April 26th, 2012
For me, being in the desert is an exercise in sensory enhancement by means of sensory deprivation.
At first, nothing is striking. There’s some sagebrush, cricket noises. Everything seems a bit monochromatic. Then hits a point when, suddenly, those mountains in the distant look purple, green, that plateau is a vibrant red, those dunes a creamier yellow, and the bushes are blue amidst pink and orange stones. There’s music in the wind—a tinkling. And the smells. Clean, redeeming smells—the heady, violet smell of succulent shade-dwelling sage.
Whenever I’m sitting in some apartment, some coffee shop, some subway, and I dig into the archives of my memory and pull anything out labeled “desert”, the memories are huge. They’re not intricate, but they’re enormous—they take up more space, project onto a larger screen. The sky is always bigger, my clothes always billowing cinematically in the wind like out of some trendy movie with a soundtrack by some up-and-coming singer-songwriter with thick glasses and tight pants from some city in the Midwest—in my memory there’s practically lens flare. Desert memories age well.
I spent the morning running around the desert with him, clambering over boulders, chasing lizards and snakes in wind so strong I was lifted off my feet a couple times. At one point I found a pale pink desert rose—it had turned out to be fake, but it was a desert rose anyway by virtue of my finding it, I decided.
We didn’t touch each other, didn’t curl up together amidst the rocks or hold hands. He wasn’t much for touching.
But for once—for the first time, probably—we were enjoying this enchanted landscape together, without his single-minded obsession over climbing. Granted, it might’ve only been because the wind was too strong to make climbing a palatable option, but he was feeling the magic with me anyway, and that was what mattered.
“I love this wind.”
“I don’t know, strong warm wind kind of just feels like an affirmation. It instills this sense of transformation and movement in me—like a propulsion into the next chapter. And it makes me feel more aware—of my surroundings, of my body. It turns me on at least as much as any man has.”
“…Totally.” He didn’t get it. I’d gotten used to this.
He gave me a piece of homework, right before I left.
"I wrote you a letter before we were together. During the dark part. It was maybe a year and a half ago and I was driving from Bishop to Vegas and passed through Furnace Creek in Death Valley. I hid it under a large rock--you're going to go through Furnace Creek, and after you pass it there'll be a small green sign on your right, telling you you're one hundred feet below sea level. That's where I left it. Go see if it's still there."
He showed me on one of the road maps he'd scrounged up for my journey; he’d made a big motherly fuss over me before I could wiggle my way out, making sure I had everything I might need.
We were in the Vons parking lot in Bishop, CA, and he completely forgot that he hates PDA for a second…for a few seconds.
He handed me the maps, broke away reluctantly, and said, "Go be free."
I smiled, pulled him in gently by his curly hair and whispered carelessly, "I'll come back."
And that was it.
He smiled at me and nodded, but when he turned around and walked back to his car there was a quality to his body language implying he was in a state of saving-face-in-front-of-the-firing-squad. Despite our historical inability to relate to one another, on this particular day he understood me better than I understood myself.
That was it; I just didn’t know it yet.
Plugging in my inverter and slipping off my dress and my shoes as I speed down the 395, I'm finally home again. For me, home is breaking inertia--moving when I'm stagnant, resting once I'm spent.
Like everyone else, I have my weaker moments. Sometimes I go crazy, stop thinking straight, and overreact towards—even past—the point of nervous breakdown. Sometimes I’m prone to self-pity, that fat cannibalistic luxury the most privileged of us beset upon ourselves. And that’s what uncertainty is so good at curing—when you’ve got to make decisions and take things into your own hands, you don’t have time to sit in a masturbatory pool of tears no matter how sensitive or weak you’re feeling.
I haven’t been around for very long, but I’ve been around long enough to know that the victimization we seem to so sanction as a culture hasn’t really gotten anyone shit.
Sure, it might win you a court case, get you a sympathy fuck and sometimes a job. On occasion it’ll get you rich and famous.
But it won’t really get you shit.
I turn left onto the 190, windows down, butt naked, wet with adrenaline and testosterone. The wind rocks my car harder the faster I go, and at a few points I feel weightless. I'm not in a car, but a helpless plastic box of a car, a paper boat, a cheap tent. Up ahead in the distance, torrential clouds of sand completely blacken out large patches of Death Valley--right in the direction I'm headed. The sun's going down and an especially furious bit of wind has me drifting into the wrong lane, so I go faster. For some reason, I feel close to death--not as if I'm in danger of dying, but more so that I'm being overtaken by one of those moments when life feels too big for a mere mortal to contain without blowing a fuse, one of those moments when life's fucking me rough in ten thousand ways at once with sensory overload and existential euphoria and there's not a damn thing I can do to stop it, one of those moments when I'm just moving way too damn fast to catch up with myself.
