I have developed a bad habit of trying to make time on the road, trying to get camp pitched before dark. A road trip or a long weekend away in nature is supposed to banish anxiety, but I have a habit of channeling all of mine into timing. It’s been beaten into me.
And yet, I never pack on time, so I never get out the door on time. Not even for a three-day weekend in Yosemite. Already feeling the guilt of taking one day off, paralyzed with unspent exhaustion and unable to pack the car in advance, I hit the road an hour later than planned.
It was the fourth day in April, and the campgrounds had just opened. I had not been there since I was eight years old, and we spent most of that trip outside of the valley. Coming up from Fresno, I was so proud of myself for making it to the park entrance just after five, blissfully ignorant, as my GPS ran aground, of how much further I had to go on this one winding road.
The silky velvet blacktop twisted, tangled, ahead of me, and only me. No ranger manned the station, no one was on the road. The road glistened, wet, and the higher I climbed the higher the snowbanks tunneling my route grew. And the trees… I miss them more than anything else, living in Southern California. I will never understand what the appeal of a hike in Santa Monica mountains could be, without a forest that turns dark as night in the right shade of the full sun.
Whenever I passed a clearing, I saw only clouds. They were large, menacing, and ahead of me. I prepared every moment to meet a thunderstorm, but it never came. It was apparently heralding my arrival. I drove at the speed of the swift-moving rain giant ahead of me, right in its clear, sunny wake.
The tall, tall evergreens and the low angle of a triumphant evening sun, so proud to get one last word in on this day over the clouds, made magic through the forest floor. The sun only broke through in spheres of all sizes, like driving through floating bubbles of light, as it wove through the canopy. I dodged the light and shadows, swerving left and right and left in rhythm with the S-turns and switchbacks, through a sieve of dappled sun.
I felt like King Midas, but that with every touch of gold I had more gold to give out to the world. I gathered as many of the brilliant spots of light as I could.
It went on impossibly long for an early April evening. I must have been driving an hour-and-a-half, past magical Mairiposa Grove, snowed under. Past an old timey Victorian hotel, abandoned. The sequoia groves blanketed my dogs and I safely as we embarked on a first for us: solo camping - one human to handle two Central Asian Homefront Defenders. I made a note that we should camp in the redwood groves next time, just as we had when I was a kid, making stew out of acorns, leaves, pine needles, and bright red bark with our cousins while our dads set a gas lantern hanging on a redwood bough up in flames. This was something familiar, something cozy and comfortable in an uncertain life, yet still an adventure.
Then, a tunnel. I snapped back through reality’s portal, back to executing our time-stopped plan. Sunglasses off, confirmed. Headlights on, confirmed. Right lane, here we go. The sudden darkness was enough to jolt me out of my flowing, dreamy ride right back into action. I approached the exit. Sunglasses accessible, confirmed. Headlights off, confirmed.
Then my breath ceased completely. All thoughts ceased. What plan? What timing? What reservation? I had to force myself to focus enough to check my rear view mirror, slow, blinker, and turn off across traffic to the left. I didn’t even bother with my camera, but I will never forget the sight as we entered the mythic valley at dusk.
We left at 5:30 a.m., passing a bobcat before sunrise in Mojave Trails National Monument, to make it to Escalante’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Inter-agency Visitor Center before closing. We made it, and, still shaking from nine hours on the highway, I rehearsed my planned series of micro-actions that would settle me into this vast landscape I’d wanted to explore since I first saw it miles beyond the Bryce amphitheater.
I’d heard that the rangers at the visitor center were crusty and unhelpful. Ever since the national monument’s boundaries were nominally reduced, along with most of the park staff, rangers allegedly took a “figure it out for yourself” attitude toward the many hidden gems in the park. I prepared to negotiate.
Happily, my designated forest service employee was a kindly, talkative older gentleman with the bearing of a slightly svelter Kris Kringle. I mentioned that I planned to camp in Lower Calf Creek Falls, but he advised that Escalante’s Petrified Forest State Park would be warmer, with more amenities. Lower Calf Creek Falls was already winterized, with no water, meaning no flush toilets. Always one to plan the dive and dive the plan, with unparalleled pit toilet experience and utmost faith in my Accuweather research, I brushed that suggestion off, and moved on to my gem-hunting itinerary. What hoodoos and slot canyons could I get to with dogs?
Long Canyon slot. It’s 11.2 miles on Burr Trail in Long Canyon. Right off the road. There’s a turn-out right there, at 11.2 miles. Set your odometer. I confirmed this, cross-referenced it with the numbers on my map, and saw that Burr Trail appeared to be the natural extension of Scenic Route 12, which instead twisted 90 degrees up through Boulder. Long Canyon slot was many things - beautiful, accessible, and 11.2 miles in, but not marked. I found myself listening to people saying things like “it’s easy, just…” so I asked for clarification. Were there any other markers that would let me know I was in the right place?
“It’s where the rocks turn red,” another ranger piped in. I could not tell if she was being serious or dismissive, but it didn’t matter. Those were directions I could work with.
