AGENCY AND THE
The view from outer space
The distance between me now, here at home by the sea, and Siberia, is about 200 miles. However, the distance between me at Siberia, and my home by the sea, is much greater than that. It is almost immeasurable.
The great distance of Siberia
Among my fellows
What a feat!
While at Siberia, I float always like a spaceman above the earth. I can look down from two-hundred and fifty miles and see continents and oceans passing below. There's silence and cold and depth and empty. Yet I do not die out there in that space, though sometimes I know the desert space could kill me. Things happen up there in the distant depths of Siberia. I perform experiments I could not try on earth. New positions of words on paper and ideas which rise from moment to moment as though summoned by solitude. The longer I stay, the deeper the thoughts seemingly become. As if from deep space. Stranger always with the depths.
When I return home, the space follows me for a time, like a bubble of air surrounding a hunting spider which can dive underwater for small fish. For a few days I march like Caesar through the world - not bold with vanity or power, but instead richly alive with the energy, confidence and resolve of someone who has survived something dangerous, who has been where they should not, who has plumbed the near depths of space, seen our small sphere of living and looked beyond to the unawake and unalive screaming empty of dissolving entropy. How could the infrastructure, comedy and drama of our mere human fraternity unsettle anyone who has seen such things? How could death even shake their resolve? At least for a day or two...
But then the effect begins to fade... And I must plan and conspire my return to outer space. Though it scares me always to go back. Real fear. For I do not always wish to see what is not there. But when I do...I can never look away.
Henry David Thoreau visits Siberia ghost town
I entertained myself while shaving this morning by imagining Henry David Thoreau visiting Siberia ghost town. An impossible event to be sure, as the author died more than two decades before Siberia was established. Still...
"June 16th, 1852
Our train was delayed this morning at a remote watering stop called Siberia, located in the East Mojave Desert, sixty-odd miles from that great arterial canal, the Colorado River. Such a name of a place "Siberia," which is so remote a locale, is quite fitting; as the solitude from the remainder of our kind is quite absolute, and in keeping with the idea and image of the landscape of the Czarist's more distant holdings and territories. That someone would come here, let alone settle, is another matter, and one quite fitting for inquiry.
As we were delayed due to intermittent flash flood, a phenomena here, which overran the tracks before dawn by the rarest of cloudbursts; and while the tracks were cleared of sand and debris, I had some time to meander among the few buildings which constitute the town. Most of the structures were built by, and facilitate the business of, the railroad; including a newly made stone structure constructed of irregular rocks from the surrounding desert; each specimen of which tells a unique story in chemistry of the geology of the landscape...which is immense.
Compared to the civilized environs of New England; all smoothed over with small hills, bare of trees or covered by cultivated forests of spruce; our original hardwood wilds all lost to the woodsman's ax generations ago; the desert lands remain utterly untamed, save the dual-ribbon of rails running across them east and west and the appearance at ten mile intervals of watering stops and their associated infrastructure in place to feed and water the railroad. Otherwise, the lands are to themselves. No man, save those who were here first, can make a living for himself unaided by connection with the others. And though I am told that white miners and explorers do sometimes venture into those banded hills and mountains on every horizon, they do so always not like pilgrims on a one-way journey to a better life, but as trappers seeking to capture and take out riches to enliven their own and the common wealth.
I found a small trail of stones just east of the new stone building; a trail such as a child would make outlining a footpath of the imagination, though there are no children here, and even the small ones of the train were not let off-board by restraint of fearful mothers aware of the heat and real and imagined threats of these alien lands. I walked on then to to end of the trail, not far, only a few rods, where it suddenly stopped, and I was standing at the edge of a great vista looking north. I scanned the distance and took in two dark peaks to the east, ancient volcanoes perhaps, and a blacker ridge to the north running miles across the horizon. Great mountains could be seen looming far beyond in several places, impossibly far, impossibly great, and made greater still not by their size but instead by the severity of their locale. Who could ever dare to go there? Who could hope to return from such a journey. And if he did return then what would he have become?
