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Vision Quest 2016: Growing Up in the Desert

Friday, June 10th, 2016: Mojave Desert, Trips, Vision Quest 2016.

On Sunday morning the boys climbed the steep rock face above camp

Desert Wind

I spent four days on our wilderness land before the fathers and sons arrived, hiking aggressively at first, then resting for a couple of days up in the shade house high in the side canyon, swinging in my old Yucatan hammock as the winds began to build. Our desert wind often arrives in cycles, tickling gently at first, then hitting you with sudden overpowering gusts that threaten to sweep your campsite away, followed by waves that diminish to intervals of stillness. If you pay attention to your surroundings, you can often hear the wind traversing or approaching across the landscape like distant surf, a sensation I seldom get tired of.

As night fell in camp on Friday, I’d made and finished dinner, started a modest fire, and was sitting by the fireplace, a beer in hand, wondering if they would show up at all. If they did, it would be very late, since they’d have to wait until school was out, pick up the boys, and pack, before heading out from Los Angeles.

My partner in the land had warned me that a pack of teenage boys was about to destroy my peace and quiet. He’d been so apologetic that I spent days worrying if there’d been an unspoken message behind his warnings. Were they bringing something that would really disturb and offend me?

Suddenly I spotted a flickering light way out in the lower wash, and a vehicle emerged, bouncing along between the moon shadows of desert willows. Within minutes, my peaceful world changed into excited greetings, hugs and introductions, and the urban energy of male bodies rushing around unloading and setting up gear. It turned out the boys had had only a half-day of school, so they’d been able to leave early.

I knew most of them from past trips, but one father was new, as were his son and his son’s friend. All five of the boys were long-time school friends, age 12 going on 13, on the cusp of teenage life. The group would spend two precious nights here in the wilderness and head back to the megalopolis midday Sunday, joining hordes of other weekend warriors funneled inexorably back into the concrete and steel maw of the Los Angeles freeway system.

Rock in the Water

I really like these fathers and sons, and the new additions turned out to be just as welcome. The dads are all involved in entertainment industry culture, but they also yearn for a life that’s more authentic, and the desert allows them to be more like what they want to be. As busy as they were attending to their kids, I was able to spend quality time, one on one, with each of them, and with each of their kids, before they left, learning about their projects, their dreams and frustrations.

On Saturday morning, I led them all on a group hike up to the seep on our land, where I’d found water from the heavy rain at the beginning of the week. It’s the only reliable water source for wildlife for miles around, as well as being the most geologically spectacular place in our canyon system. We hiked up the big side canyon and across into the narrow gulch below the seep, along the old pipeline the miners had laid after damming up the dry waterfall below the seep, forming a murky pool the size of an old-fashioned bathtub. There’s a beehive in a crack of the sheer wall above the seep – bees commonly colonize desert springs – and the narrow defile between cliffs of brilliant metamorphic rock is usually alive with their buzzing.

My partner and I had climbed high above the dark pool, but most of the men and boys were sitting or standing on a ledge directly over the water. Suddenly one of them casually tossed a fist-sized rock into the pool, and I gasped. My partner chastised them sharply, and I added, “That’s the only source of water for wildlife here. You just made it smaller. Water is sacred in the desert – please try to understand and respect it.”

It’s hard for city kids to absorb lessons they only get for a few days out of the year, on rare camping trips. In traditional societies, there’s a balance between constant observation and imitation of adults working outdoors, and learning by trial and error as kids explore nature on their own. Kids make mistakes, usually causing minor damage to themselves as much as to wildlife and habitats. I thought of a much worse incident, years earlier, when I’d been hiking up a switchback trail through steep, dense forest with a mother and her 7-year-old daughter. Near the bottom, we’d passed two other hikers coming down. At the top, we stopped for a moment, and the girl leaned over, pried up a 20-pound rock from the side of the trail, and pitched it over the edge, where it bounded and crashed down through the trees. She wasn’t an angry or violent kid, just a kid with so little experience in nature that she wasn’t aware her playful action could seriously injure or even kill someone below us. I ran down to the bottom of the trail, shouting, but the other hikers were thankfully long gone.

