THE GREAT LIFE ADVENTURE
My daughter’s weekend adventure
My daughter had a fine adventure this past weekend. There was excitement, and fun, and a bit of danger. I could tell from her voice and eyes that she had had a real adventure. I suggested to her that she would remember the experience all the days of her life. And I am sure she will. Her adventure was a milestone among days. A moment to mark in her mind and reflect upon from time-to-time to the end of her life. Her adventure was also an event in the continued molding of her emerging adult character.
The thing is to sometimes feel alive
Adventure does that to us
And feel alive
And remember what you felt then
It is good to feel alive sometimes. Life is often tough and may seem a drudge. Though if we allow ourselves at times to break free and ramble, to duck our heads under the velvet rope and go where we perhaps shouldn't, to say and do things others might not approve of, or which might earn us sour glances; then we can add some seeming joyful value of living to the challenging story of our lives; brighten the pages with interest and insert colorful, descriptive adjectives where our tale might otherwise lack luster. It is a good thing to adventure sometimes, especially when we are young, when we are becoming ourselves, and when practice can easily become habit.
Without costumes, and two weeks too soon, my wife and I haunted together yesterday the scene and setting of one of our past lives; a place we each once took for granted, or even gave little or no thought to, though it was the setting of our home and our lives then; a pass-through city where we lived a few years in pursuit of another life; a younger life, a less deliberate life of immediacy and excess and searching. We left that place together two-decades back with a fortune and memories, and returned yesterday with only a fortune of memories and something more...a "story" and perhaps some maturity to help us see past the immediacy and excess and searching which once blinded us to whatever current life we could not then live for the fact of our incessant gaze towards something else. That something else is now largely forgotten—not given up, but forgotten–or maybe simply realized as not true, or anything worth being sought. That is it. The old dream—the old dream of youth—was discovered to be quite shallow and almost empty; a straw figure and caricature of how we once thought life should be...must be...the only way we then really knew.
And so, we returned yesterday together like old soldiers returning home from a twenty-years’ war. We walked side-by-side—leading and carrying our small dogs—through the city gates we recognized, and right up through the boulevard into the community of our past neglect. Everything is mostly the same... Though there are new faces to be sure. Faces which were children or which did not exist the last time we were here. Faces which themselves may now see the old dream which we once sought as real. It is still there, clearly, the old dream... Or maybe it is nowhere? Maybe it is only a figment of youth? We are blind to that dream now it seems, though we remember it, and we spoke of it—like the memory of being terribly ill, the fever and the pain and the inability to sleep or rest or to ever feel good or even to know any real peace. Walking these streets together yesterday I could remember all this and more, including the drive and determination—as well as the dawning upset of falsity and illusion—which I once wore like an expensive coat everywhere I went, like a feign reality of determined satisfaction I might somehow make real if I only showed it outwardly for all the world to see. Or maybe the sense was more like smoke-tinted glasses, casting a strange, dark hue upon everything I saw, adding some sense of distance and disconnect to all that was immediate and now. That is it, I think... I could not easily see now then for my want and desire of a future I thought should be true. That want is no more. That desire is passed. I have been to that future and I know better what it is and what it is not. That future was given up for the present—not fully yet, of course, we can probably never achieve that great feat—but mostly. Yeah. Mostly... And this has made a difference. The streets of our past therefore looked the same, as they hardly changed, though we now no longer simply see past them as we did twenty-years back, as we now no longer desire to live someplace imagined, and only wish to live in the place which is real. And so, we haunted together the streets of our past life—though now we are no longer ghosts.
A note from adventure
I am typing you this note with some difficulty from a tent in the deep desert. There's just one-bar of connection. It is hot. And it is dark. The stars are great. The night air hot. I sense the damage done to my motorcycle yesterday. It is like an invalid horse required to get away from this place. I did not sleep well for the heat, and the hard ground, and the trains. And soon the sun will rise. It will blaze and attempt to kill me here. I will certainly die if I remain... It is hard here. It is hard. And I am old now. And feeling it. This is why I came to this place. This is why I come. The Great Life Adventure.
