This is who I am: a flyspeck of human vanity in a trillion miles of stone-dead interstellar space; a graceless lump of flesh and fear in a remote desert where nearly everything that I can see or touch is designed to hurt me.
At least that is how I feel just now. It is well past midnight on the chilly, windswept early morning of November 13, 2003. I am kneeling at the exact center of my REI hexagonal nylon tent, listening to the roar of the wind in the canyon and trying to decide whether to scream, pray, or try to go back to sleep. My tent is located near the Mexican border in southwest Texas, on the mountainous rim of a massive piece of geologic wreckage known as the Solitario, a mile-high, eight-mile-wide, nearly perfectly circular product of unimaginably violent volcanic upheaval. Its weird symmetry and upturned peaks can be distinguished clearly in satellite photos from outer space. Thirteen hours ago I was dropped at the mouth of a three-mile-long narrow stone canyon with 120 pounds of water, 21 packets of freeze-dried food, a tent, a sleeping bag, a small cooker, a pistol, a cellphone, and a flashlight and left to spend seven days alone. I am quite alone. As far as I know, there are twenty miles of jagged backcountry between me and the nearest human being.
I am here because I wanted to be. I had the idea some months ago that it would be interesting to travel from my home in the suburbs of Austin to an isolated part of the Big Bend and spend a week there, alone in the wilderness. The point was to go where there would be absolutely no chance of seeing people, even from a distance, to experience the majesty and peril of the high Chihuahuan Desert in the purity of solitude and write about it. Now, having been fully awake in the desert night for more than five hours, with all of its bumpings and barkings and slitherings and hissings and ghostly silences, I am beginning to rethink the wisdom of this idea.
That’s because at this moment I am experiencing a primal fear—maybe it is the primal fear—that has nothing to do with the specific physical threats around me, which include mountain lions, javelina, flash floods, lightning, rattlesnakes, scorpions, centipedes, brown recluse spiders, tarantulas, and black widows. I am not afraid for my life. Such isolation forces you to name your mortal fears and I have named all of them and they do not include being killed and eaten. Not in this tent. Not tonight. What I am afraid of is the first thing I was ever aware of being afraid of and what I have told my daughter countless times she need not fear: being alone in the dark. It is a small prison of emotion from which there is no escape. It is also, in its own way, a shattering revelation. And it is why I am on my knees in my flimsy little tent trying to decide whether to scream or pray. Oddly, the flashlight is no defense and no comfort; the darkness is infinite and universe-wide, and the tiny light’s pathetic beam is no match for it. Eventually I turn it off and lie down. For the next six hours I lie there in the dark listening to my own breath and to my accelerated heartbeat, waiting for the light to come. There is nothing else to be done.
When the light does come it is gray and bleak, accompanied by a strong, cold wind that rattles through the mesquite trees and ocotillo plants. But I feel better. The nameless terrors of the night have vanished with the light, and now that I am finally out of the surreal monotony of the tent, I am much less anxious. There are important things to do: urinate, start the Coleman stove, drink some water, write an entry in my diary, and gaze in slack-jawed awe at the place I have put myself.
I have pitched my tent in an old Indian camp. Behind me is a 75-foot limestone cliff, with cascading prickly pear cactus and soot-blackened overhangs from ancient cooking fires. In front is a dry, sandy arroyo that, from the large amounts of waterborne debris piled eight feet high along its sharply cut banks, is also the scene of torrential flash floods. Around me is the vast escarpment of the Solitario: the huge, uplifted humps of the rim and cut canyons with seven-hundred-foot sheer faces. There are Indian artifacts everywhere, and one need only bend over to pick up a piece of hand-chipped chert or a stone knife. The first Indians were here some nine thousand years ago; remnants of hunter-gatherer camps have been found at archaeological sites throughout the Solitario. There is also evidence that cowboys once used this place. Several ancient decaying coils of barbed wire hang from a mesquite tree. A pile of crumbling, rusted-out cans suggests that the last people to frequent this camp were here in the tin era, maybe fifty years ago. Other than the fact that in a flash flood anyone bivouacked here would be in mortal danger, it is a perfect camp, tucked into a protected canyon at an elevation of around 3,800 feet.