The afternoon after our hike, I sat in camp getting to know the new father, while the boys used an air rifle to shoot at cans in the background. He mentioned how, as adolescents, we’re prepared and subtly pressured by our parents and teachers to attend college, which inevitably leads to a professional career of some kind. After college, we’re drawn by the jobs and stimulation in cities, where we eventually end up with partners, to raise kids in an increasingly expensive and stressful lifestyle, overworked and overwhelmed by responsibilities, while yearning for a simpler, more authentic life, somewhere less congested, constrained, and over-engineered. The father shook his head wearily, admitting that his son was being groomed to follow him into the rat race, repeating the same pattern over and over from generation to generation.

Allahu Akbar

My partner had brought the biggest steaks I’d ever seen, enough for all of us, which he grilled that night. After a delicious dinner, we gathered our chairs close together around a roaring fire, and the kids asked one of the dads to share some limericks. The boys were at the age where they relished rudeness of all kinds, and while we men were drinking beer and getting politely loose, the kids soon became hysterical. One of them started to recite a limerick and interrupted it with a shout of “Allahu Akbar”, and the other kids howled, echoing it, until it felt like I’d stumbled into a Young ISIS rally. For the rest of the evening, until bedtime, anything anyone said resulted in an instant chorus of boys screaming “Allahu Akbar”, with one or two of the fathers joining in for solidarity.

It surprised and disturbed me and I had no idea where it came from – I felt like my friends had suddenly turned into Islamophobic strangers. Now I thought I understood what my partner had been warning me about before their arrival. When I was finally able to ask, one of the dads said it was a meme that had appeared on YouTube at some point and gone viral.

Adolescence has always been a time for acting out, breaking rules, exploring your boundaries in society, and I remembered from my own youth how easily kids merge into a mob. I realized I wasn’t used to being around teenagers, but could expect more of this as my friends’ kids got older. I also missed female energy. Whereas women had joined us during the first few years of powwows I’d organized out here, they’d gradually dropped out, and I’d been told that at least one mother avoided these desert trips because they were a much-needed opportunity for fathers to bond with sons.

Contrary to popular misconception, the desert is also a woman’s place. I’ve often had better times out here with women than with men. Among desert Indians, men were the hunters and toolmakers, women the gatherers and basketmakers. Hard versus soft, but all equally at home. We men need women out here to keep us out of trouble.

Teenage Zen

On Sunday morning the boys climbed the steep rock face above camp while the dads took their time getting ready to leave, and I was able to do more catching up with them, as well as with their sons as they flitted restlessly in and out of camp.

One of the dads, a photographer and aspiring filmmaker, was looking forward to the start of shooting on his first feature film. He’d been a teenage football hero, and his film would expose the dark side of high school sports in Texas. The new dad revealed that he sometimes experimented with electronic music, having released an album that sold fairly well several years ago.

His son and friend joined us and I asked them if they were into music at all. It turned out that all the boys had played together in bands at one time or another. The filmmaker’s son appeared and admitted he’d sung in one of the groups. I had no idea of any of this and was duly impressed. I like all my friends’ kids, and would like to be a part of their lives, but I get so little time with them.

Different kids impress me the most on different trips. This time it was one who’d avoided all eye contact on previous trips and was hostile when I tried to approach or interact with him. It seemed like he had some deep, lifelong issues that nobody had been comfortable talking about.

But on Sunday morning, he came over, sat facing me, and talked about his embrace of Zen meditation. He’d started attending a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles, initially with his dad, but now it was clearly part of his identity. The change was like night and day. I congratulated him, and we parted with warmth and affection – as we all did – when the fathers and sons finally had to head back.

Each of the boys’ faces lit up as they told me how much they love being out here and look forward to coming back. I think the main thing they respond to is the freedom, in contrast with their overwhelmingly constrained, totally man-made urban environments. The desert can definitely function as a playground for adults as well as children – hence the Rad Dudes, the extended family from Orange County that has plagued our land in the past, with their heavy metal music, case after case of beer, and illegal automatic weapons they use to shoot up everything in the environment. But these boys were learning lessons in the midst of all the noise and fun – maybe even some lessons they’re not getting in school.

