The desert lies about time. It sweats the secrets one by one, vastly, and steals hours under your nose. It will beat you to dust with flimflam, if you let it.
The desert lies all the time.
But we—we living creatures—we lie right back, and just good enough.
Xerocole is a name that means, roughly, “animals that thrive in the desert.” It is a registry of hidden things, sharp things, things that hide in the quiet harsh corners of the world. The creatures burn there, and live. They lie to the world every day, to cheat a living.
Like we do, of course.
I don’t sweat too much hiking in the desert, not really. I’ve sweat more in nightclubs. Outdoors, the heat eats it off your skin, greedy. It’s like a meter, constantly clicking up to sunburn. You can always tell when you’re sunburnt, in the shower: When the water prickles strangely as it washes sweat away.
Xerocole don’t sweat. Not really.
Desert insects writhe up waxen layers to keep moisture inside, like reverse shedding. Arid birds don’t have sweat glands at all, but they flap the inside of their throats to cool the blood. A silent warble under hot skies.
Humans sweat out from their pores when they cool. All mammals do (including dogs: they really do sweat from paw pores, it turns out), except of course when they don’t—like the kangaroo rat. Little old KR, while all other rats sweat, cheats. It’s a mammal that has no sweat glands, none at all. They just…abide. Don’t even drink water to survive. They get moisture eating small, stolen seeds instead, and twitch their nose at lesser creatures.
KRs pee acid, too. All mammalian xerocole do. They piss vinegar and shit wafers with nearly zero moisture involved. Time for a, “They don’t give a shit” joke, or maybe something about holy communion, but I’m too impressed. Their bodies are stillsuits, they huddle in vats. They lie, and biology believes them.
* * *
The Bedouin don’t see just one map. They see two.
The first is a map of stars. The sun and dunes lie to you, but stars always show the right path. And in every Bedouin vision there is a constant lambent line to the next dry river bed, the next small cliff, the next stone that leads to an oasis—like rivulets running across the desert. Under the stars, those mind-paths shine.
The second map is one of sweat. The Bedouin also see a constant flow of clans burning out their skin under the sun, a skein of people wandering tight along the sands. Where to sleep and sigh. Where to embrace and share tea. Where to distrust and avoid. All of it laid out likes line of fire before their feet.
“Rubbed smooth, like lettering long since scored on a stony slab,” as Labid’s poetry says.
One curious group of travelers asked their Bedouin guide, “If you were crossing the desert by yourself, what would you bring?” After thinking for a moment, the guide answered: Some water, tea, a knife, and something for making fire. Perhaps a light blanket. Then he fell silent again, quite content with a list that would kill nearly any other human on the planet.
To ask them, “Where are we?” is almost a useless question, because “where” is a vast equation in the mind, constantly flickering. The most you get are directions to the next campsite that can brew tea.
When I was a teen, I dropped a beer bottle on a hot concrete lot. It shattered and a shard pierced my calf. I remember this, not only because of the tidy white scar that women sometimes notice, but also because of how much it bled. Rivulets ran into my sock all afternoon, and I didn’t feel a thing. I regularly looked down, in surprise.
The most famous creatures of the desert are the cute ones, the fennec fox, the jackrabbit, and the twitchy mule deer. The secret is those big flappy ears, irresistible and awkward, like a toddler trying way too hard. But like toddlers, they know what they’re doing: Those ears circulate plentiful blood close to the skin to cool down, keeping body temperature a few degrees lower. That’s all it takes. In a pinch, the cute ones can also hear out of them, which is good for watching out for the bad and ugly.
One of the badassed is the infamous “sidewinder” which people like for a totally different reason (it sounds cool). Sidewinders are really a couple viper and rattlesnake species in the U.S. that got their frontier name from how they move across the sand, a constant dodge-and-weave in forever S-shapes. It looks exhausting and edgy, but it’s smart. By balancing carefully on every S, the sidewinders make sure only two parts of their body touch the sand, so their cold-blooded blood stays cool as long as possible. If they stay grounded, they burn.
* * *
Humans actually eat blood, of course (puddings and cakes and soup), but not in the desert. There we learned blood is better left in precious animals as long as possible—and it’s too salty to be much good anyway. But like xerocole, we do use blood to survive.
