Desert Varnish
By: Nika Kaiser

I was born in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. In this landscape, borders rise and dissolve, plants are as ferocious as animals, and adobe architecture undulates biomorphically, commingling as edifice and earth. These unfixed states form the basis for my understanding of being in the world. The desert has always seemed to me a place where notions of the real and unreal are broken down, and one is sometimes lost between what appears to be and what actually is.

I’d always thought of my native locale of southern Arizona as the most beautiful place in the world, as any hometown girl is keen to believe. And so, of course, as this past summer began to wane, I could barely stand the anticipation within my chest around returning to my dusty town, after four years cloaked in the grey fog of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. I hoped to make it to Tucson before the monsoon rains had passed their time and prickly pear fruit was still the hue of amaranth and plump for picking.

Stowing all of my belongings for the 2000-mile trip home, the car was a jigsaw puzzle of color and chaos. A single bag contained all of the clothes I hoped to wear on the trip. Many of them swimsuits intended to be paired with shorts: items begging to be revived after having had little or no attention during the mild (if not tepid) Portland summer. Nevermind that these outfits would prove completely unsuitable for the week of mountainous national park travel I had planned. Instead, I had to scrounge for every layer that could be unearthed from my chaotic car-tangle. As the campfire died one night in Yellowstone, I attempted to conjure in my mind the long-unfamiliar and otherworldly sensation of 110 degree midday heat to which I’d soon be returning.


I spent a week and a half in the American West’s glacial mountains encountering moose, geothermal geysers, and grizzly bear babies. However majestic and transformative, I also began to feel jaded by the constant repetitive animation of pine trees passing in my peripheral vision, driving down tunnels of forest without a horizon line in sight.

Then, on a Tuesday afternoon, after meandering through small rainstorms and aspen groves, I arrived in a tiny valley in central Utah, where the quaint farmland town of Boulder lay nestled among sandstone and red rock. As I crossed through the town and up over a ridge, the desert unfurled itself before me, engulfing the entirety of my vision in hoodoos, desert varnish, and cavernous canyon walls. The road I drove was precariously carved into the side of a peak, and it was all I could do to stay on its slithering path, dodging oversized RVs that seemed to be cartoonishly clinging to it. Hot tears of joy were streaming down my cheeks blurring my vision: I had never been to this place before, and yet, in that moment, with the scorched blue sky and the lunar terrain before me, I was entranced as though I was setting foot on an alien planet—and also as though this place had been within me since before I was me.


Over the next few days, situated at my dear friend Jo’s tiny white cottage in the Boulder valley, I re-learned the desert anew. The brilliant heat burned imprints of my tevas on my pasty feet and I traversed deep slot and box canyons, shoving red dirt in my pockets and submerging myself in hidden creeks to keep from melting. At night while sleeping, spiders bit my legs, leaving fat welts that reminded me how amplified desert creatures defenses could be.

The time came to move on. As the car was loaded to move closer to home, I took in the coarse sandstone horizon and understood that every desert is magic: it exhibits an intangibly lengthy geologic sense of time, and also forces the body to contend with extreme conditions to hallucinatory effect. This one, too, situated in the smallest pocket between capitol reefs, grand staircases, and Anasazi ruins, was now tangled in and around my heart, just as strong as the roots of saguaros and creosote.

All images copyright 2014 Nika Kaiser

All images copyright 2014 Nika Kaiser