Tonight on PBS, I watched an episode of Nature called “Life in Death Valley.” I was immediately taken back to my desert days and spent the hour cringing, laughing outloud, or tearing up. The title of this blog comes from a bit the narrative… anyway, I encourage all of you to find when this airs next on PBS ( http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/deathvalley/index.html ).
If you watch it, perhaps this episode will provide insight on my stint in the desert—why it took me nearly four years to stop carrying gallons of water in the back of the SUV or explain why I still run the AC in the car year-round. Also, it shares with you some of the beloved sights I was witness to— fringe-toed lizards, coyotes, roadrunners, dust devils, sidewinders, hairy scorpions, and migrating tarantulas. Maybe you will remember some of the stories I’ve shared…
Algodones Dunes, CA. 2002. JIG
I was 28 when I went to the desert. I’d done a lot, travelled a lot before I took the job. Yet, none of my life experiences up to that time could have prepared me for all that I would see and experience while working in that environment. Out there, my position at the top of the food chain was called into question several times, and by the end, I came to accept this. It’s a harsh environment and often, the other humans are the least of your worries.
The humans were, at times, scary. The first night, a guy at the gas station asking me if i was alone— I lied and told him my husband was back at the hotel. His response creeps me out to this day “Oh, good cuz women have a way of coming up missing in the desert.” WTF? I remember finding a hotel room, sitting down on the bed, shaking. I called Scotty but in the end, I was too proud to ask if I could come back to Texas.
After my first night, I squared my shoulders and chose to stay. A basic personality trait, I made a committment and I was going to see it through. The challenges would make me a stronger. They would provide me with a greater sense of self through long days in an extreme environment, alone without friends and family.
As I was the only woman on the project, the Border Patrol agents quickly added me to their watch—something I was sometimes annoyed by but always very appreciative.
A lot happened to me out there— psychologically and physcially and these events altered who I was. I’ve often joked that I placed myself into exile by taking the biologist post. True enough. But what about all those wind-swept sunrises perched atop the Chocolates? Six years later, when I long for peace, I frequently evoke the silence I knew during those big sky days.
The Chocolates. JIG 2002.
I have dozens of stories regarding my time in the desert….some funny, some not so funny. There are two that I think about most often—and when I do, I move through the emotions, more quiet, thinking… and then, like a dust devil that would spin up and then disappear, my mood lightens and I feel a surge of strength…
Strength of an Ironwood
I arrived in the desert in mid-August. One of our first tasks was to conduct a tree survey along the alignment using a GPS unit. We left a car at the starting point and another one at our end point. It was an incredibly hot day— over 100 degrees (and climbing) by 7 am. I was with two other people and we didn’t have enough water to get us through the six mile tree survey. It didn’t take long before we were disoriented (even with the GPS). I walked over to an ironwood tree, crouched down, hoping to get a bit of relief from its sparse shade. The guys were arguing— and as we sat there, I had this thought— I am going to die out here. Not today, but one day. I felt trapped in my life and overwhelmed by it…and that I may well have been propelling my own demise.
After half an hour or so, the guys stopped arguing and we began to walk. We came to a tree and realized we’d misplaced the GPS unit. We walked back, attempting to relocate the GPS unit. We never did. Angry and accusatory, the guys led the way back to the starting vehicle— we were less than a mile from the end point when we turned around and walked back to the starting point. One of the guys drove us back to the hotel where I spent the next several hours vomiting in my room.
Months later, in February 2002, I went out to re-do that original tree survey. By late afternoon, the air was still a bit cold, and the sunlight hit the landscape in such a way, I was distracted by its beauty. I had chosen to be there. I was present in my life—walking a bit in circles, on purpose, feeling in love with my life and my surroundings, when I came up to a tree. The sunlight golden upon its branches, the beautiful blue sky behind it. I walked up to it, began measuring it, and then, I looked down and I burst out laughing. There, laying under its branches was the long-lost GPS unit. My laughter carried, my lungs filled with the creosote-scented wind. I laughed until I had tears in my eyes. Then, I stood back and took a picture of the tree. A large print of it hangs in my bedroom.
Ironwood Tree. JIG. 2002.