Crossing The Brothers Karamazov
I am currently reading Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamozov. It is a big book. A very big book! I'm now almost halfway through–347 pages in–and I'm suddenly reminded of crossing the desert...
What a fool I've been Wanting to get across the desert Rather than cross the desert
You see, I have long wished to add the reading of this novel to my list of completed books. I have desired to do this for many years, for more than two decades, in fact. I tried once in my thirties, and failed... The Dostoevsky book was just too much for me then. I was not yet up to the task of taking on this significant novel. Like when I was younger, and exploring in the desert, I was not then ready to go very far, or very alone, into the deep wastes. I was not prepared then to explore territories so unfamiliar and seemingly strange. I was not ready–or better yet, properly motivated–to cross either the great novel or the great desert–in a manner deserving of their significance and magnitude. And when I did try at that younger age, I was seeking only to get across...to add the fact of successful crossing to my list of places crossed and books complete. To check these achievements off my to-do lists. That is the difference between then and now, between my younger years as an adventurer and reader, and the older explorer I have become. The difference is the motive–for my reasons now to cross both the desert and this book are much better than before–my improved desire is to actually cross great wilderness spaces and great literary expanse, rather than to simply report that I'd done so. I am crossing now for the experience, rather than the achievement. I go to go–rather than to simply say I had gone.
To want to simply cross off anything worthwhile is always an ignoble aim. I see that now... For I am now–in fact–after an end and not a journey. There's simply not enough time left for any lesser aim.
The end and not the journey
That is an old and tired-out phrase to be sure...but it is true. So true! This is because the book which I am currently reading–The Brothers Karamazov–is indeed hard...very hard. It is hard to read. It is also hard to carry, being enormous, and therefore very difficult to fit in the hand or hold while reading–which is intimidating. Plus, the translated Russian language is thick and dense. And the names... Oh, the names! They are positively impossible, unfamiliar, and seemingly inconsistent. Why, for example is the man–the elderly patron called Kuzma Kuzmitch–sometimes referred to as "Samsonov"? Or the woman, Agrafena Alexandrovna, called instead "Grushenka" (and what is the seemingly hidden meaning of this presumed nickname? Does "Grushenka" have some nuance in the context of 19th century Russian culture? I think it does... Though I do not yet understand what that nuance is). Another name–most difficult of all–is Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov, the hero of the story, who is variously identified throughout the book as: Alyosha, Alyoshka, Alyoshenka, Alyoshechka, Alexeichik, Lyosha, and Lyoshenka? What is up with these names! Such names are impossible for me to pronounce in the reading dialogue of my mind, as they make me stumble in my stream-of-thought. And they are harder still to remember! I practically need a name concordance for this novel just to keep track! But that is rather the point of reading such a book, is it not? For isn't the very difficulty of this challenge one of the best reasons to approach the landscape of so great a tale? To pass through a strange and unfamiliar place...to make such landscape and circumstance less alien and unfamiliar by virtue of a long stretch of exposure through deep, challenging reading? Isn't this very challenge the point of exploring such a great book in the first place? And isn't this also the very same reason I always go to the deep end of the desert? To wander there without maps. To explore only alone? The motives and rewards for both such adventures–literary and exploratory–are certainly the same.
And now, I see clearly the similarity between reading a novel like The Brothers Karamazov and crossing an empty desert by oneself. For, when I'm alone in the deep desert–trudging with difficulty across areas of nondescript sand and rock, towards some distant and nameless black volcanic peak–I often forget then my place by virtue of my focus on the mountain - the goal - which is my decided destination and the thing I've come to claim. I sometimes also neglect the journey, and the moments along the way, in anticipation of successful conclusion to my aim. I see and hold dear the end of my walk–with the promise of a someday-remembered conquest of a particular desert end–rather than the experience of the gaining of that end. And in the process, I so often miss the moments of passing desert distinctness and interest, the things and circumstance of the desert which I could not otherwise know but for the experience of that hard journey. The complex geology for instance, and the sight of ancient rocks layered and twisted and deformed, like the seemingly jumbled names of characters in a classic Russian novel. I stumble at such spots and twist a foot, and then forget the land or the sentence in my head. I sweat and feel mild delirium and confusion in the heat of my effort, and then neglect what is before me now, or what Alyosha just said to Grushenka. I complain and fuss and possibly turn back or even close and put down the book. And I ask myself then why I do this? Why did I come to such a place? Why do I read such a book? And–a deeper mystery in the moment–why do I always return?
