Lost and Found


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.    







Into the Fire

Nearly a year ago today, I received a phone call from Robin, one of my lifelong childhood friends. There was a sound of panic in her voice as she told me “The Island is on fire” and that the flames were moving quickly out of the hills and toward our homes in the small town of Avalon. The island my friend was referring to is Santa Catalina located twenty-two miles off the coast of Southern California. It is also the place where I was raised and have spent a bulk of my adult life. To hear that the island was being consumed by flames brought me a great deal of distress as many of the island’s natural landmarks served as an anchor to my sense of belonging in this world. The old oak that cradled our childhood fort is now gone. The Manzanita that marked my favorite trailhead is gone.  The canyon, which was once secreted in a canopy of scrub oak, is now exposed like an old naked woman. It was nearly impossible to witness this fire without the sense that I too was on fire and that a hot force was moving within me, burning through the landscape of my memories.


This last weekend, I visited the island to hike my childhood landscape and to see how spring was treating the 4000 plus acres that burned up last year. My friend, Donna, and I also went in search for the rare Fire Poppy (Papaver californicum), a brilliant dark orange flower which grows in habitats which have recently burned. The directions we had for finding the poppies were a bit obtuse: hike behind Haypress, go up the hill behind Hidden Lake, walk past the pig trap to Inspiration Point, turn around and then walk over the hillside to our left. The land was charred and the Island Scrub Oaks were black and skeletal.   





We found ourselves sliding down a steep hillside of ashen dirt, which blackened our clothing and skin. And then we saw them – the delicate, tissue-like, yellow-orange blossoms. Immediately, I thought about the words of the alchemists, “No new life can arise without the death of the old.” No doubt, these wise philosophers learned this ancient truth from nature herself. To see such vibrant color rising out of the dark soil gave me a sense of hope that goes beyond words.







Later on that day, we accidentally came upon the most outrageous field of Blue Dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) that I have ever seen in all my life growing up on this island! It felt miraculous. How could it be that with so much damage and slaughter, not to mention all the pain and suffering in the world today that nature continues to revive itself with such glory? All I can say is that, like the alchemists, I too must observe and learn the secrets of nature. To burn up in the fires of life is truly a loss, but the rewards are great if one is willing to make the long, hard trek to discover them.   


















Welcome and Happy April Fools’ Day

I suppose April Fools’ is as good as any day to begin this blog. Some historians attribute April Fools’ to, when in 1581, Pope Gregory XIII charged that the old Julian calendar be replaced by the new Gregorian calendar (what hubris!), which also shifted the New Year from April 1st to January 1st. Many people at the time refused to accept the change, or others were just uninformed, so they continued to live their lives as if the New Year was on April 1st. These folks were deemed as fools and, in time, where the victims of tricks and pranks. But, other scholars say that April Fools came about due to the intoxicating power of spring. I like this explanation best. After a long cold winter of staying indoors, ardently struggling with writing my book, and being rather morose, I can no longer deny the force of spring beckoning me to leave all responsibilities and seriousness behind and to join in nature’s frolic.  And, I do feel foolish. Not only because I’m eschewing responsibility, but because I haven’t done this sooner. After six months sabbatical, I haven’t really accomplished a lot, so why not just go where I want to be most – out in the desert?  And so, this morning, waking at 6:00 am, I spontaneously donned my hiking boots, put together a quick lunch, and headed out to Joshua Tree National Park. My hope was to find bighorn sheep down at a watering hole four miles form the trailhead, but I saw no sheep. What I found instead was the outrageous display of spring blossoms, which sent my spirits soaring. Drunk on spring, I put all concerns and worry aside to participate in this festival of color. And then I came upon the Claret Cup Cactus Flower. If there is a a harlot of the botany world, this is it. Lying belly on the ground, I hypnotically gazed into the blood red petals. I was seduced. A total fool, but at last a happy one. – Betsy