Into the Desert

I grew up in the Midwest and was born on the East Coast. I was used to rain and trees. Having never been to a desert until I was an adult, the desert seemed exotic and strange.

When we moved to the Los Angeles area nearly twenty years ago, I found myself in a very different place. I loved having spring last from January to June, with flowers blooming every month of the year. I loved the nearby mountains and the ocean. I could have snow in the winter if I wanted it, and I could always see open water.

And then there was the desert. We passed through the Mojave Desert every time we drove back to Minnesota and it seems like “through” was the operative word. The Mojave is big, dusty, hot, hot, hot and dry, dry, dry. It was uncomfortable to me. I went through it again every time I had a meeting in Las Vegas and I had little desire to stop and explore it. It was intimidating.

Yet, over the years of passing through the Mojave, I did get curious. And I have to admit that I was fascinated by seeing it from the air every time I took a trip east from LA by plane. I loved sitting at the window seat and seeing the “bones” of the earth show up in clear view.

This spring a very fine photographer friend of mine and I went into the Mojave National Preserve that sits along and south of Interstate 15 going toward Las Vegas from Los Angeles. This is a phenomenal location for photographers although finding a place to stay nearby is challenging. Baker, California, is very close, but has very little other than restaurants and a couple of cheap motels. Primm, Nevada, is not too far, but it tries a bit too hard to be like Vegas. Barstow, California, has some good places to stay, but it is a bit of a drive to the park (a national preserve is like a national park, but not quite as restricted). There are some places to camp in the park, too.

Back to the Mojave — the National Preserve is huge and it takes a while to get around it. But there are great locations, including some huge sand dunes (hundreds of feet tall), very rocky mountains, lots of open desert, a dry, salt lake, one of the densest Joshua tree forests found anywhere (and it covers a very large area, too), cinder cones from ancient volcanic activity, and when we were there, a truly blooming desert. Large areas of the desert here are covered by creosote bush which has a nice yellow flower, though not spectacular. We did find lots of spectacular flowers, including flowering cactus! I had never seen cactus in bloom in the wild before and this was wonderful.

And another thing we found — very few people. We would drive for miles and miles on good, two-lane roads and not see a single car or other sign of people. We really did feel like we were out in the desert away from civilization.

It was a good experience. I enjoyed the photography and I really enjoyed being in the Mojave. For the first time, I actually felt comfortable, like this was a place I could slow down in and directly experience nature. Even when I wasn’t photographing as I waited for light or walked or drove to a new location, I enjoyed being out in this place of wide-open vistas. I think we all experience nature a bit based on how and where we grew up. Sometimes natural places that are totally different than our early experiences can seem at first uninviting and even intimidating. But I think if we slow down and really visit such locations, nearly anywhere we go can be a great place to be in nature and find wonderful subjects for the camera. And for me, I think of the Mojave as a friend now.

To do justice to this location, I will have to return! For a little different take on photography, check out my blog at or my website at Also, my new book on landscape photography, The Magic of Digital Landscape Photography, covers a lot about different locations from deserts to mountains to oceans and more.

Rob Sheppard