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Two Steps Back

Monday, May 20th, 2024: Hikes, Pinos Altos Range, Southwest New Mexico.

I hadn’t hiked in two weeks, since my epic hike in the desert did some sort of damage to my right knee. Despite daily icing, it was recovering very slowly, and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. So I decided to try it out on a nearby trail with moderate distance and elevation.

This is a ridge trail that climbs the east end and follows the ridge west for 6-1/4 miles to an abandoned stock pond, at an average elevation of 8,400 feet. Much of the forest had burned in June 2020, and I’d hiked the full length afterward, in September of that year. But by the following September, regrowth of annuals and shrubs had made the trail virtually impassable.

Because it’s close to town, I figured it would be a high priority for the new trail crews, and I was right. It had been cleared last October, but since it traverses the steep north slope, it accumulates and holds deep snow, and the lack of tracks showed that I was the first hiker on this trail since the snow finally melted a month ago. A bear had preceded me, probably late yesterday.

The temperature started out in the 60s and climbed into the 80s by afternoon. The flowers and pollinators were outstanding, and I was surrounded by birdsong the whole way, but could seldom find the singers. I did spot a brown creeper but it was moving too fast to photograph.

I didn’t really expect to make it all the way. My knee seemed to be doing okay but as usual there were too many steep sections. There’s a rock outcrop with a nice view about a mile from the pond, and that’s where I turned around, strapping on my knee brace for the return.

With my knee stiffened by the brace it was much harder to walk, and the pressure of the brace meant I couldn’t tell how my knee was doing. I found out when I got back to the vehicle – not well. I’ve been lucky with my knees in the past, but those days are probably over.

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Desert Ceremonial: Part Four

Sunday, May 19th, 2024: 2024 Trips, Artists, Arts, Mojave Desert, Regions, Road Trips.

Previous: Part Three

Day Seven: Singers

I was on the reservation to see my friend, and to rest up. In my mind it was the natural place, and he was the natural person, to visit after performing that ceremony in his tribe’s territory.

Before we started breakfast, he gave me a miniature gourd rattle, a symbol of my role in the ceremony, a role he’s performed himself. He spoke of the difficulty of learning the ancient ceremonial dialect, part of his legacy as a hereditary chief. We share a passion for the desert’s past, so over breakfast, we discussed prehistory and talked about our families. He said young people in the tribe want me to lead them to remote sites I’ve discovered, so we should start planning a return visit.

Then I arranged to stay another night, he went off to help his son, and I spent most of the day in bed.

Day Eight: Saddles

It was time to head home, and today would be the hardest part – the five-hour gauntlet of the interstate highway, competing with those giant tractor-trailer rigs in my little rattletrap. The dangerous wind had returned – when I first stepped outside in the morning, I was almost blown over.

The drive was nerve-wracking as usual, but it got better at the end, after I finally left the interstate for a lonely two-lane across the high plateau, and eventually reached the little alpine valley where I would dine at my favorite rural restaurant and sleep in the rustic fisherman’s motel. The drive home from the desert is just too far to tackle in one day, and I’d decided this would be the best way to divide it up, before crossing the multiple mountain ranges and high passes between here and home.

During the drive, I was starting to process the trip, and the ceremony. It had resurrected feelings buried for a generation, reopened wounds that had never healed. I’d been forced to bare my heart and soul like never before. Katie’s family had praised and thanked me, but I was feeling depleted, inadequate, guilty. Someone who had spent decades failing those who deserved his best. I longed for the comfort of loved ones, someone to share my turmoil and help me find clarity. But after briefly becoming one with the group at the cave, I was now more alone than ever.

And in the evening, there I was, being served a delicious meal while the resident elk herd shared grazing outside the window with a large band of mule deer. My body was sore all over from last Saturday’s epic hike, from driving 1,500 miles, from the emotional drain of the ceremony. My knee in particular was so bad I could barely handle a few stair steps at a time.

