Five things I’ve learned about being out West

I graduated a year ago this week and I have been reflecting on my first year out of college and all the cool things I have experienced during my seasonal life out West. Here’s a list of a few things I’ve learned about being out here:

1.  Cattle are everywhere. Even when you think you’re completely alone in a wilderness area you’ll find yourself stumbling upon a herd of cows grazing on the vegetation and navigating all sorts of terrain. I remember even seeing cows in Buckskin Gulch in Utah, coming through the slot canyon towards me. They are curious, but terribly skittish (rightfully so) creatures. They look hilariously awkward when they run. And they are pretty good at cleaning trucks when they’re curious enough to come and lick them.

2. Seeing pronghorn and horny toads never get old. Theses animals don’t look like they belong in the United States- they’re so exotic and ancient looking. Every time I see a herd of pronghorn effortlessly sprinting over the desert/prairie/steppe, I am amazed at their agility to move over the rocks, sagebrush and cactus. They look like they belong in Africa with the springbok and impala. They are extremely curious. Apparently if you get out of your truck and alternate between doing jumping jacks and laying down on the ground, a herd of pronghorn will actually approach you. This has been field tested.

Curious pronghorn

A curious pronghorn evaluates our truck.

Every time I see a horny toad I catch them immediately and am amazed at their calm stoic disposition and their spiny skin. Their bored expression is especially endearing.

Horny toads- the dragons of the desert.

Horny toads- the dragons of the desert.

3. Driving long distances is not a big deal. Out east driving more than five hours seems daunting. But out West covering hundreds of miles in a day is nothing. This country is so vast and the traffic minimal that it’s actually somewhat enjoyable. The terrain varies so much out here- one minute you’ll be meandering on winding snowy mountain roads and the next minute you’ll be going 70mph through the desert.

4. The government owns a lot of land. I already knew that about a third of the US is federally owned, but that’s not something that is very apparent when you’re living out East. If you look at a map of federally owned lands in the U.S., the government owns most of the land west of the Rockies. My home is near Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and until this year that was the only National Park I’d ever visited. This year I’ve visited (and worked in) at least 20 different National Park units in CO, SD, WY, UT, AZ , NM and ID and I plan on visiting a lot more during my CLM internship! Not to mention the countless lands owned by the Forest Service and BLM that I’ve found places for free dispersed camping.

Map of Federal Lands in the USA

Map of Federal Lands in the USA

And lastly,

5. The desert/steppe is an amazing place. I have the deepest respect for the plants and animals that not only survive in this harsh environment, but actually thrive in it. I am reminded of one of my favorite Edward Abbey passages from A Desert Solitaire:

“The wind will not stop. Gusts of sand swirl before me, stinging my face. But there is still too much to see and marvel at, the world very much alive in the bright light and wind, exultant with the fever of spring, the delight of morning. Strolling on, it seems to me that the strangeness and wonder of existence are emphasized here, in the desert, by the comparative sparsity of the flora and fauna: life not crowded upon life as in other place but scattered abroad in spareness and simplicity, with a generous gift of space for each herb and bush and tree, each stem of grass, so that the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock. The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life forms. Love flowers best in openness and freedom”

The last few weeks we’ve seen many of the desert flowers come into bloom. Here are my favorites so far:

Penstemon palmeri (Palmer's penstemon). Now I understand why penstemons are called beardtongues!

Penstemon palmeri (Palmer’s penstemon). Now I understand why penstemons are called beardtongues!

OECA (4)

Oenothera caespitosa (Tufted evening primrose). We’ve noticed these have started to bloom among the lava rock in our field sites.


Until next time,


Shoshone BLM Office

Shoshone, Idaho

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.