Escaping out to the high Desert in February


Weekend of 04, 05, and 06-Feb-2022

***Warning: Ben get’s philosophical and emotional in this one. Just… be aware that, for this blog post, Ben has effectively been replaced by a less capable Ernest Hemmingway, imagining that he’s adrift at sea in the Old Man’s boat…**

Racing shadows under moonlight,
Through the desert on a hot night.
And for a second there we’d won,
Yeah, we were innocent and young…

– “Miss Atomic Bomb”, by The Killers

The Mustang growled happily as it gulped the cold air. We tore through the wide open curves of the lonely desert highway, and reveled in the lack of anything resembling a speed limit this far away from civilization.

The night was cold, and the air was colder. Cold enough that I probably should have put the top up… but warm enough that the Mustang’s heaters could keep the chill at bay. My hands happily numb on the wheel, the wind cut across my face blowing the tears from my eyes, across my cheeks.

I was sad. I was crushingly lonely, and I was thankful for it.

Thankful to be myself, and to be here. Even if it meant being myself, and being here, alone.

I left town an hour or so past noon on a Friday.

The goal of the long weekend was to escape town for a while and disconnect as best I could… while reconnecting with the freezing cold of the winter desert. And, you know, maybe reconnecting with some outdoor rock climbing while I was at it.

I wasn’t holding myself to any lofty goals or detailed timelines, though… Which was good, since I’d originally targeted leaving the house a little before noon.

Instead, this was a weekend to get out, get some fresh desert air, and enjoy the quiet. I’d brought a few books, some interesting things to cook, and even stopped to pick up some firewood. I had tasty things for lunches, a 5-gallon jug of water, and a rough plan on where to camp. No computer, no expectations of cell signal, and enough time to easily drive and make camp before sundown.

I made camp a little bit before dark, with the sunset was still blazing across the sky. I’d stopped a few times along the way, either to appreciate the views or just to see something that I’d passed a dozen times before but never quite had the time to stop and see. This year is my year to go slowly and to appreciate the little things… and sometimes that means getting to camp a little bit later than planned.

But that’s fine – I’ve got my system down pretty well on my own, and without the complications of coordinating multiple people I can usually get everything set up, and my dinner going, within 15 minutes of choosing a campsite. That night was no exception, and soon enough I had my dinner heating up as I was building a small fire in the nearby fire pit.

I didn’t read, that first night.

I had my phone turned off, too.

I just… existed. I was as quiet as the hills around me, and simply listened to the fire crackle and the wind whisper.

It was harder than it sounds, interestingly. I kept reaching for my phone to write down some thought, or to look up some fact. I ended up tossing it in the tent; same with my book, actually. Both were sent into exile where I couldn’t lean on them for distraction.

It would be easy to distract myself from how I was feeling, and how obvious my solitude was, on a night like that. Cold, quiet, and… empty.

Deserts have an emptiness that isn’t as evident in other places. I don’t really know how to describe it, except that it’s empty in the the same way that the low humidity and lack of clouds can pull the heat of the day away startlingly quickly. You feel lonelier quicker, as if the heat evaporating takes any sense of companionship with it.

I slept deeply, once I did finally turn in.

The next morning broke bright and warm. Or… freezing cold at first, but quickly warming up everywhere the sun blazed down. I woke up slowly, stretched, and did some jumping jacks while breakfast heated up.

A quick and simple breakfast for one – oatmeal, sausage, and coffee. A cold glass of water to help shock my system into full burn, and a quick walk around camp to make sure everything was battened down tight for the day. Then, the late morning sun saw me driving toward Smith Rock and my adventure.

Frankly, being around the crowds at Smith didn’t help my feelings of ennui and isolation. I’m not saying it was bad, mind you! It was absolutely the opposite – Seeing all the climbers, and remembering all the adventures I’d had on those same routes, was cathartic for me.

Like bleeding an infected wound, it helped to just get it all out of my system. Remembering all the amazing times… and at the same time, remembering how quickly they’d flow into horrible times. The peaks and valleys, mirroring the high cliffs and steep drops all around me.

I hiked.

I walked around, and explored the ins and outs of the cliffsides.

I bouldered. I stopped, put on my shoes, and did short climbs up and long climbs around.

I stayed close to the ground almost the whole time – Fear was absolutely a symptom of the emotional purge that I was going through, and I was terrified of injuring myself and being left alone at the base of a cliff. It threatened to overwhelm me the whole time.

I’m used to that. I know how to deal with fear while rock climbing.

Fear’s a part of rock climbing, almost as much so as a harness and a rope. Recognizing that fear is simply our reptilian hind-brain thrashing against our intellect is one of the cornerstones of my activity of choice, and I loved it. Bringing that reptilian hind-brain to heel, and feeling the triumph of my conscious self over my instinctual self, is the greatest victory in climbing.

