Oh gotta see, gotta know right now
What’s that riding on your everything?
It isn’t anything at all.
-Modest Mouse, Gravity Rides Everything
The next morning I awoke to the light of the sun beginning its daily summer walkabout. I checked my phone for the time- only six o’clock.
Still a bit sleepy, I thought. I could get up now… but where do I need to be? I smiled. Abso-fucking-nowhere. Baaahahahahahaha! I rolled away from the sunlight and dozed peacefully until seven-thirty, the temperature in my tent steadily rising.
Eventually, I lazily stepped outside, setting some bananas on a nearby bench, and wandered a hundred feet to the nearby pit toilet. When I returned a minute later, there were three gray squirrely-marmot things going to town on my precious bananas.
Oh you cute little bastards, I thought as I ran to the bench waving my arms and shouting “Oy, come off it ya li’l buggers!” They chirped frantically and scattered, and I inspected the damage as the devil-squirrels eyed me warily from atop a nearby boulder. They had only barely gotten into two of my four bananas, yet their vile rodentian saliva had seeped into and destroyed those they had touched.
I immediately grinned, tossing the ruined bananas in their direction, as I thanked the Universe I still had two left.
The heat was quickly becoming intolerable. Within the hour even the squirrel thieves were gone, hiding from the sun’s brutal oppression. I wondered where they hid, that I might hide with them.
After breakfast I migrated into David’s site- he had left early in the morning on his way to Arizona, eventually working his way northwest to Seattle. There was a small trail leading from his site up and around a gigantic boulder, which could protect a tent with its shade until nine in the morning, and I wanted that spot. I figured that a couple extra hours of shade in the morning was well worth the hassle of moving my tent and all my junk a hundred yards away.
Once I finished the site migration, I headed over to Jon’s place, and we chatted as he shared coffee and hard-boiled eggs with me.
“Coffee? You have coffee?” I had asked, incredulous. I had never considered the possibility of instant coffee before that morning- I’d only ever had grounds through a coffeemaker, and I recalled a moment of sorrow during my trip preparations when I’d realized I wouldn’t have any hot caffeinated beverage while out on the road- but this magical powder changed everything. I quickly added instant coffee to my personal shopping list.
I eventually wandered off- I was still feeling shy, and more importantly I wanted to explore a bit, as this would be my only full day in Joshua Tree. Turns out, though, that exploring Joshua Tree in the 100 degree heat of summer is kinda impossible. So instead I sought out shaded nooks and crannies in the boulder field, playing Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate on my 3DS. I admit I felt a little silly at first, playing a video game in a National Park on my first day away from civilization.
But, shit, dude. I thought. Who’s gonna stop me? Who’s gonna judge me? Nobody! Ha! It’s too hot to do anything else right now anyways. Those banana-stealing furballs have the right of it. I’m gonna hide in the shade, and I’m gonna hunt some monsters. So I proceeded to take down some mighty beasts, and the Lord looked upon it, and the Lord saw that it was badass.
At one point in my monster-slaying I had noticed Jon wandering the campground, shouting exuberant greetings to every camper he passed. I thought it was strange- while camping with my family over the years, the vibe was always “don’t disturb the other campers, we wouldn’t want them to disturb us.” Yet this guy was trying to start conversations with anybody who responded to him. What’s up with that? I thought. Isn’t he bothering everybody?
In the late afternoon, after standing triumphantly upon a dozen corpses of dragons and other strange beasts, I sought out Jon again. He was hanging out at another camper’s site, sharing in some incredible shade there. I joined them- the site was occupied by a middle-aged couple from Texas, named Carl and Pam.
We all smoked and drank together, expounding on the desolate beauty of the desert landscape for a while, before me and Jon went back to his site.
Once there, I asked Jon about his seemingly over-social behavior earlier. “Like… aren’t you worried about bothering people?” I asked. Something inside me was insisting that campers liked to be left alone.
Jon shook his head. “Naw, man,” he said, “if somebody wants to talk, then they’ll talk back. If not, then they won’t, and you just keep moving to the next person, no harm done.”
His next words would change me, and define my social attitude for the rest of my journey.
“See,” Jon said, “if you don’t talk to anybody, then nobody’s gonna talk to you.”
I reeled. It was so fucking obvious. I felt an old, old tension deep within start to crack and loosen. I remembered camping with my dad when I was younger, the memories flowing through me. He liked camping with the family, and wasn’t particularly interested in bringing random campers into the experience. So I was taught not to talk to other campers- Surely they all feel the same way, I had reasoned. There was nobody to tell me otherwise; the word of parents at that age is the word of God. It wasn’t that my dad was anti-social; it was just that family time was family time. But my mind framed it as an eternal rule of camping. Based on misinterpreting that singular experience that occurred so many years ago, an incongruous belief was solidified in my young head, and had persisted throughout my life to that very day.
And then, with Jon’s words, that belief shook itself free and my posture involuntarily straightened. I belched out a mighty burp as the clump of stored energy around the belief expelled itself from me. I immediately felt lighter.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, Fate spoke again, through a toothy grin: Step Three, release achieved.