Inside Out

As I prepared to visit the ecological field station, my friend, the manager, tried to set my expectations about their busy schedule and limited availability. After I arrived on Friday evening, he said I was welcome to join them for a movie, but added, apologetically, that it would be a kid thing. In the event, everyone on the preserve showed up for a viewing of Pixar’s animated feature, Inside Out: in addition to the manager’s family, there was me, the young female grad students, and the visiting plant illustrator, all crammed into a tiny loft around a modest-sized flat screen TV.

As the movie played on, the kids moved restlessly back and forth between their friends “the girls” and their parents’ laps, napping and waking for spells – they’d seen it before. I’m always surprised at how Hollywood screenwriters take the in-progress scientific hypothesis of the day and turn it into established fact, and this movie was no exception. Apparently Descartes was right, the brain is a fairly simple machine, fully understood by science, and human personality and behavior are uniformly predictable, the result of a mechanistic formula that could be summarized glibly in a TED Talk. Even the “personality islands” that made up the heroine’s character were pictured as Rube Goldberg contraptions. The dominance of reductive science couldn’t have been clearer.

But it was only a movie, and for an evening, I felt like part of an extended family circle, sheltered here by the desert we all love.

Railroad to Childhood

The last day of my visit, in late afternoon, with heavy clouds massing over the Cove, I played with the kids at their swing set in the sand of the side yard, at the foot of a big granite boulder. These kids are growing up in the wild desert, among scientists who are studying it, the first kids I’ve known that have had that precious opportunity. They were full of family questions that cut to my heart: did I have kids, where was my wife, did I have brothers and sisters, what about my mother and father, and so on. They begged me to push them in the swings. The girl, older, wanted to go higher and faster, but the boy didn’t want to go too fast or too high. I pushed them the way they wanted, my battered, hopeless heart beginning to glow. I need to find a way to be around kids more often.

At our early dinner, the overworked field station manager finally seemed to relax, we adults had a good talk, and the little girl covered a page of green construction paper with love notes to me. Then the kids and I climbed into the Suburu for the ride over to the group camp. Dusk was falling as we rumbled down the narrow dirt road toward the low house nearly hidden at the foot of the white granite cliffs. I got out to unlock and open the gate, leaving it chained but unlocked for our departure.

The large class of college students, too big for the bunkhouse, had set up colorful tents far out in the rolling juniper-, yucca- and cholla-covered bajada to both sides of the house, and with night falling, they were bustling back and forth between there and the rows of big vans parked in front. While the kids’ mom prepared to deliver the standard briefing, I followed the kids into the boulders behind the house.

They went straight to the two rustic wooden shower enclosures, which they explained were their railroad. The rope hanging from above the enclosure, normally used to hoist a water bag, was used to call the train. The corner bench in the enclosure was a seat, and the wooden shower platform was the sleeping bunk. We called a train and took our places for the ride. The kids curled up side by side on the platform; later, we changed places, and I lay there trying to pretend, feeling my distant childhood through a mist of time. But they soon tired of this and ran outside, jumping from boulder to boulder to a ridge of granite where they could watch the students walking to and from their distant tents. Night was falling quickly, and the juniper-dotted bajada, the distant granite ridges, and the sky above had all turned shades of indigo. We perched there side by side, watching the lights of cars pass on the highway, two miles away across the bajada, speculating about them and the students passing closer at hand. The girl climbed down into a cavity between boulders and picked a flower, holding it up for me to smell.

The little boy got anxious about his mom and tore off to find her. The house windows glowed yellow in the blue dusk and we could hear a murmur from inside. I was supposed to keep the kids away from her while she briefed the class, but it was clearly impossible. I went and peaked inside; a female grad student assistant who had been here before was sitting on the kitchen counter with the boy.

The talk dragged on and on, in response to the large group. Enfolded by the close darkness of the cloudy night, the kids and I and the grad student kicked a soccer ball back and forth across the gravel in the small pool of yellow light outside the kitchen windows. It was late and the kids were hyper, yelling and screaming. But later that night, in my bunk in the residence hall I’d helped build long ago, I lay awake replaying that day in my mind’s eye like a priceless gift.

  1. JOAN GREEN says:

    I was almost tearful seeing the freedom of the playing children—-just being children. Your desert could be there play home.

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