For a moment I had a sense of what I first mistook as despair, and then fear, and then wonder, and finally awe. I perceive there is something out there...or maybe, oddly, ironically, something not. How do I put this sense to words? Indifference, comes to mind.”
What did my friend Eric wonder over as he walked quietly to his death? I like to imagine he thought of the egg-laying hen which lived out back of his home in Eureka. Joe Bob was gone, and Eric knew he would see him again soon... All the people in Eric’s life were settled with the truth—as unsettling as it was—and he need not worry any more about us. Eric’s estate... What of it? Not even a thought. But that chicken out back in his yard...the egg-laying hen which Eric and Joe Bob both loved; she is one he would have thought over. I hope they found her a new home in time... If not, then Eric would certainly have been thinking chicken on his way to die.
"Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.”
- Henry David Thoreau
But it is our stuff, and our busyness about it all which helps keep back the dark. Not the true dark, we can't so easily forget that; but the immediate darkness, the faint black all around which might remind us that we are alone in this night despite the candles each of us carry and protect. Slight flames, guttering in the desert winds, winds that always somehow blow into the deeper depths of the wastes; blowing in the direction we'd better not go; blowing to where the black is more natural and settled and less easily persuaded to move or to be set aside. It is the stuff we collect and possess which seems to guard us from this wind. And it's our busyness about this stuff which distracts us from what is coming, and what has already come, and what was here yesterday and always. It is the stuff and our attendance which helps us to remember the fantasy that we are not truly alone.
I had a thief break-in and relieve me of possessions I hardly knew I didn't need. I'm grateful for what he didn't leave behind.
And so, we build our shelter and linger within to protect our little flame; and we acquire things and place them all about to fortify our claims to now and forever. We might even utterly surround our candle with stuff enough that the flame seems truly safe from the wind, and we can fool ourselves that it will not go out. What a game that... Living as though the wind cannot get in. Living while peeking outside through the very cracks and chinks which betray our flame's vulnerability. The wind WILL get in. It is in now, even. How much better, and more honest, and more to the point, would it be to step outside the shelter, or let the structure blow away; to then stand in the wind with just our cupped hand protecting the little flame. How much more honest a life could we possibly live and endure. And such a living...
Notes from my muse
Snakes are hardly the most dangerous thing in the desert. The great emptiness which can be encountered when going alone has the capacity to rob us of our soul and leave us to wander our remaining days as hollow vessels, consisting of little more than our animate flesh and whatever spark of thought we might muster before our time is up. It's not a bad life, if you can take the initial sting and pain of losing everything but what really matters.
The phrase "end of the line" has much relevance and meaning when exploring California's forgotten desert ghost towns. Unlike the ghost towns of Japan, which are currently in the process of dying, there's often not even bones or shadows of past lives in the desert, where wind and neglect quickly erase anything which cannot be sustained on its own.
Today’s motorcycle ride included a nine miles stretch from the juncture of Kelbaker Road and Route 66 to the railroad ghost town of Cadiz. I had to bypass barriers east of Amboy which were put in place to prevent tourists having to backtrack ten miles from the point where the road was washed out by a summer flash flood. It sometimes takes years to repair flash flood damage on old Route 66, as there's little money to maintain this seldom used historic road.
Five miles from the barriers I stopped briefly at the desert community of Chambless Junction, named after James and Fannie Chambless, who settled the place and ran a gas station and store here. James Chambless was a veteran of the Spanish-American war, and he used his war rights to claim 640 acres of desert land, upon which he founded this small town in his own name. The building we gaze at briefly while stopped was built by James Chambless at a cost of $7,000. There was no electricity here, and James rigged the place with wiring which he powered by an old Chevrolet engine he kept out back. James also dug a well to the water table at a depth of 580 feet. At Chambless Junction we'll resume our journey by turning south on Cadiz Road.
