When I moved to the desert full-time in 2008, I sent a friend a link to show her where the little house was that I’d rented for the summer. I got a horrified response. I’d been looking forward to the move as a clean break, post-divorce; a way to start over in a new place. She clicked on the link and then zoomed out a bit, and then she zoomed out a bit more, and then the machine noise that heralded the arrival of her instant message sounded much more urgent, somehow.
“You can’t survive out there,” her message said. “No one can survive out there. Humans need human companionship. You will lose your mind.”
I am not the most reliable judge of my own sanity, so she may well have been right in a clinical sense. But my sense of the tiny Mojave Desert burg I lived in for the second half of 2008 was that I still had too many people too close at hand. There were times I had to retreat from the thriving bustle of Nipton and head for smaller burgs like Cima, or Bardwell.
My friend Charlie Peterson, who spent a lot of time in the Mojave when he was doing his graduate work in lizardology back during the Pluvial Epoch, tells a story of being in one small Mojave town and overhearing a few women talking.
“We’re going to Newberry Springs this weekend,” said one woman.
“Why?” asked her friend.
“To get the hell out of Ludlow.”
I felt like that, only backwards. Nipton, my home in 2008, stood astride a busy two-lane that was on the fastest route between Los Angeles and the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Across the road from my house was the only source of cold water for more than 20 miles in either direction. We had a steady stream of thirsty, tired, and cranky people coming through town, especially on weekends. Sometimes they would mistake my house for some sort of official information kiosk and attempt to come in through the screen porch door.
There were people in that town of 30 or so people I liked a great deal. Still, more often than not, I found myself putting a few things in the Jeep and heading out to the surrounding countryside.
I come from a family of invertebrates. My mother is a social butterfly, my father a hermit crab. I have inherited both their natures in full. I thirst for social contact and solitude both. When I’m alone in the desert, I miss other people. When I’m with other people, I miss being alone in the desert. The first of those two conditions feels better to me. To be sure, I rarely feel alone in the desert. I’m a science writer, not a mystic, Jim, but it’s no mysticism to find solace in the web of relations that is the living world.
Those relationships aren’t quite so overwhelming in the desert. It’s easier to suss them out. Creosote puts out flowers. Those flowers are visited by solitary bees. Pollen-drunk bees are nabbed by side-blotched lizards. Side-blotcheds are nailed gruesomely by loggerhead shrikes, impaled for later eating on the spines of a cholla. Cholla nurses the growing seedling of a creosote, providing shade and shelter. It’s a complicated dance, far more interesting to me than any human gossip or politics.
I’m no misanthrope. Mostly, I mean. The renowned Socratic philosopher Charles Schulz, via his character Linus Van Pelt, once offered the aphorism “I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand.” I submit to you, brothers and sisters, that Linus got it pretty much ass-backwards. People are an unending source of wonder, bravery, beauty and compassion. Humankind is a scourge. I admit it’s a difficult distinction. I haven’t quite worked out all the details in my mind. I mean some of my very best friends are people, and they agree with me that humankind is a gigantic pain.
But it’s also mostly true that where people go, humankind is sure to follow. So, you know. That’s a source of emotional conflict.
Maybe a decade before I moved to Nipton I was driving by myself in that same country, not far to the south, and I had been driving for some time and drinking the canonical gallon of water per day recommended for summer in the Mojave, and I needed a restroom. Of course there wasn’t one for some miles. I pulled just barely off the road near a convenient tall creosote. I got out of my pickup. I started to walk over toward the creosote for some privacy. And then I realized I already had privacy.
From my vantage point near a T-intersection I could see at least six miles up the road in all three possible directions. There was no one anywhere nearby. No one. No need to retreat behind the inadequate shelter of a wispy creosote bush. No need to retreat. Making the obligatory adjustments in the relationship between my clothing and the body parts said clothing generally concealed, I did what I had to do at my leisure and languorously, standing on the dashed white line in the middle of the road with fear neither of exposure nor discovery. By the time I finished, some luxurious minutes later, there were still no automobiles on the horizon threatening to invade my privacy.
Say what you will about “wilderness characteristics” and “visual resources” and “solitude”: if there is a better marker of Big Wild Landscape than the ability to stop in your lane, get out of your car, and piss on the driver’s side tire at your leisure with no one the wiser, I would like to hear it. Not that I expect to see that codified in Federal law anytime soon.
Chris Clarke lives in Joshua Tree and writes about wildlife, renewable energy, and other pressing moral and philosophical issues. He’s on Twitter, and also took the photograph at the top of this page, and is the author of Walking With Zeke.