Each rock in the road was working against my will to keep my eyes unglazed and open, like a knee rhythmically bumping against a swaddled baby. The brown signs of the Forest blended against the passing rocks and sand. I remembered a friend telling me how ugly he thought the desert was, how plain and dusty and earthen. This thought boiled in me and helped keep me awake on the road as my tires irresponsibly tossed and turned over a much too rough road. I tended to take my car on roads it had no business being on, just to prove to no one but myself that it could. I knew at any moment, a lonely jag of a rock edge could slice my tire and leave me there, stranded with no cell service, hoping that someone might find me. Though it had been hours since I’d seen another car. It had been days since I’d seen the flesh of another human or animal. Here there was a sparseness of trees, surely housing fauna of some kind, but in the desert they hide in the day and wait, evading my searching eyes.
The desert was beautiful, in its own way. I’d always said this and would maintain it until the end. The one thing the desert lacked for me was that which made it a desert: water. Even in the high desert, where the air was cool and pine trees stood in menacing hordes, there was little water and when there was, it was nowadays thin and polluted with dust. I had just passed by the spring on my way down the mountain and had filled up two liters of fresh mountain water. Enough to last the day comfortably, I thought, but not enough if something unplanned were to occur. Though nothing about this drive was planned. I had left the mountain a day earlier than I had said I would and was expected back the next day. It didn’t feel like I was truly alone until no one knew where I was. It gave me a rare freedom and I wasn’t about to ruin it. I certainly wasn’t going to come home a day early. And I would tell everyone of my adventure eventually, upon my return. It wasn’t about keeping secrets, it was about living a few hours in absolute solitude, without the worry of anything back home finding me.
I had followed road signs to lead me off course. My phone was useless and had been. I hated it anyway. I didn’t even bother to charge it in the car. Away from the crowds of the National Parks, I found myself in a much-less-traveled area of western Arizona, in the protected Joshua Tree forests there. The strangled growth of desert flora and vastness of the sands stretched now on either side of me, framed by the red mountains that lie however far away (or however close). This was beautiful. This was menacing. Nature is meant to be imposing, but it accepts those who are worthy. A welcoming landscape to most is only an opportunity for exploitation. In the desert, there is little to exploit. In the desert, it is you who must watch out. That’s what makes a day in the desert so rewarding: survival.
I’d heard of a trail that wound through the trees and to the rim of a hidden canyon. In the southwest, there is no shortage of canyons and chasms. The earth cracked and split, hoping to be filled by some rain one day, if only to sit there a few hours before being slurped up by the starving soil. This time of year, it was less traveled due to the heat. Most people don’t wander into the desert in July. That’s why in July, I feel I must. To wait until it is cold enough to be comfortable feels like cheating in a way. Two liters. It should be difficult, but doable. It’s a six mile loop only and I’d done three times that with half the water just a few months before up the mountain. Though now, it was almost 40 degrees hotter than it had been then and a Joshua tree is not one that can provide much shade to a weary traveler.
I pulled off the road once I saw the faded brown trailhead marking. I exited the car and stretched my legs. I had some bread and peanut butter to bring, enough for two sandwiches, and my two liters. Well, one and a half. I had become thirsty in the car and thought it unwise to start the hike that way. I looked at the still eastward sun and looked at my sweater in the back. I left it there. Six miles was barely anything, I’d be back well before nightfall.
I began down the trail, my feet bouncing easily off the pebbles and stones that obstructed the poorly blazed trail. Those who have traveled often in the desert down trails will know that you must rely on the cairns for directions. With a less-traveled trail, you never know how reliable they will be. I had a map of the trail and the canyon on my phone, just in case. And 20 percent should be plenty. It was already 10 am, but at my normal pace of about 3 miles an hour, I should be back just after noon. I plodded down and kept my mouth closed, hoping to avoid drying out. It was still cool enough, not yet 90. It was meant to be just under a mile to the canyon’s rim, then 5 round it, then a mile back. So a bit over 6 miles. But what is a mile, more or less.
I arrived at the rim sooner than I thought I would. I had made the mistake of starting off stronger than I should have. I had made this mistake before in the Grand Canyon and had barely made it out, forcing my jellied bones to hoist me the last mile and a half out of there, praying that a mule deer may kick some loose rocks onto my head and put me out of my misery. But unfortunately for me, a day like that only made me want to push myself further to the brink. To see what else I could withstand. You didn’t need to finish an adventure triumphantly, you just needed to finish. Even still, I decided to slow my pace. Even if I slowed my pace significantly, I had plenty of time to return. At the rim, I looked out over the great chasm. Seeing massive geological formations around the southwest never seems to dwarf the smaller ones. They are all still hungry mouths waiting to slurp up ants, and I was an ant.
