THE QUIET OF THE DESERT

Long-time readers of this column know that desert camping is always high on my list when spring arrives to California.  There is something about the spare simplicity of our arid lands that draws me back year after year.

One can enjoy the desert in many different ways, but for me nothing beats back-road camping.  I like to seek out a quiet jeep road, set up a simple camp, and settle in to enjoy the enormous sense of freedom I always receive when I’m out in the great emptiness of the desert.

That said, it will come as no surprise that a recent weekend found my wife and me out in our old 4Runner looking for privacy and quiet.  That is not exactly what we found, however, and therein lies a story.

My favorite area for desert back-road camping is Death Valley National Park. The park has an extensive system of jeep roads, and many remote areas are open to roadside camping.  We have visited Death Valley repeatedly for these reasons, and this time we set our sights on the Marble Canyon area in the Cottonwood Mountains.

As desert jeep roads go, Marble Canyon is not all that hard to get to. At least as far as the mouth of the canyon, the dirt road present only minimal obstacles. Most drivers who know their vehicles will have little trouble getting there.

For that reason we did not expect to find the area completely deserted.  And when we arrived at the mouth of the canyon — a gravel arroyo a quarter mile wide — we found a widely scattered cluster of cars and tents. This was more than we had hoped for, but it did make sense. Beyond this point, the road is much rougher, and we could hardly complain if others were seeking adventures similar to the one we had in mind.

Having a good, high-clearance desert-type 4×4, we continued up Marble Canyon looking for our own private piece of desert. What came next, however, surprised us.

Every few hundred yards we found another camp. Each of these simple camps, most no more than a sleeping bag and a shade tarp, held a single person. After passing several such sites, the pattern began to come into focus. We had driven into the heart of a solo desert retreat. Supported by the base camp at the mouth of the canyon, each of these individuals was spending time alone in the desert – just them and the quiet emptiness.

Over, the years I have encountered similar programs in a variety of settings.  The idea is that we are so distracted by the endless hubbubs of daily life that we can only find ourselves by escaping to someplace solitary and quiet. Most formal religions endorse such thinking and many encourage meditation or solitary retreats. Wilderness has long provided settings for such endeavors.  

We spent several days in the Marble Canyon area and eventually had a chance to talk briefly to several of the solitary campers.  They confirmed that they were part of a structured experience that included four nights of solitary fasting in the desert. Later, when we got home, we looked up their group on the web and learned more.

I’ll respect the privacy of those involved and leave out the name of the sponsoring organization, but suffice it to say the wisdom these folks were seeking has deep roots in human experience. Even Old Testament prophets would understand.

Personally, I don’t seek out wild, empty places in search of fresh insights into who I am. For better or for worse, I figured that out a long time ago. What I do know, however, is that I have been drawn to these kinds of places for all my adult life. To me, they are familiar comfortable places – natural landscapes where I can be at peace with myself and the world.

We humans are a varied lot, and we react to nature in many ways. Some of us find God in wildness; others find themselves. For others, like me, wilderness simply is home.  If any of this is going to happen, of course, we need to make sure that quiet natural places continue to exist.

I often hear arguments that undeveloped places – wilderness and other wild lands – are “locked up” and closed to most of us.  The truth, as I was reminded in Marble Canyon, is exactly the opposite.

We need wild, quiet places so that we can be fully human.  The human need for them and the tradition of resorting to such places for wisdom and self-knowledge goes back thousands of years. It is also, as I rediscovered recently in Death Valley, still very much alive today.

© Wm. Tweed