We pitched camp at the bottom of a canyon around dusk, and soaked up the surrounding orange as the sun set far above us. The ground turned from pasty to coral to the color of blazing hot coals, creating deeply phthalo blue shadows. I checked the forecast on the campground’s bulletin board, and it was chillier than expected by about 20 degrees. So much for my research. Curled up for bed, I lasted 45 minutes before the frigid air seeped through, and it was only 9 p.m. We bailed to the car, where my 43-lb dog woke me up to curl inside my mummy sleeping bag. The inside of the windshield froze with ¼ inch of ice, but we stayed surprisingly comfortable.
The next morning we set off on our mission to find Long Canyon Slot, up out of the frozen canyon and back onto the ridge that marks a spectacular scenic byway sponsored through the Adopt-a-Highway program by the Human Rights Campaign. Over Hogsback ridge we went, a rainbow of buttes and mountains to our left, and pastoral ranch land punctuated by otherworldly boulders from a giant’s castle on our right. Where the road bent left at the tiny town of Boulder, we continued straight. Straight into the largest, fastest, wooliest ram I have ever seen, barreling straight for us. A girl in an open flannel shirt sprinted 50 yards after him to no avail, losing ground as her oversized shirt tails flew behind her in the wind, like a living, moving statue of Artemis.
My two Central Asian shepherds seized their moment. Sasha, teeth baring, barked as loud as she could, snarling as the sheep approached. The ram caught her glaring eyes and sheepishly slowed, looking away like he got caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and turned 180 degrees to trot right on into his yard, then into his pen.
As a city-dwelling dog owner, 50 percent of my anxiety comes from fearing what people will say about my barking dogs, and I was mortified that this nice girl whose God-fearing ranch people permitted my California plates onto their backroads would judge me. As we slowly drove past her, she had stopped, panting, with her hands on her heart, elated, thanking me and my dogs for sending her petulant sheep home. I was reminded that my backwoods shepherd dogs were built for this environment - this is the type of place they belonged, the type of work they were meant to do, and they, along with the ranchers, knew it.
She was the last person I’d see for four hours. The Burr Trail canyons were white, with striations that looked like someone doodled all over them in an office meeting, punctuated by an occasional conflagration of red hoodoos. Reading the designs was like reading shapes in clouds, a bird here, an arrow there, and royal crown of hoodoos. Old mesquite trees guarded the jewels like sentries. As we neared a winding creek, golden trees arced over the road to greet us in a precious colonnade of splendor. The brush along the road glowed neon green. Nine miles, 10 miles, then after a blind descent into a canyon we turned to the right to face spectacularly pure red walls. Long Canyon Slot, where the rocks turned red.
I watched my odometer while keeping an eye out for a turn-off, and imagined what a short 20-yard trail to a slot canyon might look like. Nothing at all was marked on any of my three maps - one topo that I’d purchased myself, and two from the Visitor’s Center. Yet, here was a pull-out, leading to a cattle trail into the creek, with orange banks of clay abutting the steep outer face of a canyon. If there were an entrance into those walls, it may be our slot canyon. I left a howling dog in the car while I investigated, walking what was actually a very well-maintained hiking trail along the creek. The scenery was so beautiful, but pastorally lush rather than stark and rocky. I continued a few hundred yards, checking every nook and cranny in the orange bank of 12-foot high clay, to no avail. Returning to the car, I decided to continue another mile or two, then backtrack.
Not a quarter mile later, a sliver of light bust through the solid wall of redrock on our left, illuminating a turn-out. I pulled over, grabbed my camera equipment, and ran into it. The angle of the sun had just begun streaming into the narrow slit of rock, and it illuminated the walls, ground, and two or three bushes through a prism, so that everything glowed in an otherworldly kind of way that you can usually only find in artificial stage lighting. This, however, was full-spectrum. My footsteps echoed on the soft floor as I stepped gingerly, reminded of the hallowed entrance to the Batu Cave temples near Kuala Lumpur. I wondered whom I should worship, and I supposed it would be the light. Looking up at it, I felt as though nothing were between me and the face of the sun. I felt compelled to speak to the canyon, which was warm and welcoming, bidding me to sit and stay a while to notice the way the light shifted.
It was shifting fast. I walked in, I walked out, using different lenses to capture the magic, checking my voice to hear an echo, pausing gratefully in wonder. And in minutes, upon egressing, thinking I had what I needed, but wondering if I should try another lens, I turned back at the entrance and the scene was flat. The light had risen beyond the canyon’s tiny portal, and Long Canyon Slot was again hidden from the road, blending flatly into the uniformly red, swirling rock.
Growing up in Wisconsin, I suffered terribly from lack of sunlight for several months out of the year. Only a good white snow could pick me up out of that funk. It reflected what little light there was from above, and most often I was out in it doing something that got my heart rate up. I’m pretty sure those snow-fueled endorphins powered me through so many midwestern winters. It’s the prospect of easy access to playing in the snow that allows me to consider going back.
There is a myth that snow is just a fluffy white medium through which to glide on various sports equipment, that it unfailingly packs to make snowmen and snowball fight ammunition, that anyone can build igloos, and that snowshoes let you walk on top of it. These are simply not true. In fact, there are many kinds of snow, and knowing them makes the difference between recreating on top of it or under it.
Posthole Snow: Crusty snowbanks are perfect for a higher vantage point, right? Think again! You can clamor happily along them like Paul Bunyan over the Appalachians, then all of a sudden, thunk! One foot goes through and half of you is up to your hips in snow. Here the only agility that will serve you is your brain, as you quickly work out which method will most swiftly and gracefully extract your buried half from its sink hole before your friends notice. You may be lucky to find a solid, icy patch on which to plant your other foot. If not, can you fold forward and drag yourself out on hands and knees? A cool second-best. Last month, in Yellowstone, my right leg sank so deep that options one and two were out. I had to sit on my rear end, slide backwards, and roll my entire body back to the parking lot. Key takeaway: Maximize your surface area on top of snowbanks.
Dense Pine Forest Snow: My first snowshoeing experience was at Trees for Tomorrow, in the North Woods. As the name implies, we were there for the trees. Although it was spring, several feet of dense snow remained in the forest, and with snowshoes we could avoid Postholing and literally run anywhere, trail or no trail. It was important not to get too close to the tree trunks, though, which warmed the snow enough to create soft and melty sink spots.
Mountain Ridge Snow: My next substantial snowshoeing experience was in Tajikistan, on a guided mountain snowshoeing hike north of Varzob. I intended to strap right into the snowshoes at the outset, only to gaze up from the trailhead at an entirely bare mountain face. Borrowing a friend’s caribeeners, I strapped the snowshoes to my daypack, and we hiked to the top of the ridge where we found all of the missing snow blanketing the other side. There was so much snow, in fact, that descending without snowshoes would have been impossible. We followed our seasoned Russian guide through switchbacks to get back below the tree line, on the knife’s edge of a steep mountainside that had spent all winter hoarding the snow meant for our ascent. There was so much of it, and the pitch was so steep, that at one point my Australian friend and I realized that the 6-10 feet of accumulated snow, on this angle, meant that if we fell through it we would easily sink several stories straight down until we met solid ground again. It was very literally like walking on a cloud. And it held us.
Ice Masquerading as Snow: Take the above, shrink the elevation and decrease the regular temperature 40 degrees, and you have perfect skiing conditions in Northern Michigan. I still do not understand what people from the Mountain time zone mean when they talk about powder. I learned to ski black diamonds on ice. We would leave hours before dawn to be first in line for a full day of skiing, and the cold never stopped us, even at 15 below. By the middle of the afternoon, the wind and ice-cold temperature set the bare runs completely to ice. My mom would casually suggest one, then Christie beautifully down the slope. Encouraged, I would follow, only to realize she was turning on vertical sheets of ice. I figured it out, too, and am still far more comfortable on ice than in this thing they call powder. I do not understand what to do when snow gets on top of my skis. What snow?
Faux Powder: Have you ever tried to ski in Virginia? They have this thing called powder there, in their mountains, and it is wet. It, too, is completely unskiable. After not falling for seven years skiing in Michigan, I found that I could not make it down a run without taking a dive at Masanutten. The snow looked like powder, but acted like melted soft cooler packs that wedged your skis onto the sticky surface. It was like skiing with 10 lb stationary weights. I still am not convinced this is not the elusive “powder,” but I’ll give anyone bragging about East Coast powder a very quizzical look.
The White Fluffy Stuff: For all my love of downhill, I was born cross-country skiing. A cheaper and more accessible sport, my dad would ski us to school in the winter, and take me through the nature preserve when I got home, to do a loop alongside the deer as the sun set. Once I could drive, I even went alone. Cross-country skiing looks like an amiable way to go from point A to Point B in the snow. However, someone has to set the trail, otherwise, depending on conditions, you may be slogging through some pretty dense precipitation. Without a trail, you want that elusive powder layer to add some grease to the skids, and you really want it on snow that has frozen to ice. Under two inches and you will fly. Over two inches and you will go less far and get more of a workout, but you’ll enjoy the day. Any wetter snow and you will be hosed without a groomed trail, but it can be done. The proof will stay with you for some time.
Beer Fridge Snow: After a day of cross-country skiing in virgin beer fridge snow, your muscles sore and aching, you will be thankful that the white fluffy stuff only comes 10 percent of the time when you open your back door to a fully stocked beer fridge, bottles packed into the wall of your back patio’s shoveled-out snow fort. This is the stuff that packs well enough to win the Giant Pumpkin Contest of Snowmen. This is what Frosty is made of. This is not “trek across the neighborhood on skis” snow. This is “have fun in your own backyard” snow, after some back-breaking shoveling sessions.
Even after living in Southern California for years, knowing how to spot these diverse ground-coverings comes as second nature. Equally important as the lexicon, though, no matter your level of expertise, will always be a sufficiently puffy outer layer to cushion any misfires.