Day Nine: Pilgrimages

From there, it was only three hours to home, on another lonely, winding road through a series of mountain ranges. The shape of the trip was becoming clear, if not its meaning.

It had been a triple pilgrimage, triggered by the ceremony at its center. Going to the cave, I had to visit my land nearby, and make that hike to the crest – the divide between east and west. And after the ceremony, I had to visit my friend, elder of the people who had established that ceremony in that place for generations before us. As the singer of the old songs, he’d set the example for me when I sang for our group. I’d anticipated none of this in advance – I had to discover it out there, one day at a time.

What a path to find myself on! Never have I felt so much like an exile, an eternal explorer, infinitely far from my birthplace and my ancestors, irretrievably lost in an abandoned wilderness.

Children

I arrived home late in the week and spent the next few days icing my joints, resting, and editing my photos. And in the process, I finally discovered a meaning and a purpose for our ceremony.

To some extent, most of us expect to live on in the memories of others. People who seek fame and influence expect to be remembered by their colleagues and followers. Parents expect to live on in the memories of their children. I don’t know about other artists, but for me – otherwise childless – my creative works are my children.

As I learned in the desert, Katie will live on in the memories of her nieces and nephews. But for the rest of us, her legacy, her only children, are the creative works I’ve been able to preserve. Sharing and establishing those works will remain my responsibility and my inspiration for the rest of my life.

Recent struggles and traumas have discouraged me and set me back in my own work, but these memories of Katie should inspire me to recover from the setbacks and renew both our legacies. In the words of a song I wrote when I first met her, I’ll be “building for future generations”.

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Desert Ceremonial: Part Three

Thursday, May 16th, 2024: 2024 Trips, Artists, Arts, Mojave Desert, Regions, Road Trips, Stories, Trouble.

Previous: Part Two

Katie

Now we approach the main event of this ceremonial trip to the desert, which I’ve been hinting at obliquely, because it was too immediate, too painful, and there were others involved whose privacy I need to honor.

Remember this is only my version – others will differ. Why do I share such personal stories? Is it even appropriate? For me at least, sharing and hearing your responses helps me process these difficult experiences.

Forty years ago I began exploring, discovering, and falling in love with the desert with Katie, a fellow artist, musician, and writer. A mutual friend had shared his discovery of a magical place, a small basin lined with boulders and surrounded by cliffs, and my partner and I turned a boulder pile there into a home away from home – The Cave. Katie was the one who first found artifacts from the indigenous people who once camped all over that area. Those sparked our curiosity, inspired our art and music, and set me on the path I’ve followed ever since, as I broke away from my colonial Old World legacy to become a student of indigenous cultures. All in all, we explored the desert Southwest together for eight years.

At our home in the city, she was my bandmate and songwriting partner. We were ambitious, we worked hard, we competed. We were leaders in a fast-evolving, unstable community facing one crisis after another. Neither of us set limits to what we wanted to accomplish – as our music gained followers and admirers, we both continued to write and make art, and Katie experimented with new genres and media, learning to reproduce prehistoric pottery and rock writing, building assemblages from materials found in the desert.

She was a force of nature, challenging everyone around her. She changed the way I live, making me braver, more confident, more proactive. She could’ve coined the Nike motto, “just do it”.

But her dark side included anger and violence, and in the midst of all that ambition, all that work, all that turmoil, our relationship fell apart. We tried to remain friends, making trips to the desert together in the new decade, but Katie began to struggle with inner demons that drove me away and eventually destroyed her.

By the time they did, I hadn’t seen or spoken to her for 24 years. None of her many old friends and admirers had, and few even knew where she was. Her surviving family chose me to lead a memorial ceremony at our cave in the desert, believing that our time together there had been the happiest period of her life. And as the date approached, I was forced to revisit the trove of her creative work that survived in my personal archives, and to review the experiences we shared in the desert.

I discovered a file of song lyrics Katie had written before and during our time together, and decided to try putting them to music. It went well, and in the process I awakened to the nature and significance of her talent, and came to see her and her work in a new light.

