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Summer Evenings In the Desert

The hour of sunset in the Mojave Desert | Chris Clarke photo

It's hot in the desert right now. Triple digits last week in the Mojave a little earlier than usual, August weather arriving in June, and I spend most of my days indoors at the writing desk. That writing desk has a built-in alarm, though: it's next to a west-facing window with an overhang. When the sun shines in my eyes, sunset's an hour off, and it's time to walk out into the desert.

Even when the day is hot, at 3,500 feet sundown brings pretty rapid cooling. The day's stored heat radiates up into the sky. The breeze raises the hairs on my neck. 95° seems sweet after a triple-digit day, and the mid-80s sweeter still, and the slanting, coloring light draws me deeper into the desert.

Outside my house is a mature palo verde. It's flowering this month, sweet-scented yellow bean flowers that tempt passersby to lean in, breathe deeply, and come away with a face full of scratches from palo verde thorns. That's the voice of experience speaking.

In that long hour before the sun drops down behind San Gorgonio Mountain a million little flies and wasps come out to drink palo verde blossom nectar, all but invisible against the darkening sky. Invisible but not unseen: not long after the bugs come out, so do the bats. In my yard, three or four pallid bats tend to come out each night to keep the pollinators' population down a bit. They get bolder as the sky grows darker, and those in my yard have grown accustomed enough to me that they inspect me at remarkably close range, hovering three feet from my face for fifteen or twenty seconds.

When I lived in Nipton five years ago, my back yard faced out onto almost 200,000 acres of open Mojave, and I would go there in the evenings and watch the shadow of Clark Mountain sweep across twenty miles of desert. From a distance it looked as sharp as a knife's edge. As it drew closer, as the sun's disk began to hide in increments behind the mountain's summit ridge, that edge dulled. It became a long, shallow gradient from light to dark. The bats came out at the edge's mid-point, when the sky had turned from blue-white to salmon. The lesser nighthawks came out then as well, swooping more aggressively than the bats at their insect prey.

Nighthawks haven't discovered my yard in Joshua Tree, at least not that I know of. The bats don't have that company in the airspace around the palo verde.

In the square mile of desert behind my house, the cactus wrens start slowing their pace. They're one of the few birds here that's most active in mid-day, even in the hottest afternoons. They flit between the Joshua trees' limbs, their breasts' whitish speckles glowing pinker as they reflect the lowering sun's light. Crissal thrashers and Gambel's quail try to catch a few last beaksful of food, running around in the desert underbrush.

With the sun low in the sky, a remarkable thing happens for those animals that live close to the ground: the desert is suddenly both well-lit and full of shade. The shadows of the low shrubs start to fill all the open ground between them, offering a chance for animals to forage without getting broiled.

Shaded ground between the desert shrubs | Chris Clarke photo

Lizards have a complicated relationship with shade in summer. In the mornings the larger lizards seek direct sun to boost their body temperature. In mid-day they've had enough and stay beneath the shrubs. Side-blotched lizards and Great Basin whiptails, common around here, take advantage of late afternoon's spreading shade to forage for ambling insects. On my last walk I watched as a whiptail launched itself at an Eleodes beetle. The beetle stood on its head at the lizard, which reconsidered its decision. Eleodes squirts a noxious chemical weapon out of its hind end at potential predators. The headstand is a warning. Most animals that have eaten a previous Eleodes don't have to think twice about backing off.

One can walk off into the sunset only so far. Eventually the sun sets all the way and you have to turn around and walk back. The shadow of San Gorgonio fills the Morongo Basin the way Clark Mountain's filled the Ivanpah Valley, and the far slopes of the Sheepholes stay brightly lit enough to silhouette the Joshua trees for the next half hour.

Of course, the whole notion of the "end of the day" is a subjective one. One person's dusk is another person's alarm clock. Across the desert, as the bands of red fade along the western horizon, a family business opens its doors for the new workday. Their yipping song carries on the wind, announcing the beginning of the evening's hunt. I'll hear them again at 4:00 am, if I'm lucky enough to be awake.

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