It’s cold…Frigid, to be exact. 36 degrees in the Valley of the Sun is no joke for a desert rat, and this temperature is frosty! I’ve avoided the western Supes for some time because I always thought them to be too crowded, but changed my mind with a little prompting from a persuasive friend. I am glad I did.
Up the canyon, I can hear the quick crack of a raven and the shrill of a hawk, but I can see neither. My leather shoes are stiff from the cold and I can feel every step as we ascend the trail. Ice forms over a wash bed and rock slicks where waterfalls are made during storms.
I can understand why this trail draws so many here. There is a magic that does not diminish with each person who walks this path, whether ancient or contemporary. It’s a building up of shared memory: the hopes, dreams, fears, and desires.
I’ve been thinking about the possibilities of pain that morning. One slip on black ice or a tumble off an unsteady rock, yes. That’s the risk you take when you hike, but I wasn’t thinking about that obvious kind of mishap. Life’s unpleasant pains, when we want very badly to avoid them, that’s the sort I was thinking of.
In my not too distant past, I would give way to curiosity. Well, actually, impulsivity. And when there was pain at the ready, I welcomed it because I expected it. It didn’t cause much grief because there is no real investment in the immediate.
Then, there’s the painstaking type of pain, when you put the time into something.
Time, work, more work, more time.
A mountain of moments that, oh my god, require trust and perseverance….And no guarantees.
The grueling time it takes for anything to emerge, and the elements that work away at them, that’s what a mountain is. Those needling storms and ice and the cracking open of heat, it knows.
Fragile animals, I cannot forgot this; we are no mountains. People die looking for gold or the trail they’ve lost. People lose sometimes.
There’s always a choice to turn back. I will keep going.
I am back, pre-dawn, scrambling up a hot jumble of granite boulders. Burning my hands, then knees, all to investigate scat, what appears to be a busted lamp someone discarded, a broken mano, a dead ground squirrel.
At 8am, it is already 98 degrees with high humidity, but I come here for the silence and solitude, like they can somehow relieve the heat. At least I will enjoy the quiet. A few minutes pass in this surreal repose until a hiker comes my way. Shit. There is still noise from the road, the distant hum of highways.
The hiker warns me that there is an old guy and some younger women having sex down below the boulders, in the parking lot. We give each other a knowing nod of what’s going on.
This sanctuary, it seems, keeps secrets. The heat drives out most people, but oh…there are the solitude seekers who come in all forms, some to praise the miserable indifference of a July morning among baked rock, and others to find a place to hide their lives from view.
Whatever the situation, I am disturbed, and angry, and ultimately sad. Why here? Why this morning of all mornings? The hiker assured me that he phoned the police and took photos of the guy’s license plate. None of this will change much, but I appreciate his concern.
“Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear – the earth remains, slightly modified. The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break….I sometimes choose to think, no doubt perversely, that man is a dream, thought an illusion, and only rock is real. Rock and sun.”
I pray his sentiment was right when he also longed for man to be an illusion and rock, and I would add all other forms of life, to be the only thing that is real.
The only thing that lasts.
The desert keeps her secrets. But after the rain it is easier to understand her – hedgehogs burst their tiny strawberry blooms. A gray fox meanders the wash where dragonflies dance above muddy tinajas.
Nothing is subtle after the rain.
I follow the delicate tracks of javelinas while fighting off mosquitoes that make a feast of this convenient, warm-blooded host. Scanning the ground, I find a bit of rabbit fur caught in cholla spines. I imagine some plump coyote, lounging somewhere nearby, smiling his sanguine smile with full belly.
Making my way to a clear patch among the cholla, I wait for the welcomed sort of morning traffic: a troop of chatty Gambel’s quail scatter from beneath an ironwood. A mockingbird sings his patchwork morning song. Behind a small clump of brittlebush, two long ears rise. I wonder if it was his friend who became coyote’s supper. Carefully, the rabbit emerges, sniffing the air.
I have a fondness for rabbits. Their fear is understandable and relatable. Our vulnerability to life is sometimes less palpable, but nonetheless just as real.
Coyote deserves our understanding, too. Feed or be someone’s food…eventually. Too often we want to align with rabbit, all of our fears protecting us from responsibility. Sometimes we want to align with coyote, never allowing gentleness to expose us to the inevitable.
The truth is that both coyote and rabbit embody life, all that life entails, all that is necessary.
The sun burns my neck and distorts my view of the world. Or maybe this is exactly how it should appear. Rabbit makes his way back to his den, belly full from the morning’s good measure of work.
As I reach the parking lot, there is no trace of the man or his Mercedes, or the young woman. The distant traffic continues to hum.
“Two or three things I know for sure, and one is that I’d rather go naked than wear the coat the world has made for me.”
― Dorothy Allison, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure
Over the course of my life, I have written extensively about my background. Candidly, unapologetically. Most of my readers know I am in recovery, grew up poor, and overcame a lot of trauma as a child…
I think the word we insist on using now is survivor.
And it is true; I am a survivor.
But here’s the thing, in an email conversation I was having recently with a wise woman, I discovered that this survivor label no longer serves me. In a way, it has limited me to always being the abused kid, the writer-alcoholic, the poor adult hopping from one near-miss tragedy to the next.
It seems that while survivor might be a badge of courage, it also assumes some basic things about a person, allocating him or her to a moment in time when surviving was the only goal.
And this isn’t even a post about thriving, although thriving is something most people aspire to, survivor or no. This is about the stories we tell ourselves, and in turn, the world.
Inadvertently, in all of my surviving, I forgot the other aspects of who I am and landed precisely in the middle of the narrative I created these last few years.
For example, how I ended up in Phoenix was not so surprising given the narrative of the life I was creating – preferring the wild fantasy to the facts. A survivor just goes with the pull of the tides, right? No. There was a deliberation of story, of belief.