Energy shot up my spine before radiating out as lightning bolts of tingling sensation throughout my body. I could see every event that had to happen to bring about that particular moment, even as I saw a cloud of possibilities for future meetings coalescing on the horizon. My past and my future were Yin and Yang, and my present was the two rotating in perfect harmony. I understood that just as my own miraculous multitude of specific experiences had manifested my own present, the same process was simultaneously happening in David and in Jon and in everybody else I would meet on the road: all of us, the result of an infinite number of forks in the road going one way instead of another, in order for our paths to cross at a particular moment.
That statement- “If you don’t talk to anybody, then nobody’s gonna talk to you”- had just shifted my sails in the direction of dozens of kindred spirits whom I otherwise may have never even approached.
Holy shit, I thought, possibilities blooming in my imagination like a freshly unfolding lotus. Then:
“Holy shit!” I said, laughing as the epiphanic tingle slowly faded to a comfortable glowing warmth. This was the first major lesson of my journey, the first of many- and the perfect one to kick off the trip with. From then on, every National Park I would visit afterwards would teach me something specific, something deep and true.
Me and Jon then shared our stories. He had been all over the world as a marine, and had taken some incredible road trips afterwards, including a drive down through South America with his girlfriend. I talked about my freshly begun spirit quest and how I had no idea what I was doing. I told him I just wanted to be totally open to the winds of Fate and hopefully find my purpose, my personal Truth, and he jived on it.
“Dude, keep your heart open to whatever the Universe brings into your experience, and amazing things will happen to you,” he said, gesturing passionately.
I laughed a deep, honest laugh, and replied “Dude, I know right!? Finally, somebody else who understands this shit!”
It felt so good to share the Universal perspective with somebody, to meet someone who understood that Truth was found in personal experience, not in dogmatic texts or second-hand perspectives. Somebody who understood what Faith really meant, instead of the prescribed interpretations laid down by pastors and the like. I’d tried to talk along these lines with many people over my life, and less than a handful really, really got it. For the most part, I was treated like I was crazy… or at least a little on the odd side. I mean, enough folk appreciated the concept, but they didn’t live it. There was a certain depth of understanding missing, and while I don’t hold it against anybody, the gap prevented me from getting close to people. Because so much of this perspective is beyond words- an experience predating language itself- it’s something I have great difficulty describing, and I can only deeply connect with people who already get it.
In a way, my social life has been a long string of convincing myself that certain people were on the same strange wavelength as me, or at least close enough to relate to it. Almost every time, though- sometimes after many years- it would become clear that I had manufactured a delusion, projecting my own perspective onto another out of a deep desperation to find a kindred spirit. I was so tired of feeling alone, you see. So fucking tired. The deep, haunting ache of spiritual isolation has been with me for as long as I can remember.
It’s frustrating and intensely painful much of the time, but to be honest… I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s a beautiful and precious secret, one I couldn’t tell even if I wanted to, and finding those rare people who hold the same secret is truly incredible. Being able to occasionally share a glance, an embrace, or a thought with one of my few soul-brothers or soul-sisters makes a lifetime of loneliness worth it.
There’s Truth hidden in the silence, for those who seek it; but I cannot give it to you.
By this point, the sun was well into its descent, so I excused myself to do a little solo wandering while the temperatures were tolerable. I wandered off into the desert towards an interesting looking rock formation, which turned out to be an incredibly sculpted cave of weathered monzogranite. A badass skull carved into the stone and an incredible golden tree-shadow made the spot magical, and I lingered there for a while. Just on the other side of the cave, though, more massive formations beckoned- and I soon set out for them.
I scaled a rocky crevice to an incredible sunset view of what must be the hidden valley for which the campground was named. I stood above a valley of rocks- thousands and thousand of stones forming the valley walls and the valley floor. A group of teenagers was there as well, and after we took a few photos for each other, they shared a blunt with me as we watched the sun set in serene silence.
Once the sun disappeared over the horizon, I hastened back to camp before it got too dark to see. This was rattlesnake country, and while I wasn’t particularly worried about them, I’d rather not trip over one in the dark. On the way back, I almost took a detour to say hello to another group of hikers who seemed super chill, but got shy about it and passed them by. Still, the fact that I had considered approaching them at all was a big step in a new direction inspired by Jon’s cheerful words.
Back at camp, I cooked chili for dinner over my tiny camping stove before curling up in my badass blue folding chair with built-in footrest- a parting gift from my dad which I am eternally grateful for- and once again pulled out my journal to log the day. As I wrote, I discovered I was completely exhausted, too tired even for stargazing.
Soon, I was once again falling into a blissful sleep, replete with a deep, growing joy, without a care in the world- yet full of a glorious anticipation.
For tomorrow- oh God, tomorrow! Tomorrow!
Tomorrow I would drive to one of the most amazing places on the planet. A giant mile-deep rift in the Colorado Plateau which had spoken to me a month earlier, inspiring me to go on this journey in the first place. A place of color and texture and depth and immensity and divine wisdom.
A place of magic.
Tomorrow, I would be camping at the grandest canyon on Earth.
Read next: Chapter 3: Life on the Rim, Part One