Looking across the rim, I thought it looked much longer than the five miles I was told, but I’ve always been terrible at gauging distance. I stood away from the edge and closed my eyes. There was a sudden breeze at my back, which seemed to call me towards the canyon, as if it was breathing in sharply and I was caught in the inhale. This is the test of nature. And she decides. I followed the beckoning winds and walked carefully to the edge. If this is her test, it is not up to me whether I pass. She will read me and she will decide whether I am worthy to pass. If I am, I will be rewarded with an invaluable gift. To see down into the canyon and see all the life it possesses, the vibrant colors it humbly wears, to smell the other world emanating from its depths. With virgin eyes I would look on at a scene not many others had. I’d be part of a select few who might enjoy its view. I’d always been respectful of nature and had always viewed myself as a member and sometimes even a guest of hers, never as a consumer or owner as some viewed themselves. Those people were not worthy. Those people would see the canyon as spoils and would only for a few moments as the wind pushed them steps too far and they plummeted into the mouth to be gobbled and scavenged and absorbed by the ever hungry earth. But of course, I was guilty of things, too. No one is perfect and sometimes we easily forget our place. I hoped that, despite my mistakes, I might still pass. I breathed in an uncommonly fresh breeze and smelled the spice and musk of the desert, of reptiles and birds. I opened my eyes and reaped my reward. It was important to remember to be humble in this moment, by my eyes blazed knowing that I had been deemed worthy. “Thank you,” I whispered, hoping she would know that I really was. I leaned over the edge and looked down the steep cliff below. Not every part of the rim was steep, in fact, it looked quite a gradual descent in some places, but here it fell straight down to the bottom. I smiled. The foreboding desert had accepted me, for now at least.
I carried on along the rim. The Joshua trees were bigger than I remembered, but some were wilting from the dry Summer. It had been a harsh beginning to the season and the plants all seemed eager for a nourishing monsoon. But it was still a bit early for that. I was always impressed by desert life and their resilience. It both makes you feel feeble and empowered. I watched a small lizard slither down one of the trees and quickly dive into the canyon. That, I could never do. It is important to remember one’s place in all of this. It is not to conquer. It is not to trample. Or even to overcome. It is just to make it through. I took a sip of water.
The sun was soon full noon, a good gauge of time but terrible for monitoring direction. Luckily, I knew it was due to head west soon and as long as I hugged the rim, it should be fine. Until it was time to head back to the car. But I remembered the turn and how it looked. Some think the desert is ugly because it is monotonous and repetitive, but those people aren’t looking, not really. I had left a stick where the turn was, just to ensure I wouldn’t miss it. I wasn’t as far along on the hike as I thought I would be at this time, but I was not worried.
As I marched along my mind wandered to my life back home. I hated calling it home. It wasn’t. I had only lived there a few months, my housemates were all strangers to me and I to them. It was always hard even thinking of my childhood home as my home. It was my parents home. I just lived there. And property always seemed somewhat arbitrary and contrived. It always felt made up. That’s why I liked it out here. I was a wanderer through this space as was everything else. The trees had no choice but to stay and the animals could wander, though not far from their territory they had been raised in. I was not oblivious to how different my situation here was. Just a tourist in their home. But I felt they had accepted my temporary presence there. But I was careful not to overstep or tread harshly and leave a mark. Though if I were to succumb to the elements, my body would become very welcome carrion to the scavengers of the night. A noble way to pass I thought. So much we people have taken from nature, it would be fair to trade a little back. Not that I wanted to perish or be eaten. But in the grander justice of nature, it seemed right. As much as it terrified me.
