Camping alone in the desert means hot winds in the day, chill breezes at night; it means preparation and caution; it means risk and empowerment. Entering the desert environment is a quieting experience, with darker nights, different birds; small lives scurry under the dry brush; moths rush past the camp light. The night is long, but still the first light comes quickly, sometimes with hammering rain, sometimes with birdcalls just beyond the thin wall of the tent. And our tent is, after all, an illusion of safety, scant protection from anything stronger than a mosquito or a raindrop or a kangaroo rat, and we are pretty sure a determined kangaroo rat could make her way inside if she wanted it badly enough. But still, crawling into our tent feels like a meaningful event, like we have achieved some kind of goal, or proven something; like we are safe. But we are not safe, no more than we ever are.
Camping Alone in the Desert, Part One
I love camping alone in the desert. This page will talk a little about the experience.
The Violet Hour
We've heard the phrase before, but feel entitled to take it and use it; there is no better turn to explain what happens in the desert between day and night, or better, between dusk and darkness. The violet hour is really a moment, or a realization; the day is gone, it's too dark for dusk, and just before the sky goes black it turns the most haunting purple, just shy of black, a color that really isn't even a color but a shade perceived by not looking, by not seeing, by not thinking. It's not dark, though; look at the ground, the gentle tangle of tough dry fallen scrub oak leaves that surfs and scatters as we walk -- the ground is visible, glowing, even, as if lit dimly from the inside. How is it we can see with more clarity now, in the deeper gloom, than we could a few minutes ago?
Then we begin to turn from acuity of vision to keenness of hearing; the layered ratcheting and trilling that falls from the trees like rain, that spreads into even corner and every second; a constant hum and burr from hundreds, thousands of hopeful little lives, emerging in caution from riven bark, from darkened crevices; from under broad, tough leaves; from cocoon and chrysalis. These are the true owners of this part of the earth, where the daylight is too bright for safety, too desiccating for life; the ones who live at night, mate and feed and die, all after the violet hour, all before the sun threatens with a new morning. The cacophony is endless, ageless; reaches backward and forward in time; and if we let our ears and our inner voice vibrate with them, then we are a part of the timelessness as well, and it's possible to understand and find accord with this place that we once could never escape. What are they saying? They're saying, "wait. wait and understand."
Where twisted oak trees bend over the path and reach obliquely toward light and life, filtering moonlight, splintering the pale glow into shards on the leaf-strewn nighttime ground, this is where we walk, torch off, one foot forward, breath withheld to sharpen our vision; what lies before us may move, may shift, may scurry, may leap; our path is not straight, needs no prescient course, makes no difference; maybe a little drunk? There is no destination other than a kind of satisfaction; the goal is an answer, a conclusion -- here's what's here, here's what isn't. There is a path, a kind of path, possibly only traveled by the deer that stood off across the line of bush and trees this afternoon, tails flicking; certainly few of my kind have walked here, and fewer still by night, and fewer still with no light and no destination. What is here? Nothing, and everything.
Come On Darkness
This is a song by Camper Van Beethoven, a gorgeous, hopeless song, a soundtrack for the chill and peace of night, and of death, and of sleep; we are leaving this world, for a little while, a little taste. Outside our tent the hum and bustle and calling and mating and killing goes on and on, swirls down into a distant echo, and even though our sleeping pad is thin and the desert ground is rocky, even though it is both too chilly and too warm, even though our pillow is our clothes for the week, in spate of all this we are going, leaving, slipping away, and the weight of the day is the weight on our eyes, and the song true, the singer gets it right: Come on blackness/Let me breathe you in/'Cause with this clattering and din we are calling you...
Come On Darkness