Nearly sixty years ago, the great science fiction novelist Robert A. Heinlein penned a story entitled ‘The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.’ Well, this desert is too; even for us whom others might consider this setting being our second nature.

The accompanying photograph was taken on a Wednesday morning, at the start of a day long prowl. You are standing at the head of Leupold Tinaja, west of the Deadhorse Mountains and somewhat south of Dagger Flat.

Please study the scene carefully, as each element observed plays an integral part in the telling of a cautionary tale. The yucca, the prickly pear, the lechuguilla and the various kinds of cholla, the holes and tinajas of well hidden water, the loose rocks lining the treacherous path down, the near hundred foot drop of emptiness, and the haze in the sky will all take the stage in what is to come.

We were working our way from a launch point just over those low lying hills to the right, headed for a little known desert oasis I call The Rocks That Roar. This would be the final leg for the background research concerning my upcoming historical novel, as The Rocks That Roar is important to the plot.

Our route skirted the escarpment pictured here, a series of pour offs along steep rock faces running for miles hither and yon. Curiosity can be a fearsome companion, and we tarried too long at spots such as this.

By the time we reached our targeted destination, it was into the evening hours with seven more miles back to where we came from. About two-thirds into our return journey, the shadows had grown long and then gone away.

And the basic character of this never-forgiving land became much more so.

There was no moon and the enduring haze shrouded any available starlight to guide by. A sea of daggerlike lechuguilla surrounded us, interspersed with the equally fierce prickly pear and cholla. The solitary forms and stands of yucca, some specimens pushing ten feet high, took on grotesque forms in the blackness like the tortured souls described in Dante’s Inferno.

Having my bearings as to where the Jeep waited, I swung wide of the bluffs marking the escarpment. One of the first useful senses to go away on such a night is depth perception, and what appears to be only a few inches lower can be fifty feet.

The last mile was the slowest, as we were coming off a long, sloping ridge made up of all the above. I went first, my feet seeming to develop a mind and reasoning of their own. Onward we went, taking baby steps through loose rocks while softly calling out any unforeseen surprise to the one following behind.
Once reaching the vehicle, we both let out a sigh of relief. It had been a fine day, exhilarating on occasion in taking in the sights of the desert by day.

But it was nothing like the exhilaration of escaping the clutches of the desert on a moonless, pitch dark night.

I think Heinlein would have approved of the otherworldly setting.

God bless to all,

Ben H. English
Alpine, Texas
USMC: 1976-1983
THP: 1986-2008
HS Teacher: 2008-2010
Author 2017- Present
Facebook: Ben H. English
‘Graying but still game’