My final stop is three miles south of Chambless Junction where the blacktop of Cadiz Road gives way to dirt at the old town site of Cadiz. Though originally nothing more than a railway siding, Cadiz grew into a little town which featured a US post office, railway office, telegraph post, and homes for the families of railroad workers who serviced the tracks between Cadiz and Needles. Nothing at all remains of Cadiz today, besides the hulking trunks of salt cedar trees which were planted a hundred years ago by residents to act as windbreaks along the tracks. Few desert ghost towns of the Mojave are as desolate and forsaken as Cadiz. Even the ghosts must surely have given up any ambition of haunting this place.
I’m walking through the skeletal remains of a desert mountain worn to almost nothing by millions of years of wind and rain. This landscape has no name. No humans come here since the Native Americans and the gold miners left. There are no tracks or roads, no human boot prints, or even the remains of old mines. The only sign I ever find so far out in the desert, of my species so distant and removed, are the occasional rumble and trail of a jetliner moving slowly above the clouds, or the dim dot of a satellite gliding silently below the stars. Sometimes I find (and collect to take back) Mylar balloons blown into the wastes from civilization hundreds of miles away. “Happy Birthday”, or “Congratulations” or the deflated image of SpongeBob or a one-eyed Minion rest torn, crumbled and tangled in a thorny desert shrub; a failed messenger and ambassador to a place incapable of either comprehension or care. The contrast is marked then, between our human capacity to love and create, and the desert’s more permanent capacity to simply exist.
You can get to this place by making your way to Siberia ghost town, and then by walking north-east until you begin to worry you might get lost. Turn back if the fear is genuine, proceed further if you’d rather face a deeper and more real sort of fear. When you come to the place of deep sand you’ve almost arrived, just go a little further now. Soon you’ll be in a place which has and deserves no name—after all, some places are better left unnamed and unmarked on any map. Keep walking now, but watch your footing, as a fall on this slippery, crumbly granite would be a bad thing by any measure.
To discover a dead mountain is to find a thing so old and so far removed from comprehension as to reveal the true depth and challenge of facing down the fact of deep time.
In 1883 the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad created a series of watering stops for steam-powered locomotives travelling across the eastern Mojave Desert. The stops were in alphabetical order, from west to east, with strange sounding names designed to help telegraph operators more easily communicate place names: Amboy, Bristol, Cadiz, Danby, Essex, Fenner, Goffs and Homer. Communities developed around these watering stops, which disappeared utterly when the railroad switched to diesel locomotives in the 1930s and 40s, removing the need for coal and water stops. The sight and sound of these great trains is a familiar part of any adventure along Route 66 between Barstow and Needles, and I never tire of watching these giants gliding swiftly downhill or grinding their way powerfully uphill along the sloping Mojave Grade. It's especially moving to watch the trains pass from one of the aforementioned ghost towns, and to try and picture how these trains provided both life and livelihood through work, as well as and food and water delivery to several generations of strong families who once called this harsh landscape home.
The great beasts of the California desert are the mile-long freight trains which lumber along the empty; bearing relevance through a land which couldn’t care less. These trains are great and powerful and awe-inspiring—especially at night, and at close quarters, when the moon is new, and the nighttime utter, and the depth of darkness penetrates further than we’d like. I sometimes sit up in the night to watch these long trains passing. They remind me of my kind, and my people, and the community and society we hold in common. These things matter much less out here in the night after the trains have passed, and the night resumes its deteriorating ways, and darkness peeks still closer where we’d rather it never shine.
My routine return to civilization after backpacking alone in the desert is a stop at the Route 66 picnic area near Amboy Volcano Crater. I rarely see anyone here, which is good, as it takes time to recover my social sense after a few days wandering alone in the wastes. The picnic area's large pavilions are the perfect place to escape the sun, cook up a hot meal, or even take a nap. This is also the place where I reconfigure my gear from backpacking mode (everything in my backpack) to moto-touring mode, in which my gear is distributed out to the bike's aluminum pannier saddle-bags. It's 193 miles from Amboy Crater to my home in Irvine, which is a good three to four hour motorcycle ride depending upon stops (I usually make lots of stops). Even in the dead of winter it's so warm here during the day that you can ride nearly naked in shorts and tennis shoes, enjoying the play of warm sunlight and stinging wind upon bare skin slathered with sunblock, feeling more than just water evaporate off the skin. The desert always robs me of more than I had before I came, and the motorcycle trip home from Amboy to my family solidifies the loss in ways which can never be reclaimed. In some ways, it's the best part of the trip.