Months after a trip to Death Valley, flipping through the book “Ansel Adams in the National Parks,” I came across his photo of Zabriskie Point. It’s the view 170 degrees to the left of the lens trajectory of those photographing Zabriskie Point. Seeing it requires breaking focus from Manly Peak’s photogenic spire. It requires doing an about-face in front of professionals who sigh and question your skill. “She’s an artist, not a photographer,” those who met me said as I swiveled. Ansel Adams took that shot - the shot at the backs of the Zabriskie Point sunrise photographers.
I shot the photo in landscape orientation rather than portrait, like he did, with the same sliver of perspective over the maroon tip of a wavy yellow rock formation, defying a compositional preference for thirds. I thought it was a nicely lit photo, despite the haze that trampled our sunrise, and that I might make a sculpture out of it using chicken wire and discarded fabrics.
A few dozen pages later, I saw the shot that I took of Devil’s Golf Course. Adams, again, shot it in portrait, while I shot it in landscape. We both crouched down to keep the salt flats in nearly the entire frame, leaving just a ray of perspective at the top to account for the vast mountains framing the valley, miles and miles and miles further on.
I can’t claim credit for this shot. When I pulled up with my dogs at the Devil’s Golf Course parking lot, another photographer was just making his way back to his Sprinter van. He suggested capturing he salt crystals from a low crouch. He also seemed to be traveling alone, and also had a dog. The inside of his van was immaculately instagramable, with a spacious, stylish futon that complemented Penny’s perfectly tied dog bandana. Glancing back at my jeep, I wondered how the dog hair in his van had vanished, and I wondered if my dogs and I could live that lifestyle.
I took a deep breath, I took my time, and I got the shot. It wasn’t quite so simple - I had to walk out a ways on glass-like salt crystals that cut like a knife, crouch low in an awkwardly balanced squat, manually focus, and try to keep the damn thing level. But I got it.
I couldn’t weigh whether reading this coffee table book on Adams in the parks influenced my photographs or not. I’d read it once before, during one of many feverish, food poisoning-induced, episodes in Tajikistan. I remembered very little, and it would be years before I purchased a proper camera, anyway, preferring until then to recreate my visual experience in paint.
But now, in California, Adams’ national parks shots were all of a sudden local, and I had a literal frame of reference. My heart lit up when I saw that Adams, also, used a close crop on random forest items, making leaves and stumps incongruously intimate on the floor of Yosemite Valley’s grandeur. He photographed what I’ve been collecting as reference photos for future artwork, crystallizing the artistic composition of foliage rather than re-doing it himself.
The campgrounds in Death Valley were all full, but nobody was on the winding road up to Ubehebe Crater. It last erupted as recently as 300 years ago, and I was equally impressed by the surrounding ash as by the kaleidoscopic volcanic crater itself. Only creosote grew for miles and miles, that prehistoric commune of bushes connected by roots. Only after a year in the desert can I sleep without sneezing when it opens its pores to sap up morning and evening dew. It grows beyond 11,000 years, and to this day it is the only plant to colonize the soil surrounding Ubehebe Crater.
Again, turning 170 degrees from the overlook onto the crater, I crouched low to capture miles of creosote in the charcoal landscape, as had Adams in 1952.
My tour of the Ansel Adams book ended with one final gasp. I was transported back to Zabriskie Point, where I watched the leader of a photo tour demonstrate how he used a filter to capture the clouds, turning them from debbie downers into polarized sculptures. I played around with it, allotting 1/8th of the frame to the horizon’s mountains. You know, they say your composition should be divided in thirds. But, on page 291, in 1946, in the same spot, Adams gave the frame to the sky.
She who dares… what, exactly?
I mulled this over for a couple slow-going miles on cross-country skis, singing and stopping frequently to announce my presence to the local critters. Contrary to my plan, I was the only one skiing to Tower Falls this early March day, and the grizzly boars had just woken up.
Wins. “She who dares wins,” was the phrase. But didn’t that leave out too much of life’s sexy nuance? If I won, then so what? And what did winning mean? I was reasonably successful at my career, I thought, but at the expense of several very personally important life goals. I was in Yellowstone to run from that definition of success.
Nevertheless, I kept coming back to “She who dares.”
I was certainly daring. I was traveling by myself, the park was mostly shut down to prepare for spring, and every single sign and piece of literature said you must hike with at least three people to be safe from a grizzly attack. The Bed & Breakfast that I stayed at in Bozeman lent me bear spray, and I felt invincible when I arrived in Yellowstone… until I saw bear safety signs, with their hikers in plural, everywhere.
After speaking with a ranger, checking the weather, popping by the only shop in town renting skis, and surveying the conditions in advance, I decided to ski the well-groomed trail to Tower Falls. The ranger recommended it, and noted that the first part in particular was a nice, non-treacherous, ski. I only took half of his advice on timing, though. He insisted the conditions were deteriorating fast, so I should go first thing the next morning. With flurries in the forecast that day, though, I bet on better snow the following morning. After visiting the trailhead and checking the iced-over grooves, my mind was made up. There were at least five cars at the trailhead. I wouldn’t get eaten by a bear.
