Solitude on a Desert Island

I live in Southwest Utah, a unique comingling of eco-zones where the Mojave Desert, the Colorado Plateau, and the Great Basin all intersect. It is a sought after destination for world travelers because this intersection of eco-zones has created a diverse and spectacular desert landscape that holds not only stunning views and wonder, it promises great adventure, and it does not disappoint. In that sense, I am lucky to live here.  The word desert holds a magical place in my mind because it is synonymous with the word home. I whisper “desert” and images of red sandstone slowly burn through my mind: windswept mesas, shadowed landscapes with a brooding storm on the horizon; sharp, relentless sunlight revealing jagged outlines of dusty, scorched earth. But like a sudden drop of rain, an alpine image surfaces as well. In the midst of the red beauty of St. George stands an imposing, lone sentry that signifies the area as high desert. Part of the backdrop to the spectacular scenery stands the desert island called Pine Valley Mountain. It is often overshadowed by the red rock Southern Utah is so famous for, but to a local, it calls softly and if you answer the call, you are rewarded with solitude of a quiet, undisturbed, and wild kind. Answering that call marked the beginning of my awakening to this place I call home.

solitude

Home can be taken for granted much like a longtime lover can. What once was exciting can become familiar and routine. Many discover a place was home only after they have left and suddenly find that while it had grown ordinary and routine, it had also been as comforting as a well-worn and loved sweatshirt. I left Utah for many years and when I thought I had finally settled down, it occurred to me that home was not a man-made residence but a landscape and I longed to return to it. I found that I had a geographical DNA that reflected a very specific place and that I missed being there, with people similar to me and where the natural landscape matched my inner landscape. Home is a place that we create in our own image, that reflects our values and beliefs, and that offers a refuge from all that conflicts with who we are out in the world. Just like a kitchen with familiar smells, warm furniture broken in by our body or a cultivated garden can soothe our soul and give us a reprieve from the world, so can the extended landscape of our home. When I got the chance to return home, I did so with new eyes. The desert was alive to me in a way I had never known. It was then that I decided to live in the desert, not just pass my time in it. I decided to get to know it, discover all that was hidden in it, and become familiar with it. As the world continues to shrink with technology and travel, my world grows larger and more focused. The deeper I am willing go, the more wonder, awe, and respect I gain for the intricate, nuanced, and fragile landscape that I call home.

Despite being a ridiculously hot month, July marks the beginning of the monsoon season. It is the time when the sky turns moody, if not theatrical, staging daily storms like the finale of a fireworks show. And the rain! So precious, it is generally a time of glee and celebration, even when considering hiking. Because Pine Valley Mountain is higher than the sweltering lowlands it gives the illusion of cooler weather, but clouds, a breeze, and sprinkling rain can turn that illusion into a refreshingly cool reality. Last summer my husband and I headed toward the mountain to check it out for the first time. To my amazement, in the midst of an ocean of desert, I entered a secret garden full of shade and dappled sunlight, gurgling streams, marshes, meadows, vibrant wildflowers, wild raspberries, aspens, and a stunning variety of firs and pines. The hike was spectacular, but also brutal. The trail was not cleared, it was often just loose rock and soil, and periodically had fallen trees across it. As we got up to Berger Peak, exhausted and sore, we crested to the low rumble of thunder and a white world of cloud. When we reached the outcrop on the top and peered over the jagged edge, great wisps of quickly moving clouds blew into our faces and crested the ledge like a cloudy wave crashing against the mountain. We instinctively ducked for cover, realizing the view from the top would elude us. In the fading light and increasingly angry white squall, we vowed to come back and made our descent. Looking up at the mountain every day thereafter and running in its foothills, reminded me of my intimate time there. Because our trip had been cut short, I felt that I had been cheated out of something, though I wasn’t sure what. I wanted to get up there again to find out what, if anything, it was that I had missed.

As the hot days of summer lolled in and the oppressive heat kept us inside during the hottest hours of the day I looked out at the mountain for hints of cumulus clouds. I am certain that Pine Valley Mountain has its own weather system, much like the legendary Bermuda Triangle, and it didn’t seem like a stretch for a thunderstorm to grow right out of it because no matter how humdrum it is down in the valley, dormant stormy elements are routinely roused by some unseen provocation up there even on the clearest of days. I waited for what I imagined to be a great bellow deep within those mountainous folds to blow some storms into existence with its steady blasts of air. I didn’t have to wait long as the presence of those mushroom-like clouds appeared at the end of June, marking the beginning of the monsoon season and what I hoped would be a reunion with my mountain. As we entered the town of Pine Valley our thermometer read 82 degrees, a cool reprieve from the triple digits we left behind. We drove up to the Browns Point trailhead at roughly 2pm, slung our packs on, and took note of the mountain lion warning posted to the trailhead sign before heading out. We said hello to two hikers coming down and as we passed them I secretly hoped we would have the mountain to ourselves. As we headed into the Pine Valley Wilderness the air grew quiet and so did my mind; walking up and into the mountain felt strangely like returning home in an unknown, yet familiar way.

