Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Desert, Within and Without.

Reading this article in today's New York Times brought back some memories. The desert is a strange, fragile place, not ideally suited for all mentalities and temperaments.

I remember my first visit to Joshua Tree National Park very well. I drove from my LA apartment in Venice Beach into typically clogged Valley traffic, forcing me to inhale the worst air pollution in the nation. By the time I reached the park three or four hours later I had a terrible headache, and was hot, sweaty and stressed. Entering the park environs, I couldn't believe I'd driven so far to witness a landscape that was nothing more than a pile of rocks and some scrub cactus.

I set up my tent as quickly as possible to escape the blazing sun and midday heat, and fell asleep. When I awoke several hours later, the sun was setting. Previously nondescript grey boulders had coalesced into the loveliest shade of magenta I'd ever seen. A few lingering clouds were manifesting a sunset reminiscent of the Dawn of Man. Suddenly, it seemed like every single coyote in the park started howling simultaneously. Just as suddenly, they all stopped. It was eerie.
boulders, desert
I woke early the next morning to the sunrise, with a thin fog or mist rising off the ground. The flattened landscape and twisted Joshua trees graced the plains with a strange, primeval ambience; I half-expected a dinosaur to saunter over the horizon. I ate some gorp for breakfast and did a five mile hike before the scorching sun forced me back into my tent.

It took two full days for my biorhythms and body clock to slow down to the pace of the desert. Once synchronized, I started to relax, even sensing a sublime, interior peace. I met a woman who said she went to Joshua Tree to fast, drinking nothing but herbal teas for three days. I asked if she was tired or light-headed; to my surprise, she said fasting energized her. Wasn't until many years later that I tried it myself...

I also got lost out there. Somehow I veered off a trail without realizing it, which wasn't hard to do; most trails weren't well marked. I found myself at the bottom of a canyon, constrained by rising cliffs on either side. It suddenly dawned on me that I hadn't seen footprints in some time; only faint impressions from rodents, snakes and birds. I also hadn't spied a rock cairn or marker for the last mile or two. The only way to get a bearing would be to climb one of the rather steep cliff faces. If I fell, I'd be in big trouble; no one on earth knew where I was. My roommate and I were both freelance production assistants in the film business, working on commercials. He had left several days ago for a shoot in Utah; I was still new to the industry and wasn't getting that many calls yet. I had simply thrown my camping gear into my car and driven out to the desert on a whim.

I didn't panic, and thankfully, didn't fall. Scrambling to the top of the rocks, I saw a highway far in the distance; I was also able to surmise where I had entered the canyon. I tracked the ridge line and eventually found the original trailhead that led back to camp. I had been gone for about six hours, with about half of that time being lost. It was enough to shake me up a bit.

I always registered my hikes after that day, at trailheads or park offices. I also started to carry some rudimentary emergency gear, like a cheap compass, mirror, flashlight and matches. Lastly, the experience inspired me to write one of my first short stories. The Canyon was about a contract killer who follows a female hiker into the desert, murders her, then falls and breaks his ankle, confronting him with his own mortality. The story itself taught me a valuable lesson: writing from experience doesn't have to mean transcribing a literal event onto paper. It's more about externalizing a kernel of flesh--a visceral emotion or impression and expanding on it. It doesn't matter if all the surrounding events and details are fictional; if that original, organic emotion shines through, the story will ring true.

If experience were simply comprised of the physical places and timeline events we've checked off while trudging through life, our psyches would be little more than travelogue brochures. It's always about how we felt--how we laughed, cried, loved or were moved...and ultimately, about how those events helped us grow as individuals. If by chance or circumstance there was a life-lesson learned, that's the stuff of wisdom...

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