Yes, I did find myself in the desert. Thanks for asking.
I began my journey in a paper boat without a bottom. Or at least, I’d like to think I did. In reality, I began my journey in a 2000 Volvo S80, which I quickly learned had a temperamental central electronic module.
I drove west, through nine hundred miles of interstate, six hundred of which looked mostly like home. I rode for three hours in a Ford F150 with a nineteen-year-old boy named Conan and a three-month-old puppy named Doc. I hiked fifty miles of coastline, twenty miles of desert, and two miles underground.
I found a lot of things on the shore, in the desert, and under the earth: seashells, whale bones, very small rocks (one of which embedded itself into the back of my heel), two Mylar balloons, an Edison light bulb from Ms. Ingrid Lightman, the heart of a golem. And yes, I found myself, too. Thanks for asking.
“So, what did you do for the holidays?”
Well, I spent Christmas Eve at a truck stop in Albert Lea, Minnesota and saw some disconcerting evidence of a higher cosmic order. In the men’s bathroom, of all places.
Then I came home. Flippancy was one response I wasn’t quite ready for. But then again, how else would someone respond? Is it possible to be “chill” about living in a car for a month? By choice?
Joy is what you find when you strip away what’s not strictly necessary in the wilderness. Which includes your clothes, at times. Simple things make you happy: the heat from a perfect blue alcohol flame, the down-covered safety of stealth-parking and curling up inside the trunk of your car, the freewheeling jaunt five hundred feet down and the breathless climb back up a crater a tad younger than Jesus of Nazareth.
Freedom is six cylinders and a full tank of gas. You find that the biggest infringements on this freedom are the gremlins that haunt any mechanical method of transportation — bipedal human locomotion not exempted — and your dwindling bank account. In that order. You find friends, ones with broken arms or broken hearts or a broken-down (what else?) Volvo station wagon in their garage.
You also find it dull when you return. You find yourself browsing Craigslist for mid-decade Subaru Outbacks and high-density foam padding (for the trunk, you see).
“A road trip, huh? So did you find yourself?”
Yes, somewhere among the shooting stars and the winter stream crossings and the vision of the warrior, I did. In a way. Sometimes we disguise genuine interest as jocular derision. Really, she didn’t know me well enough to ask that question without at least feigned jest. And likewise, I didn’t know her, or almost anyone else for that matter, well enough to fully articulate what I found.
I found a small peak 3,200 feet above Badwater Basin and laid out under the stars. Then a Greek warrior in the sky taught me what it means to be a Man. Capital ‘M.’
Well, he had a little help from Robert Bly and Joe Rogan and whoever wrote that goddamn poem in the poetry phone booth in Flagstaff, Arizona (God bless her soul).
I have been creased, it seems, along an infinite line, which forever remains even when the paper is unfolded onto the mundane tabletop of reality. Nothing physical changed — save for that very small rock, I came back no richer or poorer in body than when I left. But that creasing left an indelible line across my chest. I found myself staring at it in the mirror the other day.
It’s not about getting away. I sent letters. It’s about getting…somewhere. Getting to Portland even if it kills me. Getting home in time for — ah fuck it, we’ll, me and my car, that is, we’ll sleep at the truck stop tonight. And we’ll buy a twenty-seven-cent postcard in the morning, with pennies. Merry Christmas.
I found a piece of driftwood smoothed to exactly the dimensions of a home-decoration stone which might have an abstract noun engraved on its face. I’ll sand it down and give it to someone I love. Maybe I’ll even carve “LOVE” onto its face in all-caps Garamond. No, that would be a bit much.
I found the smallest glass jar at the smallest grocery store in Santa Cruz and added a handful of stones, three seashells, and saltwater. If you can’t be here, I’ll bring the ocean to you. Merry Christmas.
I found a lot more garbage than I expected. On the coast: a kayak, several plastic squeegees, and one lonely hiking boot. Why just one? What kind of person would leave one boot and keep the other? Oh. Right. A dead one. Let’s not end up that way just yet.
Three handfuls of cigarette butts and candy wrappers from the cave, and one note on my windshield from the ranger. Not technically garbage, of course. He didn’t pay me any mind, nor I him. Can’t say the same about the college kids, though. Who meditates a mile underground? Some goddamn hippie who has sky-visions about kings, queens, and warriors, I suppose.
I sheepishly found my way out after that, obligingly snapping a few pictures. At no point will anyone think to ask, “But who took that picture of you three in Lava River Cave?” Which is probably for the best, I think.
I did, eventually, find my way home, after the ice storm abated. Everything was different, but everything was also right where I left it. I found myself slipping back into normal life with alarming ease, so I let myself stumble a bit, feeling the rocks underfoot give way as though I was crossing another winter stream.
I scraped together enough money for the next month’s rent, and chiseled out my old digital hollow to scrape by. I found myself, to my slight shock, looking quite dapper at a wedding with a clean-shaven face and a charcoal suit precisely one week after finding myself in the damp, dark, dirty places of the Wild.
So yes, I did find myself in the desert. Thanks for asking.