THE DESERT: A Love Story In Three Acts [Act 1]
This love story begins with a very full bladder. So full, in fact, that while shooting across Interstate 10 at unconscionable speeds, I began to alternate between crying and hallucinating. Earlier I’d shrugged off the sign somewhere after Phoenix and somewhere before Tearful Desert Mirages that indicated the next rest stop was 127 miles away or 127 million miles away (which it seemed at this point). Now I was hurtling past a never-ending loop of dirt and tumbleweeds, praying for a stray bush that I might pull over next to and pee behind.
During this traumatizing stretch of American highway, I cursed the desert. I cursed its flatness, its desolation, its lack of ground cover. I called it “shitty desert,” “stupid desert,” “godforsaken desert,” and a multitude of other things I may never repeat again, lest more sensitive ears shrivel up in horror.
Up until this point on my transcontinental journey, I enjoyed the ever-changing vistas across America. From the towering shimmer of New York City to the gentle roll of the Appalachians, the hazy folds of the Smokies, and the humid chartreuse of the South, I was living the life – a girl on an adventure, a woman wanderer, a lady on the loose. But then – the desert. The food made the boring Texan traverse tolerable, the freaky cacti kept me going through Arizona, but dear god…then it all just flattened out into one long expanse of dust bunnies and scorpions, not a bathroom in sight.
Just short of wetting myself, I eventually happened upon a one-stoplight town with a very glorious toilet. After relieving myself, I entered a vaguely catatonic state that took me straight through to Venice Beach, California. Once deposited on the Pacific shore, I vowed never to return to the desert and besides another coast-to-coast road trip, I held that promise. I explored the beaches, the mountains, the forests, and the cities, but never planted one stinkin’ toe back in that desolate desert sand.
To tell you the truth, I can’t even remember what provoked me to break my personal desert-avoidance pact and agree to a camping trip in the Mojave Desert a few years ago. Since my emails from that time have since been wiped out by a computer crash, the only clues I have to my state of mind are three cryptic pages torn from a notebook:
Page one is a to-do list onto which I scribbled: contact case, toothbrush, PILLS!, batteries for lantern (4), pillow, $ BANK, sunglasses, garbage / litter, firewood, away msg, post location, write notes from nps.gov page (is that really all you need to survive in the desert?). Then there’s a page with vague directions to the campsite (these include “dark red dome tent” and “just north of a pile of boulders”) and a notation about a lunch counter at the Kelso Depot (perhaps I feared starvation in the desert?). Page three is an assortment of t-shirt slogans my friend and I dreamt up during the long drive, including “Whoever invited the switchback is an asshole” and “I don’t believe in plate tectonics.”
Long story short, I have no idea what provoked me to reconsider the great sandy expanse. I do recall being vaguely excited at the prospect of sand dunes and Joshua trees, but also fearful of falling prey to dehydration and rattlesnakes in some desiccated corner of a sunstroked no-man’s-land. However, my biggest fear as we rumbled further away from civilization was boredom. What could one do out here in this faraway place besides kick dust and chase tarantulas?
Whatever anti-desert bias I once held, the Mojave, she made me a changed woman. That first evening, I watched the golden hour fade into a horizon filled with twisted alien trees. We found the dark red dome tent (no small feat, I tell you what), and slept in the shadow of house-sized boulders, the lights of Las Vegas in the far, far distance casting a faint fuchsia glow across the starlit night sky. As I closed my eyes that evening, the spark of adventure crept into my dreams and beat the specter of boredom into a bloody, bloody pulp.
In the morning, flush with excitement, I struggled to soak in the wonder around me. I rumbled hundreds of feet down the flawless face of a gigantic sand dune. I waited patiently underground for a delicate sliver of sunlight to sneak through the ceiling of a lava tube. I rolled around in piles of sand like a child basking in the first snow day of the season. I soaked in the infinite views and at once understood why Montana prides itself on that whole “big sky country” thing.
I kinda fell in love with the place.