Even before emerging from the sleeping bag I realize that this fourth desert, this Sagebrush-dominated great Basin Desert, is something completely new for us. At 6:30 AM the temperature is 32°. For the first time since leaving Amistad the morning sun does not rise into a cloudless, blue expanse, but rather it drifts up behind a gray, indecisive cloud cover breaking here and there into a few milky-blue patches. In the eastern sky hang some convex-shaped clouds of the type sometimes forming near high mountain ridges, or over flat land as portents of stormy weather.
Sagebrush here forms an almost pure, three-foot high ocean. Sometimes low mounds and ridges of rusty-red dirt and sand rise a little above the Sagebrush plane. These risings are populated by widely spaced, yellow-green junipers. Especially in the narrow transition zone between flatland Sagebrush and low-mound juniper, other smaller species of the Sagebrush genus Artemisia are found. One of my desert books claims that in the Great Basin Desert nineteen species of Artemisia grow in close association with the common Sagebrush. I make no effort to sort them all out. All the ones found so far smell good. Not a single Creosote-bush is seen here. The only wildflower found blossoming among the Sagebrush is a small, stunted-looking phlox.
Two species of cactus live here. First, there's the Starvation Cactus, Opuntia polyacantha, seen in Toiyabe National Forest and also at Zion. The other cactus, amazingly, is our ninth species of cholla -- one called Whipple's Cholla, Opuntia whipplei. It's the smallest cholla seen so far, rising only one foot above the ground, but profusely branched and conspicuously adorned with spherical, yellow, spineless fruits.
Especially because the Great Basin Desert often adjoins grasslands, I'd expected to find a large assortment of grasses here. In fact, they are more common than elsewhere but, at least in this spot, they're still inconspicuous. Atop sandy rises, among the junipers, colonies of Blue Grama, Bouteloua gracilis, sometimes appear. Elegant, curly-leaved little grasses with inflorescences shaped like false eyelashes, this is a native species of the open plains, and a good one for grazing animals. This and other less interesting grasses often are limited to the protected zone inside and beneath Sagebrush plants. All grasses here are brown, dried-out, and completely in the winter condition. Between the widely spaced Sagebrushes, mostly it's unvegetated, red, sandy dirt.
On my first walk in these Great Basin Desert lowlands my feelings are colored by the landscape's quiet somberness and, of all things, Christmas associations. Christmas, because of the moist coldness hanging in the morning air, and because as a child on our Kentucky farm we used redcedars, which are junipers, as our "Christmas tree." Each time I walk past a juniper here, its Christmas-tree odor in the wintry air causes the child in me to react with surprising nostalgia.
The morning winds were almost calm but at noon suddenly they begin blowing with their usual vehemence, sending generous sprays of sand into the pot of rice and lentils cooking on my Sagebrush fire. The temperature has risen to 68° but the sky still is sullen and gray.