All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and Jack I have become — or Jill, as it were. So I do what any sane, self-preserving person would do. I bolt. Yes, in the midst of holidays. Yes, much to the chagrin of those who love me (or think to possess me), and yes, I venture out alone, giving rise to much well-meaning hysteria. Two friends watch me pack. They chide, “A woman, alone in the desert, without a solid plan, destination, or hint of civilization?” With a grin of anticipation, I boldly respond, “Exactly!” Truly, they are making it sound even more adventurous. I haven’t even left yet, and I am already fighting off a pack of coyotes and eluding a deranged desert killer (like there are a lot of those around). I say, “If a deranged killer is so anxious to stalk me to the middle of nowhere, hide in the prickly bushes, and watch me take a cup bath in the desert sunrise, by golly, I think he has earned his front-row seat.” My friends gasp, and counter with hushed voices, “But he will be there to rape you.” I zip up the last bag and push past them. My last words: “If he waits a couple of weeks, I’ll probably offer him tea.” Sensibilities shattered, they acquiesce into silence. I know that last line will get back to my lover, but I doubt if it will give him any ideas because (a) he’s not that adventurous, and (b) he would not take time off work to play such a ruse (a sad thing from my perspective). He’s a company man, while I am, for all intents and purposes, a nomad, a gypsy, the last of a dying breed.
The naysayers will always exist, but were I, and the risk-takers before me, to have listened, there would be no art, no music, and no great discoveries. I daresay there would be but a pittance of joy. I place the last of the camping gear in the car, rationalizing that my departure and subsequent adventure will add spice to my friends’ conversations. It will give them a break from worrying about our collective economic woes. The irrational spontaneity of others allows them to feel stable and sensible. I am, in an odd way, fulfilling my duty of making my friends feel sane, by simply staying true to my nature.
While my loved ones are sipping lattes, conversing over swine flu casualties, and shaking their heads over my obvious loss of common sense, I am moments away from my first stop. I turn from 8–East onto S–2 North. I pass the Lazy Lizard and am happy to see it still standing. Two years ago, on another great escape east of here, the bartender made me a hot meal. It was the best beer and food I had ever tasted. The desert has a way of awakening your senses like that. I had stayed so long in the desert, that I’d run out of both food and fire. At the Lazy Lizard I was in heaven.
I drive a few miles north to a dirt road. A small sign reads: “Palm Springs 1.6 miles.” Many a tourist has scratched his head and gazed toward the mountain, no doubt thinking, “Could Palm Springs really be less than two miles away through that mountain pass?” Laughing at the thought, I turn onto the narrow, pitted road, drive as far as I can. I park and then hike deeper into the canyon. I set up camp near a stream, surrounded by palms, water reeds, and the cooing of mourning doves. Eager to see all that I can, I hike to the top of Whale Peak each day, hoping to glimpse the Anza-Borrego sheep. With the world so close behind, I realize I have not quite shaken it off. The first few days, my walks are goal oriented, and I am bombarded with streams of thoughts racing through my brain. This mind chatter is necessary productivity when I am in the city, but here, I see it as the distraction it is. I banish the thoughts one by one. After a few days, I find the carcasses of three mature male sheep near the manmade watering hole atop the mountain, in the crevice of the whale tale. Beautiful horns, weathered by sand and sun, are lying intact with the skeleton. The teeth, not being terribly worn, make me wonder whether the sheep died from a poacher’s small-caliber bullet. A light gun, easily carried, easily concealed, and capable of not too loud a sound. It is enough to kill, if it pierces a vital organ, but not enough to take the animal down on the spot. Thus these rare and coveted horns are taken, not by the poacher, but by the rightful owner, to decay with his bones in the sand. There are no female bones to be found, as their horns are smaller and not quite the trophy. I am saddened by my conjecture. My mind continues to relate my find with the ways of the world. “Let it go,” I command aloud in the echo of the mountaintop. For days, I struggle to still my thoughts and become present in the moment as experienced, to shake off the world.
I practice and I practice being still until one morning, five or six days in, I awaken to a quiet mind and no less than 40 Anza-Borrego sheep drinking from the stream outside my tent. I am…in awe and, thankfully, speechless. There is nothing but this beautiful event. I watch it unfold, silently, for what must have been an hour. After they have rambled on, I realize the greater event. I have connected their presence to nothing, not poaching, not to work waiting to be done in the city, or the world, not even to the hope of a camera. I was and am only here, right now, connecting to this world and all its stirrings. And I am stirred deeply within it.
Now I remember. This was the destination I was so anxious to get to. I am once again viewing life as a child. Joy is felt, not just held intellectually, but felt, in every cell of my being. Happiness moves in an instant, from the smile on my face down to my toes, like an electrical current. Beauty is experienced so deeply that it brings tears to my eyes.
For two days, I sit by the stream. I watch ants and quail. On the third night after finding the sheep, I pack. I don’t recall deciding on a destination. I let my gut direct me. As I drive farther north, I feel a warmth at the sight of Butterfield Ranch. There are Christmas lights and weathered stagecoaches. Where holiday decorations had stirred stress and long to-do lists in the city, I now see only beauty. I pull in, pitch a tent, and drop some money into the honor-system box.
The next morning, I am awakened by the familiar coo of quail, a wild turkey, and a roadrunner from under the trees. My heart is still aglow, and I am still at peace. As a bonus, I have a renewed appreciation for the hot water that flows out of the tap. I wash the dust from my body in my first real shower in over a week. I have lost count of the days. This is a good sign. At first I think I am alone here, as no one joins me in the hot tub. I restock my supplies at the small store, and for four days enjoy the perks of semi-civilization, virtually without company. But like the creatures of the desert, the humans that dwell here have a similar way about them. While swinging on the swings and lost in the clouds, I am joined one day by Will, a musician here on retreat. Few words are exchanged, but an exchange of smiles says more anyway. Our comfort in the stillness says we are from the same clan of humans. Then, while seeking the quail in the predawn hours, I come across Ksenia, an Russian artist doing yoga. I quietly join in, and again, we exchange few words. These people who winter in the desert, before the masses come in spring, are not unlike Anza-Borrego sheep. They are an eclectic group who appear and speak only when stirred from within to do so. If you are at peace, you may run into them, or they may be as elusive as the desert fauna. I am grateful to be around my own kind. This is the spirit of the holidays, the solace I seek. I walk the desert, barefoot and ever present, setting out in a new direction each day. Each evening, I soak up the pleasure of water. When my voice comes back, my desire to speak, perhaps I will share my experience with the bighorn sheep. But for now, I am content among these nomads, who, like me, come here to escape the city and its chaos, to simply be, and to find their place among the subtle colors and life of the desert.
— Valerie Sherrill