I like my wilderness the way I like my men.
As you might imagine, this realization came as a surprise.
The revelation occurred to me as we were on a five-mile hike across Palm Canyon wilderness just outside Palm Springs. Aside from the groovy grove of bearded palms soaking up spring water in the canyon with an accurate (if unimaginative) name, the surrounding hillsides and mountains looked all too familiar: parched and barren.
One mile in, burdened as always with our heavy water packs, Glenn and I crested a major hill. Hikers know the anticipation that builds, step after step, up an incline. Grand vistas are the coin of the realm and the biggest rewards are claimed on the highest summits.
The desert, however, lacks the funds to honor the arrangement in any meaningful fashion. Sure, it makes a token gesture of digging around for loose change in its pockets and along the floorboards of its dusty VW Bus. But after many weeks of this hollow charade, I realized I should just stop expecting anything better than the usual cactus-covered and stone-strewn wasteland – the visual payoff equivalent of a gross, sticky penny.
Then I started to wonder how the desert would show up as a person.
With every craggy crinkle and stony freckle of his topography on shameless display, I think of him as that gaunt, leather-skinned, loinclothed dude you might find on the final day of Burning Man. There he is, wandering around, looking for one last score before bumming a ride back to who knows where. Eternally half-baked from partying the night before, by day he turns up the heat in an effort to sweat out those toxins to make room for the next bout.
Like a hairless cat, there must be some appeal, you think. Otherwise, why would people seek it out?
Turns out, what you see is all you get.
Upon first meeting Desert, I imagined there must be some profound mystery or depth to this guy who had made such different life choices. His vast collections of mala beads and faded new-age tattoos suggested he at least had an interesting story, and maybe even some nugget of enlightenment to share.
Too soon, however, the rosy glow of romance was sanded away, revealing the embarrassing truth: I’d built him up to some dreamy ideal he was incapable of living up to.
One morning, I watched him dozing. His sprawled, naked form had again consigned me to a small sliver of our shared space. Scraggly stubble, dirty feet, and a bushy tangle of unkempt hair, he embodied indifference. And I recognized that was the best he had to offer.
Like a mirage, upon closer inspection Desert’s countercultural, too-cool-for-school image dissipated, revealing a vapid, self-absorbed loner.
This guy had lured me in with an aura of mystery imbued by asceticism. Hoping he would bestow some of his knowledge upon me, I sat and meditated with him. Patient and curious, I tuned in as he communed with the cosmos. The experience was simultaneously grounding and ethereal … yet insufficient.
Insufficient repayment for putting up with the lack of care or interest he paid to me and everyone around him.
I’ve met most of his friends, the smallest of whom he just leaves exposed and vulnerable in cruel repayment for their earnest dedication to him. Oblivious to their modest needs, he fails to provide a safe space for them and never stands up for them even when his more powerful friends openly taunt and victimize them.
The worst are the coyotes, a rowdy bunch of hard-livin’ devotees – picking fights, whooping, hollering and generally carrying on as they swagger from place to place looking for a bite and a good time.
Like clockwork every day, they assemble at dusk. Desert casually shrugs and tells me not to wait up before he heads out to carouse with the gang. Skulking back in silently just before dawn, he sleeps it off and wakes in time for his midday sunbath and meditation.
My favorite of his friends is the impossibly tiny and adorable Kangaroo Rat. Sadly, reduced by his fervent loyalty to Desert, he risks predation to scavenge peanut crumbs out in the open near my campfire. Roadrunner is another casualty of Desert’s callousness. I recently found him with an injured foot, limping across a hot expanse of stones in a pitiful search for his next humble meal. Also, most days, a group of Gambel’s Quail swings by. These tweakers rush past on blurred legs along winding routes, chip-chip-chipping thanks to Desert for the meagerest vegetation as they duck under it to avoid attention from ever-circling Hawk overhead.
With reluctance, they each acknowledged the harsh bargains they had struck with Desert. When I suggested they should leave him for kinder company, like many others stuck in a one-sided relationship, they feebly explained the desert wasn’t really as bad as I made him out to be. Besides, they didn’t think they had any better options.
Oh well, I tried.
One thing Desert has going for him is that he does know how to give a girl a great sunset – quite reliably, if you know what I mean. But even that gets old after a while.
And don’t even get me started about how he is during the day. His heat is relentless. He just doesn’t know when to take a break. I like it as hot as the next gal, but come on. Would it kill him to show a little variety and chill for a while?
It is also true that I never really knew silence until I met him. I don’t mean the quiet you get when you’re at home alone. I mean the utter silence rivaling the complete vacuum of outer space. That’s definitely something he’s got going for him in my book.
But like everything he does, he takes it too far.
After seeing him exclusively over the past few months, I realize how much I miss the sounds of those other guys from my past. The way Forest whispered in the wind, for example, never failed to send shivers down my spine. In spite of many flaws of his own, City always told the most interesting stories. Even unassuming Prairie sang to me with birds, crickets, and buzzing bees. With any of those guys, once you layer on some rugged terrain, the musky scent of pine or fallen leaves, and a river cutting through them, I completely melt.
Many of my friends expressed jealousy when they heard I was seeing Desert. They raved about how hot he is and how much they wished they could spend time with him. Clearly, I’m missing something because there’s absolutely no way I could settle down with him.
They see a mysterious hipster.
I see is a sunbaked, narcissistic has-been.
Desert hasn’t been shy in his overtures – he wants to get serious. But his stoic quietude and ooh-baby sunsets can’t carry it all. We’re just not compatible. No matter how hard he tries, deep down I know it’s not meant to be. Haven will not be in a desert.
I’ll be spending a few more weeks with him, so I plan to break it to him gently. Despite how things turned out, these past few months have been a good experience. I know I’ll always look back on the relationship fondly.
And Desert? He’ll be fine doing his own thing as he always has.
Considering all the others I see bidding for his attention, I’m sure he won’t be wanting for company – that is, if he even notices I’m gone.