Losing Myself in the Desert

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California. My dad, Steven, took this picture. There are two people on the dunes. Can you find them?

*I think the second half of this post is much stronger than the first half.  When I write, I usually start off pretty weak, so why not be honest about that? 🙂

I sit atop a sand dune.  I stare out at the desert and I wonder at its bleakness.  I try to understand it.  I rest my eyes for an hour on one mountain peak.  I stare at a cactus.  I leer at a clump of vegetation that has crowded around a trickling spring.  The desert confuses me.  It envelops me.  It includes me, so that even as I gaze at that mountain and that cactus and those plants around the spring, I stare into myself.  Is that what I love about the desert?  That when I look at it I look at myself?  Do I gain a heightened sense of the universe peering in at itself through my eyes, and do I see myself as the universe does, as something small, fragile, barely existent, some spark that in a moment will fizzle out?  I try to understand the desert, but before long I realize that I’ve embarked on a futile endeavor.  I can’t hold this landscape in my mind.

Death Valley, California. That's my mom.

I love the desert because I lose myself in it.  My soul, my thoughts, my selfish drives, my everything seeps out into the emptiness that surrounds me.  In an enclosed room, let’s say in a prison cell, my self would bump up against the brick walls of the prison.  It would try frantically to slip through the bars and escape into a larger space in which it may roam with greater freedom.

Death Valley--this bench no longer exists.

In a prison cell I would suffocate in my own company.  But the desert disperses me.  It turns me into an insubstantial vapor that is now here, now gone.  I disappear, and with me my pain and my sadness disappear, too.  I’m nothing, and all that remains of me is the lingering residue of a thought, a question, a sigh.

Then the moment slips away.  The desert returns me to myself.  I remember who I am and what I’m doing here.  I leave my perch atop the sand dune and I carry with me the pain, the sadness, the complex mix of emotions that churn inside all of us even in our happiest states.  But I leave with something more, a memory of the sigh, of a moment in which I was both everywhere and nowhere, and everything was all right.


This was something I was going to expand on during my trip to Chile, but it’s fine as it is.  When I wrote it, I was thinking of Death Valley, where from some points you can see mountains two hundred miles in the distance.  And at night, if you park yourself at the southern end of the valley and look north, you’ll see dots of light below the horizon.  They stand still.  You know they can’t be buildings because the desert is empty.  You know they can’t be stars because they lie below the horizon and they don’t twinkle.  They don’t flicker like candles suspended in space.  They shine steadily.  After a moment you see that the dots of light are moving.  They rise and fall with the contours of the now invisible mountains that line the valley.  They sway right, they sway left, as if unsure where to go.  Every right-left motion brings them closer to the valley floor.  They sink deeper into the sea of darkness.  You hear nothing but the sound of your own breathing.  You hold your breath and you hear even that, because there is nothing else, only the mysterious dots winding their way silently through the emptiness.

You realize that the dots are headlights.  They light the way for a lone driver, maybe a family.  They may be thirty miles away from you, but since nothing stands between you and them, they’re as present as a stranger sitting across from you in a café, sipping her coffee, glancing your way in between sips.  Who is she?  Who are they?  And where is everyone going?

Funny: The first half of this post was about losing yourself in the desert.  The second half was about finding yourself, and in some strange way connecting with a distant dot of light that represents a person who will never know you saw her.  Alone, in a prison cell, I would see myself everywhere and I think that eventually it would drive me crazy.  In the desert, also alone, I would see myself nowhere; the landscape would erase me for a moment, and I would become nobody.  But again in the desert, seeing another human being thirty miles away, I would feel my individuality contrasted against the driver of the car.  I would come into focus, and so would she, and I would feel some kind of fellowship with someone I’ll never know.

Old, old car near an old, old gold mine, Death Valley.

Death Valley. My dad took this one, too.

NOT Death Valley. This is the Grand Staircase Escalante, in Utah. I'm including this picture because of the road.

Also not Death Valley. This is from the Great Sand Dunes National Park, in Colorado. Don't we all want to take our own version of that famous Ansel Adams self-portrait?

About atomsofthought
Photographer. Traveler. Writer. Reader.

23 Responses to Losing Myself in the Desert

  1. anda says:

    Again, you raise interesting questions. Your description on being in the desert reminds me of Buddhist meditation–the sense of spaciousness and dissolution of “self.”

  2. Joss says:

    A beautifully introspective piece. It reminds me of a book I want to write ‘someday’ called “Healing Journeys”.

    walk in beauty.

