My wristwatch alarm goes off at 7:30 a.m. I am snuggled up to my two other tent buddies buried deep in my sleeping bag with a hat, long underwear, and Smartwool socks on up to my knees. My legs and arms are squeezed up close to my body as I gather the courage to get out of my sleeping bag into the cold desert air so that I could get dressed, eat breakfast and get ready for the day.
1, 2, 3! I rip open my sleeping bag with my limbs still glued to my body while I do a little foot dance/body wiggle until I find my clothes. I quickly throw on my clothes and awkwardly dance to warm up as I walk to the boiling water where my group members are chatting about their body temperatures during the night while eating oatmeal.
Don’t worry, it got warmer that day and I stopped my cold dancing.
Every night is different but eventually I figured out the best attire for the coldest nights. My formula: long underwear + hat + Smartwool socks + rain pants + crazy creek chair under my sleeping pad (for extra insulation) + and finally, my favorite item, which we so rightly named “the second sleeping bag” (a knee length down parka) = warm and cozy night. So there, I adapted. It wasn’t comfortable, I had some cold nights, but I figured it out. The best thing about my system is that there are layers, so if I get hot I can take it off. I can tell you, though, that barely ever happens.
Adaptation in the desert happens in a similar way. Over time, much longer than the couple of weeks I spent figuring out my perfect sleeping attire, plants and animals will adapt to the changes around them. For example, if the environment becomes increasingly dry, the plants that find a way to conserve or find water in some way will survive and reproduce until all of those plants are adapted to the new environment. In the end, the plants will be well suited to their changing environment. Take the cactus, a commonly known desert plant, over a significant amount of time the plant was able to store water in its body as it waited for the next rain. If it rained significantly, the cactus might even immediately grow new roots to trap more water. Additionally, the recognizable spines on the plant are not just a defense mechanism against other animals, but a strategic way to not lose too much water to evaporation which would happen if the cactus had “normal” leaves. Adaptation is not an easy process. It takes many years for a plant to “figure out” how to live in its ever-changing world and many plants don’t make the cut. So then, despite its difficulty, adaptation is necessary for survival.
But adaptation is not just limited to me being cold and the cactus staying hydrated. In the desert, all plants and animals are constantly adapting. Contrary to what I once thought, the desert has a variety of mini ecosystems throughout, each plant and animal filling some niche in the landscape. Backpacking, especially in a group, seems to simulate this pattern. Each person is filling a role in our group so that we can work together efficiently and effectively, kind of like what happens in an ecosystem. Somebody gets the water. Somebody navigates. Someone cracks jokes. Someone has an insane amount of knowledge. Each of us contributing and pushing as we work together to explore the canyons, adapting to any challenges we may face.
Water is one of the most limiting factors in the desert. Much of the adaptations in the desert have revolved around limited access to water. Some plants, like cottonwoods and willows like to “set up camp” near water flows in canyons so they have constant access (much like us backpackers) whereas other plants enjoy constant sunlight, like the narrow leaf yucca, or even prefer growing in rocks, like the round leaf buffalo berry. My point is that it is necessary for the organisms of the desert to adapt to their environment, in the face of competition from other organisms, in order to survive.
As I have alluded to before, I have had to adapt to this desert as well. I don’t have all the luxuries I have at home like food, water, clothes and other things at my disposal. Some days are challenging and overwhelming because I’ve never been exposed to this environment before, but I have been pushing through because I get to experience something so fragile and rare and cool.
Adaptation doesn’t just apply to camping in the desert or being an organism in the desert but can apply to anything one does. Although challenging, by adapting one can experience something they never thought possible. Maybe even think in a new way. In our ever-changing world it is ever more important to be able to adapt in thought and action.