The Creosote Bush is one of the most common and distinct plans of North America’s Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. The plant is superbly adapted to desert life, and may be one of the longest-lived lifeforms on Earth, with the oldest Creosote age estimated at over eleven thousand years. The plant is this video was probably around before America was first visited by Europeans, providing medicinal aid to Native Americans and highly specialized ecological niches to a host of desert fauna. Creosote are usually found on the loamy soils of alluvial fans, standing up to nine feet high and forming broad half domes with lots of slowly decomposing plant debris collected by wind near the base of the plant. It’s within this plant debris that animals and insects live and hide from the extremes of heat and cold. It’s very easy to walk through a Creosote landscape due to the empty space between each plant, which reminds me at times of the carefully tended gardens I sometimes enjoyed on the grounds of Buddhist temples in Japan, where priests worked hard to create landscapes of seemingly natural perfection, which were utterly the product of human hands and will. Out here in the desert there’s only indifference to ignore and neglect every wonder of nature which time and chance have contrived to create.
A benefit of going alone in the sea is the very near proximity of wildness. As soon as we’re over our head in depth, we immediately lose both our footing and whatever certitude we’d carried to the edge of the sea. Swimming out and away from shore, we begin to question what might be circling below, and the strange ways of waves and currents and undertow. After a while our fears begin to fade, as we realize our mortality is no more vulnerable here than in our bed; in fact, our mortality somehow becomes more precious while alone in the sea, just as it does when walking alone and far from help in a distant wild. Swimming back to shore we regain our footing, though perhaps we’ll leave our certitude to wash away with the tide.
There's always greater depth to the desert than I can begin to fathom, and the experience of this immensity has a way of faltering my plans and efforts. This is the blessing of going alone into very wild places, to have our way thwarted by inanimate matter and energy, with no one around to offer us comfort or reassurance ahead of the night. We return then to civilization less troubled by mortal concerns, more adept at measured response when things go badly, and less concerned about our own well-being ahead of the greater good we now see so clear.
This video is the failed start of a longer video I intended to make upon this windy desert ridge. The problem was the location, and the circumstance, which I couldn't overcome. This spot was atop a low mountain, a day and a half into the Deep Water Wilderness. It was about an hour before nightfall, on the second night of the hike. I'd left most of my gear back at base camp, beside my camera, geology hammer, satellite beacon and a ration of water. Camp was about an hour away, and I was a little worried about the timing for the return hike, and the possibility of getting lost, and the risk of spending a cold winter night exposed in the desert—though I knew the full moon rising just after sunset would provide ample light to guide me back. When I started filming this video, I looked beyond the camera where I could clearly see the dark shadow of the Earth advancing fast from the East. The wind was picking up—as it sometimes does at nightfall here—and I thought about my tent. Did I secure it well? I was wishing I'd brought my heavy jacket, which was on the floor of the tent where I'd used it as a pillow the night before. This same wind sometimes draws sudden dust storms from the area east of the black volcanos, and though I had my goggles with me, I worried the dust would block out the moonlight. Nevertheless, I continued talking, trying to make the video, though after a few minutes I gave up, turned off the camera, and began making my way back down the mountain. After a while the wind stopped, the dust never came, and the moon arrived on cue. None of my fears materialized...as is so often the case. Arriving back at camp, I sat on the ground eating dinner while a brilliant full moon lifted high above a craggy dead volcano. Though I was safe, I didn't fool myself enough to imagine the universe shared my concerns of the evening, as the moon would as well rise to meet the wondering gaze of a man alone in the wastes, as the blind and empty orbs of a corpse.
There's more wind than water in the artistry of desert rocks and sands, where desiccation rather than erosion is the primary tool of transformation and change.