Together, we’d been too competitive, and I was too insecure. Katie lacked the experience to set her own lyrics to music, and as time went by, I’d resented the competition and refused to help her. Now, too late, I realized that while I was writing from my head, she’d been writing from her heart, her eyes, her ears, her nose, her skin. Her lyrics lacked the irony, the sophisticated vocabulary and clever turns of phrase admired by critics and hipsters – they seemed simple or even juvenile, but that’s because they were economical. They clearly and honestly evoked the strong feelings of childhood and youth and the sensory experiences of engaging with our beloved desert. I realized, too late, that she’d been the only lover who’d ever truly shared my passion for the desert and its native cultures, the only fellow artist who like me had found her greatest inspiration in the magic of the desert. And I realized, too late, the talent that we’d lost, and that she’d never been rewarded for.

Climbing the steep trail

Indian summer

Following ancient feet

Up to the hunting grounds

Where are the mountain sheep?

I keep looking around

Writing on the rocks

Said I would find them here

After we broke up, Katie continued working on music and art for only a few more years. Her demons took over, and as she lurched back and forth across the country trying to find work or shelter, she lost all her old music, art, and writing. My archives preserve the only significant holdings of her creative legacy, so before heading out to the desert, I turned them into digital files and printed scrapbooks to share with her family at the ceremony.

Day Five: Reunion

I usually hate to leave my land, but after yesterday’s hike I felt ready. Driving out the mouth of the big wash onto the alluvial fan, I got a signal, reached Katie’s family, and made a plan to meet them at their rental in town. I had a long drive ahead – I decided to avoid the washed-out, abandoned highway and take back roads for about 45 miles to the next highway. Those roads would be maintained, but were sure to be heavily washboarded. They drop 2,000 feet in elevation and cross much starker habitat.

The backroads gave me views of other beautiful, remote ranges. But my lightweight vehicle’s MacPherson struts made driving that washboard an ordeal. And as I approached town after three hours of stressful driving, I discovered where all the wind from the forecast had ended up. The entire valley was beset by towering dust storms, including the house my friends had rented. We hadn’t seen each other in decades, they had adult kids who hadn’t been born back then, and we spent hours catching up as the dust swirled and blasted around their compound. I used their wifi to book a room at a nearby chain hotel where I could get points. The place was rundown, but I was still exhausted from yesterday’s hike, and slept well anyway.

Day Six: Ceremony

Yesterday’s wind and dust storm had vanished by morning. I’d assumed we would drive and hike to the cave, do what we needed to do, and leave. But in the morning, it became clear that they intended to spend the entire day out there. So I led them all in a caravan across the desert. As I said, I had no plan, but I’d brought ingredients.

We parked and loaded our packs for the day. I’d briefed them in advance on the dangers of the desert: sunburn, dehydration, cactus spines and catclaw thorns. Now I told them the hardly believable story of how I’d first discovered and fallen in love with this beautiful place – the start of the greatest love affair of my life, and the only one that has lasted.

I led them to the Cave, past fanciful boulders and flowering cacti, and they each took a look inside, and assured me that they now understood why it’d been so important to Katie. Then I led them over to the larger rockshelter nearby where we could assemble in shade for the rest of the day.

My artist friends and I had originally fallen in love with the desert partly because in this place it had largely belied its nature as a harsh wasteland. Although it could get cold in the winter and on occasion the wind would drive us away, in general it was a really comfortable place to camp out. And that’s what we found today. It was warm enough that we could shift back and forth between sun and shade, from the intimacy of the big cave to the spacious view of the ledge in back. I’d worried that we might be spotted from the road and interrupted by authorities, maybe even forced to leave. But traffic was unusually light; few stopped and no one seemed to notice us.

I always prefer to enable a group to lead itself through consensus, and that’s what I tried to do here. I began by sharing my gifts, starting with the scrapbooks I’d spent the past week preparing. Throughout the day, they all studied them carefully. A childhood friend had brought sage bundles and set one burning. And I set up a boombox playing tracks of Katie’s music, so we were surrounded by her voice and her bass lines for the next two hours.

