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Reality and Solitude: Getting Immersed in the Winter Desert

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Joshua Tree National Park in winter | Photo: Chris Clarke

I don't really celebrate Christmas, but it came early this year. Two years ago some reprobate stole my ancient Jeep and destroyed it. Since then, I've relied on my fiancee's subcompact to get around. It's perfectly suitable for trips to the grocery store and such, when it's running. But for the past couple of years I haven't had a vehicle capable of driving the dirt roads in Joshua Tree.

This month a friend decided to part with his lovingly maintained if slightly battered 15-year-old pickup, and he sold it to me. His signature on the pink slip was barely dry when I hopped behind the wheel and pointed Old Green in the direction of the National Park next door.

The dirt road ended five miles off the pavement, in a valley ringed by crumbling granite peaks. I got out and stepped into the biting wind. I took only a short walk, really, in the scheme of things. Four miles out and back. But it changed me: a gift befitting the season.

I spend so much time staring into a computer screen. It's an odd problem to have. I earn my living writing about the natural world, trying to convey the things about it that make it different from the conceptual one we increasingly inhabit online. Few things online hold the surprising complexity of an oak leaf, a beetle's wing. Online, we create the world in our own image, and we filter out the nuance in our image when we do it.

That's not unique to the online world, of course. Simplifying things is what we do when we tell stories. First we discard the irrelevant details. Then we leave out details that make the narrative too complicated. Then, fatally, we get rid of any of the details that muddle the moral we're trying to convey.

What is the online world but a global storytelling session? And I contribute to it. I sit at my desk, trying not to be distracted by the natural tumult outside the window, and I omit one beautiful detail after another.

What a pallid, thin soup of boiled-down life this writing becomes.

What should I omit in telling you about the walk I took as the engine in my new old truck cooled, rattling? The stone in the shoe? The awkward conversation with the bicyclists at the trailhead? The way I shivered after water slopped out of the Nalgene onto my shirtfront?

Let's try this: Once upon a time a man walked out into the desert alone. No one knew where he was. He had some water and some food. He had a map, which he did not consult. He had the Joshua trees and the junipers for company. It felt sufficient.

He had more company than the trees, but he wouldn't find that out just yet.

The Mojave is a different beast in winter. The summer desert engages in full disclosure. "If you venture too far into me," it says, "you might well die." The winter desert is arguably sweeter. Few fear death of dehydration when it's 51° Fahrenheit at noon. It's a trap. The winter wind will strip the moisture from your lungs, your nostrils, your tear ducts. You will sweat less, but that just lets you walk farther before you realize you're in trouble.

This was just a little hike, a mid-day saunter, but I felt that pull anyway. It was a familiar feeling, an invisible cord with one end tied to my solar plexus and the other to a winch on the horizon. I used to feel it all the time before I moved to the desert, usually on the last full day of a visit. Then, it seemed a reaction to my impending return to my life at the time, a return to the Bay Area's incrementally mounting annoyances. I'd get to the Mojave on a Thursday and the sun would set and I'd sit alone next to my campfire, feeling like my real life could resume now shucked of its Bay Area exoskeleton, and by Saturday I'd be feeling separation anxiety at the prospect of heading back. On too many such Saturdays I'd saunter out into the desert with an hour's worth of water and end up taking a four-hour hike. I'd head out just a little farther, and then just a little farther after that, and then I'd stop planning to stop.

Last weekend was the same, but why? I live here now. There are Joshua trees outside the window. I see four of them from my office chair without craning my neck.

The answer: I see them from my office chair. Okay, so it's not a particularly profound realization. Or perhaps it's sneakily profound in the way advice you got from your mom way back when usually is.

Why don't you turn that thing off and go outside?

It's a deceptive thing, this Internet. It conveys the impression of connectivity. It says so right on the label, redundantly: a network of interconnections. For those of us who recoil from excessive human contact, it can seem just exactly right. It's a way to have friends without having to deal with the discomforts of proximity, the unpleasant breath, and the awkward eye contact and the repercussions of turning on your heel and walking away when you're done.

But it's at best an attenuated contact. A pallid, thin soup. Against my better judgment, I recently took part in an online discussion of immortality in which one person suggested she'd like to have her consciousness uploaded into a computer at some point, whereupon she could spend the rest of eternity engaging in the kind of pleasant online discourse she enjoyed.

I found the prospect more chilling than any description I've ever seen of the Old Testament Hell. If someone did that to me I'd spend eternity looking for the off-switch.

Give me immersion in the unexpected details of the real world. Give me the choice between actual company and actual solitude. Let me take responsibility for my own broken flavor of introversion. I have the winter Mojave wind for company. I have the nolinas grown back from a fire that burned last century. I have the pebble in my boot and the aching ankle. On the Internet the desert is an abstraction; in the desert, I'm the abstraction. The late Ellen Meloy, perhaps my favorite writer on desert issues, put it this way in her book "Raven's Exile":

Some sell the desert as a place so abstract, empty, and indifferent, it surrenders its passivity to one's own lambent dreams. While you perch on a sunset-drenched butte contemplating eternity, however, Truth is the horrid little bug sinking its thorny mandibles into your lotus-positioned butt.

It was too cold for bugs this weekend, thorny-mandibled or otherwise. I walked across that broad valley, past pinyons and junipers and Joshua trees and blackbrush, until I couldn't see my starting point. I chose a reasonable place to turn around: a trail junction I could remember for later hiking decisions.

And then, with a lack of regret that surprised me, I turned around and headed back toward the truck. Downhill and then up, in sandy washes and stony banks, along wind-swept barrens and copses of desert willow.

In a stretch of trail that had been trackless until I got there two hours before, a new set of tracks paralleled mine. A few of the new prints had been stamped directly on my older ones, their movement superimposed on mine, the moister soil beneath not yet dried to match the color of the surface. Were they deer, or bighorn? Could have been either one. It would be a tidier story if I knew for sure. I don't.

Here's what I do know: there was at least one other set of eyes taking in that desert valley, at least one other set of feet negotiating the talus and the sand, and from the look of the dirt sprayed out behind the tracks it knew I was there and was in a mild hurry to avoid a conversation as I approached.

The tracks dried as I watched. Or was I imagining that? I couldn't tell. Was it the wind making the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, or was that of my own doing? Hard to say. A delicious uncertainty, a gift, a reminder of the mystery that comes from engagement with the real world.

Happy holidays.

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