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In the summer issue of Desert Companion, readers can enjoy the winners, runners-up, and honorable mentions of our 2023 Focus on Nevada Photo Contest. In addition, we present our first-ever nightlife guide, the best locals spots for dancing, laughing, lounging, and rocking in the country’s most entertaining city.

Writer in Residence: Looking Down

 A tourist walks through a field of wildflowers
Jae C. Hong
Associated Press

What the wildflower superbloom can teach us about the world at our feet

So many people flocked to the Salton Sea the first weekend of April that the Ski Inn, Bombay Beach’s infamous watering hole, ran out of bacon for BLTs. They were also out of limes and chips — except for one bag of Takis that I watched a man order, appraise, and decline to purchase. “Wait for food’s about an hour,” the waitress told inquiring diners. They were grumpy, but she couldn’t help it — peak season was ending, the bar was short staffed, and 3,000 people had stopped through over the weekend. They were in town to see the wildflowers.

I was in town to see the wildflowers, too. Like nearly everyone else living in the Southwest, it seemed, I was sucked into the internet’s superbloom discourse. Various sources told me it may still be too early for a super bloom, per se — despite the abundant rain in California and Nevada over the winter, the temperatures were too cold for many flowers to emerge. Still, the flowers were sure to be bright and abundant, so I drove five hours south, poppies and lupines swaying in the wind along the highway. In Arizona, ocotillos bloomed red-pink. I’d see petite desert bells in California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, fuzz ball-shaped chia in the Morongo Basin, electric yellow chamomile in Hemet.

I knew the drill. Appreciate the flowers from a distance. No tramping off trail for photos, or even just a closer look. Wildflowers are fragile, threatened by invasive species and megadrought. Aridification threatens to wipe out certain types of wildflowers, and solar, lithium, and urban development projects are endangering others, like Tiehm’s buckwheat and white-margined penstemon. In 2019, Lake Elsinore traffic snarled for miles as people drove from all over California to see a canyon covered in poppies. This year, the mayor closed the canyon for fear of superbloom congestion. Scientists are also worried that climate change is throwing off blooming cycles, leading to a potential discrepancy between flowers blooming and the pollinators arriving to pollinate. And one wildflower enthusiast told me, anecdotally, he hadn’t seen many bees this year.

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I drove south because I wanted an experience in ephemerality. I wanted to see plants grow and die and disappear, but only of their own accord.

IN MID-APRIL, I made another drive, this time out to Red Rock to hike with two wildflower enthusiasts. Gareth Pearson, a retired Environmental Protection Agency hazardous waste researcher, told me to look out for two “75-plus-year-olds” and a white Toyota Rav4. When I pulled up to the Middle Oak Creek trailhead, Pearson and his friend Pete Stephenson were looking at a printed list of wildflower names. The goal for the day, Pearson told me, was to find blooming Nevada onions and straggling mariposa lilies. “Why do you want to see the lilies so badly?” I asked. “Because they’re beautiful,” he said.

I had assumed all flowers bloom every year, but turns out, that’s not the case. Joshua trees generally only bloom after rainy winters. Some species of yucca flower bloom only once and then die. The Joshua trees and yuccas were late blooming this year, Pearson told me, because of the cold spring; other flowers were more or less abundant depending on the very particular combination of water and temperature of any given year.

We set out on the trail. Less than a meter into our walk, Pearson pointed out winterfat, a muted green shrub with a puff of gray-white flower growing next to a fence post. A few steps later, a cryptantha. We would see 39 different species, most minuscule and low to the ground, stitching across alkaline sand or sprouting, nearly imperceptibly, from dirt and rock. “Usually, they’re very small and rapid to respond in favorable conditions because it’s such a harsh environment,” Pearson said. Growing low protects them from strong wind and intense sunlight. Pearson instructed to keep my eyes to the ground.

I thought about the anthropologist Tim Ingold, who argues that walking is a way of knowing and that we perceive the world in many ways, not just one-dimensionally through the eyes. Through privileging the world at eye level, we become groundless. So, we walked, and I noticed the texture of the soil, its dryness and humidity. We’d be walking at a pace of about a mile an hour, Pearson said. We needed to slow down to see.

