The desert rat carries one distinction like a halo: he has learned to love the kind of country that most people find unloveable. Call the desert barren, harsh, bitter, dreary and gloomy, acrid and arid, lifeless, hopeless, ugly as sin, ghastly as the gates of hell—he will happily agree with you. Because in his heart lies the secret belief that the awful desert is really sweet and lovable, that the ugly is really beautiful, that hell is home.
—Edward Abbey, Beyond The Wall
Storm clouds overhead? Good. What’s July in the desert without a cloudburst?
—Edward Abbey, Beyond The Wall
I tried to describe impossible things like the scent of creosote—bitter, slightly resinous, but still pleasant—the high, keening sound of the cicadas in July, the feathery barrenness of the trees, the very size of the sky, extending white-blue from horizon to horizon, barely interrupted by the low mountains covered with purple volcanic rock. The hardest thing to explain was why it was so beautiful to me . . .
—Stephenie Meyer, Twilight
If the bible has any sort of truth to it, it would appear that humans originated in tropical areas. The vapor covering the earth, keeping everything cool and hydrated. Maybe people who are living in tropical lush geographies in present day are living much closer to heaven on earth than the rest of us. That elusive Eden.
I wonder what that says about me though, drawn to the most hellish landscape that exists.
Drawn to the desert.
It was after I began my exit from Christianity at the end of 2017 when I started to realize my pull towards the desert. I had just left a more heavenly place, too. I’d been working at a camp in the woods near Salem, Oregon. It was green and lush and I was even learning about foraging in the natural landscape, a hands-on experience to how life-giving the earth is. I dreamed of putting down roots there.
But I was quite sick. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Working for another Christian corporation right after bible college when I barely believed in any of it anymore made me ill. I was often bedridden and unable to work. I swallowed too many pain pills at night to help me relax enough to get to sleep. Every time I took a breath, I had a coughing fit. I was so allergic to the area, to the constant drizzling, to the belief system I was contractually obligated to pass onto young children—that I was sick for months. One day after work a fellow camp counselor slipped me one of his allergy pills, thinking it would help me. I took it without hesitation, zero clue as to how it would affect me. That evening I had a date in the car of my make-out buddy, a different camp counselor. Just a little bit of squeaky clean virgin angst to help the both of us survive a place that we weren’t meant for. I nearly fell asleep in his lap once the drug kicked in. The blurry chemical exhaustion thrilled and terrified me—the feeling of not having to think, of not having control.
A few days later I was put on mental health leave by the camp directors. They learned about my pain pill popping and figured I was depressed. After a week of resting at someone’s house, away from camp, I decided I absolutely could not go back.
My parents flew me back to Las Vegas. I left behind most of my possessions for my roommates, in order to fit a couple duffle bags onto my budget flight.
Within two weeks of being in Nevada, I was completely cured. Two weeks of solitude, no pressure to go to church, no one peering inside my mind to see what I believed. Just rest. Just me and my body on a bed in a warm room. I felt safe and happy and healthy.
Thus began my official deconstruction from Christianity, and the realization that my body and soul felt at peace in the desert. Not a passive peace. One that subtly sunk its claws into me, distorting my vibrations and rearranging them into a new pattern. One that would require everything I had—and more—to be able to reap the benefits of it.
I left Eden to enter hell, and it turns out I like the heat.
The desert requires a sort of mediative state to gracefully live through it. This place makes me dry out and crack and it smoothes me out like a pumice stone on calloused soles. Calloused souls, kicked out of Eden, have a home here.
It’s a lovely hostile house.
There comes a time every summer, though, where I just can’t fucking stand the place any longer. Usually in July, the hottest period. The cicadas provide constant background noise for weeks on end, a buzzing electric sizzle that grinds on my nervous system. The dogs are restless and panting all damn day and I just can’t stand to be around them, their hot breaths and neediness blowing in my face. The white sound of oscillating fans and the frigidity of fake conditioned air irritate me to no end. A heat-driven compulsive hustle builds in me and I end up making rash decisions.
In hindsight, July is the month where I should be doing very little. Be still. Conserve water.
In reality, halfway through July is when I hit a breaking point.
To set a silly scene: there was this guy I was “talking to” last winter but then he ghosted me but then I found out I was going to be in his part of the world at the end of this summer for a wedding so I thought maybe I’d hit him up to go on some of the outings we’d talked about and maybe when he saw me in person it would reignite all the sparks but then I found out he was actually dating someone so I started bawling because of the fact that he got to know me super well over FaceTime but then obviously found me to be lacking and then found someone better.
Well . . . I thought I was crying over him but then fifteen seconds later all I could think of was my dead brother. His face, his name, his absence.