We made lunch, and part of the group moved out back for some sun.

After a while, one of the women asked if we could regroup to share our stories of Katie, so we gathered in a circle in a corner of the big cave. I was asked to begin, and I tried to tell the story of my time with Katie. We were all overcome as I described how I’d failed her – how the world had failed her, had never found a way to handle her talent, her brilliance that had destroyed her in the end. Then her younger sister struggled to express how much she’d loved and admired Katie – like Katie herself, the feelings we were bringing out were too hot to handle.

I was especially moved to hear how the younger generation had only seen Katie’s positive side – the loss was greater for them, to discover her work after they’d lost her forever. How strange that while she’d lived a long life, we were only honoring such a short period of it, saying that was the best. Had the rest of her life really been wasted? Apparently not for her nieces and nephews. So sad, so seemingly pointless that we were only celebrating her now, after she was gone. I was feeling worse and worse, guiltier and guiltier, that I hadn’t been able to help her, to save her.

The sharing of stories devastated and depleted all of us, and we were rising to disperse when Katie’s younger brother asked me for some songs. Of course, I’d brought my guitar – as leader, I was basically on call for this group all day – but I wasn’t sure I could do it.

I stumbled through the two songs of Katie’s that I’d put to music in the weeks before. The first was the song in which she shared the experience of discovering the desert and its cultures. By the chorus of the second song, the one she’d addressed to me personally, I was breaking down, and that’s how I finished. And then we all moved out back, into the sun. One of the other elders had brought a boombox with a mellow playlist, and as we talked, we became aware of a big male chuckwalla, the largest lizard in the desert, perched on the tall boulder pile fifty feet away.

He made his way down toward us, and clambered into a flowering shrub where he began eating the blooms – they’re vegetarians, but I’d never actually watched one doing that. They’re usually shy, but some of our young ones approached within eight feet, and he ignored them. Then he moved even closer to our group, seemingly to observe us. As the young people said, “This is his home – we’re just passing through. He feels safe here.”

The sun was sinking toward the western cliffs. We’d spent seven hours out there together. Again, one of the women came and asked me to lead them in the final phase. So we packed up again and walked over to what would now be known as Katie’s Cave.

The women surrounded me outside the Cave and we conferred and agreed on the details. Then they followed me inside and formed an arc around the sister and me, who would perform the ritual. At this point, we were all overwhelmed.

And afterword, we hugged, and kissed, and thanked each other. A solitary jackrabbit sat on its haunches nearby, watching us.

We hiked back across the desert to our vehicles, and said our goodbyes.

I called ahead to the reservation, and my friend arranged a room at the tribal rate. It took almost three hours to drive there, and I hadn’t eaten since lunch. The restaurant was closed, but the staff, generous as ever, hauled a microwave and silverware to my room so I could warm up a frozen dinner from their freezer.

While eating, I looked something up online. After the ceremony, I’d recovered a vague memory of a similar ritual held prehistorically by this tribe. Based on the ethnographic record, it sounded much like the ceremony we’d invented on the spot. The place, and its memory of the ancestors, had surely guided us.

What to do with my grief, my guilt? That would be the work of the following days and weeks.

Next: Part Four

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Desert Ceremonial: Part Two

Tuesday, May 14th, 2024: 2024 Trips, Mojave Desert, Nature, Plants, Regions, Road Trips, Rocks.

Previous: Part One

Day Four: Hike

Today was forecast to be hot, and despite the high wind forecast, the air was still and already warm in camp as I started the day. Tomorrow I needed to make contact with the folks who were traveling to the ceremony, and that would mean driving outside the mountains for a cell signal. But today was my free day, and I planned to hike.

Unfortunately, the flies and gnats were just as bad as last night.

Where should I go? On my last visit, almost 18 months ago, I’d done all the iconic hikes. There was one canyon I’d been wanting to explore, but the mouth of it was almost three miles away across gently undulating open desert with no chance of shade.