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IN THE MOJAVE, humans are constantly reminded of our own ephemerality. There are, according to the National Park Service, both recent playa sediment deposits and 1.8 billion-year-old metamorphic rocks in Death Valley, some of the youngest and oldest features in the rock record. On a hike up a wash in the park last spring, a geologist read the landscape for me, identifying a rock with 600 million-year-old mud cracks. “We all experience time in a different way,” she told me. “One of the things I find most moving about studying the earth is to think about geologic time and how incomprehensible it is.”

Sometimes, when I’m out in the desert, standing under a vast smear of stars or at the top of a tall mountain looking out into a succession of valleys, I experience what I can only describe as temporal vertigo. I am small, this place is big. I am young, this place is old. The rocks I step on have a history millions of years deeper than mine.

And yet wildflowers bloom for just weeks at a time. Seeds from annual plants spend most of their lives — sometimes decades — dwelling under the soil, waiting for the perfect conditions for germination. Shortly after they flower, many die.

Time in the desert moves fast and slow. Death Valley’s floor slips imperceptibly. Water ferries sand and gravel down hillsides. In the morning, as I walked around Oak Creek, wildflowers’ petals wrapped in on themselves, waiting for the sun. On the way back, the flowers had opened toward the sky, hungry for light. In a few months, they’d be gone.

PEARSON GREW UP in Bakersfield, California. His father was a rockhound, and in the spring, when the family went out searching for rocks, poppies burst from the landscape. That was Pearson’s introduction to wildflowers. His work in field biology

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taught him to perceive the natural world differently, to train his mind on certain colors and shapes, so he could more easily identify them. Stephenson’s background is in computers, but wildflowers help him notice, too. He pays attention to subtle ecological factors that make all the difference in where a wildflower grows. The direction the wind blows. Depressions in the landscape, where water can pool.

Pearson asked me if I’d noticed all the yellow grasses to the south of the trail. Look to the north, he told me: The landscape was darker, thick with native shrubs and Joshua trees. “This is a fire site,” he said. Twenty years ago, a series of wildfires killed off most plant life: the yuccas, Joshua trees, blackbrush. While the rain this year was good for wildflowers, it also led to the growth of invasive grasses, which increased the risk of wildfire. Though it’s unclear how the invasive grasses got there, likely humans helped spread them. It was another reminder that, in our fleeting time on Earth, humans have managed to reshape ecosystems, sometimes irrevocably.

I catalogued more plants and flowers. Desert marigold. Desert paintbrush. Wild rhubarb. Spring Mountain milkvetch. Little twistflower. Where was the onion? “It’d be nice if they’d show their face,” Pearson said. We stood before a gravelly slope, wondering why chia seems to thrive on this steep hillside. “Oh,” Pearson exclaimed, his face turned upward at a tall shrub with delicate white flowers. “Utah Serviceberry.” I took a photo. “Sometimes if you look down too much,” Pearson said, “you forget to look up.”

An hour and a half into the walk, Stephenson stopped. A reddish-green bulb sprouted from a long, spiraling tendril. A Nevada onion. “It’s just not open yet,” Stephenson said. “The nights are still relatively cool.” Half a minute later, I spotted a blooming onion, its tiny, waxy white flowers spreading in the shape of a star. The two men laughed. “The amateur finds it first,” Pearson said.

Still elusive was the mariposa lily, but I had to head out, so I bid Pearson and Stephenson goodbye and turned back down the trail. On my way to the parking lot, I saw a group of three marvel over a plant I’d just learned to identify: a Utah penstemon, its trumpet-shaped petals a brilliant magenta. “That’s what I call my English garden,” a woman said, smiling at the Mojave’s bouquet. Wildflowers, it seemed to me then, held the potential to make people care: about conservation, the climate, the desert. Maybe flowers could move people to act. But first, we have to slow down and look.