I went nowhere. I saw nothing.
Nowhere was hot by day, sandy by day and night. Nothing was spectacular.
It all started in my car. The car started with a turn of a key. I drove on a whim. I had daymares as night came on—unsavory visions from the future appeared in my headlights.
I saw the kids from Forest Gump’s school bus. They wore the uniforms of park rangers at the small but popular national park I was headed for.
“Site’s taken!” they yelled, one after the other, as I walked phantom rows of tents and RVs.
Jolly camper dads and their frightful offspring joined in.
“Can’t camp here!”
They roasted marshmallows on pitchforks, snickered diabolically as I passed. Jenny was nowhere to be found, but there was a Gila monster the size of a black bear, swinging in a hammock.
“Site’s taken!” it hissed. “You didn’t make reservations online, did you, Forest? Did you, Forest? Did you?”
They all joined in together now, chasing me as they screamed.
“Run, Forest! Run!”
I snapped back to reality. I was back on the dark, desert highway of the present with white knuckles on the wheel. I guessed my imagination was right. The campsites were surely booked for months where I was going. No, that park just wouldn’t do. And I was nearly there.
I’ve never been much of a planner, you see. I’m spontaneous. Spontaneity is a fine quality to have, long as you don’t mind changing your last-second plans when it turns out that they suck. Long as you don’t mind roughing it just a little.
When you’re spontaneous, it’s best to keep a flexible schedule. It’s likewise best to act alone. Hours into the drive, my sucky plan foiled, I was thankfully all alone with time to spare.
I passed the turn for the park without slowing. I figured it’s a big country—there should be plenty of places to camp in it.
I drove on until I couldn’t see straight, having lost the ability to see bent already. Finding a nice field of cow dung, I parked and slept. I woke with first light, my vision restored. It’s a good thing, too. Dung aside, I was in pretty country. Canyon country.
I drove past castles made of sandstone, a wavy, groovy sea of color happening above and below. In time, I arrived at the headquarters of a location. Cornering the authorities behind the counter, I made known my intentions.
“I’m looking for a place to hike to and camp a few days, explore, take some photos, climb up onto this and that. What do you suggest?”
The rangers felt my question was a touch general, so I clarified.
“I haven’t done any research.”
I was given a map and a region to work with. Eyeballing topo lines with suspicion, I Googled around a little on my phone. I found bloggers had bloggered away many “hidden” marvels to the masses. Being of the masses myself, I picked one.
After coaxing rough directions from the rangers, I was given some soft advice: in this all-access age of Google, Twitter and what-have-you (my words—the rangers were rather more eloquent), an effort should be made to keep some special places a little bit of a secret anyway.
I agreed. Some places are too important for Twitter—take, for example, the White House.
I told them I’d be good, and by good, I meant vague. A blogger myself, I didn’t think it would be easy. As it turns out, I was wrong about that.
Before following a road to a trailhead, I organized my gear. First, I tallied the many luxury backpacking items I happen to own: delicious freeze-dried meals, water-purifying bottle, water-purifying pump, fancy water-purifying/flavor-and-odor-neutralizing drops, the finest sun lotion and bug spray, and a GPS. Then I tallied the only ones I actually remembered to bring from home: tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, stove.
Rather than complicate my life with comfort or variety, I bought enough peanut butter and jelly for eight meals, Clif bars and stale trail mix for garnish. For dessert, oranges gone bad. For breakfast, instant coffee—born bad. And iodine drops, just in case I ran out of fuel to boil water, however unlikely.
Reaching the trailhead, I combined the 20-some pounds of ragtag essentials with 20-some pounds of camera gear. I threw on my pack and sank into the sand. My start was late, but not too late to miss the hottest part of the day. Yes, everything was shaping up about as usual. That’s spontaneity for you.
There is no real trail to nowhere, but cairns (known in the desert as mirages) mark the way. There are also footprints in the sand. Sometimes I followed cairns, sometimes footprints, never topo lines. In fits of spontaneity, I just followed the desert sun. I learned a cow’s footprints aren’t so different from a man’s, especially if the desert sun’s high in the sky and a man is thirsty. I learned the high desert sun leads a thirsty man to impassible cliffs instead of water. I sure was learning a lot about the desert and its sun.
I overshot my destination by a mile, because I’m watching my figure. Backtracking, I found an aesthetically pleasing campsite, gift-wrapped in a fallen cottonwood that nonetheless provided little shelter from the sun. I pitched my tent there anyway, because I’m trying to save at the tanning salon.
Camp established, there was little left to do but eat PB&Js and see what the desert had to say. You know, explore, take photos, climb up onto this and that. That’s how I spent four days—from dusk till dawn.