Despite the fact that we took a different trail this time, I looked at the mountain and said, “Allo beastie.” There was no gradual incline, just straight up. Right, I thought, why waste time with drawn out switchbacks when a straight line is the shortest distance between two points? It was slow trudging, and at that laborious pace my mind wandered to the beauty of slowing down and allowing the world to grow bigger and thought, it gets bigger because the context is reduced down to only what can be seen right in front of you. It is the difference between looking through a wide angle lens or a macro lens. You are closer to something, and thus the details come into focus. It occurred to me that looking at the mountain from the distance of my front porch verses being in its trees, climbing its rocks, and stepping in its soft soil allowed the two experiences to merge into a seamless, yet divergent paradigm of the landscape in my mind.

As my mind took in this fuller and richer idea of the mountain, the promised raindrops began to fall. They were shockingly cold drops that contrasted sharply with the sultry heat of the desert floor. It, like many other things, illustrates the nuanced paradoxes found in the desert. The rain instantly brought out the smell of the mountain, to which my senses responded.  We stopped and picked wild raspberries and took a small break in the sweet smell of pine needles and rich composted earth. I looked through an opening in the trees down at the picturesque little town of Pine Valley and then asked Dallas if he had ever smelled a Ponderosa Pine. He had not so he walked over to one and took in a deep breath. After breathing in its sweet scent he looked over at me, “It smells like vanilla.” I smiled and said, “Yeah I know. Incredible isn’t it?”

Rocky outcrop

Not shortly after our little rest we looked out at the gray behemoth heading straight for us. “That doesn’t look good,” I said. The gray was moving so fast that the ridge to the east of us disappeared. We decided to put up a rain shelter and sit this one out. We hunkered down like little kids hiding during a game of hide-and-seek and looked around excitedly. As we huddled under our make-shift tent my husband turned to me and said, “Maybe we should have checked the weather first.” I laughed and said, “I did. It’s supposed to rain.” Raindrops began to hit our roof and then the sound of a million snapping fingers could be heard as the breeze blew through the aspens. When the snapping subsided a roaring wind followed in its wake. It was a cold, howling mountain wind. I pulled out my jacket and hurriedly zipped it up. We waited for the torrential downpour that was sure to follow, but it didn’t come. The gray moved south, the wind followed suit, and we packed up our things and continued our ascent. I had read about a meadow called Hidden Valley where we were planning on camping. As we dropped into a shadowy hollow I focused my attention on the cairns and trail; finding comfort in the human touch left by those who had gone before us. And like street lamps lighting the way, not long after, they brought us to a stand of trees where a soft, golden green lit up in the distance. “Is that a meadow?” I asked. My husband caught up to me and looked. “I think it is.” Sure enough, it was the meadow of my imagination. It was beautiful, serene, and quietly void of civilization. We set up camp, made some dinner, and enjoyed the solitude and comfort in the fading light of our mountain bedroom.

We awoke to a one of those sparkling mornings where everything is covered with dew drops twinkling in the golden sunlight. Peeking out of my tent I saw a doe nibbling on some grass at the edge of the tree line. She was standing in the soft glow of dawn, but at the unzipping of my tent she looked my way ever so quickly and then sauntered into the morning shadows. We made our eggs, granola, and coffee and soaked in the sweet stillness of the meadow, tasting the moment. With full bellies and adequate caffeine we headed out. We found water and marveled at the wildflowers in bloom and at how green everything was. The hot, dusty desert was still fresh in our minds. Then not a mile further we reached Berger Peak, only this time the view was unobstructed. As I walked to the rocky spires on the edge I expected to see the land spread out before me like the Red Sea parting for Moses, but to my surprise, it was mostly green with folded bumps of red like scattered piles of laundry. Snow Canyon, from this perspective, looked like a small clay sculpture. The view was breathtaking, but the Mountain, up close, was stunning. Getting that close, seeing the details of the mountain, was like seeing our house through someone else’s eyes. What had not just a day ago been familiar was now beautifully unfamiliar and new. “So this is what it looks like up here,” I said. This mountain that we had become habituated and somewhat blind to had become interesting. We gained a sense of perspective and humility and let our rigid ideas of the familiar fall away as we explored the intricate and layered mountain like children exploring a garden, thrilled to be hiding from the watchful eyes of adults, to play unabashedly in the cover of vegetation. Our backyard mountain became a wonderland of discovery for a brief hour or so before we had to pack up and return home. When we headed back down, we took one last look at the place we had found, knowing we would be back.

In the moments down in the valley, when my eyes wander to that mountain, I see myself there, the thousands of steps, the sore muscles, the laughter, and the details. It is no longer just a place; it is one of my places. Like my worn out and well-loved desk or my pumpkin patch, it has become a part of the landscape of my home and my soul and it gives me relief and a sense of comfort to see it standing there.  Though we didn’t travel far from home to see exciting new places, we explored the land right outside our front door in an intimate, unhurried, and leisurely way and in so doing allowed the ordinary to become extraordinary. By walking the land we did the closest thing a person can to growing roots, soaking in the nutrients, and stretching our limbs out to capture all that our small world has to offer and through the process we found those things so hard to find in our hurried, never satisfied, there’s something better on the horizon age: we found that the world outside really is big, magnificent, and special. Returning home required more than finding a house this time around, it required including in my existence the greater landscape that had called me back home in the first place.

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