Something About a Desert
There’s something about a desert. I mean a big desert, a get-lost-and-they-find-your-bones desert. It’s not quite emptiness because they’re not quite empty. I once drove all the way across Death Valley and saw one creature. A rabbit. It was dead.
I know that deserts are ‘alive’ because when I was a kid I saw the Disney documentary, “The Living Desert.” I remember a snake shaking its tail like a swift marimba, its song of poison and death, and I recall a tarantula fighting a huge wasp. I think it was a wasp.
Yeah, okay, snakes, bugs, and what else? Succulents, right? And stubborn little arthritic trees, brittle weeds, armadillos – which are like small armored vehicles, which also speaks to me of danger and, again, death.
But as I aged through my sixties I began to lose all my fears, as if I dropped them along the way, as if my pocket had a hole in it and shyness fell out and was gone and self-consciousness, too, and what was left of timidity and modesty and even larger fears, public speaking, acting, and I even dropped a legitimate phobia. I can climb a tall ladder now and even let go and raise my arms above my head and unscrew the ceiling fixture in a room with high ceilings and hum a song while I’m doing it; goodbye, acrophobia.
So, feeling fearless, I decided a few years ago to make friends with the desert. I like to take a solo trip now and then, a private getaway, and this time I headed into the Mojave. It’s easy to find. Start in Southern California and drive east until the cities run out, and then the towns dwindle, and the space between everything increases, and the small inhabited places you continue to drive through are not so much towns, but desert outposts, scattered along the rim of the Great Mohave Desert.
You can’t live in these outposts without the desert getting at you. You see it all day, hear it at night, taste it’s grit, squint at its withering shine. People either don’t stay long in these outposts or they stay forever, and they make a life among the few shops and the tattoo parlors and cafés and bars. There are always bars, where people go to drink and think about…the desert.
Okay, it’s beautiful, with its spare palette, but always changing light, as the sun does its tricks near the horizon when it isn’t sledge-hammering down from above.
I chose Joshua Tree as my personal piece of the desert where I would shake hands with it and get to know it, and feel, finally, a relaxed comfort in the distinctive landscape created by Dali, maybe, and seen nowhere else in the world.
I checked in at the ranger station, then drove along one of the paved roads toward a hiking site, but was stopped along the way by the red-rock outcroppings, not jagged rocks, but big isolated piles of boulders as if ruins of some unknown kingdom. They called to me, these rounded rock piles. I wanted to walk the half mile or so (distance is hard to measure by eye in the Mohave) to one splendid castle of heaped, monolithic boulders and move among them, stand upon them and look about like a pirate on a ship, gazing at this vast sandy sea.
I knew I could keep my red Prius in sight from my destination in the rocks, and I took a camera and a sun hat and a full bottle of water. I’m no fool.
I enjoyed exploring the rocks and using their height to see my surroundings, and I saw other piles of the red monoliths, as if this area of the desert had once been a city, or a place of a hundred temples. One pile looked easily climbable up to a high perch, where I’m sure I could see the earth curving.
I walked to these boulders, settling the schematics in my head: Prius is there – first rock pile is there – second rockpile now takes me to exactly this angle from the road.
I must have spent a happy hour climbing and resting and shooting photos and drinking water, and when I was done, I climbed to a nearby shelf of rock and set my gaze toward exactly where my red car would be parked, but it wasn’t there.
This was a strange, disorienting feeling, because I had been so sure. It was one of those moments when your brain rejects the intel from your eyes. Can’t be. Is. I climbed higher and looked and…and then turned all about. Even behind my sunglasses my eyes were narrowed down because of the overpowering light.
I looked at each rock pile, trying to pick out that first one which would orient me. I wasn’t sure. I tried to crawl into my memory and FEEL the way I had come, but I still was not anywhere near certainty.
So, what could I do? No I didn’t have a cell phone, and the Mohave is short on WI FI. I had to pick the most likely direction and what? Walk, walk and keep walking until I struck the road, and what if I didn’t come upon the road after two, after three miles? The sun was still hammering, and I realized I was actually scared now, scared of the desert. I felt it had tricked me. And I wasn’t ashamed to be scared. It was logical to be afraid, but even inside the fear I still felt somewhat confident that I could choose the direction and find that road, and then find my car – or flag down a car, or…..
I started walking, aware of the irony, even smiling wryly at myself and shaking my head. He got you – this devil, this Spririt of the Desert. He tricked you, Jer. Part of this attitude was bravado I guess. I just kept walking.
It’s not easy to count miles when you walk. How many feet to a mile? And I have about a three-foot stride, so…. I just kept walking. I saw no road. I heard no cars. I just kept…..
I had a third of a bottle of water left and was tired and sore from all the climbing. It must have been about three in the afternoon. Should I stop a while in the shade of some rock or scrawny tree? Could I walk all the way back to where I started and choose another direction?
Hey, I thought. This is real. This is how a desert kills people, people who don’t really understand its power, people who screw up. I was angling toward the sun, and when I corrected and kept walking, I saw the shine of something. It could be pavement, very far away. It could be the road.
I had more energy now, but didn’t want to tire myself. As I walked, my eyes tore at that infrequent shine ahead of me, scratching for details, for certainty. After navigating a slight rise in the land and staring downward, I stopped, stopped breathing, too. There was a road.
I arrived at the road, sat on the side of the road, touched the beautiful road and smiled and waited. A car full of family stopped as I waved them down. I could see they were suspicious, some of them actually scared of me. I asked for the entrance they had used. They told me. It was only about three miles ahead. Did you pass a red car pulled off the road? They had not. So I knew my direction. It was the same direction that this family was taking, and I supposed I could have squeezed in among the children in back, but I saw their nervousness and just thanked them. They droved off, and I began, for certain this time, walking toward my car.
The red Prius was another two and a half miles down the road. I wanted to hug it. I sat inside a while, looking over the landscape, thinking again, so that’s how a desert kills you.
I imagined the Desert Spirit as a man. He wore a slight smile, just curving up slightly on one side, stared at me. Then the son of a bitch winked.