In the fifty-two-card deck of the Mythology of the American West, the Ten of Diamonds represents “The Great American Desert.” Or, at least I’m ascribing that name to that card; we can debate later. At any rate, that lofty appellation has been attributed to Major Stephen Harriman Long since 1821 upon the publication of his account of an expedition of scientific exploration far west of the Mississippi River during the previous two years. Major Long and his fellow explorer Dr. Edwin James, a botanist, prepared a map of the country the expedition had crossed, and a large swath was unflatteringly labeled “The Great American Desert.”
Subsequently, in American mythology, Major Long unhesitantly continues to receive misplaced credit for the myth naming of this extensive tract of Arid America. Rather, in a cogent, compelling argument of refutation, Dr. William H. Goetzmann in his Exploration & Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West, an acclaimed study and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1967, properly and rightfully ascribes the mischaracterization of Arid America’s earliest name in the English tongue to Lieutenant Zebulon Pike during his arduous, yet dubious, peregrination deep into the North American interior in 1805-1807. From Pike’s report subsequent to his return to the United States from Mexico, Goetzmann quotes: “I saw in my route, in various places, tracts of many leagues where the wind had thrown up the sand in all the fanciful form of the ocean’s rolling wave; and on which not a speck of vegetable matter existed.”
Lieutenant Pike’s description may have been more impactful and convincing as a deterrent to unquenchable American thirst for continental expansion had a wider audience read and pondered the significance of his description, but, alas, the Course of Empire plowed onward toward Manifest Destiny. Nor did Major Long’s succinct but stark “Great American Desert” dissuade the next generation of Americans from embarking upon an expansionist, bloody conflict to wrest away and claim Mexico’s northern frontier during Mr. Polk’s war. With a nod to cosmic irony, at least American letters were enrichened in the war’s aftermath with the publications of Samuel E. Chamberlain’s My Confession, written between 1855 and 1861 in Boston, Massachusetts, and issued in book form in 1956, and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: or, The Evening Redness in the West, written in El Paso, Texas, and thunderously debuting in 1985.
[Sidebar Note: Both books figure centrally in the Literature of Arid America and are worthy of further, extensive, forthcoming elaboration.]
Significantly, Lieutenant Pike and Major Long crossed through portions of the scientifically precise Great American Desert; namely, the four major land features that collectively extend over thousands of square miles of Northern Mexico and the Western United States. Individually known as the Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan deserts, all four feature distinctive and indicative plant species, fauna, geology, and hydrology. Ironically and to the overall region’s existential detriment, “The Great American Desert” eyewitnessed by the members of the Pike and Long expeditions contained more pockets of the Great American Garden than presently exists due to harm we continue to inflict on Mother Earth and her protective atmosphere. In their journeys into the continent’s interior, the native grasses covering the Great Plains were both tall and thick. Rainfall nourished the land, rivers flowed deeply. Some of the verdant stretches of land they saw appear to our Twenty-first Century eyes to be as brown and barren and devoid of life not unlike one side of the Ebro Valley in Spain as viewed by the “American and the girl” as they waited for the train at the station in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.”
[Second Sidebar Note: In my numerous figurative walk-abouts in Arid America, I ensure to toss a copy or two of various works by Ernesto Hemingway into a Duluth Pack so that I have something good to read while on the road. To be continued.… “Rave On!”]
[Third Sidebar Note: Music for the road demands considerable attention, and Buddy Holly and the Crickets figure right in the middle of that story.]
But back to the point at hand. “The Great American Desert” of American mythology and the Great American Desert of geographical studies are both one and the same while simultaneously unrelated cousins. In a literal sense, this vast, slightly discontinuous span of North America is one enormous desert quartered into distinctive corners. But in a poetic sense, the particular differences among the four deserts finds expression in the title of D. H. Lawrence’s book of poems from 1923, Birds, Beasts, & Flowers! Somewhere in between the literal and the figurative lies the living descriptive—a practical threshold that demands keen attention from one’s senses in the pursuit of knowing the land’s whisperings across los cuatro desiertos. The land traversed by Lieutenant Pike and Major Long revealed some of its secrets to their attuned eyes and ears, but the recording of their impressions of the vast terrain found a comparatively miniscule audience than a much later recording composed by Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell, and Dan Peek with the release of “A Horse With No Name” on America’s debut album in 1971. Vastly different in tone and tenor from official reports to Congress in the Nineteenth Century, the purely American sentiments expressed in the musicianship of these three creative artists perpetuates the ceaseless sense of awe the West inspires from its many corners, including and especially the Chihuahuan Desert, as the deep bloodbeat of the pulse of unseen forces quietly utters immutable wisdom to wayfarers.