I’m going to talk about Vikings now: You think they don’t know deserts? To them, everything south of the Alps felt like a desert. A matter of perspective.
Once upon a time, there was a Viking warlord called Bjorn Ironside. No, really. He warred down Europe and lorded over rich rivers all the way to the Mediterranean, where he heard about the famous south city of Rome, filled with plunder. What he found was the city of Luni: no one told him the difference, but it did just as well for plunder.
The city had high walls and to Vikings the weather was hot as Hell, but they didn’t want to give up. So Bjorn cheated. He invoked blood. His men gathered at the gates and begged clemency. You see, their great lord Bjorn was nearly dead of grievous injury. But he was no pagan, no. He requested the holy Christian rites before he breathed his last. All very serious.
So, the city priests let them inside, and the Norse poured in, carrying their dying leader, who was bleeding out on a pallet (some say he pretended to be fully dead, lying in a casket). The city was…surprised when Ironside leaped from the pallet, threw his men the weapons hidden under his shroud, and overtook the whole town. You could say it was a bloody affair.
But the Songs of Har say, “A blind man is better than a burnt one, ay / Of what gain is a good man dead?”
We do a lot of runs in the desert. “Fun” runs. A beer race, a costume race, a zombie race. You never know what’s coming. Sometimes you get covered in colored chalk and sometimes by mud, by the mile. But when you lick your lips, it all tastes like lurid salt on your tongue. Every time.
Along the roads of Nevada, it is very common to spot small, furious bundles of brown feathers darting on and off the asphalt, breathless. Their legs churn in winking flashes, like a Vegas trick.
Because humans have to make everything about themselves, we called them roadrunners, but that’s not even the most interesting thing about these little birds. Those deserts barely have enough water to fight over, so that means tactics: The roadrunner weeps.
It weeps pure salt, not real tears. Crying the stuff in a crusty frost down the down, retaining all the water while exuding poison, like mangrove trees do. Little trails sparkling quick in the sunset. Roadrunners blink the salt away, and survive to run another day. Beep beep.
* * *
They say the worst life on earth is in the Australian outback. If you’re human. The Aborigine are underwhelmed by that distinction.
People think of the Aborigine people as magically surviving under red Australian sands with zero water. The opposite is true. The Aborigine were masters of herding and baiting water—digging channels from the billabongs to grow eel farms, and harvesting sweet seeds from the smallest trees. Sure, in the hottest days they dug around shrubs and ate the grubs, but that was desperate. Mostly, they honed the waters and vented the eddies into impossible places to make what they wanted. Roots, irrigation, man-made oases, all at once. You could say they hacked the desert.
Then the Aborigine started, uh, dying off. Other people found Australia, and they were what you might call white hats. It did not end well.
According to old tales, the Dreamtime etched into the desert the things that it was: Human and animal, splitting together in a furry sort of way. It is here because it was there, that ancient time under the blasting sun…and time winds back around in hot threads. They dreamed of life, these burnt and painted people. They are braver than us all.
I am quite white. My skin burns when I walked shirtless in the hot dust. Even before showers, it occasionally warns with quiet angst that I will peel later. Although I also have tattoos, which hurt once like a cat-scratch, and then rarely burn again. It feels manly, I suppose.
On rare occasions, lovers have said the same things to me. “You have beautiful eyes,” is one, which I like and don’t mind repeating. “Your skin is nice, it’s soft,” is another, which I have mixed feelings about. Should skin be hard, I wonder.
A type of desert lizard is called the horny devil. It only lives up to the name in one way: It has horny, mishmash scales that sprout up all over its body. They etch across the desert like a badge of brown leaves, scampering rock to rock.
Then, in the morning, they stand statue-still at the top of outcroppings and hills, like little cathedrals. And the dew and mist, the fey things, trickle down into their thorny skin and drip along fractal lines in their skin. Eventually, it is all funneled toward the horny devil’s mouth, as they summon moisture from the nothing, like scampering sorcerers with embarrassing names.
Another story: Many scientists once assumed African frogs die in the summer. They don’t. They just pretend. Really: they dig down and surround themselves in a thick jelly skin, then hibernate for as much as seven years at a time until they lurch up and surprise everyone. Waiting for rain, like a mummy waits for British explorers.
* * *
Deserts lie about the heat, too. Many are ice cold.
