When I step out of my car onto the vast, windswept plains of Joshua Tree, blasts of dusty wind gust against my stubbly face. I park in a gravely clearing surrounded by miles and miles of desert; a vast expanse of sand and dust and parched shrubbery and scraggly Joshua trees. My pack is heavy—I’m carrying almost a gallon of water—but it feels good to shoulder the weight, knowing that I have everything I need to survive in this environment strapped to my back. I grab another gallon jug of water that I will pass back and forth between my hands as I hike, and I set off.
I immediately diverge from the trail and head towards a pile of boulders that looks like it’s about a mile away. It takes me almost an hour to reach the rocks, trudging through sand and sidestepping low cacti and passing through the shadows of spiny Joshua trees. Small patches of ice are everywhere, the remnants of a recent desert snowfall. Over the crest of a sweeping hill, the landscape drops away gradually to reveal dozens of massive house-sized outcroppings of precariously amassed rock formations. In all directions, thirsty earth-colored mountains rake the blue.
I set up camp among a city of rock formations, late afternoon sunlight casting sweeping rock shadows across the desert. I climb a 40-foot-high pile of boulders to look down over my camp and watch the day come to an end. The desert sunset is patient; the air is clean, wisps of cloud wrap the horizon, and the colors of twilight are smeared low across the sky for almost two hours. I build a fire and boil water for hot chocolate, and stars ripple across the sky like cosmic goose bumps. Just before I crawl into my sleeping bag, a shooting star ricochets off the boulders and streaks a quarter of the way across the sky before fading into the blackness. On the opposite horizon, sunset colors are still dying away.
At dawn I rise and begin fasting. The scent of fire still lingers as light fills the sky. I sit perched atop a boulder, motionless, swaying only when the wind gusts, as still as the rocks and the scrub as the sun wanders across the sky. A pair of ravens circle overhead.
I have watched many a calendar swap surrounded by food and family and friends and alcohol and the television showing the whole world counting down as the glittering ball drops. This time, it feels right to pass the birth of this year in the expanses here, alone among 700,000 acres of desert and mountain.
I move from the boulder into my tent to escape the wind for a few minutes, and I flip open an old journal that holds last year’s Resolutions. I am a little bit startled to realize that I have actually followed through on most of the five. I focus so much energy on how I need to grow, how far I feel from who and where I want to be. But I need to give myself credit for the progress that I have made. Yeah, I always want to be a better human being. That ruthless striving towards self-improvement is important to me, it’s how I’ve gotten here, but (in the words of Joe Braun) I need to remember that I’m not still struggling with the things that I was. I am moving forwards, making progress. I need to remember to be proud of myself.
I try to write, to record some of these thoughts about the past year and to jot down some ideas for new resolutions, but it is cold and the wind howls against my tent; my fingers are frozen and my gloves too bulky to grasp the pen. Instead, I bundle up and sit outside on a sun-spilled boulder to read a desert meditation book that came from Reem. “The deserts of the world have a spirit all their own,” I read. “These desolate, empty landscapes reach deep into the soul, eliciting a profound response.” “A man finds out who he is in the wilderness. His soul speaks to him.”
The day passes. I remain of the desert, desert-creature-Dave, as the sun traces its way overhead. I consume and pass almost a gallon of water through the day, and I continue to fast. Hunger pangs come at meal times, reminding me of how my body has been conditioned to eat at particular and arbitrary hours. After the time passes, I feel empty but no longer hungry.
How many cities have I passed through in the last one hundred days? Have I seen what I’ve seen, or have I seen what I’ve expected to see? It does not matter what I do or where I do it so much as how and why, spoke Nadia the first time I talked with her. I am coming to understand the truth of this. In the beginning, sadness and loneliness smudged my journey, and the cities I entered were unfriendly and filled with smog, the wilderness I passed through lonely and desolate. If what we see and where we go is merely a reflection of what is inside ourselves (and if I’ve learned anything through my travels, it is that this is so), then what does it say about my current self and my perspective that right now this cold and lonely desert is so strikingly beautiful?
I have begun to slow down; I am in motion, never stagnant, yet I have been able to feel myself settling into a rhythm as I move. Travel often saps us of energy. When we return from a trip, we need time to relax and recharge. But I am finding a way to recharge as I go; this journey is becoming a gathering of energy rather than a depletion.
In the last three months I have wandered through Redwood forests, spoken with the sea, longed among mountain peaks. I’ve had homes opened to me and doors shut in my face. I’ve been taken care of in some cities and left on the streets in others. I have come to interact indiscriminately with wealthy businessmen, alcoholic homeless men, silent pines, loving friends, tattooed musicians, law school students. I’ve been equally at home in the rain, in warm fire lit living rooms, on trash-strewn street corners, and in the expanses of the desert of Eastern California. And now, as the ravens call overhead, as the frozen wind sweeps through me, my stomach empty as the sky, all labels and identities I have accumulated over the past 23 years are beginning to peel away. My task is to discover what remains.
When I lay down to sleep, something compels me to try putting my thumb into my mouth just for a moment. I am surprised by how overwhelmingly familiar and comforting the sensation is. I am tapping into some two-decades-old memory that still lives within my body, I perceive as I suck my thumb. What other long-forgotten memories survive within my cells? What ancient wisdom endures within me, acquired not even in my infancy but by my ancestors, hundreds of generations ago? What from the billions of years of life forms that came before me?
I sleep soon after dark as the last hours of 2010 dwindle. I bury my face into my sleeping bag and imagine the celebrations going on elsewhere across the world to welcome in the new year as the desert cradles my body into sleep.
January 1. When I awake, the sun warms my frozen body and I am ready to leave the desert. Two hours later, I’m driving out of Joshua Tree. After 36 hours without food, the body starts to feel a bit woozy. But I am no longer hungry. I chug water from the gallon jug, grounding myself in liquid. I still feel light and almost airy, but all I notice is a sharp piercing mental clarity and self-awareness. I do not speak or sing as I drive and later as I pull over and walk barefoot through the sands. After 40 hours of existing on nothing but water, I slowly drink a quart of Gatorade.
Two hours later, I pull off the highway into a gravely turnout near the Salton Sea. I scramble over an embankment of sand and slide down to a thicket of prickly bushes. Amidst the bare thorny branches, I kneel into the earth and build a small fire to boil water. After 42 hours, I break my fast with couscous and tuna, seasoned with the thyme Faith picked me from her garden. Thus begins 2011.