Not so at all. The next day I was left, at 0930, after thawing from a sunrise photo shoot, utterly alone at the trailhead. I checked the snow - a perfect layer of powder over 18-36 inches of pure, groomed, solid, ice. My skis would fly. But, on the last day of good snow before things began to melt, not a single other human.
I thought long and hard about the bear guidance and the bear spray that I had made sure I knew how to use. All signs indicated that only one fox had been anywhere near the trail all morning, so I set off, figuring I could turn back if I felt uncomfortable.
I sang to myself as I skied, but nothing in particular other than “doo doo doo’s” and jingles announcing my presence coming up the hill. Only the little fox prints kept me company, right in the groomed ski tracks. That day he was to be my guide. We both started on the right side of road. When I saw an embankment that was too close for comfort, I moved to the left, and he moved to the left. When the tracks on the left got too icy, I moved back tot he right, and he moved to the right.
Eventually, I turned off course at the Calcite Springs overlook. I used every trick in the Nordic book to get myself up to the snow-covered wooden platform without post-holing in 6 feet of snow, and it worked. I was rewarded with a sight of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone that I was only able to see out of the corner of my eye two July’s ago, when I white-knuckled this same road through a snow and hailstorm. I vividly remember the sun greeting us as we descended below the clouds, and the shining yellow and red in the peripheral vision of my right eye, which I didn’t dare to stop and see. Here I was, entirely alone in this piece of wilderness, gifted that view all to myself.
From atop the overlook, on two feet at this point, I pondered how I got there. I could not think of many people I knew who would do this alone, and foregoing it would not be wrong. In fact, I knew very few people who would be able to safely get up to the off-trail overlook. Many had tried and failed, creating deep wells with their footprints all over the snow-smothered turnout. At every decision point I had, though, I muscle memory to fall back on.
I had run smack dab into a black bear with my parents, hiking in Shenandoah. I had rightly emptied a can of pepper spray on an assailant in Central Asia. I knew how I would react if attacked, and I knew how to distance myself from surprise. I knew I could detect the presence of other wildlife by their tracks, and I knew from walking my dogs that I was just as likely to see it before it saw me, than vice versa. I had grown up cross-country skiing in myriad conditions, so my snow analysis and balance were on point. I knew where I’d slip, and where I’d sink, and which was worse. And I knew not to discount the value of my poles, after I kicked off my skis, walking up the icy wooden steps. Without that cumulative experience, I never would have had that chance to reclaim this view of wilderness in commune, with no sign of manufactured humanity. Just another mammal checking out the view.
I thought about the young children in my life, and the struggles they will face. When they are presented with wild opportunity, will they be equipped to head into the snowy wilderness on their own? Or will they be coached to steer steadily away from danger? I realized that my shoulders could bear the responsibility to share this toolkit with a generation for whom it may be more effective to seek academic achievements through “shoulds” and apps. I made it to a serene precipice, and I could teach them how to function in concert with a very analog home planet.
Working my way back down to my skis, I realized that I got there because I dared. I knew that going alone was not a blanket right answer, even if all heroes’ journeys started that way. They did not all end in victory. I considered the risks, I considered my ability to overcome them, and I dared. And in that moment more than ever before, I heavily realized how clearly there was no right answer at all. There were only shoulds, and calculated risk, neither with any value judgement. The vast planet would spin whether we turned right or left, whether we lived or died, whether we created or destroyed.
Skis clicked in and back on the trail, I was pleasantly surprised to realize I had been going up the entire way to the overlook. Now it was time to reverse that, in the virgin powdered ice tracks on the opposite side of the road. I glided gleefully, speedy, wind in my hair, not even pausing to say hello to those skiing up the hill on the opposite side of the road. Yes, they did eventually arrive. But they were late, and that nice little sawdust layer of powder, like you find on some good air hockey tables, was gone for them. I still had it, and I flew.
“She who dares gets the best snow,” I said, aloud, as I came in for the finish.
If you grow up in the shadow of a perfectly circular Moorish fortress, can you ever truly leave?
Portugal is the narrow sliver of an empire standing watch on the edge of Western Civilization and the End of the World. When the Romans invaded, conquering Celtic lands, one river they reached, Rio Lima, was so wide, they could not see the other side. The soldiers were convinced it was the river Lethe, and the underworld was on the opposite bank. It took the general, crossing on his own, calling each soldier individually by name, to convince the army to follow.
Never mind that Portugal was actually a gateway out of the cradle of civilization for our species. In addition to making a home for several early hominid species simultaneously, our earliest consistent expressions of art are found there. End of the world, indeed.
From this littoral frontier launched armadas of half-crazed sailors, perhaps not unlike the Greeks in their skillfulness, to explore the unknown in search of riches. They were the first Europeans to circumnavigate the globe. Sitting on the shores of Lisbon today, watching recreational boats sail in and out of the straits, the baseline skills of the average sailor are still quite remarkable. It must be a point of pride for this tiny nation, who turned outward for power instead of inward.
