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A Cold Kind of Beauty
Understated in all seasons, the desert is even more subtle and spare in winter. It seems deserted. It's not, of course. It's just holding its breath.

By Sally Shivnan
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 21, 2001

THE DESERT IN WINTER is missing certain things, like rattlesnakes. And that cruel, unwinking eyeball, the summer sun. This is good, but not, in itself, reason enough to visit.

Winter in the desert is not the most beautiful time there (that would be spring), and not the most active (any other season would be more lively for flora and fauna).

Still, it is the perfect time to go.

Perfect because you might, for instance, find yourself standing beneath golden, sun-washed canyon walls, listening to the coyotes call to each other, their eerie howling echoing off the rock and no one around for miles, just you and your traveling companion and the invisible coyotes, and the Rio Grande flowing slowly, silently, through the golden canyon.

Or you might walk into the elegant old El Tovar Hotel at that most notoriously overcrowded of national parks, Grand Canyon, and find yourself seated, without a reservation, at what your waiter calls "the happiest table in the room," the little table for two by the big stone fireplace, where you luxuriate in an unhurried, wonderful meal. The waiter says he can bank down the fire if you get too warm, and you tell him he must be kidding -- it's winter out there, it's cold outside!

Or you're knocking around the visitor center at Canyonlands National Park, the exhibits and the movie and the bookstore all to yourself. The clerk informs you with a smile that they're not charging the usual entrance fee this time of year. She is a volunteer, a retiree here with her husband, and in exchange for a roof over their heads for the winter they share their expertise with visitors -- they know all the great trails to hike, the best things to see. The visitor center doors swing open a few times each day, bringing a little conversation; the sun pours in the windows, warming the room. Outside, the same sun is toasting the already-warm colors of the sandstone, the red and ocher mesas and spires of this country, and melting the fine tracings of snow high up on the rock.

I don't want to exaggerate that sun. It would be a mistake to portray it as tropical. However, it is not possible to exaggerate the effects of the summer sun, which is the point here. Desert hiking in the winter is bliss -- overheating is never a problem, even when scrambling up slick rock or trudging all day out of some canyon. The extra layers of clothing might annoy some people -- peeling off with walking, layering on again at lunchtime -- but the weight of these can never begin to approach the weight of all the extra water, the minimum gallon per person per day, that must be carried in summer.

The hiking is comfortable for another reason, too. Desert hikes generally involve a variety of terrain, including up-and-down stuff that is notable for being steep but not prolonged (the exception being masochistic trips in and out of certain famous, deep canyons). None of those all-day grades you enjoy in the mountains. Instead, a little scrambling, bouldering and shouldering rewards the hiker almost immediately with exhilarating views of The Other Side of This Thing, and of Where We've Been. The desert offers more variety -- a new, wide-open view at every turn -- than mountain ranges, and exertion comes in bursts. And none of those thick collections of trees to block the view, as you find in your Rockies and your Appalachians. No dense, nasty, rock-hiding plants here. This is the land of rock, the Nothing But Rock tour.

There is always something to look at.

And the weather is wonderful for looking. In truth, maybe not always wonderful. It can be a little cool, especially at higher elevations, but this is one of the trade-offs of winter desert tourism, in exchange for not being broiled alive. If you like to dress in layers of fleece and down, and get a kick out of seeing your breath in the morning, this is the trip for you. It never rains, gray clouds are rare, snow is never more than a picturesque dusting and the night skies are clearer for stargazing than at any other time of year. Camping opportunities are wide open and sometimes free, and hotel and motel discounts are in force. The "No" part of the "No Vacancy" sign is off for the duration of the season, allowing the traveler to wander about the country, affordably and warmly.

I have to add that I am one of those particularly cold-natured people, and on my recent travels I wore a great deal more clothing than my friend Jim did, who mostly sprinted about in a sweater and pointy fleece hat, looking like a desert elf. We had mild days, some warmer than others, but even in the high desert January temperatures were in the fifties and even sixties.