The desert is a two-faced lover. The sun makes an effort—wears lipstick even when you’re alone in the dark, sweetly kissing the rock red each morning. Then it breathes hellfire down your neck the entire workday. The silence is nice until you realize the desert’s giving you the silent treatment. The breeze is nice until you realize you have sand in your every intimate crevice.
To cope with the abuse, I talked to the lizards that live in every rock. It’s easy to imagine rattlesnakes living in the rocks, too—so easy I saw them at every turn. I didn’t get a single photo though.
In the desert, the old rock itself can talk. It won’t shut up is the truth.
“Come up here friend of mine. I’m lonely up here with this big view all to myself. Yes, just a little higher now, that’s the ticket! Boy young fella, you’ve really got to see this—something to behold, sure is. Heck, you can even set your tripod on my old back if you like. I won’t mind, not a bit. Don’t be shy, now…”
At the top, it’s difficult to fully enjoy the view. The old rock is laughing pretty hard by then. The friendly juniper you used to hoist yourself up is long gone, and a cactus has taken its place. On the ascent, the rock was as hard as, well, a rock. Now it’s quicksand. The desert sun—in on every joke—is cutting out early. The good ol’ rock’s still chuckling as you look down, click on your headlamp and wonder how long it will take to crawl out of there if you fall. You figure about 127 hours.
But you play the desert’s crooked game because it’s the only game in town, and, by trying to kill you, it sure makes you feel alive.
Nights I read the final chapters of The Monkey Wrench Gang. Days I lived them. The Gang fled the Team in the depths of Ed Abbey’s beloved canyons; I fled the sun and biting flies. The Gang risked their lives for environmental justice; my stove fuel ran low, and my heat-baked jelly started to smell alcoholic. Soon the Clif bars, oranges and trail mix were gone, leaving just peanut butter and sand to chew on. The Team gave final chase to the Gang; I chased PB&S’s with iodine water.
Mildly starved yet hesitant to eat what food remained, I found ways to distract myself from hunger—small mechanical and scientific tasks like loosening a screw and testing local ivy for poison.
Sanity and sustenance at an all-time low and itchiness well above average, I decided it was high time to leave the desert. I packed up camp, said goodbye to the lizards I knew best and wagged my finger at a certain cunning old rock and its juniper-in-crime. There was no need to say goodbye to the desert sun just yet.
Getting to nowhere wasn’t so bad, despite my heavy pack. It was all downhill, after all.
Perpetually keeled over, I heaved myself uphill. I wouldn’t say I was moving slow, but a dung beetle may have passed me in the left lane (rolling a sizable ball of dung, no less). Later, finding myself at the edge of an unlikely precipice, I realized I should have followed him. The wily desert sun had pulled another fast one.
Nearly back to the car and mostly dead, I saw a young couple in the distance. They carried but light daypacks. They were clean. If they’d noticed the lizards, they weren’t talking to any. They seemed to be on the hunt for something spectacular, but they looked a little lost. I detected the welcome scent of spontaneity in the air.
A strange man with an enormous pack approached the couple. At first, it appeared he had no feet. On closer inspection, it was evident he was merely shin-deep in the sand, owing to the weight of his enormous pack. The man was covered in bites, rash and sand, and drank water the color of sand. His face looked as if it had been slow-cooked. Possibly he sported a peanut butter mustache; certainly he had a crazed look in his eye.
Eager for the word from somewhere, the man hobbled over and engaged the couple in conversation. He even told them how to get to nowhere.
The man babbled on about cairns, canyons and the desert sun. The couple kept a safe distance. Seeing they were skeptical of his directions, the man clarified.
“I got a little lost myself.”
That they seemed to believe.
The couple may have found nowhere, may have seen nothing spectacular, who am I to say? As I drove towards cooked food and clear water, swimming in a pool of conditioned air, I pondered whether I could even find my way again. If I could, I was sure it wouldn’t be easy. The desert wouldn’t allow it, nor would spontaneity. No, getting back to nowhere would again promise the vivid yet surreal drama one usually finds only in a dream.
I’ll admit the struggle was a hair unnecessary. It wasn’t really necessary to get lost and hungry and sick to my empty stomach from iodine. A planner wouldn’t have had those problems. The hike in and out would have been no tribulation at all with a light pack and GPS. Cooked meals and a shaded campsite would have made days in the desert more like days at a beachside resort. A planner may even have brought along a friend, rather than talk to the old rock and lizards the whole time. Yes, it’s possible if I had planned just a little I may very well have left the desert with my psyche in tact.
But it was the struggle that made nowhere a true dream destination. And writing this, I realize I could never tell someone how to find it. Directions to a dream? Now that’s just crazy. No, being vague isn’t going to be a hard trick. Keeping nothing and nowhere a secret isn’t going to take much effort at all.
You see, it’s easy to keep a secret when you’re so reckless and ill-prepared that you let the desert drive you to the dreamy brink of insanity.
Oops! I meant, when you’re spontaneous.