I blinked and found myself somewhere strange. It was getting very hot now and the sun was beating down hard. I saw some scattered clouds in the distance and hoped they would come and relieve me some. It was flat around me, but now I was unsure as to where the trail was. The canyon was now not as clear on this side. There was some ground raised to my left and some more to my right. I was sure of one thing: I was no longer on the trail. I must’ve wandered into the canyon on one of the more gradual declines. I decided to eat a sandwich down in the recess to refuel so I could be sharp and find my way out. I took the blade of my knife and spread the dry peanut butter on the stale bread. It clumped and sat on the bread in mounds, but I didn’t mind. I licked the blade carefully and put it away in my pack. The sandwich was dry and a bit gritty. In order to swallow it, I needed to finish off the first liter and start the next one. It pushed down my esophagus and gave me some pain, but this was normal for me. I finished up the sandwich too quickly, as I do with all things. I come here to try and slow down. When I’m all alone, then time stands still and I’m not as anxious. I don’t feel the need to rush. I know longer understand how people could. But down in this recess, I was beginning to come back to my familiar anxieties. So I rushed. I took another swig of water. I have more than half of the remaining liter left, but decided I needed to slow my sips. I took a deep breath. Another test, I told myself. I passed once. I will again. I climbed up the steeper side of the recess to try and regain a vantage. I got to the top and looked out. I was in the canyon. Pretty far into the canyon. But not yet at the bottom. I could not see my way back to the rim on my side and to traverse to the other side of the canyon would take too long and it was too steep to scale anyways. I decided to backtrack. There wasn’t much else to do. I knew which way I couldn’t go, but I wasn’t sure where I should head. The clouds had come, after all. The clouds I had once hoped for now worried me. They were dark and they covered the sun. The temperature had dropped significantly, but there was still a thick heaviness in the air. I sniffed and felt I could distantly smell creosote. If it were going to rain I would need to get out of the canyon before then and head straight back to the car. I got out my phone. It was down to 2 percent and that worried me. I tried to pull up the screenshot of the map, but it wasn’t of much use to me. I didn’t know which direction the car was and the sun was to be of no help. If I walked, the GPS should be able to move with me and I might be able to gauge the direction then. I knew the car was southeast of the canyon.
I climbed down the wall of the recess and up the other side. At the ledge there I had only two options. To jump over a split in the rocks about five feet or go back down into the recess. I knew I hadn’t jumped it before, so perhaps I had wandered up into the recess from deeper in the canyon. Maybe that was my way out. I cursed my wandering brain.
I looked at my map on my phone. 1 percent now. I would walk just five minutes deeper and then determine my direction and at least gain that. The breeze started blowing stronger and stronger. I pulled my brim down to try and block dust from stinging my eyes. Unfortunately, my eyes were closer to the dust than my brim and it did little to block. I walked down with my chin tucked to my chest, further into the canyon. Down I walked and I tried to recall anything familiar as I went. But nothing was. The desert was certainly not repetitive now. But as new as it ever was. I tried to appreciate the beauty as I marched into the canyon. It was beautiful, but I had other things on my mind.
I tried to stay on as high ground as I could, but rocks and trenches refused my attempts to ascend. For every five steps of level ground, I was forced at least one step deeper. I stopped after a few minutes and looked at the map. It looked like I had ventured a bit east, but I couldn’t be sure. Then my phone died. I figured it would. It was my only light, not that being there after dark was an option. The night lizards and arachnids and rattlesnakes would start to appear in a few hours. Or less even. My phone had said it was after 2:30 pm already. I was surprised. But that still gave me at least 3 more hours to find my way out. Though it was not lost on me that I had been out here for over four hours already and I was currently heading deeper into the canyon.
It was very difficult to stop my mind from wandering. I had thought that the situation itself would keep me alert, but all it did was drive my mind to tangents and deviations. Every few seconds I would come to and have to reorient myself. I started to think that maybe this wasn’t another test. I started to think that maybe this was my punishment. Maybe I hadn’t passed. Maybe venturing into a land that was not mine to wander into had caused me to fail. Maybe I wasn’t welcomed, wasn’t accepted. Maybe this was what I owed to the desert for intruding. I had but one thing to offer.
I felt it before I heard it. Or maybe I just thought I had because I saw it. Lightning had struck. It wasn’t dangerously close, but it was within 10 miles. It wasn’t the lightning that worried me. Or what flames might surge if it hit the parched brush around me. It was the dark, heavy clouds that floated pregnant above me. I sniffed and now the creosote smell was not so distant. I had anticipated water to be the biggest concern on this hike, just not in this way. The good thing about being in the canyon during the storm was there were plenty of places to hide and avoid getting wet. The bad thing was that water would easily pool up and wash by, especially on slopes, and with it they could bring rocks and slides. I found an overhang on a fallen boulder on flat ground. I checked for webs or holes at the base and then tucked myself underneath it so that I could avoid the downpour. A few drops had misted me as I oriented myself, which meant that a wave was about to sweep. But the good thing about the desert is that the rain won’t last long. Probably. The bad thing is it will be heavy. I stick out my empty bottle in hopes to catch a little rain.