And everywhere we went, we met people who really wanted to be where they were, who had gone out of their way to find the desert in winter. From the hard-body mountain bikers hanging around Moab, Utah, to the kindly retirees in their RVs, who had chosen these quiet, empty locales over the balmy climes of Florida or California, they were all there on purpose. And it may have been my imagination, but the locals -- waitresses, store owners, guys at gas stations -- seemed more relaxed than I'd expected. There may be less money flowing into local businesses this time of year, but the tourist pressure is off for a few months, and it shows.

Some of those businesses are closed until spring, another necessary trade-off in winter. In Moab I got downright whiny passing all the funky coffee bars and bookstores that were sealed up tight for the season. The consolation is that the playgrounds of the desert, places like Grand Canyon, Arches in Utah and Texas's Big Bend, are nearly empty. These have occasional signs on the way to the overlooks that warn "Congested Area," which we found amusing, but disturbing, too, in the pictures they conjured of summer traffic jams in such remote and pristine places. We felt smug when we read park brochures urging us to try this or that trail despite the crowds, promising us we wouldn't be disappointed. We never were.

But none of these reasons, even all added together, is the main motivation for visiting the desert in winter. The real reason, of course, is the desert itself. Understated in all seasons, it is even more subtle and spare in winter. The desert is deserted, or at least seems so.

It's not, of course. It's just holding its breath.

The flowers are long evaporated and the plants have withdrawn into themselves. The ocotillo has dropped the tiny leaves along its thin spiny stems. The little barrel cactus is shrunken, hiding under its cloud of spines. The general colors of deserts, the gray-green of cactus and sage, the pale, almost non-color of wheatgrass, are quiet to begin with, and even quieter and drier now. Where flowers used to be, paper-dry seed heads are held up for the wind and the birds to take away. The yucca flower's stem still towers over the yucca, crowned with an elaborate cluster of papery open cups that retain the shapes, though not the color, of the blossom. The beauty of the flower is remembered in the seed.

Walking in all that quiet one day, I heard the canyon wren, whose song is unmistakable, a series of sweet, descending notes that lengthen a little toward the end. The calls came from a curving wall of light-colored rock just ahead and above me, which seemed to give the notes an echoing ring and sharpness. I couldn't see the bird but could only look where her song was, as if I were glancing at the notes themselves.

I walked on and found cottonwoods along a wash, feathery and silvery without their leaves, and the leaves around them on the ground a pale, translucent gold to match the silver.

The textures of the desert are more subtle in winter. What is there is more difficult to see, but this is offset by the fact that what is seen is heightened, because of the absence of distractions. Everything that catches the senses is sharp and striking.

Which is not to say I didn't feel a pang of regret for spring at every turn when I was there. I did. I longed to see the claret cup cactus in bloom, its flower just that, a cup of red wine. I would love to watch javelinas, those straight-snouted, coarse-haired wild pigs of the desert, chomping and slurping at the fruit of the prickly pear. The winter visitor must cope with this lack by returning to what is at hand, finding expressions of spring in winter.

Consider the paperflower, whose fine stems, all tipped with small flowers, grow together into a sphere about as big as a good-sized cantaloupe. The flowers dry and the little seedpods remain, and the globe ripens to a brilliant gold. The golden blobs are distributed all about the desert floor, shocking against the dull earth, and so intensely delicate on close inspection, like impossible origami, the ultra-thin stems, leaves and flowers as dry as dust and bright as the sun.

Winter is the season of rest, when the animals and plants wait, with deep desert patience, for spring. The earth is slowly soaking up the little water from the crusts of snow that come and go, but doing nothing with it, holding onto it.

The snakes are in their dens. Animals that are still out and about are almost all nocturnal, from mountain lions to owls to tarantulas. There are tracks in the sand, anywhere the soil is soft, reminders of the world that comes to life at night. Coyotes, kit foxes, pocket mice -- their footprints are storylines running in all directions in the sand. The weight of the fox's paw determines the sink of the crisp-edged print, and the digging-in of his claws shows him picking up his pace. I feel like telling all the animals that in these colder months they really could come out in the daytime if they wanted to, but they are creatures of habit, of ancient adaptation. The ones that do appear -- the raven soaring in empty canyon space, the hungry coyote loping along a road -- are startling in the winter quiet.