And so it is that we find ourselves looking at farm real estate in the most interior of the interior of the country. You get the sense from Portugal’s history that its riches were predicated first on a counter-alliance with the British against Spain, then on the plundering resulting from its discoveries and exploration. Portugal does not seem to have grown rich from the tax base of its villages, unlike other European countries. While fealty certainly played a role, geography and geopolitics suggest instead that villages provided young men to crew tall ships to conquer the world and bring back gold, enriching the court.
Perhaps the persisting microeconomies in the countryside are leading people to leave again in times of economic crisis. The Portuguese have regularly been a migrant population in Europe, from the exodus of Jews to the South of France during the Inquisition, to the population of countries like Brazil, to the ports of Los Angeles, the whalers of Monterey, and the widespread housekeeping enterprises we see today in more prosperous Western European countries. From Portugal, people flee. And now, with an aging population, declining birth rate, and urbanization resulting from an infusion of tech investment, quintas stand empty.
The quintas in the countryside run along Roman roads, atop early Celtic settlements, the vestiges of which still remain with large vertical rocks popping up in the most unexpected places. The Roman roads today take you to the pilgrimage sites of Compostela and Fatima, or to the bakery, which in all likelihood is two villages over because the baker retired two years ago.
I don’t like the idea of repopulating an emptying countryside with foreigners bent on idyllic exploitation of another culture. But with the Portuguese being such enterprising expatriates themselves, it cuts the guilt a bit. In my family alone, we have a significant amount of inexplicable Iberian heritage, and a mystery birth out of wedlock. That isn’t to say that we have Portuguese heritage, specifically, but I let my mind wander when I was there.
I felt my grandfather walking the Roman road through the vineyards, and in the vegetable garden surrounded by fruit trees and chickens in sandy Alentejo. Standing on the edge of Belem, watching the sailboats tack against the wind to head out into the open Atlantic, I imagined my potential forefather fleeing a village to face the sea for the first time, then running rampant through North America. Was he afraid of the constant surf? Why was he so restless? Did he think about his mother when he got to America? How and why did he leave steady work on the docks for such a pastoral inland area? What made him, in a distinct possibility given what we know, a terrible human? Would his mother have accepted my great grandfather as her grandson if she knew? Would we be Portuguese today?
Home, a sense of place. That is what drew me to the desert and began to unravel decades of shoulds. What should home be? What should travel be? Don’t be surprised if I go back to discover more of Portugal, as a piece of my own home puzzle.
One of my biggest self-critiques of life right now is that I seem to have tapped out professionally. I can do a permutation of any number of things over the next couple decades, but I’ve done the number of things. I keep looking for opportunities for professional growth, and find that the leadership seminars and personnel crash courses never quite ring true. Do they ring true to anybody? I can’t say. But I’m not one to settle.
So I’m looking for something new. If you follow this blog, you know I bought this house to seek authenticity. If you talked to me two years ago, you would recall me seeking clarity. Now I’m looking to act on what makes my heart sing. My art mastermind program is helping with that. It has a strident recurring theme - new growth is terrifying. Absolutely terrifying.
Artists do it anyway. They make the work. They hang it on walls. They dress up in the “show wardrobe,” they put on lipstick. They show up at the opening. Then, depending on the mood, they stay and jubilantly chat the night away, or they run.
I’ve done both. I love a good reception. I love meeting new people. But with the wrong vibe, with my vulnerability on the wall, I’ve also ghosted as fast as I could. What, am I supposed to stand there smiling next to my piece while everyone else talks to everyone else because I’m the only one who came solo and doesn’t know anybody? See what I mean? That didn’t make my heart sing.
Yesterday I dipped my toe into something that I never believed I was “(insert whatever word you like) enough” to do. Since January, I’ve been painting rock faces, doing studies, using them as a tool to explore abstract expressionism, and then I watched Free Solo. I’m far from the first artist to be hit like a ton of bricks by that movie. But watching it right after drawing three iterations of the face of El Capitan really struck a chord. I felt like I knew how the face of the rock felt as it divetted in and out. And watching the film, I felt it was possible to walk forward vertically.
So I thought I’d get tactile with these rock faces. There is so much climbing in Joshua Tree, and I have many friends who have recommended it to me. But I haven’t rock climbed since I was a kid accompanying my ringer brother to the climbing gym, saying “I don’t have the arm strength” and playing second fiddle while he raced to the top of the wall each time. A few weeks ago I found myself clamoring up to the top of a rock formation to take (this) photo, and I thought to hell with it. By touching and feeling and maneuvering the rock face, I will be able to incorporate that into Abstract Expressionist Mark-Making.
I spent more money than is reasonable on a chance to learn new parts of the park, meet new people, and scramble up over rocks with someone who knows how to react when she sees a rattlesnake. Fittingly, we started off at the Rattlesnake Canyon trailhead in Indian Cove. And it was more than worth the money. For the first time in a long time I did something I’m not good at on purpose, and learned.