Ask anyone. Ask Captain Scott, who teamed up in friendly competition (“friendly”) with several other countries for his last expedition to Antarctica. He wanted to find the South Pole first, so he set off to the wastelands with massive sleds and ponies and packs of dogs.
White dawns danced before them, and they died. The sleds died. The ponies died. The dogs archetypically lived, but the daily expanse of desolation didn’t forebode much good.
Everyone brought thick sleeping bags lined with the skin and fur of reindeer. Every night the ice melted into their clothes, beards and pores. It seeped into those furry sleeping bags and froze the day later, so heavy it was worse than worth it.
They all died, in the end. The Norwegians won the race to the South Pole, because of course they did. The British team froze to death trying to retreat…but in the most British way possible.
Captain Scott tried to paint his team’s deaths in as brave a light as possible. “For God’s sake, look after our people!” was his final journal line. But for teammate, Titus Oates, the Captain didn’t need to try: As the British children learn, Oates, while dying of fever, stood up one morning and walked through the tent flaps into the blizzard, never to be seen again. His final words were, “I am just going outside and may be some time.”
Here is a weird thing. In your 20s, you move around a lot and home is mostly by smell. You know home because the sheets and seats smell like yours. It’s natural. But at some point you settle down and then it changes: Home becomes less about smell, and soon your windows, your faucets, the way light shines in the morning and the way the furnace works. Suddenly you know where you are.
There are owls in the desert, hooting.
They cheat by occupying cacti in the Nevada deserts, unilaterally. The owls are tiny enough to perch on the cacti spines and peck into the sweet green flesh until they hollow out a little home-hole. Plus, the cactus houses water and protects them. In the evening, a rapid discourse between the highest cacti prongs will single out the best real estate, and who holds it.
Jerboa live in a tougher Saharan desert, where it gets to 130 degrees Fahrenheit, easily. The little rabbit-rats have especially powerful, long back legs, even longer proportionally than the kangaroo, which make them look a little like tiny ostriches and very much like creatures that should not technically exist.
They use those spindly legs to jumping maddening distances—but they also dig out swift dens in the dirt and snuggle deep down to avoid the sun-killed parts of the day. Hidey holes to nest and mate.
* * *
I’ve lived in the high desert for a decade or so. When people talk about “high desert” a lot of them think of Eastern California, which is way wrong, because a high desert is any plain at the right elevation to have blistering summers and freezing winters, in a tundra sort of dance.
When I first moved here, I hated it, these broken vistas between bare plains and straggling zombie trees. I moved from the coast, and could not imagine a place being beautiful without water. I was an idiot.
My current home has little spritzing sprinklers: I planted groundcovers and lava rock all around, in homage to the Cascades peaks above me. Greedy on water, they (the plants) grow up and overtake the rocks every year. I pull them out by handfuls, careless, overburdened in green. They grow again. All it takes is water, an old Aborigine trick. Also, like scars and mud runs, it impresses the girls, and I’m not above building a nest.
Out there it is a different place. The broken brown ground, away from towns, gives a baked and dead spice smell, a smell that warns you on hot days. “Things die here,” it says.
Creatures step on burnt dust, across those undead juniper trees and bleak tumbleweeds. That ground breaks its crust with each footstep. Harsh under my shoes when I go out, but soft and cloven under the deer with vast ears. You see where they passed, you see them wandering out, like you see the coyotes and sometimes even pumas, half-glimpsed between half-dead trees.
A tenth of those trees are blackened carcasses left from desert lightning storms. They reach up stumped, jagged edges to the sky, gleaming like charcoal, like waypoints and warnings. Out in the outlawed, defunct state parks, you find them filled with bird nests, or sometimes forgotten drugs, or often nothing. Even without sprinklers, without the right biology, this feels like home.
We are xerocole. Weeping and thick-skinned. Weak and hidden. We cheat, myriad and unapologetic. And I cannot at all empathize with the scurrying, desperate, burning creatures who actually live here. Not at all. Because I am a writer, and a human, and I too know how to lie.
Tyler Lacoma is a writer and editor from Oregon. When he isn’t running his business QuillandInk, Tyler works on creative nonfiction and fiction alike, always trying to get a little better. You can contact him @CaptainWords to learn more or offer him an amazing book deal.