In a larger sense, where I am is on the eastern edge of Big Bend Ranch State Park, some 270,000 acres of raw desert backcountry that stretches along the Rio Grande River between the border towns of Lajitas and Presidio. The park lies just to the west of its larger and better-known cousin, Big Bend National Park, and was purchased in 1988 by the State of Texas from the Diamond A Cattle Company. A few improvements have been made since then, including a graded road, campgrounds, and a ranger station, but the ranch remains one of the most rugged, isolated, and forbidding parts of the Southwest. The Big Bend country itself, which occupies most of Brewster and Presidio counties, is an area roughly the size of Maryland or Vermont. The Spaniards called this region the despoblado—the uninhabited place—and it remains one of America’s last frontiers: vast basins of rolling yucca and sotol grasslands and wildly colored rockscapes broken by monstrous dark volcanic peaks that rise a mile off the desert floor and recede a hundred visible miles into the smoke-blue air of the borderlands.
Before I began to investigate the idea of spending a week alone in the desert, I had never heard of the Solitario. As a tourist attraction, it is virtually unknown. The relatively few people who have visited it are either locals from Alpine or Marfa or Terlingua (only a handful of hardy souls), archaeologists hunting Indian sites, or academics wanting to have a look at one of the geologic wonders of the world. The place is loaded with Indian artifacts and sites, most of which are undiscovered or at least unexcavated. Bringing me to this particular place was the idea of Greg Henington and Tom Williams, two stalwart desert rats from Terlingua who became my guides and advisers. Greg runs an outfitter called Texas River and Jeep Expeditions and has guided Rio Grande River tours for thirty years. Tom is a retired businessman and community activist who has hiked all over the Solitario and probably knows it as well as anyone. They chose the location of my camp (in a part of the Solitario that is on private land), and they took me in by Jeep over a daunting sequence of extremely rough four-wheel-drive trails.
Today I plan to hike through a narrow canyon called the Lefthand Shutup—one of three natural ways into the heart of the Solitario (there is a jeep road over the north rim). That is, after I face my first practical problem in the wilderness: how to make sure my tent doesn’t blow away. A blast of wind from the canyon at eight o’clock this morning caused the tent to flex so far that it nearly collapsed, and when it popped back up, it became airborne and landed in a mesquite tree. Though I was able to retrieve it, this raises the possibility that when I return from my hike today the tent will be gone, or at least in shreds, and I will then spend the rest of the week on the open ground. For a city-dwelling tenderfoot who goes car-camping with the family once a year and whose entire defense against the encroaching desert darkness is a fraction of a millimeter of nylon, this is an unpleasant prospect. A good deal of rain is forecast for the next few days. So I spend two hours using my knife to whittle mesquite branches to make bigger and better tent stakes than the ones I have brought, driving them into the ground with hunks of broken limestone from the cliff face, then tying the tent to both the stakes and the mesquite trees nearby. (I am reluctant to take down the tent, since I may have trouble getting it back up again.) When I finish, nothing short of a massive flash flood will dislodge it.
My tent is just one of many concerns as I prepare for my hike. The first thing you learn when you are completely alone is that many of the seemingly simple, ordinary things you do—boiling water or whittling wood—are a risk. Just going for a short walk raises the possibility of getting lost, and I intend to hike ten to fifteen miles a day. If I take a wrong turn and do not make it back to camp, no one will come looking for me. If I do not find my way back, I will most likely die of thirst. So I take a compass and a topographical map, as well as three quarts of water, some trail mix, a flashlight, a first-aid kit, a knife, a lighter, and some warm clothes and an insulating space blanket in case I have to spend the night away from camp. Then there are freak accidents and chance encounters. If I break an ankle or get bitten by a rattlesnake, getting back to my campsite may be difficult or impossible. The cell phone I have brought with me does not work anywhere in the Solitario. My last-ditch option in the event of injury or other medical emergency is to hike out of the Solitario and up to higher elevations on the rim and try to use the cell phone there. This could take anywhere from an hour to four hours or more, depending on where I am and what my condition is. Assuming my emergency call goes through, I will be roughly six hours from rescue and then a 130-mile trip to the nearest medical facility.
There is also the remote but nonetheless real possibility that I will encounter a mountain lion. The statistical chances of being attacked are small, but this region is known to have a large population of lions. Six months ago an adult male hiker, walking alone in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park, was attacked and mauled by a mountain lion. Anyone who is even marginally afraid of the big cats need only read the helpful books on lions sold at the Panther Junction ranger station to develop a full-scale paranoia. I purchased one called Mountain Lion Alert, which tells in exquisite detail how I will be attacked (without warning at all; mountain lions can’t roar, and their purpose in attacking is never to warn or scare, always to kill and eat) and how the cat will pounce on me (from behind, digging its claws into my back, then biting either the back of my neck to sever vertebrae or closer to the side or front of my neck to asphyxiate me). There are also these helpful hints: Never walk alone and never stay on the ground once the lion has knocked you down. It’s a wonder any tourists who read this book even get out of their cars. In any case, I have brought a Ruger .357 pistol and a pocketful of 180-grain Magnum hollow-point shells. The gun makes a god-awful loud noise, and the report alone would likely scare a mountain lion away.