A Purposeful Life
About a month after I took the biologist job, I was sitting on a canal on the outskirts of Blythe, CA, starring up at the chocolate range, the sun fractured into beams, streaming across the mountains and the desert pavement. I was waiting for my crew to arrive and I was singing to myself—a Sarah McLachlin lyric, ‘hold on to yourself, this is going to hurt like hell.’ I remember laughing— what a dramatic lyric, kid, for such a heavenly sight. And then, a work truck came barreling down the road— screeched to a stop in front of me. An inspector friend said “Hey, you hear from your sister this morning? I think I’d better get you back to your jeep.” It was the morning of 9/11.
Tuesday morning calls from our perspective coasts were our ritual. We’d been working on rebuilding our relationship, learning who we’d be for each other in our adult lives. She’d call from the WTC plaza and I’d be poking around on some ROW in the middle of nowhere. No, I hadn’t heard from my sister.
I went back to the hotel and locked myself away, ignoring the knocks at the door. During the hours I spent vacillating between tears and stony calm, I came to understand—While I couldn’t change the event of that day (or any other day), I had the ability to accept the consequences. I waited there, sitting on the edge of the bed, watching CNN for nearly 8 hours. And hurt like hell, it did. I felt as though my heart had been ripped from my chest. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t know what I’d do if she was dead. Finally, my cell rang and the reception was horrible—but I heard her voice. She told me she loved me, she was walking home through Manhattan, and that I shouldn’t be scared. (I’m physically safe…and she’s telling ME not to be scared. Incredible). That day and the following few days were scary— we were so isolated out there, it felt like it was the wild west–the whole world was upside-down and being in a remote location made it all the more wild.
After hanging up the phone, I went with two friends and bought alcohol (while others where buying supplies like the end of the world was coming, we were buying hard liquor) at the only grocery store. We drank until we passed out—the three of us curled up together on his bed, like children, afraid, riding out a thunderstorm. It remains the only time in my life I’ve consumed alcohol with the sole purpose of passing out.
JIG. 2001. Lower Colorado Desert; teasing rain clouds.
When I returned to the desert (the project was shut down for several weeks), I chose to return with a greater purpose. My life was my own and therefore, I’d better get on living it. I’d never lived in that kind of silence before—the sound of a plastic bag, snagged by a creosote branch, whipping in the wind sounded like a hundred horses running through a field. It was in this harsh landscape that I began to find myself, and through that process, I began to find peace— literally for the first time in my life.
I had moments of great fear and also extreme exhiliration. By the time I left, I knew who I was. I knew I could live a life full of love and peace, no matter the circumstances. A year or so later, a friend gave me a poem to read. The opening lines stunned me. It was a poem by Mary Oliver, Wild Geese, and it begins:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Ever time I read it, I laugh ruefully or tear up. For I did go to there to repent, to seek answers, to find peace within myself— and in the process, I did exhaust myself walking back and forth on the desert pavement—for literally hundreds of miles. In the end, what I found, most shocking— my place in the universe while precarious, it is secure— if I choose to live with purpose. I left the desert in the summer of 2002, after I’d received several signs that it was time to go.
Years later, when I am tired, weary, sleepless, and pause on a squeaky floorboard at Wildlands, I ask myself… are you living the life of your choosing, JIG? Are you the woman—the sister, the friend, the daughter, the lover—you want to be? In my mindseye, I travel back to a ridge top on the Chocolates, my perch, a crisp December sunrise before me. My body chilled to the bone, stunned by the beauty, I nod— I live the best life I am able to craft, propelling myself— now and always, at peace— for I have refused and continue to refuse to live less than I know is possible.
And as with most things I want to put out to the world, I will end in humour, tucking the seriousness and pain away in my pocket. This is a picture of the flat-tailed horned lizard, a CA species of concern. I like this little guy— a lot. Their ability to lie completely flat in the sand, coupled with their markings make this species quite cryptic. The photo of him— I was quite lucky to catch this before he split—this individual was quite small, perhaps 3″ in length.
Their diet is composed of ants so their scat is easily recognizable—crumbling crunchy exoskeletons. When they get freaked out, they can squirt blood out of the corners of their eyes. On one occasion, I found myself giving a training to a group of day laborers, just over the border somwhere between Yuma and El Centro. I provided each with an information card on the lizard in addition to their environmental booklet. One guy waved his card at me and said “hey, Jenny! In Mex-e-co, we eat dis!!” I laughed and said as seriously as I could “Yeah, really? Well, don’t eat them here.” I am so gullible.
Along the CA/Mexico border. 2002. JIG