I finally decided to head up our main canyon, with the tentative goal of reaching its head on the crest, with a view east. I’d tried that once, 32 years ago, but had been stymied by a confusing maze of stone fins and pinnacles.

For the first mile and a half, my gaze was rooted to the sand of the big wash, where I was delighted at the bloom of wildflowers and puzzled by the vehicle tracks of trespassers during recent months. A big truck, some kind of UTV or ATV, and two or three dirt bikes. These people treat the whole desert as their God-given playground and can’t be bothered to walk anywhere; they consider it a failure if they have to get off their butts.

Before the trip, a friend had suggested I might find a decent bloom around the cave, but the flowers here in my home range were far more spectacular – and this was not even close to the best bloom I’d seen here. And that’s just the flowers – the rocks in this range are also more diverse and beautiful than those elsewhere in the desert. It’s wilder, richer, and more forbidding than other ranges I know.

Past the dry waterfall, I was approaching the old miner’s cabin, which used to be maintained by a family of gun nuts from Huntington Beach. The truck had to turn back early, but the dirt bikers and ATV rider drove up the banks to avoid boulders in the wash, trampling vegetation, until they reached the base of the old, deeply eroded road to the cabin. And that turned out to be just too rugged for them.

Fortunately the cabin is falling apart, the junk around it slowly rusting away.

Having reached the cabin, I remembered that an old, now-impassable road climbs behind it to mine works and a roofless drystone cabin farther up the canyon. I went a short way up that and discovered a developed mule trail with stone retaining walls branching off, appearing to lead into the next canyon south. This is a canyon I backpacked into and partially explored more than thirty years ago, but I remember nothing of its upper reaches. It’s hidden from below, which makes it doubly intriguing, so I made a snap decision to follow the old trail.

It was blocked in several places by big chollas, but it eventually led to a saddle overlooking the hidden canyon, and from there down into a side gully, where I stumbled upon a mine, almost completely hidden behind a thicket of catclaw acacia.

It turned out to be an unusually long tunnel for this range. It went almost straight back for more than 150 feet, and another man had explored it recently – I could tell because he’d broken a living branch of catclaw to reach it. Any tracks in this protected environment would last forever, and his were the only human tracks before I arrived.

I dug out and turned on my headlamp, and nearing the back, found bones, and then parts of animal skeletons – a spinal column, a collapsed rib cage, and what appeared to be a couple of skulls. And at the very end was a patch of damp mud.

The old trail had washed out around the mine entrance, but I could see some sort of manmade ledge farther down the gully toward the hidden canyon, so I climbed over the washout and kept going. A bend of the hidden canyon lay below me, and I thought I could discern a continuation of the trail across the slope above the bend, so I used that to reach a narrow stretch of canyon upstream. This canyon is exceptionally beautiful and decorated with spectacular rock, but it’s also full of long-established invasive tamarisk, in apparent equilibrium with native riparian vegetation.

Including honey mesquite! This is one of only two canyons in the range where I’ve found big stands, probably cultivated prehistorically by Native Americans. The other mesquite canyon also has spectacular rocks. I’d made the right choice in detouring over here.

I was amused to encounter a shrike who stood on a yucca blade only ten feet away from me, making continuous agitated calls while holding an insect in its beak.

I began encountering what would turn out to be a series of natural rock dams across the canyon bottom, some requiring technical bouldering moves to climb over. And suddenly I found myself at a fork in the canyon, where two branches of seemingly equal size converged. One featured a towering cliff and a narrows that looked potentially impassable, so that’s the one I tried.

I was able to get through the narrows, climbing more natural rock dams, and the canyon just kept getting more spectacular, until suddenly I spotted a pinyon pine ahead! This range is low enough that pines only survive on protected slopes at its highest elevations, so my heart always soars when I come to these trees that were so important to native people.

There were only a few in this stretch of canyon, but they beckoned me onward.

