Crossing the Desert

by | Jan 12, 2007 | The Great American Desert

Hope you’ve all enjoyed the recent hiatus.  I’ve been in California, trimming trees and patching drywall and eating lots and lots of seafood.  It was a long drive across the desert, and just as long coming back, and the past two days have been spent reading Jack London and Virginia Woolf, an unlikely pair, and in John Barleycorn, London’s peculiar account of his life with alcohol, he gets to musing about California’s American settlers, ‘thirsting across the Great American Desert.’  Which reminded me that I’ve been remiss in my duty to keep this blog rolling.

Readers have remarked that there’s an awful lot of stuff going on in the book, and would I maybe explain some of it?  Would I explain, for instance, what is meant exactly by the term ‘Great American Desert?’

If you do a quick web search on the term, you will quickly find that there is no one accepted answer.  Authorities do seem to agree that Zeb Pike first characterized the whole of the region between the Missouri River and the Rockies as a desert, and that Stephen Long, in 1823, labeled it Great and American on his official map.  The name stuck for a time, but then people found that underneath what is now known as the High Plains was a subterranean puddle of Gargantuan dimensions.  People dug wells, and the ‘desert’ turned out to be prime farming and grazing land.

But you don’t throw away a fine moniker like ‘Great American Desert’ just like that, so folks shipped it over the Continental Divide and applied it to the land between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas.  Sure enough, some of that land turned out to be arable as well, but enough of it is undeniably real, live desert that the appellation has more or less stuck.

It’s an imprecise term, however, and can mean, within limits, whatever you like.  It can mean, for example, any or all of a number of distinct deserts in North America (Sonoran, Mojave, Painted, etc.).  It can mean all those deserts plus all the semi-deserts in between.  You can include parts of Mexico if you like.  It’s an imprecise term, and that’s precisely one of the things I like about it as a title for the book.  Antony Munchner, after all, spends much of his time wandering around in a world of history that is likewise imprecise.

It’s a misleading term as well.  The land west of the Missouri, just across the river from Jersey County, turned out to be anything but desert.  Within that broad swath between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas are some fabulous oases.  Even the actual deserts out there, most of them, are home to all sorts of life.  We tend to think of deserts as nothing but windblown sand and jagged rocks and sunstroke and scorpions, but there’s a lot more to them than that.  Go take a look, like St. Antony did, and maybe you’ll be surprised, too.