"A Land Fit for Holy Men To Walk"
In recent weeks I've taken to hiking in the desert which, I realize, is a relative term: I live in the desert, this entire area is known as the Sonoran Desert, so the desert is – in a word – everywhere. By definition then, no matter where I go around here I'm still “in the desert.”
This is “A Land Fit For Holy Men To Walk.” That's how legendary comedian and social commentator Lenny Bruce described the Great Southwest in a monologue about Manifest Destiny and the Westward Expansion of the late 19th Century. Assuming the character of an American Congressman of the period, he pointed out that while the tribes of the Great Plains were being displaced from the verdant lands they'd roamed for the past several thousand years, their new home in the arid wastes of the Southwest would have suited Christ and Moses just fine, thank you very much. And if it was good enough for Christ and Moses . . .
I've crossed the lands west of the Mississippi River numerous times by automobile – and on several occasions by using my thumb – and at some point in each journey I have found myself thinking “This is what we drove the Indians out for? There's nothing here.” All you have to do is compare a map from 1885 with a contemporary one: there's not a great deal of difference. True, there are some large metropolitan areas dotted about and what are little more than glorified settlements and former trading posts but for the most part it's the wide open spaces. The Great White Father, his successors and their minions have done next to nothing with the great expanse between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. They might as well have put all those Chinese and Irish laborers to work digging a tunnel from St Louis to Los Angeles instead of building railroads, leaving the tribes and the great buffalo herds to their wandering ways. But I digress . . .
So what's the difference between where I've been hiking and where my neighborhood grocery is located? On a map, about five miles. Also, there's a great deal more asphalt at the grocery store and far more people wandering about which, I suppose, stands to reason. Far fewer cactus, as well.
I'm not exactly a stranger to hiking. I used to live in Seattle and often spent a day or weekend hiking up into the Cascade or Olympic Mountains or through an Old Growth forest. To someone who grew up in a Chicago suburb, strapping on a backpack and making a trek up through low cloud layers and around waterfalls to break into blinding sunlight on the shore of an ice cold, crystal-clear Alpine lake or padding soundlessly through the half-light beneath a Redwood canopy seemed pretty exotic, the subject of travelogues and documentaries. Not exactly, in other words, something my buddies and I fantasized about when playing. But here in the desert it's a whole 'nother story.
GERONIMO, PAUL & ME
I've no way of knowing if Geronimo, the legendary Chiricahua Apache leader, ever set foot in these hills or sat on the rock outcrop at the edge of Lost Dog Overlook and gazed out across the basin below. I'll admit it would be pretty fine to be able to call up my friend Paul and tell him I was sipping water and munching raw almonds in the exact location Geronimo – and maybe his father-in-law, the almost as legendary Cochise – used as a safe harbor from the never-ending war against the U.S. Cavalry and to commune with his thoughts and Maker. But again: I've nothing to back that claim up and I don't believe in “little white lies” so that's not going to happen. Paul might never know but I would and you don't lie to someone you've known for over half a century regardless of how “harmless” or “innocent” the lie would seem to be.
When I hike up to the Overlook – 2000 feet above the desert floor – I carry a lightweight, nylon backpack which contains two bottles of water, a notebook and pen, something to snack on, and my cell phone which has a terrific camera. It also has GPS but, hey: I know where I am, I'm in the desert. Don't need a satellite to tell me that. It's more for emergency purposes: should I somehow manage to injure myself and render myself unconscious in the process, a rescue team will be able to find me. Provided, of course, the phone hasn't been damaged, carried off by a coyote or was somehow dropped along the way, the sort of things that happen far more often than we might think, I'm sure.
GERONIMO, PAUL, ME & . . . ROBERT PLANT?
I've been up to the Lost Dog Overlook six times in the past month, with the fourth ascent being the most memorable, by far.
A storm had rolled in sometime before dawn, with plenty of thunder and lightning along with rain of Biblical proportions. By the time our dogs had been out for their early morning walk – around 0615 – the rain and thunder had stopped, but flashes of lightning could still be seen at irregular intervals. The clouds were dark, heavy and low. What better time for a hike, eh? I packed the usual items and headed out Shea Boulevard at best possible speed for the Lost Dog Trailhead.
The rain had started up again before I reached the 124th Street turn off and was falling steadily by the time I pulled into the trailhead parking lot. Feeling bold and adventurous, I left my glasses, my watch, my cell phone, and the back pack in the car, taking only a single bottle of water with me. The lightning flashes were cracking the sky every 15 or 20 seconds, the accompanying thunder rumbling through the basin and bouncing off the surrounding hillsides. I wasn't fifty yards up the trail before I was soaked clean through to the skin, so I took off my t-shirt and carried on, occasionally wondering how often hikers were struck by lightning. Golfers I could understand: they spend their time walking around carrying metal sticks while wearing shoes with metal spikes on the soles. If that isn't asking for trouble I don't know what is.