These pleasant thoughts fill my head as I walk due west into the Shutup around noon. Half an hour later I am in the deep shadow of a prodigiously steep and narrow canyon. In places, the canyon walls rise seven hundred feet above me, and the widest point in the wash where I am walking is about one hundred feet. It is like standing in the nave of a medieval cathedral. Here, there are clues to the Solitario’s past. Thirty-five million years ago, a huge intrusion of molten rock lifted an eight-mile-wide slab of sedimentary limestone thousands of feet into the air, creating an enormous dome, or laccolith; later, magma erupted in the center, causing the roof of the dome to collapse, part of which crashed through into the caldera whence the lava had come, leaving the uplifted rim standing and creating a sort of impenetrable fortress with two- to three-mile-thick walls. Erosion then created three Shutups—so called because they were narrow enough that cattle could be penned up with small amounts of barbed wire. The Shutups, which are the only ways for water to escape the Solitario, are places of considerable violence during heavy rains.
It feels good to be out walking in the canyon, away from the paralyzing uncertainties of last night, watching red-tailed hawks wheel along the stunning ocher-and-black-stained limestone cliffs. The sun has come out at last and is throwing long shadows along the northern canyon wall. The silence is profound and disconcerting. The sound of my footfalls and the squeak of my backpack are astoundingly loud. A startled covey of scaled quail makes a noise so abrupt that every nerve in my body jumps. I take a break for water, sit for a long time in the bizarre, unyielding silence, then decide to climb into a narrow side canyon, the entrance to which is a fifty-foot scramble over some large boulders. I have climbed nearly to the top of the rise when I notice that the stone notch that I am about to put my hand in contains a rattlesnake. At the moment I see it, it is less than two feet away. The snake, which I later identify as a rock rattlesnake—a small, purplish-blue rattler with narrow brown bands—was sleeping, apparently. Had he been awake, he might have bitten me in the face or upper body. Now fully alert, he rattles at me as I back away, heart and adrenal glands pumping furiously, toward the main canyon.
I am lucky. This late in the season, the snakes who have not gone to ground are typically aggressive, venom-laden, and looking for one last meal of lizard or kangaroo rat before hibernating. An envenomated bite—as opposed to a “dry” bite, where only residual poison is delivered—would mean excruciating pain and massive swelling. I would probably not die, but as Greg Henington, who is an emergency medical technician, pointed out, “You might wish you had.” The encounter is another reminder of the rules of wilderness solitude: Be very careful, because no help is on the way. I decide not to explore the side canyon.
Back at the camp, I make a fire and watch a giant brown-and-yellow tarantula cruise by my tent. As I gather wood, a whole fleet of small scorpions appears, all headed south for some reason. For the first time, I notice the blooms around my camp: yellow desert marigolds, purple Tahoka daisies, tiny yellow flowers on the creosote. Across the wash are dozens of spidery ocotillos that leafed after the big October rains here and have since turned gold. They extend flaming yellow tentacles into the sky. One thing: I have terrible indigestion and no appetite, which I interpret as a product of nerves. So I sit before my fire, which I have made of fallen mesquite branches and which smells like exotic incense, and watch the night come on. On my second evening I will not eat; the very idea gives me heartburn.
Going alone into the desert is not, of course, an original idea. History, particularly religious history, is full of such journeys. Moses did it for forty days and forty nights. Elijah did too. It was after Jesus’ forty nights in the desert that he began preaching. Muhammad went alone into the wilderness. Buddha did it. So did Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Black Elk. Solitary trips into the wild are a cornerstone of Native American religion. The Lakota Sioux word for it is “hanblecheya,” which means “crying for a vision.” Even the Indians, as it turns out, found such raw solitude an unnerving experience. They viewed it as a form of psychological death. According to Lakota holy man Lame Deer, “You go up on that hill to die.”
