Dispatches Tagline

Vision Quest 2016: Surprised & Blessed

Monday, May 23rd, 2016: 2016 Trips, Road Trips.


I smiled and laughed

By early April of this year, I was a nervous wreck, embarrassing myself by overreacting to problems and suffering lapses of judgement. Just too much stress, pain and trauma in the past year. I’d had hip surgery in the hope that I’d be recovered enough by now to explore the backcountry of my desert mountains, relying on surface water from El Niño to roam freely and camp wherever I pleased. This had been a dream for so long, it had turned to desperation.

Recovery had been slow and frustrating. I hadn’t been able to resume my pre-surgery hiking routine until the past week. And although there’s no way of telling how much rain my mountains get without actually visiting, El Niño had disappointed in nearby parts of the desert, as in most of the Southwest. My dream might never become a reality, but I had to get away, I had to take what most people would call a vacation.

The problem was that my spiritual home is also the ultimate land of mystery, an outdoor classroom and teacher of lessons about living in nature. I’d spent years accumulating questions and projects I wanted to pursue out there. It would be a working vacation.

First, I wanted to research and brainstorm ideas and resources for a program of group wilderness adventures that I dreamed of leading, in collaboration with my friends. Related to this would be the search for a base somewhere along the highway near my mountains, a home, studio, gallery and event space that might catch the eye of passing travelers.

One component of the program would be aboriginal living skills, and I wanted to recover and practice the techniques I’d learned 25 years earlier, so I packed my fire drill, deadfall trap, flintknapping materials, and notes.

The fragility of my family requires me to be on call for emergencies at all times, so I had to pack for a possible mid-trip diversion to an airport, and a flight across the country to the big city. With that in mind, I had no idea how long I’d be gone. I was thinking two months at the outside, but I didn’t really know how long I’d last.

As usual, I’d be camping, and making dangerous hikes, alone, in areas with no cell service. I’d be out of touch for up to a week, but would get back in touch when I left the mountains for supplies and my phone regained a signal.

With an optional agenda but no real plan or schedule, I set out, contacting some desert friends along the way, and remembering and reaching out to others, the farther I got. The trip just unfolded, I discovered new places, learned new things and met new people, and my goals both changed and expanded as I relaxed into new rhythms and a new sense of time.

My hip hadn’t fully recovered – there was residual stiffness that would take months to break up – but the new hip didn’t hold me back at all. What held me back was the opposite knee, which had developed chronic tendinitis. It’s treatable, but I couldn’t treat it while hiking in the most rugged country on earth, so I scaled back my ambitions instead, went slower and rested for days between longer hikes.

Friends gave me a lot of feedback and advice about the group adventures, some of it discouraging, but all of it useful, though nothing concrete or definite materialized. I didn’t find a base along the highway, but that’s because I was having too much fun doing other things. And although I kept having to move them out of the way to get to other gear, I never used my primitive implements, partly because I didn’t get a chance to camp in the backcountry, and partly because I heard things that challenged my picture of prehistoric life in the desert and urged me toward further research.

In the end, I spent nearly a month out there, hiking, camping, working with scientists, visiting friends, sharing good conversation, learning and being inspired. I was blessed with amazing weather, the hospitality and generosity of friends, the opportunity to spend quality time with kids – which only seems to happen with my desert friends – and a handful of challenging, revealing new themes or topics for research that expanded my horizons of ecology and anthropology: biological soil crusts, ecological facilitation, wildlife tracking, controversies over Native American conflict and migration, and the myriad ways in which our society trashes the desert and uses it to hide the things we don’t want to see, know about, or deal with.

The details will be revealed in installments. I hope you enjoy them and find something to think about and comment on!

Reading the Ground

Mesquite Canyon

Science in the Storm

Indian Wars

Challenging the Patriarchy

Hiding Our Failures

Hidden Diversity

Joy of Surviving

Bones of the Living Earth

Growing Up in the Desert

The Sheltering Desert


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *