In the late 1980s and early 1990s I had the opportunity to drive through the deserts of Arizona, Nevada, and California on several occasions. Each time I would make the drive from Phoenix to Las Vegas, stopping for a day or two to gamble and take in the sights, then continue through Death Valley to Los Angeles. I would leave Phoenix at just after two or three in the morning driving through the night and arrive, if memory serves, sometime in the afternoon.
Driving through the desert, especially alone, can be a really strange experience, especially for one as young as I was (I was just hitting my twenties) at the time. However, the three or four times I did this, it left an incredible mark on me. One can experience the desert in several ways, but to find oneself in the desert alone, really pushes one’s consciousness to extreme levels. Whether it is nearly falling asleep at the wheel several times during the night ride, or hallucinating under an intense and constant sun in the middle of Death Valley, one certainly finds it a mentally and physically challenging experience.
The desert is a harsh and unforgiving place. I recall driving and always being worried that I would, at some point, run out of gas. I passed many signs along the way that read “No gas for the next 75 or 100 miles.” One has to plan carefully for stops. While driving through Death Valley I was completely in awe of the straightness of the roads. On my second trip I was driving toward 1000 Palms, California when suddenly the car I was in began to shake. A loud noise rumbled up from the ground and before I knew it a jet fighter zoomed over me at a very low altitude. For a fleeting moment I realized I wasn’t alone, and, alternatively, just how alone I was. This contradictory nature that the desert imposes is unnerving.
What one notices about oneself when alone in the desert is the sheer immensity of things. Spaces are no longer confined, as they are in cities, and subdivided as they are in the suburbs. One can drive for a hundreds of miles in a kind of daze, only to realize all at once that the destination is still hundreds of miles away. One can spot mountains miles and hours away. By the time those mountains are passed several hours have gone by, but the driver will struggle to remember exactly how he or she got to the foot of those mountains.
During the summer of 2001 I traveled to Marrakech, Morocco to deliver a paper at a conference. I had always been obsessed with the romantic mythology surrounding the Sahara, and this trip gave me the opportunity to at least visit its outer edges. The walls of Marrakech are a light red, giving it an unearthly sheen at sunup and sundown. I came away with the sense of being in a wholly different place. To this day it is the most magnificent place I have visited. There are many things to say about Marrakech, but I will limit myself here to just a word or two about the desert that surrounds it.
The sands of the Sahara are drifting continually westward, sometimes reaching well into the Atlantic Ocean. I was surprised by its rockiness on the outskirts of Marrakech. I was expecting sand dunes and brightly colored tents, instead I found rocks and camel shit. It was nothing like I expected, but it still cast its spell over me. The light in the desert immediately transfixed me. The sun is a constant companion, and the feeling of being watched is always there. I began to identify with Meursault from Camus’s The Stranger. The sand is gritty and dirty. The look just beyond the walls of the old city is like an alley that has seen better days. Everything becomes suspect, and everything becomes slightly dangerous because it’s so foreign. This is also part of its excitement and charm. To really be in the Sahara is to be shaken awake from the romantic notions and plunged into the reality, which is touristy.
The desert is a lonely place. The desert traveler awakens to a new kind of consciousness once he or she has been there. This new consciousness never leaves, even long after one has returned home. In his essay on the Sahara, titled “The Baptism of Solitude,” Paul Bowles writes: “Immediately when you arrive in the Sahara, for the first or the tenth time, you notice the stillness.” It’s that stillness that stirs the soul, that unnerves those of us who are used to familiarity. There is nothing familiar about being alone in the desert.
One cannot travel to the desert and return home untouched. Traveling through the desert, any desert, I suspect, is not like taking a trip to Disney. The desert changes you, and sometimes not for the better. Yet, I know that ever since the first time I found myself in a desert environment, I have longed to return.