Desert rock gardens are made for no one to view, though these beautiful tableaus may require millennia to form. Stone gardens like this are produced by natural forces incapable of either willing such artistry into existence, or appreciating the result. Therefore, when I come across such places in the far and deep empty, I admire them for a bit, and then step cautiously so as to avoid disturbing the stones, though I know the artist can neither sense my presence, nor be affected in any way by my appreciation or regard. My admiration and consideration of such beauty is its own insular consequence and reward, a treasure I make in the moment of my appreciation, something existing solely in the pathways of my mind; meaningless to the desert, of less substance ultimately even than the wind.
There's little nighttime illumination in the deep desert besides the cold light of the moon, the lonesome lamps of the stars, or the occasional reminders of my species in the form of jetliners and satellites which pass overhead in ignorance of my curious upward gaze. Perhaps this is the reason I leave my tent deep in the night to stand, and walk, in witness of lightning. The lightning I see from the places I go fails to disturb the desert peace with any sound. Just another distant light in the night, seen from a place where darkness must always have its way.
Lightning is a seasonal companion in the Eastern Mojave Desert, though I've never seen it flash over the Deep-Water Wilderness, which has no high mountains or peaks to draw out nature's ire. Instead, I watch the light show a few dozen miles east of my camp, flashing brightly upon the lofty peaks of the Granite and Providence mountains; or to the south, within the Bullion range and the terrible Sheephole Mountains. These storms are light without sound; energy with no voice; a quiet violence among senseless elements. These soundless shows remind me that nature seemingly has nothing to say; besides the contrived utterances and meanings produced by the things that are alive. The rest of the universe gaps on with dumb and mute indifference, as restless or settled as it would be had we never even lived—at peace with or without our voice.
Those who choose to sometimes move alone through empty lands may return with a very precious nothing they can neither share nor explain. Curiously, this sense does not lessen the beauty and wonder of life, but distills and rarifies our appreciation of living for the gained perception of the brief, fleeting and almost impossible thing life truly is.
A benefit of going alone into deep wilderness is the fact of losing our hold upon the rope which is our connection and sustaining bond with the larger body of our species. This connection isn't even perceived while we live and linger among our family, friends and loved ones; though we benefit from it then greatly, and enjoy constantly the life, livelihood and shared meaning these bonds provide. When we venture alone into places where humans don't seem to belong, we quickly perceive the seeming fact and substance of these essential human connections, which become visible, yet quickly begin to diminish with each step we take into the wastes, narrowing quickly from thick, rope-like stays, to more narrow bonds, and then finally to thin, tenuous strands. Within a few miles of deep wilderness, we sense a great chasm emerging between ourselves and those we've left behind, a growing space and emptiness between our person and our species. This experience is alarming, and frightening, and is probably what keeps most of us away from discovering what we do not want to know. Most startling though, is the perception that whatever meaning we held as essential with our fellows, has no place here in the wild, no home or sanctuary from the awful Indifference which looms everywhere where we do not. I would previously turn and go back when I encountered this sense in the wild. I no longer turn back, as it's good to discover what is real, even if reality is nothing like the dream we share when together, safe and warm.
I don't recommend Going Alone for the view, or the comfort, or the pleasure, or even the adventure. What's on offer out there in the wastes—when we're very alone—is a perspective we may not easily unsee. If what's found settles well with our constitution, then we may go forward through life with fortified courage, a heightened sense of joy and improved resolve towards independence. If what we discover unsettles too greatly what we assume to be true, then we may never quite recover whatever dishonest equanimity we previously called our own.
Death haunts the desert no less than elsewhere, though its discovery here is more startling for the reminder that there is any life here at all. I can walk for days alone in the wastes, and only rarely perceive anything alive other than plants. Indeed, there are mysterious animal tracks in the sand, and the odd burrow leading down and away from the sunlight and heat. Someone's here. Some life makes it's living, somehow, from so little everything. From time-to-time I'll find the remains of what was: the bones and skull of a coyote, the shell of a desert tortoise, or the femur of a man. In every case, I'm startled and alarmed by what I find; like someone suddenly discovering evidence they are not alone, and wondering what mischief might be about. Such discoveries never bothered me much in the temperate rainforests of Japan, where life's verdant fecundity frankly hummed, whirred and growled with both the animate riot of life, and writhing decay of death. Maybe that's why I could never sense the Indifference there. There was simply too much living to mask the deep emptiness beyond what is alive. Not so the desert, where even the most casual reminder of life's actual presence raises sudden contrast to the far more commonplace fact of life's abundant absence in a universe vast and deep.