  3. The Urchins says:

    Your fragmentation between the sense of losing yourself in the desert and later connecting with a stranger at first impulse, is, I think, the perfect contradiction of the desert. There is always an attraction to experiencing this humility caused by a desert landscape. And yet, when encountering another person in this setting, there seems to be a desire to share this experience with another human… to know you’re not alone in feeling this way. Which in a way defeats the purpose of this feeling of nothingness… but that’s the desert!

    I love this post! And wonderful pictures! It’s too bad that bench isn’t there anymore!


    • You hit on it perfectly! It’s that contradiction we carry around with us everywhere. For me, some places draw it out more than others.

      And isn’t that bench great? It’s too poetic. I’ve been to that spot twice. The first time the bench was there; the second time, it was gone. 😦

      Thank you, Margaret.

  4. pattisj says:

    A very thoughtful post…makes me want to get away from it all, to experience nothingness for awhile. Thanks for sharing your journey.

  5. I need to catch up on your life, friend. I just saw Chile was off. So sorry….I thought you were in KY for awhile. Have been a bit distracted, will get back in the groove ASAP!

    • Elizabeth, no worries at all! It’s OK. I’m sure everything will work out… things will happen. They always do. I thought I was going to be in KY for a while too… I may still be, but it’s up in the air at this point. From reading your blog lately, I’d say you’re very much in the groove!

  6. I find myself wishing for the like button, so I can like the comments people leave!

    I love this post – the prose and your commentary on it. I could visualize the you-ness flowing out and melting into the dessert. It is a peaceful feeling to be empty for a moment. But I think you leave a little bit of it behind, that you don’t take every bit of the pain back inside you. Or maybe it’s just that some of the peace staying with you makes the pain easier to bear. At least for a little while.

    Tolstoy said that with true art you identify so closely that you feel that you wrote it yourself. I wouldn’t presume to think that, but I identify with the feelings that closely, as though I had felt them myself. And I guess I have, only it wasn’t the desert. You make me sad to say I’ve never seen the desert.

    On to business:
    -“barely existent” was my favorite phrase
    -yes I saw both people, they look teeny tiny (barely existent)
    -your dad takes photos as great as you do (but you don’t have to tell him 🙂 ) – my favorite is the man in Death Valley, with the three ridges, the one that almost looks black and white. now I’m jealous of two men in your family *sigh*

    • I agree with you and Tolstoy here. That is a wonderful feeling. And you’re absolutely right–you don’t need to go to the desert to feel this at all. I use the desert as an excuse to talk about something I feel in a lot of circumstances 🙂

      And I’m MUCH the amateur compared to my dad when it comes to photography. I need to post more of his pictures, and my mom’s artwork. In time! You KNOW you take awesome pictures too, and they fit perfectly with what you write.

      • You’re nice. My method is to take 75 pictures and pick out the 10 that I like.

        And to clarify, when I say I’m jealous, what I really mean is that if you weren’t looking, I would like to steal that picture and pretend that I took it. Even to myself. Alas, my ethics won’t allow me to do that, but I can dream.

  7. changingmoods says:

    “*I think the second half of this post is much stronger than the first half. When I write, I usually start off pretty weak, so why not be honest about that? :)”

    I can understand. You start typing something wondering how it’s going to turn out, and your momentum develops along the way.

    Once again, beautiful photos. This is going to sound strange, but I’m going to throw it out there. The car looks like it has a face, a face that has taken a beating and is crying out in pain. A face of someone that’s lived a hard and rough life.

    • Not strange at all! I think you put it really well! I wish I had pictures of the rest of the mining camp. The man who worked the mine mostly alone, and mostly without success, seems to stare out from every piece of the broken down camp. It was actually my favorite discovery in Death Valley.

      About not knowing where your writing will go, Annie Dillard once suggested just scrapping the first third of anything you write as a good habit 🙂 Obviously there must be exceptions, but it’s good to hear that it’s OK to discard the so-so if it leads you to something good.

  8. So, did you lose yourself in the desert or find yourself?

  9. “…the desert disperses me…” That is a a fabulous line I will carry with me. This is what the ocean does for (to?) me. Or, for now, Lake Michigan.

  10. amelie88 says:

    I think you were able to describe the way I feel about the desert, which is something I’ve always had a hard time to put into words. I’ve been to Death Valley once and I guess the best way I can sum the experience is an assault on the senses. You realize how insignificant you are compared to the surrounding landscape. It’s a humbling feeling. Thanks for sharing!

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