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Kindness of Strangers in Deserts of N America

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The human-like Giant Saguaro cactus
All Around the World with the Most Travelled Indian
By NITIN GAIROLA 
America (aka USA and not the continent) is not often associated with kindness or compassion and is rather seen as a competitive society. But a lot of it is to do with our choices i.e. the places we visit in America. I chose to visit its deserts. And in these remote lands, anywhere in the world, you do find genuine kindness. It is something that’s not too common in busy cities and towns where all the conveniences are at hand.
A Wild West town called Tombstone

Visiting deserts for me has been a long and slow journey of self-discovery, the inner journey to understand the purpose of my life, which is to see every desert on Earth and to not just learn the geography of these places but to ‘feel’ it too. A visit to these desolate dry-lands puts my own brief existence in context in seemingly timeless landscapes of dunes & dust.

A US Military base in Mojave Desert

These North American deserts could not be more different from the ones which I described earlier in my Africa and West Asia features. For one, almost all are in the USA which as we know is an ultra-developed nation. It’s only the Chihuahua Desert that’s majorly in Mexico with just its northern tip in southern USA. The overriding beliefs and faiths practiced in this region are also very different from those in the hot deserts, thereby lending it a unique atmosphere. And the same goes for its wildlife and ecosystems. A lot many parts can be quite green when compared to the Arabian or Atacama Deserts for example. The Sonora is full of the iconic Giant Saguaro cactus of Western America, which looks like a standing man with hands raised skywards. When we went there, the Sonora appeared very lush and full of insect and reptile life, including the rattle snake (I advise long boots or gaiters). Sonora also had other very strange things in its deserts – like military bases, planes, tanks, bone-yards, secret rocket launch and nuclear test sites.

Deserts can have more than just dunes

So there it is, the American deserts are atypical when it comes to people, faith, wealth, weather, wildlife and vegetation.  Most of all, the stories here couldn’t be more far removed from those of the Bedouin in Arabia or the Tuareg in the Sahara or the Bushmen in Kalahari. In the Mojave Desert of Western US, the ‘Area 51’ story (a secret US Air Force military base) came about after alleged UFO sightings and conspiracy theories of Alien landings in the 1940s & 1950s and government’s involvement in them. That’s what happens when you have prosperous folk with lots of idle time. This is in complete contrast to other deserts on the planet where the stories are about the way of life of their ancestors along with modern world challenges of westernization, desertification, food and water scarcity and ongoing conflicts that cause mass-migrations out of desert towns (the towns that we travellers romanticize).

Las Vegas was made on a desert

Of course, America being America, here everything is large, ‘over the top’ and a commercial operation. So suitably Area 51 had a souvenir shop and I was just wondering why our tour person stopped us there when all I wanted to see was Death Valley (part of Mojave Desert) and the Bad Water Basin (lower part of the Great Basin Desert). But Death Valley in itself didn’t disappoint with its stark appeal. It is truly barren and has rocky Mars like portions such as the Zabriskie Point and a small part of it has white sand dunes as well. Just that you should be prepared to see a retail store or restaurant in the middle of the desert and if you are a desert purist, then it may disappoint you. And don’t count on too many kind strangers near tourist hotspots like the Grand Canyon (part of the Colorado Plateau desert). Here no one wants to talk to or wave at you. Most will only come up to you requesting for their Instagram photograph. But as we realized, there was some kindness elsewhere.

With Pallavi, Venkath,Sindhu & Nikhil

The trouble is that many of these epic landscapes have easy access and excellent services and this makes them feel a bit underwhelming. For example we came into Grand Canyon with low expectations and were still underwhelmed. Why you may ask? Well since our vehicle stopped in the parking lot and we walked no more than 3 minutes (maybe less) and there you had the jaw-dropping view of the Grand Canyon, only that it had benches and fences and no less than a 100 selfie-seeking tourists. Now even a place as mega as Grand Canyon can leave you feeling a bit empty inside.

Taking in the view of Sedona

There is also a clearly marked walking trail, dotted with sign boards and this overall experience can feel extremely curated. I still ended up with seriously beautiful photographs but didn’t have an equally beautiful experience. That’s how travel magazine’s photo-shopped photographs can lie and that’s why I recommend reading about a place and not binge watching videos or photographs. They can take so much away by giving you an image that is not the one created in your mind.

The US Humvee that was used in Iraq

But in the middle of all this commercialization and carpeting of real rock and dust, we did meet some wonderful people. There were these 4 lovely students from India in Flagstaff, a very cool SpaceX engineer (covered in the ‘Elon Musk & SpaceX’ feature few months back), a flaky old lady in L.A., our half-crazy Death Valley guide (touched by the Sun), two very knowledgeable guides in Tombstone (a real place), a caring Gujarati couple who gave us strong ‘adrak chai’ (ginger tea) when we needed it, and so many others. But there was one person who really stood out for us and this is how our paths crossed.

Nitin & Richa with Ronnie Prichard
In the very early morning hours in Flagstaff (Arizona), our Greyhound bus to Phoenix had got cancelled and we had an evening flight to catch from Phoenix to San Diego. We were a bit flustered but I remembered that I had saved the number of a person who gave us an Uber ride the day before and I promptly called him. Thankfully he picked up my call and agreed to drive Richa and me to Phoenix for 200 USD (a distance of 180 miles or 290 kilometers). That was a very fair price and we said yes to him. His name was Ronnie Prichard.
I think from our backseat conversations he picked up that we were a bit sad to not see the Sedona area between Flagstaff and Phoenix, or the city of Phoenix itself, since the bus cancellation had sabotaged all our plans. And we knew 200 USD was just enough to go from one city to the other in a straight line without any detours. But suddenly we saw Ronnie stop by the side of a lovely gorge. We took a few snaps but didn’t stay there too long, as we didn’t want to make him wait. But after going a few more miles he stopped at another scenic spot and this time went with us and actually took a few photographs of ours.  We were quite surprised but I am sure he spotted happiness on our faces.
Later, instead of going in a straight line, we realized he had driven us to Sedona and not only that, he was actively taking us to all the popular views and allowing us all the time there (he knew our flight was some time away). We had such a good time in Sedona as in this American tour we saw their cities on the west coast, their national parks, deserts but hadn’t seen any ‘Red Indian’ lands. However, Sedona was Indian land and we were thrilled to bits. Because of the serendipity of it all, Sedona was actually a much more lasting memory than Grand Canyon and the like, which were well planned and over-researched.
During this journey as we started opening up about our lives, I realized that Ronnie had a very interesting life story to tell. He had served in the US Navy and done duty on an aircraft carrier for 7 years. His travels had taken him to around 25 countries and across the Middle East. He had been to war torn Somalia as well, so you can say that this war veteran is quite a desert man himself and unlike me, he didn’t have the support of a tour company in these dangerous countries.
But most of all, his experiences there had made him who he was – a very considerate, compassionate and soft spoken man with liberal values and someone who didn’t seem to carry any baggage or bias towards a particular region, race or religion. There were no judgements passed at all. After being with him that day, I knew what I always knew – That the people who have seen suffering or have suffered are usually the kindest. Ronnie is one of a kind and he was ‘Born in the USA’ (as Bruce Springsteen once sang about the Vietnam War).

Nitin Gairola is from Dehradun and has travelled the natural world more than almost any Indian ever. He has set world travel records certified by India Book of Records, has written for Lonely Planet, and holds National Geographic conservation certifications. He is also a senior corporate executive in an MNC and in his early days, used to be a published poet as well. More than anything else, he loves his Himalayan home.