The desert has drawn treasure hunters for centuries. Sometimes, when I'm alone far out in the wastes, I'll stumble upon the rocks and ore which drew prospectors here. Often, they left, finding no satisfactory way to return with their prize, leaving it in the ground, or in piles on the surface of the Earth. The prize I'm after in coming here alone is just as likely to remain here after I’m gone, as I've yet not found any satisfactory way to return to civilization with my pockets full of empty.
Failure is always enlightening... I guess I should have known I wasn't much of a match for the desert cold—especially if I don't even bother to wear pants.
This particular adventure didn't take much out of me...which is a disappointment...as I always prefer to return from the wild less than I was when I came. I didn't go far enough this time…didn't get clear of the relative safety of the ghost town called Siberia…where even the ruins of humanity offer some comfort and protection. You need to get really clear of that stuff—even the dead stuff that can only live in a ghost town—before the Indifference can be clearly seen. Next time I’ll do better. I won’t run so easily from the cold—or the isolation—or the quiet—or the deep emptiness of nature…which fact is what really made me shiver and leave.
Some hikes are remembered for the landscape and experiences along the way, or for the emotions felt or challenges overcome. Other hikes are recalled for what is lost in the wild, and for the recognition that we ourselves are less important, substantial or permanent than we might have fooled ourselves into thinking. This latter gain may haunt our remaining days like a broken tooth we can't help probing with our tongue, or a troublesome limp we know we'll never overcome, or a pang of lonesome felt with loved ones or in a crowd. Some never go, and avoid the loss altogether, or turn with emphasis towards family, religion, or the distractions of a well-lived life. Yet the empty is out there, like the vacuum of space, or the finality of death, waiting to extract our confidence, certitude and the strange peace of denial if only we'll go alone to meet it.
When I'm alone in the wild I never kindle or keep a campfire, which seems excess warmth and light, and which only presses back the darkness, and the cold, and the empty which fills the universe like a sea. The warmth and light of my little life and pulse are sufficient to peer some yards into the dark. I can reach out a soft, warm hand into the vacuum night, feeling my latent energy swim away from my skin, as my muscles and mind scream to pull back the cooling appendage to thrust to safety into a protective pocket, or under the crook of my arm. A campfire in the night would only press back that empty, and blind my senses with warmth and comfort. We find the same thing in society: at work and at home, with friends and loved ones, and in the company of a crowd. So much light and love and warmth, good stuff, very real and necessary, but only a small part of the picture.
I located last week the home of the last schoolmarm of the east Mojave Desert. It’s a small, abandoned house, with a covered patio facing east, where the old woman liked to sit alone in the evenings, watching the sun go down on the Bullion Mountains. I’ll never know her, of course, though she was probably there when my family drove by on Route 66 in the 70s. Her contrived memory made me think of the old woman I used to visit in that very remote, nearly abandoned village in the deep mountains of Japan. An old woman who proudly showed me her home, which once housed more than a dozen family members, now empty, save her daily effort to chase out the ghosts. These remote places hold on tight while they can, while there’s anyone left to try, but then they give up utterly when the last to remember is gone, enabled again only via the fiction of imagination in anyone willing to try and remember.
I discovered today that a coworker is a fellow nihilist. We had a good conversation, like members of a secret society who discover they aren’t so alone in a crowd. I wonder how many others are out there?
I’ve been visiting Siberia for several years now, and the place is becoming peopled with contrived memories which never really happened. Like the “child’s grave” I found last week, and the stone-lined “walking path” I discovered two years ago, or the journal of the “lost” Japanese bicyclist tossed away under the Route 66 bridge. None of these memories are real. Yet they are all based in fact.