I acknowledged the fear, and like Paul Atreides in Dune I allowed it to pass over me and through me. I stayed safe, and didn’t push myself or risk injury… but I also didn’t stop, and didn’t unnecessarily limit myself. I stretched out, and enjoyed climbing.

(Ed Note: See the ‘Litany against Fear’ attribution at the end of the post. Interesting fact – This is the mantra that Ben repeats to himself before job interviews, or other big events!)

I didn’t keep track of how many routes that I did, but I do know that I tracked the Sun’s travel across the sky with an eye for when sunset would be.

I used an old trick that I’d learned – If you hold your hand between the sun and the horizon, each finger is approximately 15min until sunset.

I was still avoiding my phone – I used it for pictures, obviously, but I didn’t take it out for anything else. No clock, no google, no random messages on random apps… I continued to embrace the solitude, and simply revel in feeling here and now.

I made a detour past an area that I’d enjoyed climbing in the past – a section of Smith called “Pleasure Palace” – and was yet again reminded of previous trips. A couple, much older than I, was struggling up one of my favorite routes. One of them was on the route, and having a rough time of it… they’d broken their shoulder, I learned, and were still rehabbing it. But, again mirroring my own experiences, didn’t want to wait to fully heal before starting up exceptionally challenging routes.

I wasn’t jealous of the partner left belaying, who had to listen to the stream of frustration about how the rock wasn’t fair and that this route was horrible. Nothing about their own injury, of course… or how much they were setting themselves back by over-using an injured limb… though I do give full credit that they finished the route out as I was hiking away.

The sun started setting.

I’d easily made it to the summit of the Smith Rock cluster before the sunset really started taking, so I decided against enjoying the views from the top. I was a bit impatient, and I could tell the true sunset was still at least 20min away… and more over, the summit block wasn’t as lonely as the rest of my hike had been.

There were maybe a dozen people, and I had actually been tempted to join them. Partially for the comradery, but partially because of how amazingly still many of them were. I’ve gotten so accustomed to people taking infinite selfies, or even having someone else take their picture modeling one product or another, that I actually stopped just to appreciate how everyone was just… sitting. Watching the sun.

I followed their lead as I hiked out.

The sun set behind me, and as I got to a lovely small bench I just stopped, put down my pack, and sat.

I didn’t time it, but I’d guess that I sat there for 20 minutes or more, just watching people hiking out and watching the sun dip and the sky blaze. Blue turned to orange, to red, to purple, and then to black before I picked up my bag and headed back to camp.

I’d planned to go back to camp, when I left Smith.

I didn’t. I passed the turn off, and turned the music up. I drove.

I was listening to “BattleBorn”, by the Killers… specifically, “Miss Atomic Bomb”. The lyrics have always spoken to me, but tonight was more. As my friend Daniel reminds me pretty regularly, it’s perfectly logical that The Killers resonate with the desert… the band is from Las Vegas, and somehow their music carries the feeling of the desert air with it.

That night, it carried a bit harder than it had before.

I kept driving. My hands went numb from the cold, but it wasn’t a painful numb… it was the cold numbness that comes after you’ve felt all you’ve needed to feel. It mirrored the tears in my eyes, and the salt tracks across my face that the wind was leaving.

When I finally made it back to camp, everything was right where I’d left it, waiting for me. I split the last few logs to make sure the fire got going quickly, and I stretched out. I ate, I finished the last of my dinner, and I embraced the night.

I read my book, that night. It wasn’t to distract myself though… it was a reward for coming out the other side of my mini spirit quest, as the fire burned brightly beside me.

Sunday morning dawned even more bright than Saturday – and it felt even warmer than the day before had. I’d had a nightmare that evening. Or… maybe there really had been coyotes screaming alongside people fighting as they ran from diesel trucks down the rough dirt road that led past my camp. Either way, I was glad for the sunlight, and glad for the warmth.

I made another small breakfast, but added some pancakes into the mix. They didn’t flip quite right, but I was feeling good… exceptionally good, in fact, and quickly pivoted and made them into a pancake scramble that I devoured enthusiastically.

I felt good. I felt better than good. I’d vented my sadness, and even though it was still there, it felt… manageable. I felt happy, and optimistic, and ready for the coming week.

I read, for a bit, before I packed up camp. I took my time – I only had to drive home, and maybe for worse but probably for better, I didn’t have anyone waiting for me.

I could take my time.

Racing shadows under moonlight,
Through the desert on a hot night.
And for a second there we’d won,
Yeah, we were innocent and young…

The dust cloud has settled, and my eyes are clear
But sometimes in dreams of impact I still hear…

– “Miss Atomic Bomb”, by The Killers

“Miss Atomic Bomb” music video link:

“Litany Against Fear”, from Frank Herbert’s Dune:

One response »

  1. Yep. I get it. Been there too. Feel all of it, albeit in a different time, and in different circumstances.
    Glad you got out of town, into the desert to feel it deeply and recover.
    Hugs, from Dad

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