This crush was good friends with my brother back in the day and he has unaccessed memories of him that I crave. When we first starting talking more consistently last year, he told me we could talk about my brother anytime I wanted. It felt good to have someone in my life who was connected to him.
Being ghosted felt like a betrayal. How dare he close himself off from me and hoard his memories of my brother. It’s not right for anyone to do so. Line up at the door and tell all, please.
Breaking point: no one wants you and your brother is gone and everything feels like death.
In addition: your period starts, it’s hot as fucking shit, and you can’t stop crying.
Literal blood. Sweat. Tears.
You think maybe it’s time to move again. Run away and start fresh, again. Maybe it’s time to go north again.
And then: BOOM.
That feeling of aliveness. Shock to the system. Drenched to the soul fifteen seconds later.
The streets flooding. Earth shattering thunder. Lightning that could split the sky in two.
I am so big. I am so small.
I am in Eden after all.
This, for me, is heaven on earth. These two polarities. The heat and the flood. Because they’re so dramatic, they cleanse me to my bones.
And I think this is why, though I thought Oregon was like my soulmate state or something, it ended up being a rather torturous place for me. The constant dripping, poking, prodding. I thought I would mimic the lush growth of my environment, but inwardly I felt a little bit dead. Stalled out. Just waiting waiting waiting for the rain to stop. Never feeling at peace. My second day at this camp, I asked my roommate Savannah when the rain was going to stop. She, naturally, gave a great belly laugh and didn’t answer my question.
I am not the tortoise in the parable, but rather the hare. I didn’t then and still do not understand the steady plodding constant pace of the rain. I was born in the desert and will likely die there and that’s all I know. The desert is a place where you dance in the rain every single time, because it’s mad and rushed and short-lived and wonderful. A quick sprint and a long rest.
That wretched Saturday when all emotional and physical hell broke loose, I slept better that night than I had in a long time. After the rushing rain, after the healing tears, after a warm shower, after the period pills, the earth has cooled down, the ground smells good—and I had a breakthrough on my energetic pattern around romantic relationships and I felt at peace finally reaching a starting point to deal with this issue. An issue that had been dead and fused into my belief system had cracked open from the heat and washed out from the flood.
I slept so incredibly good that night. Blissfully good. I felt giddy and happy, with a squeaky clean body and soul.
It’s a strange soul that’s drawn to the desert. A place that’s known for its cliches of lone tumbleweeds blowing in the wind, abandoned ghost towns, wild west gunslinging, and random animal skulls just chilling on a fence post or something. A place that looks like death to many people. (It sort of seems to me like there couldn’t possibly be many evangelical Christians who love the desert like I do. Religion is muggy and has a large immaculate green suburban front lawn.)
One of my earliest memories as a kid is walking alone along the barbed wire border of our ten acre property in the high desert of southern Idaho and stopping in my tracks to watch dozens of maggots crawl over a coyote corpse. (I grew up saying “kai-yoat” rather than “kai-yoat-ee.” Apparently it’s a rural thing.)
Disgusting, I thought, at the kai-yoat carcass. Fascinating, I thought.
Maybe that experience set me on a course for my life. The more I get to know the desert intimately and the more I look death in the eye without any of its heavy perfumed niceties, the more alive I feel.
There is life in the desert and death completes the cycle of life.
It is beautiful and painful, joyous and heartbreaking.
I feel emotions more prominently in the desert. Everything is sharper here. Here is where I left the foggy haze of religion and found the stark reality of God. The shadows are darker here because the light is stronger. I don’t want to drip and drizzle my way through life. I want to be at peace in the heat or I want to rage within the storm.
This pattern shows up in many ways in my life, this ebb and flow, this parable hare. In my love of rock climbing and hatred of hiking. Why endure a sickening steady plod up a mountain when you could instead rip your way up a boulder and then kick back on a crash pad and watch your friend do it next?
Of course, I am learning to implement small consistent changes and routine in my life. Not everything is dramatic. If my life was a movie, the day-to-day stuff would either look really peaceful or really fucking boring. And I like it that way.
But in matters of the heart, things that bring out the strongest emotions in me like writing and rock climbing and nature and romance—I am not steady at all. I welcome the heat and the flood, the cracks and the blood, the ebb and the flow, the stop and the go.
Secretly I think I’m a phoenix, and that burning is good for me. Burn me to a crisp. Douse the heat with a storm. Emerge from the puddle, dripping black ash and red blood, a wobbling fledgling. Dry off in the heat. And take to the sky once more, stronger and sharper and freer.
I promise to love the desert with all my heart, until death do we part.