On the life lessons the desert southwest has taught me
I am most lonely in the company of others. I’ve found the opposite to be true as well, that I feel closest and most connected with people when I am alone.
People are always hiding themselves from one another. And often hiding from themselves as well. I am guilty of this. We all are. But in everyday conversations, I find it a painful ritual to unspeak my true thoughts and speak my unthoughts. So much of our communication is implicit, something to decipher or decode. Why can’t we just say what we mean? Why must we chase so many mirages instead? I suspect the answer has something to do with the fear of disappointment. The fear that behind the curtain of good humor lies an empty stage of despair. That we are less than we appear to be.
I’ve never made a petroglyph, but I understand the impulse. Out in the desert, I etch into the stone of my mind things that caught my eye in everyday life: An awkward moment in conversation. A certain look. An unexpected smile. A little peek behind the curtains and costumes of our daily theater. I hold onto these images like still life paintings. But life is not still, and in the moment, it is hard to hold onto signals through the noise. These flashes of what lies beneath most often come to me when I’m expected to speak. Decorum dictates that I finish my sentence, and move on to the next. Expectation pushes reality past me, further out of reach, and I feel like a weary traveler arriving at the platform only to see the train sailing out of the station. Loneliness sets in. No sense in chasing that train. You’ll just have to wait for the next one. There’s plenty of small talk to be had in the meantime. I’m good, how are you?
I feel overwhelmed by the show. The lights. The noise. The whole production of our daily dramas. Of having to remember my lines, play my part, and interpret the performances of others. Of having to audition. It is too much, this theater of abundance. And I tire of it.
The desert has little of this. It is quiet and still and big and empty. It’s desolate, with the only superficial signs of life being scrub and crust. Promises of abundance aren’t tolerated. If it looks too good to be true, it is. Naivete will kill you. Find yourself thirsty, and a glib belief in the presence of water just around the corner will desiccate your existence in pursuit of it. That’s what mirages are. Pray for water instead, and your wish will be rewarded by a torrent, a flash flood in a dry wash pulverizing you with the reality of your unearned reward. So it is in deserts. You die either by thirst or drowning. Survival depends on expecting little, listening much, and searching for what is rather than what seems.
There are no canned experiences to be had in the desert. No wildlife safari tours. No Old Faithfuls. The desert is a teaching landscape. It is not a telling one. Its wisdom sits in places, not in words.
Its rivers flow underground. The Mojave’s Amargosa River emerges and disappears and emerges. It doesn’t behave like a river is supposed to. But you can find what’s going on beneath by looking at the subtle clues from above, the context of rock, the subtle shades of plants, signs of life bubbling up through the rocks from some vast underground sea moving slowly through time.
Water in the desert has to be found. It can’t be granted. But when you do find it, it’s worth every drop. Water in America’s driest desert reminds you that a little bit is all you ever really needed, and that all you needed was the only thing worth ever wanting.
In the desert, I have felt the closest to the people in my life. It is an inescapable physical reminder of just how much wonder is hidden from view. The freedom from noise and expectations makes it the only place that I’ve ever felt fully able to listen, to look at the context of my own life, search for the subtle shades of color disclosing the existence of an oasis. It is the place where I am finally able to develop those still lives in my mind and hold them clear in focus. The noise and the lights and the production are all gone, and I am left alone to cut through the fog of petty impulses and vain agitations, to see what was obscured and listen to what went unsaid.
The desert reminds me of this wisdom daily. I look to those desert peaks surrounding Las Vegas like compass points in my own life. They remind me that the surface is bleak, that the world is indeed harsh. They remind me to expect little and appreciate much. But they also remind me that almost all of life’s beauty is underground, ready to emerge from beneath the surface when the conditions are right. They remind me to be patient. They remind me to not pray for rain, and not to chase mirages, but to search for springs and cherish their existence when found.
In such a world of low expectations, reality can become wildly enchanting. A sparse land with almost no rainfall can suddenly spring to life in a tableau of wildflowers, grand spreads of color in super-blooms across an entire valley. And then when you come back to find them again, they are gone without a trace. Once, as I was walking on top of a rock mound in Piute Valley, a coyote barreled out like a rocket from beneath my legs as I unknowingly stepped over its den. I’ve seen a single drop of moisture land on a piece of black soil crust, revealing the translucent shine of a tiny metropolis. As I sat by a campfire one night, a kangaroo mouse hopped up to me from out of the ether before vanishing back into the night. I’ve stood and watched a Golden Eagle surfing higher and higher into the sky on rivers of warm air, until dropping in to swoop across the valley without ever flapping its wings. I’ve watched desert fishes swimming out to the very edge of existence, tracking the boundary of a puddle where the water’s edge evaporates into a patch of salt. These are just snapshots of the life underground. Still lives. Moments that have shown me the vastness of what I’ve ignored.
I do not love the desert because I see great beauty in it. I do not. It is a harsh, forbidding, and bleak place. I love the desert because it teaches you that the most beautiful things live underground. The desert has taught me how to let it emerge in a world of low expectations. It has taught me that what is desolate may be fertile, and what seems fertile may be desolate. That perhaps my grim view of the world isn’t pessimistic, but just honest, and that it’s okay to be honest. The desert reminds me that it’s wise to be skeptical of mirages, however lovely they appear, and not to be afraid of lonely places, as they often harbor the truest company.
In life, I am often told to assume “good intent” from others. I do not make the mistake of following this advice, of chasing that mirage. The desert teaches you to search, not assume. In the desert, I encounter thorns first, but then I am reminded that a cactus also blooms. So, in life, I make it a habit to search first for someone’s lowest motivation — but not make the mistake of assuming it’s their only one. It reminds me to not fear the reality of things, but to adapt and find my way carefully — and gratefully — until some bit of life emerges from underground.
I don’t know what will come of humanity, whether we’ll burn ourselves out chasing mirages, or learn to build little fires and sit up close, or just build big fires and sit way back until we run out of wood. My expectations aren’t high, but the desert has taught me that critical distinction between expectation and hope. It is a land of low expectations and high hopes. As long as we let the dirt live, and keep the water in the ground, in this place, something beautiful will always emerge. We just need to let it.
The living deserts of the Southwest are monumental reminders of what hope, honesty, humility, and beauty look like when purified from the runoff of vain expectations. As long as its quiet skin can breathe, and its silent underground rivers can flow, the deep Southwestern deserts will remain a testament to the truth that hope is not a mirage, and that wonder need not come at the expense of honesty. They are expansive reminders to all temporary residents of this lonely planet that good company can always be found, even when it can’t be seen. I hope we never lose that company.
John Zablocki is the Southern Nevada Conservation Director for The Nature Conservancy.