I broke into an uneven jog: it's well-nigh impossible to pick 'em up and put 'em down at a metronomic pace over these trails when it's sunny and dry, but in the wet? Not gonna happen. Holding my water bottle in one hand, my t-shirt in the other, I started laughing as the trail's grade increased. Paul would love this!, I thought. So primordial, so elemental, so Shakespeare's The Tempest.
I've always enjoyed walking in the rain – with someone or by myself – but there is nothing like being out in a raging storm. Where I grew up the horrific storms that hit the Calumet Region every Spring and Summer were called “electrical storms”, though I've never been sure why. It may have been a reference to the unimaginable voltage contained in the lightning that could illuminate an entire block, the flash freezing everything for one brief, unforgettable moment. Small children were held a little closer, a little tighter and told the thunder and lightning were nothing more than the angels bowling. I don't recall there being a similar explanation for the wind that shook the walls and tore the shingles off roofs or the rain that thrashed so hard against the windows you expected them to bust out at any moment.
I'd taken to standing out in storms in high school – much to my Mom's horror. I'd received the “Do you want to get struck by lightning?” speech a number of times, invariably followed by her double-mantra of “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” and “God, give me strength!” Once I got a car, though, I'd just head out to a convenient spot - usually Lincoln Field, a large tree-encircled open space in the center of town – and walk, stand or lie on the ground until it all blew over. What can I say? At an age when many of my contemporaries were into sports, girls, cars, and getting drunk on Saturday night I was into rock & roll, books, and weather. Different strokes for different folks, as Sly & The Family Stone used to sing.
The current storm bore little resemblance to those I've just described but it was still mighty impressive and in full force when I reached the Overlook. At first, I stood in the center of the clearing where – one assumes – the majority of hikers stop for a breather, a bit of water, and maybe to snug their shoes up a bit. Arms stretched up and out from my shoulders at forty-five degree angles, palms turned skyward, I felt the rain against my face, chest and back, running down my arms, dripping from my hair down my neck. Now, I'm not a guy who prays in the conventional sense in that I don't invoke God or Buddha or Mohammed or Yaweh or any saints or prophets or whomever so in that moment I thanked The Universe for the six decades-long path that led me from Gold Coast to the Lost Dog Overlook, where I could stand in the midst of a raging storm, laughing and feeling alive in every cell.
Struck by a sudden notion, I made my way to the edge of the rocky promontory that looks out over the basin and shouted into the wind, “Hey, Robert! Where are you, buddy?” That would be Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame, don't you know. Standing bare-chested and laughing into the face of a storm, daring lighting to strike, is borderline mythological/Viking stuff and if anyone could appreciate my rain-soaked actions, the sentiments behind them and the resulting elation I would think it would be The Once & Future Golden God of Rock & Roll. No, I didn't break into an a capella version of “Stairway To Heaven” or the criminally-overlooked “Ten Years Gone” nor did I cry out “Valhalla I am coming!” - I've got songs of my own when I want to sing – but after years of toting the barge and lifting the bale, nose to the grindstone, shoulder to the wheel, beating myself up for perceived transgressions and the unmet expectations of others (all of which, I admit, is nobody's fault but mine) I was – within that moment – free and alive.
Shortly thereafter the weather broke, the rain moving off to the west as shafts of sunlight worked their way through the clouds to the desert floor. I felt great: wet, certainly, but elated in that way which comes after doing something solely for yourself, something that even as you try to describe it to someone else seems less-than-heroic with every word. You end up taking a dismissive stance, mumbling “well, y'know . . . it was, I don't know . . .” until the listener says – out of boredom or mercy - “I guess you had to be there” which is, in fact, the point: you had to be there.
AT LAST: TIPS FOR HIKING IN THE DESERT
Read Frank Herbert's masterpiece Dune. This will prepare you for the desert far more than any pamphlet by some so-called expert and probably cost you far less (see #5).
A cactus is no substitute for a compass: moss does not grow on its north side and its arms point all over the place.
Don't sing while hiking – you aren't re-enacting The Sound of Music - as it will only help to tire you out and also allow moisture to leave your body that may prove useful later (see #1 and #4).
Water is very heavy, but bring plenty of it anyway. You don't want to find yourself at the urine drinking stage (trust me on this).
Remember to bring your cell phone as its GPS function could prove handy in an emergency situation. That's all the high-tech stuff you need. Unless you're taking part in some kind of study, you don't need to monitor your respiration/blood pressure/pulse/brain waves or any other bodily functions to tell whether you're getting a workout or not.
As you're going to be out in Nature, enjoy the wonders of it because you can see concrete and cars and fast food franchises every day of the week.
Finally, if there are others with you, there's nothing that says you have to bunch up together. Use the time on the trail to think or to meditate or to simply clear out your mind. You can talk all you want during rest periods and there'll be plenty of noise – if it's noise you need – once you get back to town.
Get it? Got it? Good. See you on the trail . . .