In Praise of the Desert: A Road Trip
I am not a desert person. I know some of these people—the “desert rats”—who feel at home, at peace, among the sand and stone and open sky. I am not, at least by nature, one of those people. I do not care much for direct sunlight or the feeling of sand and grit boring into my pores. Heat makes me dizzy.
Me, I feel most at home in the mountains, nestled in the cool shade and protection of deep woods. I like rain. I like hiking up. There’s a reason I’ve been drawn to live in places like the Pacific Northwest, with its undulating topography and mossy jungle, and Colorado, with its high, craggy peaks. Steep trails inspire me.
On a road trip last November en route to Los Angeles for Thanksgiving with Steve’s family, we took our sweet time getting to the big city. Along our road trip, we joined our friends Annie and Jeason for a weekend backpacking and trail running in Canyonlands. We then soldiered on to Joshua Tree National Park for a few more days of desert play.
Though the desert does not sing to me the same way the mountains do, this trip gave me some appreciation for it—namely, for its profound silence. There are few places on Earth as silent as the desert.
All this, coming from someone who’s spent the past two years in a tiny, fairly remote mountain town whose population in the winter dwindles to around 50. There are no bright lights where I’ve been living, no sirens, no schools or stadiums or rowdy bars—and the winter snow, especially, has a way of muting daily life. I am accustomed to quiet.
But the desert takes things to another level.
Though there are birds—ravens, cactus wrens—they are neither abundant nor noisy. Though there are coyotes, they pad mutedly through the sand, ephemeral characters in a silent film. While J Tree is busy in November with visitors and has an inordinate number of planes flying over it at all times—albeit generally high above the park, the jet engines only a distant murmur—Canyonlands is another planet. We backpacked in the Needles. This isn’t even the most remote part of the park, and still, we found ourselves profoundly alone for the majority of our time there. When I sat still, it only took a moment to begin wondering whether I’d gone deaf, so empty was the air around me.
On our return trip, we spent a night in the heart of Las Vegas. The opposite of silence. A place jam-packed with steel, concrete, lights, humans, music and the constant snort of traffic along the Strip. But then, just a few miles outside of the city limits: the stretch of I-70 that cuts northeast from Vegas to Grand Junction. Because cross-country traffic or anyone bound for Salt Lake from due east, west or north does not use this stretch of highway, it is one of the most desolate and beautiful stretches of interstate in our country. It’s packed with expansive views of differently-colored layers of sandstone and slickrock. Their artifacts—sandy washes, cacti, rock formations, the gnarled branches of juniper trees—tell stories of the evolution of a landscape over thousands of years.
I think, in some ways, I also feel at ease in the mountains because they offer a prescription of what to do: climb to the top. Deserts have no such obvious path. The options are virtually endless. While there is magic in the sense of possibility inherent to such open-endedness, it can also be daunting. In which direction should I go?
The same could be said of freelancing. In my job, I knew what was expected of me each day—the tasks to complete. As a freelancer, I wake up each morning in a metaphorical desert, a different story or project on each horizon, all calling to me at once.
With that said, I’m learning to appreciate the quiet expanse of it all—and, in that, I mean the open nature of the work I’m doing now. The mental space to hear my own thoughts. The time to seek out meaningful conversations with people whose stories I want to help share with the world. The solitude of moving to a new town where I don’t yet know many people and can sit anonymously in a café or library carrel, observing, writing, being. The slow mornings, waiting for the sun to crest the mountains surrounding my new home and signal the beginning of a new day.
For all this, I am grateful.