When I have had almost too much of both the desert and the book, I wonder then aloud at how much further there is to go, how much desert yet to cross, how much book yet to read? I squint and gaze ahead to my distant desert volcanic peak, my goal–and then peek ahead to the end of The Brothers Karamozov, in order to spy out how many pages of this challenge remain to be endured (such a shameful–yet accurate–word to confess) before this unending work is done. But then something happens. And I remember why I came...why I do these things. It is when I encounter something special and distinct along the way–and I always do. When I find a rare–yet common–place within the desert–or the book–which captures my vision and mind. And I stop to reflect with gratitude for the place or circumstance or idea which I have found. I become grateful then for the effort of crossing the desert and the book. But not for the fact of crossing...but instead for the fact of going across. This discovery and gratitude are the same with both the desert and the novel. It is the crossing I have come for. Not the fact of getting across.
And I always find such places... Always.
One such place in the desert where I haunt–the Deep-Water Wilderness–is somewhere I call The Sandman's Bed, which I have described in my book Going Alone within the chapter titled The Anxiety Hike. There is such a place in The Brothers Karamazov too, within the short chapter titled "Cana of Galilee." But you must read the entire book to that point to understand–just as you must walk the full length of the desert sands to the point of The Sandman's Bed–if you are to truly perceive the sense of what Dostoevsky is trying to say, and convey, in Cana of Galilee, and to know what can truly be found within The Sandman's Bed. You must cross the difficult desert just as you must read the difficult book. You must travel through the hard places–which become less hard for the simple fact of the difficulty of their successful passage. You simply cannot have the destination without the journey. And when I realized this...when I saw how reading The Brothers Karamozov is like moving with confusion and some pain alone through my beloved desert...then I saw the whole book...like the entirety of the desert...for what such adventures truly are–a crossing, rather than something to get across.
Notes from my muse
Embarking alone into the wild is always hard, and I usually fret and worry about things right up to the moment I hoist the backpack onto my shoulders and set out. In fact, in both Japan, and now America, my wife and daughter were used to seeing me return home within hours—when I'd planned to be away days—after I’d been scared back from the wild by a fear I could not overcome. Years ago, my failure rate was above 50%, and my family often responded to my "see you in a few days" with "see you soon!" They were usually right...
Now that I'm in my fifties, my failure rate has dropped to almost zero. This is in part due to experience and a more reasoned assessment of the risks, but mostly it's simply because I know I'm running out of time; and the risk of NOT going to the wild while my mind and body are still able, is now more fearful to me than whatever scary things used to frighten me away. I no longer turn back.
Lately, I've taken to embarking at night. This is for practical reasons, given that my adventuring always takes place from Thursday to Saturday, once each month, on the week of the full moon. So, to get the most out of this time, I leave for the desert directly after work on Thursday evening, ride my motorcycle 200 miles to Siberia, where I then park and begin a long night hike into the scary dark desert. I've done this enough now that it's becoming routine, and I'm learning to find my way through the desert at night without the aid of compass or landmarks. True...I always wake up the next morning somewhere I didn't expect, but for now we'll just call that a bonus surprise.
Departure after dark has its advantages in so many venues of life. This is less due to the cover darkness offers, rather than the vulnerability it provides to our deeper fears and anxieties, causing us to lay bare our hidden heart to the world of night and whatever might be lurking. It's no coincidence that with age I increasingly choose to advance upon my fears while they have the advantage of knowing precisely where I am, while I have no idea where I’ll lift my head when the dawn finds me again.
Leaving home before dawn at the start of a new solo venture is always hard; not for the danger, risk or solitude of the coming days, but for the fact of stepping off the rails of everything we trust for our immediate peace-of-mind.