I have not come to the Solitario to see visions, hear divine voices, find God, embrace the void, or be reborn. That is not to say that I, a fifty-year-old lapsed Episcopalian, would not welcome any or all of the preceding. It’s just that I don’t know where to start. On the other hand, it would be dishonest to insist that I’m not looking for something, and I am indeed curious to see what happens to me out here. And by my third day in the wilderness, something very unusual is clearly happening to me. The person I am on day three is already a vastly stripped-down version of the person who suffered his grievous night terrors on day one. The old circadian rhythms have disappeared; there is no trace of the endless sequence of minor activities and conversations that fills my normal day. I have nothing to do, and more important, I have no reason to do anything. I am adrift in an ocean of time. Even reading, which is what I always do when I have time to myself, has become oddly irrelevant. Not that I do not try. I have a book on Arctic adventure that I keep going back to, in an old time-killing reflex, only to be distracted by what is going on around me and discover that time need not be killed. There are scudding clouds and hooting great horned owls and the circumambient scent of sage. There are hummingbirds in the Jerusalem thorn and whimsical canyon zephyrs that can flatten a creosote bush thirty feet away and still leave me in calm air. There are foxes, roadrunners, my very own Say’s phoebe, with whom I share the site, and ravens whose wing beats I can hear one hundred feet above me; I can even hear the rush of air over their airborne bodies. With all this going on, I find it nearly impossible to read sequential paragraphs. (In seven days I will have managed to read 110 pages.) A few days into my sojourn, I have begun to rediscover what it means to just sit.
There are other developments too, such as the auditory hallucinations I have been having, which may or may not be related to the fact that I have not eaten because of my acute indigestion. The first happened in my tent last night. I heard rock and roll music—actually just a big, distorted bass beat—as though it were coming from somebody’s boom box a few canyons away. I listened to this for a full half hour before concluding that the sound was manufactured by my brain in the absence of its usual diet of urban white noise. Today I hear a conversation between two women, apparently walking down the wash. I distinctly hear one of them say, “Dearborn, Michigan.” There is no one in the wash. (While lying in my tent on the following morning, I hear, unmistakably, the sounds of a cocktail party. I can detect voices and faint laughter, and this time it really does seem real. I jump out of my sleeping bag, out of my tent, and find myself, in the half light, in close proximity to a small herd of javelinas, fifty-pound piglike creatures with razor-sharp two-inch teeth and atrocious eyesight. They are snuffling about along the cutbank eating prickly pear cactus and making small grunting and clicking noises. This is the cocktail party. I start to retreat toward the tent when suddenly the whole group—at least eight—decides it’s time to panic and flee down the wash. They leave the campsite awash in a musky-skunky odor that lingers for several minutes.)
On my third day I take my first hike eastward, out of the Solitario and up to higher elevations of its massive rim. When I first came into this country, I found it stark and inhuman in its sheer size and emptiness. It looks marginally friendlier now but still forbidding. Before me are the tapered escarpments of the rim, then a long rolling country deeply cut by washes and the startling vulcanism of Santiago Peak, Agua Fria Mountain, the Hen Egg, the Christmas Mountains, and then, behind them, the looming dark bulk of the Chisos, whose seven-thousand-foot-plus peaks rise nearly a mile from the basin floor. The recent rains have turned the desert into a brilliant green patchwork of lechuguilla and sotol and candelilla and Mormon tea and prickly pear, and covering the hillsides is a thick carpet of tiny yellow daisies. Out here in the open desert, I can hike for miles and miles, climb high rocky turrets, follow the undulations of ancient ranching roads through canyons and past old hunting camps. For the rest of my time here, I will split my hikes between this wide-open desert and the high cloistered canyon walls of the Shutup; I’ll average maybe twelve miles a day.
That night, the storm I have been anticipating finally comes. A moderate warm wind kicks up around sunset, followed by a hard rain. I find a scorpion inside my tent, one of the little ones that seem to like the sandy flat where my tent is pitched. I do not much like scorpions, but this seems far less upsetting than it might have been on my first night. I kill him, then lie on top of my sleeping bag and listen to the sizzle of the rain on the coals of my dying fire and let the air, now wonderfully fragrant with the sweet, tarry smells of sage and creosote, wash over me. Life, it occurs to me, is getting steadily better.
On my fourth night in the desert, everything changes. There is no grand revelation. What happens is more like the absence of revelation, involving no thought, no lessons, no conclusions of any kind. A sort of nonevent. The day leading up to it was sunny and windless: I had plenty of exercise—maybe fifteen miles of walking. In the morning I hiked the length of the Lefthand Shutup and into the Solitario toward an old ruined camp called Tres Papalotes. In the afternoon I walked south along the rim, toward the ragged distant silhouette of the Sierra Rica in Mexico. I surprised a lone javelina in a mesquite thicket; we were no more than five feet away from each other when he snorted and took off over the rise, drenching the air with his skunky scent. I peered into a dense collection of flood debris on the cutbank at two good-sized deer; I watched their chests heave as they breathed. After walking and exploring for five or six hours, I ate an absolutely splendid supper consisting of freeze-dried beef Stroganoff, a cup of lukewarm herb tea, and two peanut butter energy bars. The indigestion was gone.