I next emerged into a basin where more drainages converged, and far above, I could see what appeared to be the crest, dotted with more pines. I wasn’t sure which route to take from here, so I climbed a rock formation a hundred feet or so above the wash, where I could get a panoramic view.

The main drainage came steeply down from a saddle that seemed to be on the crest, but I couldn’t tell if it would overlook the east side of the range or only the main canyon to my north. Also, the slopes of that drainage were really rocky and potentially hard to traverse. To the right was a slope that featured stretches of grassy ground, potentially easier to traverse, until the route vanished over a divide into a side drainage that seemed to lead to a higher saddle. I was sure that route would lead to the true crest, so that’s the one I would try.

To get there, I had to proceed up the main wash. But above it on the left was a sort of ramp that looked easier going, and after climbing it I discovered another big stand of mesquite. The mesquite here was really thriving – in fact all the vegetation here seemed to be doing better than that around the cave farther north.

Dropping back into the wash farther upstream, I reached a stretch of rugged ground congested with boulders, thorns, and cactus that took some getting through before reaching the grassy slope I hoped to take to the crest. This required a steep climb, but there were parts that almost hinted at a trail, and dramatic rock formations both near and far as landmarks to memorize for my return.

Wind had been rising as I climbed. The forecast finally seemed to materialize.

Up and up I climbed, over the divide into the next drainage. And there I began to find cairns. I believe these to be remnants of the old Sierra Club peakbagger group, and I dismantle them wherever it’s convenient – this is supposed to be a wilderness, not a recreational area. Still, it surprised me to find them in this obscure, hidden canyon that I hadn’t even explored until 35 years after first arriving. It suggests that even fewer Anglos know these mountains now than then, which has got to be a good thing.

Back and forth I meandered to avoid obstacles in the new drainage, steadily approaching what I really hoped would be the crest. As is typical, there were lots of fallen skeletons of big pinyon pine strewn across the slopes here.

Hours had passed since my planned turn-around time. The wind was howling as I reached a saddle on the crest, but I was ecstatic. I’d only been on this central stretch of crest once before, over 30 years ago, and never at this spot. I made my way higher and farther south to get a view of the iconic rock formations along the southern crest. Clouds were massing along with the wind and the temperature was dropping, which was fine with me.

I hated to turn back – I wanted to stay up there forever! That’s the way it always is. But the longer I waited, the colder my shower would be in camp that evening.

I had no trouble retracing my route down. And as usual, I paid more attention to the ground, finding a couple of old ram’s horns from mountain sheep, and a mushroom under a tiny nurse shrub.

It was when I reached the hidden canyon that I became entranced by the exotic rocks. The sky had grown overcast and mostly dark, and the wind bore directly down the canyon from the northeast. But in the lower stretch the sun came out again for a while.

The wind was so strong now, I was sure my tarp had blown away and been ripped to shreds in a catclaw. I’d forgotten to pack it away before leaving camp, and the little rocks I use to anchor the edges were surely inadequate. I feared I wouldn’t be able to sleep in that wind and would have to leave the mountains during the night.

But miraculously, my tarp was intact, and the wind died shortly after I finished my shower. The flies and gnats never returned, and I enjoyed a delicious dinner and a peaceful last night in my sacred mountains.

Since I’ve known these mountains by hiking them extensively for 35 years, I guessed that today’s hike only covered between 7 and 8 miles out and back, and when I plotted it on my mapping platform a week later, it turned out a bit under 8, with a little under 2,200 feet of accumulated elevation gain. But including many stops, it took 8-1/2 hours to complete.

It interests me to compare this with the hikes I do back home, which are all to some degree preparation for hiking in the desert. Two weeks earlier I’d hiked 18-1/2 miles near home in the same amount of time, with almost 60 percent more elevation gain, on maintained trails. The hardest hike I do near home, more than 16 miles out-and-back with over 5,000 feet of elevation gain, only takes a half hour longer.