It's lunchtime now, just a few hours to go before I leave this routine, and head to the desert without a plan. That timid creature within is making quite a fuss now, complaining of nondescript fears, outlining risks no worse than routine, and asking after the value of the nothing I know I'll find. Hardest of all are the happy and safe images of family and home I leave behind: a hot and delicious meal, laughter with the ones I love, a strong lock upon the door, and a safe, warm bed deep in the night. That timid creature within makes a pretty good case, I won't deny. And sometimes I'm even tempted back from the edge. Not tonight though, timid thing. There's room enough in life to both hold the ones we love, and face the things we fear. And good reason to do both.
Dinner is done and it’s time to ride. The night is so very cold, and a strong wind is blowing hard and colder still. It’s another one hundred miles to Siberia ghost town, where the only welcome will be darkness and silence. I dearly love this part of the journey. Where it’s time to stop talking, and instead to start doing.
There's no satisfaction in leaving a desert too soon. No relief in retreat. No peace, as after a trial.
The desert won. I’m in retreat. Last night’s long, cold ride out, the long exposure in my cheap sleeping bag, and then the morning’s relentless, biting wind, sapped my determination to remain another night. This is interesting, as I always thought it would be the summer heat which would send me packing. However, now it all makes sense, as it’s always the cold which gets us all in the end.
I’m back home again and musing over my failure in the desert today. I’m starting to wonder if my return had less to do with the cold, and more to do with the fact that my work out there may simply be done?
Arriving at nowhere is a challenge any time. Arriving nowhere after dark only increases the risk of success. But once we're settled—and have had a chance to poke around the nowhere with a flashlight and a stick, weeding out what isn't there from the back of our minds, settling our sense that we're really alone, and must now only content with ourselves—that's when the real fun and interest begins. But only if we go alone. And only if we're truly ready and willing to fail.
While going through my captured videos from yesterday's failed desert outing, I came across a clip which I really don't have any use for... That said, I thought the clip was interesting, as it shows what it's like to arrive at Siberia ghost town after dark. The video is from my helmet-mounted camera (which I didn't know was on) recording my walk back to the motorcycle after a brief reconnaissance around the ruined structure of the old railroad ticket office, which I always do immediately upon arrival in order to make sure there isn't anyone sleeping there - for the record, I've never found anyone at the ghost town, though I have found evidence and clues that people have been there between my monthly visits. I always leave the motorcycle running when I arrive, so I can easily find my way back, and perhaps make a fast retreat should I discover other living beings in the ghost town who don’t want me around. The video cuts off (the camera stopped on its own) immediately as I began talking into my iPhone that the place is secure.
I enjoy waking up alone in strange places. The alone part is not for the sake of being alone, but for the benefit of not having the comfort of anyone to distract or reassure me from my fear. I'd rather be afraid…and have no easy escape from my fear other than to get up, look around and think things through. Whatever I was afraid of is usually gone before I've finished rubbing my eyes, and if it isn't, I'll simply invite it to stay for breakfast.
It's good to wake up someplace strange. Someplace vulnerable; someplace where we lift our unwashed head into a confused scene. Where am I? What's that sound? Am I being watched? Can someone see me here? Then it's good to sit up for a minute; to take in the strange place; to collect our composure, and reflect that we are indeed safe; despite being in the open, and someplace strange, and being watched. Maybe we're in fact safer somehow, for the fact of being confused, and watched, and vulnerable. Safer for the risk, and the blessed upset to deceiving peace.
I received an email this morning from an 82-year-old man affirming the awful facts which are addressed and answered in Going Alone. He shared his own story of discovery, which took place long before I was born. His message was brief, just a nod and affirmation of what isn't out there. I wonder how he's dealt with his discovery all these decades since? I plan to ask him this question. I suspect he's going to tell me that some facts must simple be lived with, and life carried on in the best way possible despite our astonishment and fear.