The change happens after midnight and is simply this: I discover that I can now lie down in the darkness and be fully awake and alert and completely at ease, fearing nothing, wanting nothing. This is an entirely new feeling. The desert night is twelve hours long, and I have been sleeping no more than six to seven hours a night. Other than the half hour I spent stargazing on the two nights without clouds (above me is the most remarkable horizon-to-horizon starscape I have ever seen), I stay inside the tent. On the first night I found those hours unbearable. Nights two and three were improvements, broken, however, by little moments of quiet, irrational panic and made less comfortable by my ongoing war with my body. But on the fourth night I have five full waking hours of what I can only describe as simple contentment. I am not happy or sad. I am not reviewing my life, reconsidering anything, or stacking up regrets or achievements. My thoughts are fleeting and immaterial. And perhaps this is what I had come for after all: a few hours of real ease and calm.
From this point onward my camping trip is happy, busy, and relatively serene. At times I feel a bit lonely—I miss my wife and daughter and often imagine what they are doing—but I am never bored, nor do I feel the momentary “What am I going to do next?” panic of the scheduled-up suburbanite that was a hallmark of my first two days in the wild. Somehow I find things to do, and I don’t worry about it. The remaining days are structured much the same: a hike in the morning, lunch, a hike in the afternoon, dinner at five-thirty followed by a fire until six-thirty or seven, then stargazing after dark. I do not even try to read anymore, other than to look up various flora and fauna in my desert guidebook. I spend long periods just sitting or, more often, just standing and looking around me. I talk to myself a good bit and at one point even find myself in conversation with an enormous grasshopper, who insists on sitting on my shirtsleeve and staring at me with this big, blank, walleyed gaze.
“How can you be sure,” I ask, “that I am not a predator that eats nothing but grasshoppers?”
“I mean, you are making certain assumptions here, aren’t you? What if those assumptions are wrong?”
He still does not answer, though I notice a slight movement of his right foreleg, as though in consideration of my question. He stays on my sleeve for an hour while I make notes in my diary, then buzzes off toward the cliffs. Somehow he comes to symbolize the odd, existential tranquility of my last days in the Solitario. There are moments during those days when I am aware that every thought has vanished from my head, where in a flash the very idea of myself as a separate or discrete entity has disappeared. These little miracles of experience don’t last, but they are provocative. I don’t believe they ever would have happened to me had I not been completely alone.
On the sixth day I venture out into the desert without my .357, which has been a bit of a bother and no longer seems necessary. I think it was really more of a Dumbo’s feather anyway, something that allowed me to believe that I could go alone into the wilderness without being immediately slaughtered and eaten. I am simply reordering my hierarchies of risk and fear. You can always choose what to fear and what not to fear. To fail to do so is paralyzing. It makes sense to fear poisonous snakes and falls down rocky screes; it makes no sense at all to waste time worrying about lions leaping at me from the canyon walls or stalking me in my campsite. And anyway I am still armed, with a stout walking stick and a knife.
On my last night I watch a sunset unlike any I have ever seen. The sun drops behind the mountains, and the light begins to drain from the sky. Overhead are cottony gray cumulus clouds, going darker as the light vanishes. Suddenly, as though someone has thrown a switch, the clouds turn brilliant pink. A minute later—again as though someone has thrown a switch—the clouds turn instantly bright yellow-orange, then a minute later turn a different shade of pink. I cannot imagine the physics behind this. I watch Venus drop like a molten rock into the banded sunset colors of the Solitario’s western rim, and that night I come to fully understand that my notion of darkness until now was really a suburbanite’s notion of darkness: a black place in the penumbra of sodium and mercury or tungsten lights. It really isn’t dark at all in the desert. With full starlight, you can easily see what you are doing; with full moonlight, you can almost read. Even with an overcast sky it isn’t really dark. The walls of the tent were always luminous. It is dark inside the tent, not outside.
Since my return from the desert, friends have asked me if I learned any lessons from my trip. At first I could not think of any, but now I think that maybe I did learn one simple lesson, after all. I learned that there is no such thing as darkness.