10 Scenes From the American Desert

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Mention the word “desert,” and many people envision a parched man, crawling past sand dunes and cactuses, desperately seeking water. Forget that clichéd Hollywood vision. Modern marvels such as hydroelectric dams and air conditioning have helped tame the desert to some degree, giving rise to lush golf courses, resorts and major U.S. cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas. While this phenomenon isn’t unique to the U.S. — just check out the incredible skyline in Dubai — millions of Americans live in what is officially classified as a desert.


10. Mirage

© Shell Vacations Hospitality

A conference table overlooks the Phoenix Legacy Golf Course in Tempe, Ariz. Phoenix’s rise from a tiny agricultural town in the Sonoran Desert to major American city is an improbable story. There are concerns about sustaining such a large city in a desert climate. The Phoenix area gets roughly half its water from Lake Mead, and drought conditions and the growing population in the Southwest have dropped the water level in the reservoir to roughly 40 percent of capacity.


9. Ghost Rider

© Paul Van Der Werf

This abandoned 1926 Ford on the entrance road to Nevada’s Great Basin National Park is a favorite haunt for photographers. Someone added a cow’s skull and other bones to make it appear it’s “driving” the car. The Great Basin is one of the four major deserts in the U.S., along with the Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts.


8. Business Climate

© Nan Palmero

This roadside sculpture along Highway 90 near Marfa, Texas, looks like an advertisement for the upscale Prada brand. But artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset deemed it “pop architectural land art” when they unveiled it in 2005. Miuccia Prada herself even provided the company’s trendy handbags and shoes for the sculpture, and allowed the use of the Prada name. It’s located in the Chihuahuan Desert, which covers most of West Texas and parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Mexico.


7. True Colors

© Jeremy C. Munns

The brilliantly colored geothermal Fly Geyser is located in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Drillers prospecting for geothermal energy created the geyser in 1964. Formerly on private land, the geyser and surrounding property were purchased by the Burning Man Project in late 2017.


6. Desert Storm

© Freeside

A Boeing B-52B stratofortress bomber is lit up for a photo shoot during a dust storm. The image was taken at Edwards Air Force Base, in the California portion of the Mojave Desert.


5. Salvation Mountain

© Brian Auer

This hill covered in murals and Bible verses looks distinctly out of place in Southern California’s Colorado Desert (a subdivision of the larger Sonoran Desert). The hill consists of adobe clay, concrete and more than 100,000 gallons of paint. Artist Leonard Knight began work on the project in the 1980s, years later saying, “I was just going to stay one week. It’s been a very good week.” His work has since been recognized on the floor of the U.S. Senate as a “national treasure.”


4. London Bridge

© Robert

Like the old nursery rhyme says, London Bridge really was falling down in the early 1960s in London. Robert McCulloch, who founded Lake Havasu City, Ariz., purchased the bridge and had it transported stone by stone to his new city. It was reconstructed and opened in 1971. As for Lake Havasu City, summers are scorching; on June 29, 1994, the temperature there hit 128 degrees, a record for a town or city in the Western Hemisphere.


3. Shootout

© James G. Howes

Tombstone, Ariz., hosts daily re-enactments of the famous 1881 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral that pitted the three Earp brothers and Doc Holliday against a gang of outlaws.


2. Burning Man

© Lara 604

The annual Burning Man festival draws tens of thousands of people to the Black Rock Desert in northwest Nevada. Organizers actually build a tiny town, Black Rock City, for the arts-related event, then tear it down without a trace at the conclusion. As for the festival’s name, each year the event concludes with the torching of the giant Burning Man seen above.


1. Bright Lights

© Carol M. Highsmith

Astronauts have said that the Las Vegas Strip is the brightest nighttime spot on Earth. Like Phoenix and other large Southwestern cities dependent on scarce water resources to tame the desert, Las Vegas could face an uncertain future if the decade-long drought in the region persists.


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