The rain fell for a while. I don’t know how long. But I knew it was long enough that I needed to find my way out of the canyon very soon if I wanted to get out tonight. Even with the moonlight, it would be too dangerous to try and scramble up in the dark, especially after everything would still be damp and loosened from the storm. It wasn’t dark out, not yet, but I trusted the calm of the storm would last. I was able to collect a bit of rainwater, but it was tinted rust from the sand. Better than no water, I thought. Even though I was a bit cold and clammy,, the boulder had served as a successful cover. Most of me had stayed dry, but my clothes were damp to the touch and my right shoe was heavy and dripping. I didn’t notice it as it was happening, but now that I was walking on, I certainly noticed it. I wished I had just tried to jump before. After the sandwich. I looked in my pack. The last two pieces of bread had soaked in the storm. I hoped I wouldn’t have to eat it later.
I decided I wouldn’t continue the descent. I would scale walls with reachable ledges if I had to, with my added water weight from the storm on my clothes. It wasn’t hard to find something to climb, I had walked down for a while now. Most of it was up. Normally, I would never backtrack. But when I was taking cover behind the boulder, I thought about what those people back “home” would do when I didn’t show up. And who else they would call. And who else would get involved. So backtracking it was. And now, I no longer felt the freedom of being alone. I only felt its suffocation.
I attempted to climb a few walls before I found one I wouldn’t slide down. The wall I chose in the end didn’t go up very high, but once I was to the top I was hoping I could see more. I climbed it, maybe only about 10 feet up. At the top I saw a steeper wall, a bit shorter. I went slowly and carefully. I knew that if I were to slip down and hurt myself it would be over. I continued this for a bit. Now my mind was wandering in a very different way. I knew defeatist thoughts would do nothing but hinder my survival. But I couldn’t help but think about all my life outside this canyon. The reason I come here is to make my life seem small. Problems unimportant. Expectations gone. Here, my only fears should be that which I can see. Yet, here I was, trying feebly to climb a sodden clay wall with heavy feet and thinking about my job, an argument with a friend the week before, and the text from my mom I had ignored before I lost service. These worries pushed through my brain and made the insides of my eyes hurt. They stung with salt and I could feel my heartbeat beneath them. When my biggest fear should have been the canyon, the forest, the desert, I could find myself short of breath thinking about how many emails sat in my inbox.
I opened my eyes and I was mid-wall. Again I had drifted off somewhere too far. Luckily, this time I was heading up. Unluckily, I was at least 15 feet off the ground and when I looked up, the options didn’t look good. I was on a solid root sticking out of the cliff wall and had just enough room to stand steadily. I glanced down to see how I had gotten there. There was one possible route and the way down looked slippery. Not to mention the jagged rocks below if I fell. My only hope was to somehow push myself off the wall and land on a brief plateau about five feet below me and to the right. Maybe six feet. It was hard to see now that most of the daylight was gone.
I closed my eyes. I breathed in. As the wet air filled my nostrils and passed behind my eyes, I felt I could hear for the first time. The stillness of the desert pounded in my ears. Without the breeze or the rain, with my breaths as shallow as I could make them, I listened. How small it makes you feel to be inside the belly of the beast. I remembered how just a few hours before I had stood at the rim and looked into where I now stood. Thinking about how humble I was. My stomach twisted. At first I thought it might be shame. Maybe regret. But no. It was something else. It was my stomach reacting to what I realized; it was a hard pill to swallow.
The first thing I realized was that I had been a fool. A vain fool to pride myself on my modesty. To not charge my phone. To bring inadequate water. Inadequate food. No sweater. To think myself better than the elements, or at least better than those who come prepared. To think that I didn’t come here to exploit nature in some way. Foolish things to think about oneself. At least now I came to realize this. I would not want to die a fool.
The second thing I realized was that while I wouldn’t die a fool, I would die because I was a fool. My arms, now that I was looking at them, were cut. My elbow was coated in blood-soaked clay. My pants had thorns and burs covering them and I was afraid to look beneath the fabric. I had no food. I had little water. I had no phone. I had no light. I had no sweater. And the sun set a while ago. And now that I listened, I could hear the desert begin to wake up for its nighttime prowl.
The third thing I realized was that this was my reward. I had passed the test. And I had accepted the gift back at the rim when I said thank you. I came here to leave behind my problems and be accepted by nature. She had obliged. And now that she had given me my reward, it was her turn to receive. I jumped off the root and let the air embrace me. I hit the ground and listened. And smelled. The stars had started to come out. It was beautiful. “Thank you.” Engulfed in the desert's parched silence, I was nothing but another grain of sand in the wind.