I finally enrolled in a map and compass class with the Desert Institute in Joshua Tree National Park. The instructor, Karl VonHalle, an animated, unruly haired man in his, say, fifties, captivated my attention with stories of hikers getting lost and found (some dead) in desert mazes such as the Wonderland of Rocks in JTNP. I’ve hiked in the Wonderland, by myself, but my survival radar always kicked into gear before I went beyond the point of familiarity. Nevertheless, it’s hard to resist the temptation to go deeper into the rocky canyon as if there is some treasure to be found in the center of it all. Just one more arch, around one more beautiful bend of boulders, deeper and deeper into this mystical maze, an innocent child lured into the potential jaws of hell, another Persephone swept away by the force of nature. No doubt, without good navigational tools, this place could swallow one up.
Despite its beauty, the desert can be harsh. Without intelligent preparation a person can face a speedy death in the desert. Studies have shown that in desert temperatures of 120 degrees, a man without water can last two days if he sits in the shade doing absolutely nothing. If he decides to walk, he may last a day, at best. And, to make matters worse, in the winter, temperatures often fall below freezing, slapping a cold chill across one’s face. But the scarcity of water is primarily responsible for desert inhospitality. A simple definition of desert is an area that receives an average of ten or fewer inches of precipitation annually. One notable example is taken from Bagdad, California, in the Mojave Desert, which holds the record for the longest dry spell in the United States with 767 days – October 3, 1912, to November 8, 1914 – without rain!
All to say, much of the cushiness of desert romanticism has been largely influenced by air conditioning, dependable transportation, and huge amounts of pavement.
Learning how to use a map and compass may not insure my safety in a place like the Wonderland of Rocks, but it certainly gives me an opportunity to at least pay attention to what is around me. Good navigation is all about paying attention to points of reference – to the contours of the landscape, the characteristics of each wash, the positioning of the sun, the onset of clouds, dust on the horizon. It’s no less than a meditation practice of simply being in the present moment without falling prey to mindless malice.
And this is why I go into the desert.
“But there was nothing out there. Nothing at all. Nothing but the desert. Nothing but the world. That’s why”. – Edward Abbey.