I pushed through fatigue, fear, and fitness. In a very uncharacteristic way, I executed on some physical limits when I hit them, remembering that discretion is the better form of valor. I sought tips on what I would need to do to improve. For the third time in as many months, I was told I looked fit (where did that Nicole go off to?). And I learned that it isn’t all in the arms. In fact, your four limbs are four points that are equally necessary. My biggest lesson learned: Put all of your weight onto your foot so that you don’t slip. As a former soccer player, for whom “arms” were never a thing, that was empowering.
I want to do this more. I know so little, and my muscle memory is so untrained, that this is an opportunity for growth. Who would have ever thought that I could find so much motivation for something I’m not naturally inclined to do?
I have a couple of these out-of-the-comfort-zone experiences on the docket. The reason is, I’m saying “F it” to waiting for groupwork or codependency. I’ve never liked those things anyway. There are perks, but existentially they feel like settling. I might rent a satellite phone, but I’m doing what makes my heart sing come hell or high water. I get no satisfaction out of 44 hours of my week. So I’d better damn well grow through the rest.
I’m sitting at my picnic table, watching a giant thundercloud roll across the north of me.
I do not yet have desert weather patterns down, at all. They are so foreign to me. How is it that at the hottest, driest time of year, there are monsoons? I thought monsoons were a tropical phenomenon. And what is a weather app’s batting average predicting those pop-up storms?
Yesterday afternoon I saw a giant cloud to the west. The apps said sunny. Nothing happened. Then at 11:30, just as I was laying down in bed, I caught a flash through my window. At first I thought someone was taking a picture, but no. Lightning. Some of the largest, most aggressive bolts I’ve ever seen. Something giant floated over from Arizona and took its sweet time blowing through.
It’s probably been a year-and-a-half since the dogs experienced a thunderstorm, so they felt compelled to defend the Homefront. I can usually calm them down with cuddles, which worked with Sasha, but Pippa was so distraught she couldn’t quite settle down. That meant that neither could I.
And it was hot. For fear of weather issues, I turned off the AC and closed the windows. For all the hours of thunder and lightning, though, either we didn’t get much rain, or I passed out after waiting for it and consoling the dogs. At 2:16 a.m. I woke up to calm. Time to open the windows. The rush of cool air that flooded my bedroom was such a blessing. For the first time in a few months, I pulled my covers over me and slept… for another few hours until the dogs woke me up for a spectacular sunrise, of which I missed half, because this made two sleepless nights in a row.
We got up at 8, I missed 9 a.m. yoga. I’m a little hot and cranky even though it’s under 100 so I’m typing this outside. The desert plants sure are excited about life, though. This morning, over coffee on my blessedly water repellant outdoor sofa, they released an incredible bouquet of beautiful scents over the course of an hour or two. It was unlike the normal smell of creosote, and I did not sneeze.
Maybe I’m getting used to this ecosystem?
When I started this cottage acquisition project, I decided not to allow anxiety to creep into the process. After all, buying an art studio in the desert is supposed to be a feat of whimsy. And I didn’t “need” it physically - I had a place to live.
I had been coming to Joshua Tree with the express purpose of surrounding myself with nature. I have always been fascinated, maybe obsessed, with the natural world around me. I grew up fantasizing about living somewhere with real live big animals, not just squirrels, crayfish, rabbits and robins. This was my chance.
But as an adult woman who knows about the perils of rattlesnakes and scorpions, could I still harness the whimsy?
I also don’t like bugs. In fifth grade, Mr. DuMez played Arachnophobia for the class as a sort of “bonus” - I didn’t sleep for two weeks. Bugs paralyze me. Oddly, I can justify spiders because they eat bugs. But creepy crawlies? I can’t be near them. Shortly after the arachnophobia incident, I went hiking with my family in the Smokies, kicking mud up onto my shins until they were caked for fear of mosquitos. I really don’t like bugs.
The bugs here can kill and maim, in very nasty, gross ways. My favorite Airbnb in Joshua Tree makes you sign a disclaimer about them, and I will do the same with my closest friends and family, no doubt. But I’ve always been tough. I own a pair of combat boots. I’ve been tackling The Great Outdoors since I was a kid.
Somewhere along the way I recalibrated to desk-work, believing that time behind a screen thinking and writing was a purpose in and of itself. Tell that to the owl, my advance team last night, who guided me to the house where I accidentally left the light on, then stood watch all night even after Sasha and I cleared the space of phantom intruders.
The Mojave Desert is the home of one of my very first pets, Lizabelle the Lizard. She was allegedly a Rainbow Swift, which I’m not sure is a thing, but I saw her doppelgänger on a trail in the park during my very first visit. We also caught a rare glimpse of a Fenec Fox, which is only diurnal during Spring, when the dens are so full of pups the fathers wander about during the day rather than deal with an overcrowded nursery. I caught sight of a desert iguana that trip, too, on a solo hunt for crystals, carrying a stick to ward off snakes in one hand and a gluten free beer in the other.