Though much shorter, with much less elevation gain, today’s hike in my desert mountains felt harder than either of those, and as I discovered during the next week, it took a more serious toll on my body than any hike I’ve ever done near home – even the bushwhacks in severe weather. It was also more dangerous, but interestingly, I never stumbled or fell, which happens regularly on those hikes near home.

Numbers aside, it felt like one of the best ever, one I won’t forget. I wondered how much longer I’d be able to do this.

Next: Part Three

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Desert Ceremonial: Part One

Sunday, May 12th, 2024: 2024 Trips, Mojave Desert, Regions, Road Trips.

This is the story of a road trip I made to the desert, to visit people I love and places that are sacred to me. Nine months ago I had been asked to lead a ceremony there, and that was the main purpose of the trip.

During the intervening months I faced challenges and crises that repeatedly brought me to the brink of a mental and emotional breakdown, struggling daily with the cumulative effects of both recent and past traumas, and since January I’d been in almost constant pain. Nevertheless, I began planning weeks before the trip, preparing music I would try to play, songs I would try to sing, stories I would try to tell.

All my preparations were speculative; I had no idea what would work, or even what people would want. I wasted a lot of time on things I ultimately realized were off-target. Despite being the designated leader, I had no plan for how the ceremony would unfold. Maybe nothing I had prepared would be used.

The last week before I left was a whirlwind of activity, finishing the gifts I hoped to share with the group, packing and struggling to finalize my schedule.

Day One: Departure

On the day of departure, I still didn’t know how long I’d be gone, where I would be on most days, or when I’d get back home. I hoped to camp, so I loaded my 4wd vehicle with all the usual desert survival gear.

It’s a two-day drive, crossing seven or eight mountain ranges, the highest pass over 8,500 feet. The first stint was a six-hour drive, the last part on the interstate. I’m spoiled to live in a remote small town, and any amount of traffic makes me boil over with stress, so as usual I was a wreck when I reached my first destination.

For the ceremony, I really wanted one item I hadn’t been able to find, and didn’t have time to order, at home. The town at the end of the six-hour drive was where I expected to find it, but after that grueling drive, I ran the nightmare gauntlet of traffic jams and construction sites for three hours, checking five different stores all over town, only to realize it simply wasn’t available here. My only remaining recourse was the sole big box store in the next town, two-and-a-half hours west and half the size of this town.

I’d booked an affordable room in a new boutique hotel. It turned out to be popular with affluent, age-inappropriate couples from Los Angeles and arrogant, wizened tourists from back east. The only saving grace was the cassette boombox in the room, with interesting tapes custom-curated by the owners.

Day Two: Arrival

This was to be my last internet access before the desert, and feeling the pressure, I tried to make last-minute arrangements without committing to specifics. I checked out, and did my grocery shopping for the desert, because what we have at home is limited and I like to treat myself on these rare occasions.

Then I drove across the high plateau and descended to the desert. My luck was turning – the next town had exactly what I needed at a discount price, and I enjoyed lunch at my favorite Mexican dinner house. And I thought to fill my solar shower and strap it to the top of the vehicle so I could clean up in camp before going to bed that night.

My little 27-year-old 4wd vehicle is punishing to drive in any conditions, with its tall profile and big windows creating a greenhouse effect, its extremely heavy clutch requiring me to stand up in the driver’s seat to depress the pedal at every gear change or stop, and its light weight combined with stiff suspension that make driving a road with any imperfections like riding a jackhammer. But it’s also been having shifting problems for years, which may portend a transmission failure. The mechanical clutch had supposedly been replaced just before I bought it, and it soon became almost impossible to shift into first gear or reverse. I eventually discovered that adjusting the clutch cable would solve the problem, but only temporarily – it had to be readjusted every six months. And in hot weather it got much worse.

So before the trip I’d adjusted it in advance, but sure enough, when I reached the warmer weather of the desert it required up to 40 pounds of one-armed force on the shift lever to change gears, and sometimes the engine had to be shut off before I could shift. I had no time to stop and adjust it now, so I just suffered through it for the next week, relentlessly punishing my already torn rotator cuffs.