I’m reading a desert history book this afternoon in preparation for this week’s adventure. Suddenly I realize the fascinating man I’m reading about (Buster Burris is his name) is the same very old man I met at Amboy in the early-1980’s, who served me hot coffee and made me pancakes while listening to my crazy ideas about exploring the desert all alone. I remember his coffee was strong and bitter (the way I like it when I’m on the road) and I remember his hands were very rough and boney, like someone who’s known a lifetime of doing everything for himself. He was desperately thin, though he seemed as strong as a leather rope. I had no idea who he was—as I was too busy talking about myself—and missed an opportunity to spend time with a real historical figure of the East Mojave. Oh, how I wish I could go back and tell my teenaged self to shut up and let the old man speak!
The 82-year old man I've been corresponding with regarding his youthful experiences alone in the wilderness has offered to speak with me on the phone. I'm going to try and ring him up this week. I wonder what Going Alone looks and sounds like after 82 years?
While in the desert last week I spotted Mad Mike Hughes’ rocket launch motorhome - the vehicle upon which he cleverly carried his rocket into the desert, and upon which he’d erected his launch scaffold - stranded in place where the launch had occurred. It seems his enemies got to the vehicle before he could, and have immobilized it. Mike’s since moved on to his next project - the world’s fastest boat - and I wonder if the rocket-launch motorhome will now never be moved.
Since returning to the USA I note two or three deaths per season in the Eastern Mojave Desert. Last year I counted four. I learned today that a man died somewhere in the Old Dad Mountains. Apparently, he went in further than he could get back. The desert does that. There’s an invisible line in the sand we should never cross.
Mid May and the mornings are still cold. I’ve moved the GSA into the ruins at Siberia, safe from the wind, and where it can warm in the sunlight like a lizard on a rock.
I’ve blocked off vacation time around every full moon between now and December. Going Alone this year will be about moonlight, silence and the deepest desolation our planet can offer.
I’m thinking of dropping by to visit the botanist Mary Beal on my way to the desert tonight. However, given she died the same year I was born she may not be too concerned either way. Nevertheless, it’s been over a year and I’d like to catch up.
Early May is when both the mountains of Japan and the deserts of America become truly dangerous. In Japan, this is due to the activity of deadly giant hornets which ambush the careless and unaware. While in the American desert, it's the heat which comes swarming over the landscape from east to west, and from dawn to dusk.
My outing this week produced just one Going Alone video, which I’ve lost to technical difficulties. At least I have a drawing of the experience, which in some ways is a better catalyst to memory than fact.
Leaving a note is a good way to prevent unwanted rescue.
I think one of the reasons we may fear going alone is the seeming invisibility which comes of disconnect. If I walk along the edge of Route 66, every passerby slows and eyes me with concern or caution. If I venture just twenty feet into the desert on either side I then become wholly invisible. How we respond to this fact may dictate how far off trail and alone we’ll ever go.
Going Alone isn’t about running away from people. It’s about discovering how important our connections really are. For when we’ve really been alone, we rarely take for granted the times when we are not. It’s time to go home.
Departing Siberia is always a bittersweet moment of relief and excitement all in one. Relief that the experience is at last over, and I'll soon be safe again at home with my family, while exciting in the knowledge of the two weeks of life ahead with my brain charged and ready for lots of interesting thinking about the contrast between the empty indifference of the universe at large and the wonderful, buoyant, animated communities of life, love and challenging hardship we each must partake during our very brief adventure of life. Goodbye for now, Siberia. See you again in two weeks!
Another solo wilderness adventure in the bag. It’s events like the last twenty-four hours that will someday make the nurses in the old age home ask one another “what’s that old man remembering when he sits gazing out the window smiling?”
I’m typing this note with some difficulty from a tent in the deep desert. There’s just one-bar of connection. It’s hot. And it’s dark. The stars are great. The night air hot. I sense the damage done to my motorcycle yesterday. It’s like an invalid horse required to get away from this place. I didn’t sleep well for the heat, and the hard ground, and the trains. And soon the sun will rise. It’ll blaze and attempt to kill me here. I’ll certainly die if I remain... It’s hard here. It’s hard. And I’m old now. And feeling it. This is why I came to this place. This is why I come. The Great Life Adventure.