In the summer of 1995 I was fourteen and had long purple hair. I listened almost exclusively to Jimi Hendrix, Tori Amos, and old dead classical composers. I dressed like a skater boy. I read for five to twelve hours a day. I co-founded the Sonoma County chapter of NOW’s Third Wave organization and a sci-fi/fantasy literary magazine for teens called “Windchime”. I’d recently gotten braces. I was too shy to talk to anyone, so everyone thought I was a dismissive snob. Cherry on top, I was suing my school district for sexual harassment.
In short, I was the life of every party.
I was so popular, in fact, that most of my friends kind of forgot that I was going away for a portion of that summer. I was being sent to Idaho to accompany a family friend on her treks to the southern part of the state, collecting water samples in the desert’s canyons for her job with the Bureau of Land Management. I was homeschooled at this point, per my own request– well, “unschooled” was the term we used, as homeschool summoned distasteful ideas– and had a fluid schedule, so I wasn’t party to the desperate summer itineraries of my normal-schooled pals. We had begun going our separate ways and my new friends, also alternatively schooled, were always traveling and adventuring far more than I ever did, so they were nonchalant as I headed into the heat of summer Idaho. I swallowed my anxiety and decided I, too, would be nonchalant.
This was to be my first bona fide desert experience. I’d been through the desert several times before, crossing the country to visit family or heading up into Idaho to visit said friend, our orange-and-brown 1984 Vanagon breaking down in Winnemucca on two separate occasions. (What is this “Winnemucca,” you ask? Imagine a crumpled brown paper bag sitting in a 500 degree oven. If your brain keeps trying to add pretty cacti or a scraggly pine tree or two, don’t bother.) Going through it is different than purposefully being in it, though. Coming from the mystical coastal Northern California, land of redwoods, fog, and possibly Puff the Magic Dragon, the desert always seemed as appealing to me as eating eggplant (how I feel about eggplant: set it on fire and walk away.) and as such, I was furtively apprehensive. By nature I am the one who gets into water one toe at a time. But I was surrounded by head-first adventurers, and I envied their freedom. I wanted to be an adventurer, too.
I mention this story because it figures into my future relationship with the desert. When I’m feeling romantic, I can summon up images of Santa Fe and Taos and not end up with a knot in my stomach. Otherwise, my associations with deserts are of isolation and fear, peppered with a paranoid view of military experimentation and Burning Man. However, with my recent trip to my sister’s wedding in Reno, NV, coming up, I had to find a way to love it. It was like trying to wring water from a rock. Dry, arid spaces make me feel claustrophobic in the way I imagine outer space would make me feel. Vast emptiness absorbing the oxygen and caving in on my being. Boise, Idaho, was a beautiful place with lots of cool people and approximately three handsome young guys that I immediately fell in love with for no other reason than that they were nice to me. I liked that portion of Idaho quite a bit. It was the desert that spoiled it for me.
When I finally got out there, this weirdo from California with unnatural hair color and a CD Walkman umbilical cord, I rapidly began feeling unmoored. Little by little, over the course of a couple of weeks, my brain began blurring what I was experiencing and what I feared I might experience. I didn’t hallucinate. I didn’t hear voices. Nothing like that. I simply couldn’t stop imagining the worst possible outcomes while simultaneously fighting against imagining them. In the heat and the dryness, everything magnified. The light seemed to brighten exponentially, the hot desert air to press in close, buzzing– what I now recognize as a sign of an impending panic attack. As soon as we would start the hours-long, bumpy ride out of the desert and back onto the freeway, it all subsided. I was completely normal.
To be fair to the desert, there was much more to contend with in my brain than most people had to by the age of fourteen: I had experienced the dark underbelly of an education system unwilling to take care of the bodies and minds of the children it represented; the violent death of a good friend at the age of twelve; the angry departures of my sisters to lives that they implied were preferable without the rest of us– an idea I had not considered and did not understand. I thought about dark things all the time, and thought it was normal to do so. While I wasn’t entirely wrong (I was a teenager, after all), I didn’t realize how much I had come to obsess over these things. Death, loss, and the fear of being completely alone became weighted hooks that embedded themselves in my soul. They pulled heavily on my heart and my brain.
And then one day, in the desert, my brain broke in half.
