Dushyant Naresh, Vassar College
Eyelids slowly wilt as the soothing hum of the car engine lulls me to sleep. The rising sun casts a golden glow across the endless landscape, with subtle magentas, yellows, and blues fusing together the feathery clouds. Desert grasses and prickly pear cacti blanket the soil, stretching into the distance as far as the eye can see. Idle cows and restless horses dot the countryside, and with The Joshua Tree softly playing in my ears, it feels like heaven.
Yet don’t be fooled by this paradise—by 9:00 a.m., the furious sun scorches anything in its wake. Sizzling temperatures and sandy gusts of wind cause severe dehydration, and it doesn’t help that nearly everything around you is out to destroy you. Dead mesquite branches have a wonderful tendency to find their way through the soles of shoes, prickly pears wind their way into socks, and gravely, sandy soil ensures that the graceless ones among us are constantly wary of our steps. During the day, rattlesnakes and centipedes roam the desert surface like kings, and the same areas transform into the hunting grounds for the coyotes and bobcats at night.
This raises the question—why did people settle here? As we continue excavating at the Dinwiddie site, we are getting a firsthand view of how the people who lived in this region before us interacted with the immediate landscape. People made their walls and floors with adobe, a cement-like combination of materials extracted from the ground. They sculpted comals, metates, and manos out of large stones through hours and hours of grinding and pecking. Projectile points flaked out of local Mule Creek obsidian and bone awls and scrapers are scattered throughout our excavation units. Prickly pears produce a delicious fruit, and their pads, de-thorned and cooked, are like green beans. Agave nectar is a natural sweetener, contrasting the savory meats of rabbit, deer, and other wildlife. The Southwest, therefore, stands as a prime example of the resourcefulness and ingenuity of humanity.
Ultimately, there is a certain misconception of the desert. The harsh, arid climate complements the stunning beauty of the landscape. It isn’t just a drab, sandy stretch of land that houses rolling tumbleweeds and tough men galloping on horses. Instead, it is a remarkable feat of nature—dynamic skies, resilient fauna, and hardened creatures inhabiting the landscape. The people who resided in these lands managed to harness the staggering power of the desert to its fullest, stamping their mark into the dirt for centuries. And some teenage rascal from Bangalore (me) is privileged enough to be able to relive some of the experiences that these people had, interacting with the gorgeous landscape just like they did.