At the Mojave House, our animals are not sensitized to humans. It seems as though there were originally horses here - there is a hitching post, and the fencing accommodates stables. In the intervening years, however, symbiosis has reigned. I do not scare the local wildlife. In fact, quite the opposite. It comes up to greet me, its new compatriot in our cholla garden oasis.
When the roadrunner circles my jeep, he thinks, “oh, she likes red.” When he approaches my Dad, he thinks “you have a lot of work to do in this yard to make it perfect for me and my friends.” The rabbits are no less shy. They’ve moved from 5 meters to 20 meters out on account of the dogs, and Pippa’s favorite thing to do in the morning is to quietly watch them out the window while I try to sleep in. The desert quails, ubiquitous, always in a group, and today, noisy, are the most shy. The rat in my exterior water heater closet sits outside the screen door, watching me do a puzzle. When I sketch at night under the twinkle lights, kangaroo rats come within 5 feet of me just to introduce themselves. “Hello,” they say, “We live in the Creosote. Welcome!” I’ve been obsessed with these since I was little, since they hop and are so cute. Last month I literally sat on a ground squirrel sleeping under my chaise.
Maybe I’m an interloper, maybe I’m a guest. I hope the local wildlife takes to me. I hope they don’t think I’m not as committed to this patch of land as they are. Do they know I have a 30-year mortgage? God forbid they think of me as an Airbnb host from LA. I may not be here all the time, but I do care and I am helping. Apparently I fed some rabbits by re-potting Agave pups. They must have been delicious, although insufficiently pointy. They’re also a rare source of water in August. You are welcome, bunnies. I’ve purchased pointier plants from a nice lady at the Swap Meet.
The elephant in the room is the circle of life. I’ve been taking a “do no harm” approach to the wildlife. I do not want to use poison to kill whatever rodents are between my walls and my siding. I’ve taken great measures to relocate them harmlessly, especially since they are so damned outgoing and smart. I had live traps and cookie butter all prepped, but my last two visits I did not hear the mice. Instead, I heard an owl in our Joshua Tree, proudly hooting the night away. I thought I’d noticed owl droppings while picking up the yard. I had taken great pains to ensure mama rat (again, EXTERIOR to the house) could have her babies. Two batches (or litters?) of them have now come by to introduce themselves. It’s possible some have been eaten.
Here I thought I would be the keystone species, the alpha predator. Outdone by an owl. I may buy it a house so it sticks around… as long as it leaves the kangaroo rats alone.
Sasha, born a true desert dog, has established herself as a queen of the highest point on our property. That is her perch of choice from which she presides over our territory. Sasha’s perch is also where I watch the sunsets. I put a bench on the back patio, a bench on the front patio, but no place beats chasing orange flares across the sky like the highest point on the lot. I can see over the shed, over the roofline, over the fence. This is critical, because the Western and Southern mountain ranges catch the last rays of the sun very differently.
In the morning, the mountain directly to the west of me, our windbreak, turns orange like a persimmon. But before sunset officially kicks off, the sun issues a warning shot against the South range, the limit of Joshua Tree National Park, in a bright orange streak. It lasts a moment, and it happens in spite of the bright light of day.
Just when the flash disappears, a dip between two Western mountains turns gold. Is the sun setting now? Does sunset happen earlier if mountains block the horizon? Will the color make it over San Gorgonio? The sky isn’t pink quite yet, so maybe tomorrow will be stormy.
This is when doubt creeps in. Will we have a gentle pink fade through violet to blue over the West? Are there enough clouds to the South for the East to turn pink? Nothing is happening quite yet.
It is the wispy clouds to the Southwest that first blend to a blush. The doubt remains - isn’t the West side of the sky supposed to be the most colorful? Maybe we’ll settle for this.
Then suddenly, fireworks. From the Southwest, refracting magically from the invisible ocean sun-sinking, first to the opposite ends of the Eastern earth. Then, pink, magenta, orange, fire, gold, juxtaposed one-by-one on a perfect periwinkle, above the golden sinking of the sun over a masked sea.
On a windy day, this display tracks with cotton-candy cloud billows racing toward Arizona’s monsoon thunderheads, as if the pink clouds morph to orange morph to gold, shape shifting and carrying the colors of the sun with them like Icarus in flight.
I dance around the yard to catch it all as close as possible. I circle once, circle twice, is this a pirouette? To the West fence for the first signs of pigment migration, to the East fence to confirm if it really is going 360 tonight, then, awestruck on Sasha’s perch, twirling. The Western clouds are pink, it must be over. Now they’re orange, and they beautifully complement the blue. I’ll take a picture today and paint it tomorrow. Then, fire, like an after image of the orange on blue seared into my retina. I sigh, it’s over. But then it turns gold, a true yellow gold like the Oxus Treasure. Burning hot and bright then all at once over.
Purples, indigos, blues, fading to black. And a calm, giddy smile on my face, from Sasha’s perch. She likes watching sunsets, too.