You wouldn’t know that there is enough water in the southern Idaho deserts to fill a sizable creek and to line it with enough coyote willow to choke a canyon. This is because the surface of southern Idaho’s earth is the color of bone and is textured like some macabre craquelure. But the canyons are lush and vibrant with life. Maybe a little too lush. On our second voyage out, we had come to an impassable section of the creek and we still needed to collect data from the other side. We’d made it through several snags already: walking hours too far beyond the point we wanted to be, according to our aerial map; waking up in the middle of a fire ant colony; and I had, personally, fallen into a beaver dam pool, grabbing a healthy stalk of stinging nettle on the way down and blowing my hand up like a rubber glove balloon, sending sharp stabs along my arm for a day and a half. But we’d made it. Now, our only options were to climb out of the canyon and walk its edge until we found a better spot– an hours-long excursion, wasting precious daylight hours– or for one of us (her) to try to forge ahead alone and find a miraculous break in the thick foliage. Plan B was enacted.
We found a shaded spot and checked my radio battery to be sure that, in the unlikely event that anything happened to her, I could find help. “Wait here, I will be right back” are words that we all say to all sorts of people without thinking. There was no need for her to say anything else. She was gone for a total of five minutes, and if she had been with any other person, everything would have been completely normal. Normal people would take the opportunity to relax, chew on a stalk of something that wasn’t stinging nettle, and enjoy the stunning vista. Unbeknownst to everyone, including my parents, my therapist, my best friends, and me, I was a special case. The words came out of her mouth and entered my ear like a runaway train. I nodded in what I hoped was casual agreement and then crouched in my little hiding spot, sweaty hand gripping the walky-talky like a life raft.
In my head, it really was a life raft. I clung to it as rapidly escalating abstract visions of death piled one upon the other, until the connection between my brain and heart twanged. Violently. It was as though the hand of god had reached out and plucked the throbbing veins of an electrical current. Suddenly, I stopped seeing. I didn’t shut my eyes or faint. I simply stopped seeing. My brain no longer accepted visual information. For about five seconds, I did not exist. When I came back into my body, I was screaming.
To this day I can’t remember if she heard me or not. After I came to, I was so shocked by my screaming that I clamped my mouth shut like a sprung trap. Body jerking with adrenaline that had nowhere to go, I scrambled to figure out the radio, and failed. I didn’t know what I would have said to a dispatcher, anyhow. “Please help me, it’s been two minutes and I’m scared”? So I sat with my hand over my mouth, crying, instead. When I heard the rustle of her footfalls in the foliage, I was flooded with relief and with wild, burning shame. After a brief, concerned reconnaissance in which I tried my best to appear fine despite my wet cheeks and shaking limbs, I did not talk about it. Self-hatred commenced, as well as a sense-memory connection with the desert and heat that, for a time, equated to nothing but abject terror. Somehow I made it through another journey there without completely melting down, but I realized there was a switch inside of me that I had no control over. It would be flicked on or off by a mutineer brain wave, which soon became a restless Peter Pan shadow sewn onto my every move.
I can recall now the beauty that I was sometimes able to recognize, and even get lost in, on that trip. I went home and wrote about it in a short poem that an annual publication was kind enough to add to a collection of far more worthy submissions. I saw the hand-print hieroglyphs of ancient natives on isolated rock formations. I saw my first bald eagle. Though we were told we wouldn’t see one, that they hadn’t been seen in that particular region in over ten years, we crossed paths with a mountain lion who paused in her hunt to watch us, the lines of her sinewy body bright with golden evening light. The night sky was akin to what I’d read about in nautical stories and I would imagine I was afloat on my beloved Pacific, though the scents of canyon flora gently belied my earthly position. I have grown to appreciate, and in some ways to love, that experience and that place, even as I wrestle with my brain every time I go back into the desert.
So when I learned that my sister would be getting married in Reno to the love of her life, I vowed that I was prepared to go anywhere. Even to the summer desert. Weeks in advance I began the long process of fretting, dreading, reminding myself ad nauseam of what I was looking forward to, hoping it would rain, hoping I wouldn’t spiral into the abyss. My panic attacks are few and far between these days, and I can go months, even years, without experiencing one. Especially if I avoid hot places. But I vowed that I would go because I love my family and because I wanted to be an adventurer. And it turned out it did rain.
And it was beautiful.