And it is so quiet. Jim turned to me once and said, Hear that? The sound of white noise in your ears? Yes, I said, I hear it too. Very soft, like tape hiss.

That's what we heard when everything else was taken completely away.

Sally Shivnan is a freelance writer in Churchton, Md.

Details: Winter Deserts

GETTING THERE: Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Albuquerque are jumping-off points for the Colorado Plateau. Southwest and America West fly from BWI to Phoenix for about $290 round trip. From Phoenix, it's about a 3 1/2-hour drive to Grand Canyon National Park. From there, you could continue driving northeast through Monument Valley (about 2 1/2 hours) and on to Canyonlands and Arches (another 2 1/2 hours). Or you could fly into Salt Lake City -- Canyonlands and Arches are a four-hour drive south.

WHERE TO STAY: Winter is the only time you don't need reservations at the national parks. The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is closed in winter, but on the South Rim the historic, rustic-elegant El Tovar Hotel has doubles starting at $116 a night (303-297-2757). Camping at Mather Campground is $10 a night, and the adjacent Trailer Village has RV sites with hookups for $20 a night.

Camping at Canyonlands is $5-$10 per night, and there are gorgeous new bathrooms at the Squaw Flat campground. Nearby Moab has many inns and motels, like Aarchway Inn, with doubles at about $50 a night (800-341-9359), and Kokopelli Lodge, about $30 a night (888-530-3134). The campground at Arches is closed for construction this winter, but the park is only five miles from the motels of Moab (www.discovermoab.com).

WHERE TO EAT: At Grand Canyon, El Tovar is the place. Dinner for two, with drinks, runs about $80. For inexpensive, great Mexican food that you'll see the locals eating at tables all around you, try Amigo Cafe in Kayenta, Ariz. (U.S. 160 at U.S. 163), or Romo's Cafe in Holbrook, Ariz. (121 West Hopi Drive).

WHERE TO HANG OUT: The parks offer great hiking, scenic drives and uncrowded exhibits and activities through the winter months. Monument Valley's 14-mile loop is an all-day dirt road, beautiful but not recommended for low-clearance vehicles or big RVs (info: Navajo Tribal Park, 435-727-3353). Numerous outfitters there and at Canyon de Chelly offer jeep, horseback and hiking tours led by Navajo guides. In Flagstaff, Ariz., visit the Museum of Northern Arizona, devoted to the natural and cultural history of the Colorado Plateau (Highway 180, three miles north of downtown, heading toward Grand Canyon, 520-774-5211).

INFORMATION: National Park Service, 800-365-2267, www.nps.gov.

A Desert Primer

Sonoran, Chihuahuan, Mojave, Great Basin -- which desert to see in this land of big western deserts? In winter, the choice is guided by climate rather than the variety of vegetation, which would be more a factor in springtime (and which might send you to the lush Sonoran Desert).

• The Great Basin, in northwestern Utah and Nevada, is the biggest desert in the United States but also the coldest and most likely to get precipitation.

• The Chihuahuan includes the rugged, haunting expanses of Texas's Big Bend country and reaches into southern New Mexico and Arizona.

• The Sonoran Desert includes much of southern Arizona around Tucson and Phoenix and extends west from there, giving way to . . .

• The Mojave Desert, which crosses into California and includes the stern landscapes of Death Valley.

If forced to pick one area for exploring, I would head for a place that is not one of the defined deserts at all but is more accurately described as semidesert -- the Colorado Plateau. Roughly centered on the Four Corners, where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah meet, it features such wonders as the Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley, as well as Canyonlands and Arches national parks.

The Colorado Plateau is a geologic fun land, a broad expanse of colorful layered rock uplifted gently over time and eroded everywhere into extraordinary formations and canyons. It is also an archaeological treasure -- the land of the ancient Anasazi, who covered the desert stone with their art, and built their homes in the soaring cliffs, and understood the dry world in all its seasons better than modern-day visitors ever will.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company