I’d brought plenty of water and firewood from home, so all that was left was to fill up with gas. Gas gets progressively more expensive on the way to the desert, from $3.50 to $7.00 per gallon, so I topped up my tank incrementally at each of the last three opportunities.

And at last, I was back in the land I love, the land I can only visit at long intervals.

Tomorrow, I’d been hoping to do some clean-up at the cave where the ceremony would take place. But I arrived in mid-afternoon, so I was able to get a head start. A friend had suggested the wildflowers might be good now, but all I found was beavertail and hedgehog cactus in bloom. I’d been warned of juniper mortality, and sure enough, I found many had died recently.

We’d never left valuable gear in the cave, and the cheap stuff that had accumulated over decades had been attacked by weather and woodrats.

I spent a couple hours assembling a load to carry out this first night. It was melancholy work, the end of an era lasting more than four decades, many items laden with memories of a loved one.

The sun was setting, and I was lucky to find a campsite nearby. I had just enough time before dark to lay out my bedding, shower, and warm up a can of chili.

The campsite lay along a deeply eroded dirt road that continued for another mile back to the foot of cliffs, and after eating, in full dark with no moon, I began walking down the road. I love night hikes in the desert; the ground is pale and even starlight is enough to go by. As far as I could tell, I was alone from horizon to horizon, and the night was still.

Near the end of the road, surrounded by the low, rounded silhouettes of dark junipers and pale boulders, I happened to glance north, and saw a hazy light in the sky, moving slowly from north to south, without making a noise. I couldn’t tell how high it was, but all round it, the stars were crystal clear and sharply defined. I could clearly see the tiny lights of jets crossing east to west behind it, but this light was much larger, and surrounded by an elliptical haze – an aura. Since the sky around it was clear, it was like the light was generating and illuminating its own haze – some sort of gas or vapor.

When I first saw it, it was about 60 degrees up in the northern sky, and about 15 degrees west of Polaris, the north star. It was moving north-south like a satellite, but slowly. For five minutes I watched it climb steadily, unchanging, through 30 degrees of arc. When it reached the zenith, directly overhead, it slowly faded out and disappeared over about 10 seconds. It completely vanished, with the stars uncovered in the space where it had been.

I call it the Aura. I welcome logical explanations – please just don’t mention UFOs.

Day Three: Work

The temperature in my camp unexpectedly dropped to 40 degrees that night, and even wearing thermal tops and bottoms, I was too cold in my summer sleeping bag. But next morning, a friend living nearby offered her dumpster for the stuff I’d hauled out of the cave, and I was able to return for another load.

Tramping out to the cave one more time, I sorted and packed up the really junky stuff, leaving our old cooking utensils neatly arranged around the hearth. Then I raked the sticks and cactus spines away from the floor so my companions could enjoy the cave when they arrived in a few days.

After disposing of the junk and trash and making lunch at my friend’s place, I drove over to my land in a much more remote mountain range for a couple days and nights of hiking and camping. The roads have gotten worse and worse over the years, which is a good thing, reducing both visitation and vandalism. It had been almost a year and a half since I’d been there last. High winds were forecast for the next two days, which worried me – it’s almost impossible to sleep outside in a high wind.

Our campsite, sometimes subject to vandalism, was in good shape. The air was still, and I was swarmed by flies and gnats as I set up camp. They had no interest in standing water or my open mug of beer – what they seemed obsessed with was my exposed skin, perhaps for the salts. They got so bad that I had to pull on my head net. I wondered if the invasive feral burros were responsible – they’ve only arrived here within the past five years. I tried to play guitar, but the flies and gnats crawled all over my hands as I played.

It was inconvenient eating and drinking with the head net, but I was in my sacred place, so I couldn’t complain. I could almost feel it starting to heal me, already. The flies and gnats disappeared at 7:30 – I assume it was getting too cool for them – and I had a wonderful night’s sleep.

Next: Part Two

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