I didn’t expect to be invited to a Super Bowl party while living in a trailer in the Chihuahuan Desert. It messes up the story I was going to tell you, about what it’s like living off the grid with no cell phone signal, no Facebook, and no idea what Donald Trump is throwing at the TV cameras today.
But then here comes my landlady, Lori. “Woo hoo,” she yells whenever she’s approaching my trailer. “Woo hooooo!” Texans apparently don’t like to sneak up on people, or get snuck up on. I figure that has to do with either the uncertain location of rattlesnakes, or the fact that everybody has guns. “Oh, I’ve got a bunch of guns,” Lori chortled with her raspy smoker’s laugh. The ground around my trailer is littered with tarnished .30-06 rifle casings, .22 shells, shotgun shells. Mostly from Lori’s teenage son, doing target practice over the years.
Anyways, Lori came over last Saturday to invite me to the Super Bowl party on Sunday, at her trailer. I looked around at the vacant high desert all around us. “Party?” I said. “Yeah!” she said, “we’re going to barbeque! Dale’s coming down from his camper up there—“ she pointed to a small RV parked halfway up the mountain, “–and my son Rusty’s driving down from Alpine, and Jerry’s coming up from the canyon over there.” I had seen Jerry’s place through my binoculars from high up on ridge, a speck of tin nestled back up the foothills. I’m slowly getting the drift out here. What my urban eyes first perceived as uninhabited wilderness is, to the folks who live here, the neighborhood. Everybody knows everybody else within miles and mountain ranges. Which isn’t a lot of people, but it’s some. Lori used to work at the Cottonwood General Store in Study Butte, so she has met every resident in the county.
Still, most days I’m not getting invited to parties. When I don’t make the hour-long drive into town days can go by where I don’t see or hear anyone. I still marvel at the silence. When the air is still, you can hear a twig snap a thousand yards off. I’ve heard one airplane, a little Cessna, passing low over the distant hills a week ago.
You can really go primitive out here, if you want. If you’re looking to buy land the first thing you get asked is, “On or off the grid?” Prices vary accordingly. If you just want some acres to call your own, its available, and relatively cheap. Ranchland in the remote areas is going for 400. to 500. an acre. Want a well? Road access? Electric line? You pay more. A typical listing in the local real estate flyer reads, “926 acres in Pecos County, 1 water well with solar pump, cattle pens and small barn, new fences, large neighboring ranches, abundant wildlife, 1,200/acre.” No matter where you buy, you’ll have mountain views that just shut you up. The various For Sale descriptions tell it all. “Longdraw Bluff Line…solid road access, Study Butte…Chisos Mountains view…Solitario…8 miles north of Terlingua Ranch, Gate 2, via South County Rd…2 access routes…Great Hunting Location! Nine Point Draw 40 acres off grid…Fossil Knob, good access, bunkhouse, 2 steel buildings, water catchment, elevated porch, toward mountains, exceptional view… Stunning view… Excellent water potential…”
Water potential. That’s an artful way of putting it. Most days in Brewster County, Texas, there is not a cloud in the blue sky. Lori says they went for 17 months without rain a few years ago, a drought that actually killed a lot of the cactus and lechugilla. Too dry for cactus. A big thunderstorm might come through up in the Chisos or Los Caballo Muertes, that sends flash floodwaters into the surrounding river beds and arroyos yet leaves the rest of the land dry. So most people have “water catchment systems”, simple PVC pipes that divert occasional rainfall off the corrugated roofs into giant rainbarrel storage tanks. If you don’t catch rain, or have a deep well, you pay to have water hauled in.
Rain or not, this vast and beautiful landscape is slowing me down, a real accomplishment. Every morning the sun blazes up over the ridge to the east, flooding my trailer with a pure light energy and illuminating the yellow stove next to my pullout bed. My mind begins its morning harassment ritual. Get up! Hurry! What needs to be done next? I think about that… Long pause… Hey, wait. Nothing. But my mind doesn’t like this one bit, and releases a torrent of negative self-talk. “Nothing”? Oh really? That sounds unproductive. Isn’t that selfish? A slippery slope into sloth and depravity? I get up, unsteady in my whole purpose now, and stumble outside the trailer like a man beset by hornets. But the landscape and the slight aroma of creosote brings me back to my body, senses, and surroundings. I find my hand drum, and as I thump out a steady beat in the morning sun the hornets disappear, replaced by gentle breeze and a different voice from a much deeper place. Good morning. You are alive. This day is given to you. Treat it like the first day of your life. What would you like to do with this one precious day? Hmm.
The experience out here has been like a slow detox from a harmful substance, and the substances are busyness and overstimulation. Its takes a while, even in the solitude of the desert, and the detox is not pleasant at first. I came out here with an armload of hiking and biking maps for the Parks, two bicycles (road and mountain), a laptop, books to read, writing projects, and half-finished work projects. Good grief. I’m alone in the desert with no commitments for several weeks and what am I doing? Running around, just like at home. I’m reminded of my massage clients who often return from “vacations” exhausted, sleep deprived, and tense in their low backs, necks, and shoulders from the long flights and driving. It’s as if we’re actually afraid to slow down. As if something really bad would happen. So instead of “va-cate” on vacation, we just change the venue of our running, our spending and our doing for a week or two. It’s quite a game.
Thankfully, nature heals us, if we give it a chance. And wilderness nature can do that very deeply, just by getting ourselves out into it. Slowly but surely, one day at a time, the detox is working on me here. The intervention is assisted by my nonhuman friends all around me. Breathe, says the cactus. Be, say the Corazon mountains. Move slowly and with great focus, says the unseen rattlesnake. Be grateful for water, says the whole desert. Watch. Listen. Eat. Sleep. Walk. Pray. Wash my plate, cup and fork. Rinse out my socks. Hang the shirt up to dry. Let the sun and wind dry the laundry.
Its not a new problem. Even our indigenous ancestors needed help slowing down and refocusing. In the AmerIndian vision quest ceremony, individuals spent 2-4 days alone in the wilderness fasting completely from food and water. This quieted the mind and opened the heart allowing a vision for one’s life to arises, with deep clarity on essence and purpose. Key characters in the Bible go out alone into the desert, and dramatic things happen that do not happen back in town. Moses meets Yahweh on a desert mountain, and discovers the ground under his feet is holy. (It has been holy all along.) Jesus leaves the crowds to out into the wilderness to pray, rather often. Out in the desert he meets with both Spirit, and Temptation. The desert fathers of the early Christian church withdrew into wilderness for their entire lives, laying the foundations for later monastic traditions.
Living in a desert trailer does not equal a vision quest ceremony, a biblical encounter with the Divine, or a strict monastic life. But it’s a pretty good start. Sooner or later you’re going to have to deal with yourself, which includes the anxieties, compulsions, and empty distractions. My teachers out here have been patient, and insistent: the gentle spirits of cactus, of rock, of wind. And that damned rattlesnake out there, wherever he is.
So do get out to the desert some time. It will slow you down, bring you to yourself, and open your heart. And if you’re lucky, you might even get invited to a Super Bowl party.