle more than humidity, the prairie more than grass and wind, the mountain more than rocks and snow.
And the desert is so very much more than sand.

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