Propping my left leg up on my dashboard, I focus on my right foot and try to press my gas pedal down through the bottom of my car, feeling as sprung and turned on as any pretty little bygone man ever got me.
Dark dust clouds lay just ahead spatially, darkness of night lay just ahead on the axis of time.
Once again approaching an edge of the world, I drive into a remote, service-free expanse feeling at once freed in the knowledge that if anything bad were to happen to me, I’ll be unable to call for help. It’s this knowledge that helps force into me a true presence of being.
A vague thrill, a latent fear, being overwhelmed in each passing moment.
The temperature outside reads sixty-three degrees Fahrenheit.
In a flash I’m flying past the prettiest sand dune I’ve ever seen, though of course it also looks like every other sand dune on Earth. Something about it compels me, this particular innocuous, round lump of sand—perhaps only as arbitrary as the particular attractions we may find in the curve of a particular shoulder, a particular pair of lips, a particular set of eyelashes or forearms or breasts.
After ten seconds’ hesitation, a sense of urgency even greater than the urgency pulling me towards my next rest stop compels me to flip a bitch and detour back to it. My mind shut off, running on some ulterior automatic mode, I slam the car door shut and emerge from my capsule, caressed in the spiced orange rays of the setting sun. Shoes in one hand, keys in another, I sprint across the street, across the sage-dotted sand, and collapse naked into my dune.
It’s a magestic thing, under the sun. The sand is bracingly warm and cool, soft fragments of hard stone, and compulsively I crawl up to the top, rushing until I’m short of breath, enjoying the sensation of my breathing as it snatches frantically in the air. Across the top I sprawl, opening my body to the sky, and roll over to watch the sand drip down like sheets of honey as my body disturbs it. Lazily I follow the path of a spider for a few moments as it ascends the dune after me. Swiftly embedding the heel of my palm into the sand again, I send another of these sheets down to meet the spider and obstruct its path—but the spider exceeds my expectations and only runs faster, leaping up onto the descending sheet and running atop it rather than allowing itself to be swallowed by it and carried back to the bottom. I smile at the small bug’s perseverance, then roll down the hill myself, plating my body in a fine coat of sand that shakes off dryly by the time I’ve run all the way back to my car.
I let the door hang open and lean my seat back, taking a moment to bask in my post-coital daze before continuing onward.
An hour later, sudden darkness falls. Like clockwork, the wind starts up, visible, even opaque, painting in 3-D with the sand it carried—little abstract pictures brought to life by the lonely beams of my headlights.
Everything changes in the dark, and I’m now in the belly of some merciless beast—a ghost in a capsule, quietly trying to make my way through, tensing my gut and holding my breath in hopes it’ll save me from detection by the nebulous dark patrollers of my imagination.
Steadily the thermometer creeps up as the night deepens—the thermometer reads eighty-one degrees.
Such is the nocturnal sorcery of Death Valley.
I made it to Furnace Creek—the place he’d designated for his letter. I’d even found the rocks he’d described. However, I’d also found an unexpected addition, hinting to me what I’d find before I had a chance to look, in the form of another rock lying very pointedly on top.
The letter was gone. I contented myself with the thought that the anonymous rock-adder had found it and stolen it for themselves as some precious relic.
Somehow, this struck me as a cleaner resolution than if I’d found it. After all, that letter was an artifact marking the start of a dark age of love synthesized in hatred. I continued on—car thermometer now reading ninety-eight degrees—disappointed on the surface, but leaking out a small glimmer of a smile that came from somewhere deeper.
Not for a moment during my drive was I able to shake that feeling of intimacy with something dark and nameless, that feeling of proximity with the underside of consciousness, some world we may only be privy to in dreams of death. I drifted in and out of thought and was eventually jolted out of my reverie when I slammed on my brakes to avoid hitting a sign marking the end of my road, and the start of a fork that would lead me back into the land of the living—Las Vegas, in this case. I took a right and followed the directions through unfamiliar roads to the house of a girl whose handwriting I knew better than her face, where I'd spend the next night or two. Paradoxically, it struck me that after a long winter, I was returning home.