On a dark desert highway


Although paradise is a popular draw in tourism, other themes also have followings. The Old West theme is a crowd-pleaser. I’ve met tourists from Asia and Europe who have traveled to the U.S. seeking the dry and dusty expanses of cowboy lore. Many tourists rent cars and make road trips of their vacations.

The appeal isn’t limited to foreign visitors, and, at any given time it seems like some random stretch of desert has become a gentrified enclave, often populated with refugees from big cities and from the 9-to-5 routine. One popular example of an enclave that grew into an urban setting of its own is Palm Springs. We could also nominate Las Vegas for the distinction, but Vegas’ main draw is the glitz of its casinos, or, these days, its other economic opportunities, and not the climate, western lore, or terrain. The Vegas desert can be pretty harsh even by desert standards.

I’ve known several business owners who would spend part of the year in Saipan and part of the year in the arid southwestern U.S. Some of them gave up on Saipan entirely, but a couple are still hanging with the routine. As long as you like sunshine and don’t mind the trans-Pacific flight, that sort of geographic combination strikes me as a great way to live.

And then there are “snowbirds,” typically from cold climates within the U.S. or Canada, who spend their winters in the desert, or other warm climes such as Florida, and then shuttle back to their other digs when springtime rolls around.

In fact, I know a migrating cadre of wandering amateur astronomers who travel an annual circuit in the desert, drifting south in winter and north in summer.

On that note, desert skies, as long as they are remote enough to be away from the halo of city lights, make for famously good astronomy. My wife and I lease a very small patch of desert for our telescope, although there are some years where we’re lucky if we can manage a visit once, maybe twice.

I hear about the desert more and more as my stateside friends hit the point of retirement. None of them are couch potatoes, and most of them are probably going to move to the desert which, despite the summertime heat, is often good for being outside and enjoying hiking, tennis, golf, and so on. The great American migration to the Sun Belt is, from what I see, going to keep rolling along.

Pilots like the desert because of the good flying weather. America’s deserts are dotted with small housing developments centered on runways. Just as you’d drive your car from your garage to the highway, you can drive your airplane from its garage (hangar) to the runway.

There’s a lot of aviation lore in the desert, including storied military bases (Edwards Air Force base in California’s Mojave desert, for example) and both military and civil “bone yards” of aircraft where the dry desert air minimizes corrosion. Some of those aircraft will never fly again. Some will be cannibalized for parts. Some are just in temporary storage.

Some have tales to tell and others have secrets to keep. Entire histories of aviation are lurking in these places if you know where to look. In another generation all those stories will have turned to dust. The aircraft will be scrapped and stamped into iPhones, and nobody who cares will be around anymore. But we’re not there yet. Close, maybe. But not yet.

Of course, much of the foregoing action depends in one simple thing that is easy to forget when you’ve got it but hard to forget if you don’t: fresh water. But being in a tropical paradise isn’t guaranteed to be better; Saipan has some water worries, too.

Indeed, no matter where we are, so much of modern life has been built on the assumed abundance of energy and water.

I’m not intrigued by the concept of time machines, but if I could take one for a spin I’d like to see what Saipan is like in 100 years, and also see what becomes of some favorite old desert haunts. Will these places still offer snug harborage off the beaten path? Or will they be overrun with people? Will they be happy places or will they be troubled places? Will tourists visit?

Of course, I’ve got no idea, but, now that I think about it, I wouldn’t trade my todays for an equal slice of time next century. Nor would I trade them back in last century, either. I’m with that most insightful of philosophers, Winnie the Pooh, on this one: My favorite day is today.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.
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