But what would have happened had I done something else? Hmm.
What would have happened if the life I thought I loathed was just mirroring the story I kept creating rather than actual reality or what could have come to fruition?
I’d say any one of us is capable of re-writing a story in the moment – scrapping the old narrative when we find it going in a prescribed direction. Almost every decision we make is based on these stories, from work to romance; family to identity.
All of this has prompted me to JUST STOP TELLING THOSE DAMNED STORIES. Stop already.
Stop telling stories about being poor as shit, drunk as hell, and even…as much as it hurts me to leave her behind…lost and alone at age 10.
Because these stories aren’t where I live anymore, or what I live.
So expect something new from me in the coming months. Wildly, fervently, freeing-ly new… as I set pen to paper, and begin.
It began here, my desire for this place. The course of its existence ran through me – an energy to move a woman 2,000 miles from the shores of Lake Ontario, the fierce shield of granite and water, to a place of obsidian and sky.
Eight years ago, standing on the edge of old Route 66, I watched clouds pass across the cobalt. I could not remain in my old life. The hard edges of the city pushed me into these skies so vast. No amount of squinting could help me to discern what’s beyond the tall grasses and deep canyons. But I knew I had to find out.
Soft definition is what I sought; a place where I could be as lucent as abandoned buildings, yet as full as the chambers of my heart.
To be filled with movement… I desired the poetry of pulse and breath.
To come here meant I could fly into whatever scene I wanted; to be as mutable and impelling as the clouds drifting through the valley. I craved this story. And, the beautiful thing about story isn’t the story itself, but what you can leave out.
I choose to erase
the details of
my desire for this place.
Some things need to move through. Across dry creeks and coyote tracks, there are only traces, and a place to pick up and start walking again.
“Therefore, the places in which we have experienced day dreaming reconstitute themselves in a new daydream, and it is because our memories of former dwelling-places are relived as day-dreams these dwelling-places of the past remain in us for all the time.”
― Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
When I was a young girl, I used to spend many hours sitting on my grandparents’ porch, gazing at the wide field across the road. The field seemed enormous then – and frighteningly as vast as space itself. I remember a distinct sense of loneliness as I looked across that empty space and watched the sun descend. At the same time, just under the loneliness, a sense of hope, of fullness.
It’s been 6 years since I have been back. The old house is now in the possession of another family. Things, as they do when we age, seem smaller, more contained.
The last time I was there we said goodbye to my grandfather and buried him on the edge of yet another field, familiar as home since the bones of many family members rest there, too.
Before returning to the desert, I sat at the edge of that field, among violets and freshly mowed grass, and breathed in the enormity again, the space that made me feel so small against it.
I was born a child of the woods. Open space, more than the darkness of dense pine stands and overgrown creek beds, seemed to contain the elements of childhood fear: exposure, vulnerability, and enormity. In the woods I was never alone. I was surrounded by brother trees and sister animals – deer, feral dogs, squirrels, cows. In their life was a recognition of my own.
But something happened. I grew to love vastness.
Throughout my adult life, my choices have always led me to the assurance of fields, prairies, deserts – perhaps to finally embrace the price of life, complete vulnerability to it.
As I now gaze across another vast terrain – one of thorn and rock – I still seek that fullness, that hope I felt as a girl on my grandparents’ porch. To meet the emptiness feels like surrendering to something more powerful than my hemmed in perception and fears.
No matter where I am, the edge of a verdant field or beneath a burning sun on blackened rock, there is always space – and in this space, possibilities beyond the imaginings of a girl and the regrets of a woman.
“Not a shred of evidence exists in favor of the idea that life is serious.” Brendan Gill
To be foolish…
we throw our shackles of perceived security off.
We follow the singing of a brook or don masks under oaks in their spring foliage.
We may even chase a butterfly over the precipice.
Life is a grand adventure. Yet many try to shrink it to fit a narrow view.
Holding on, we anchor ourselves to false certainty: the true love, the children, the home, the job, possessions that we pile and monitor with the eye of a dragon.
But the uncertainties, those goblins, have a way of ruining everything.
Try the same thing again.
This time it will work.
They whisper to us through fear and doubt.
My goblins of uncertainty are habitual responses to loss – or, not letting go of loss. Hanging on by its dead roots, I have stayed near the ground. Not moving, not growing, and certainly not chasing the tempting butterfly that might lead elsewhere.
There is perhaps nothing more apropos of the Fool’s wanton adventure than being outdoors – particularly alone, and definitely in a deep woods (the wilder the better).
To expect the unexpected is an unspoken mantra. Whether sleet, hail, or lightning strike or the myriad animal attacks a wanderer is warned of, the journey must always entail a bit of tangled vine and claw-print.
Traces of a late night visit leave imprints of Ursus americanus in my dreams and in the soft earth near the creek.
Instead of Bear, I am startled awake again by the clumsy arrival of revelers – unprepared families arriving late, to camp at 7000 ft, t-shirt and shorts, no idea where they are.
It’s 30 degrees here. Spring comes late to the Mogollon Rim.
The smoke from their fire and the shouts between camps sites keep me awake, wishing it had been Bear instead of Bipeds.
Most early spring nights as these, the woods are empty of other people.
Time to laugh it off, despite my annoyance. Time to wander away from the road. Next time, I will pack in to where no others like to go.
At least, no human others.
Between the cracks of ember and beer cans, I remember the mating call of a mountain lion that echoed down from aptly named Wild Cat Spring, just below a still bustling highway at dusk.
But now it is only the campfire that hisses.
Be prepared for anything, the Fool laughs. Rather, be unprepared. Be surprised.
The Fool is also the joker who reminds us that anything can happen. The joker’s wild! Remain accustomed to glorious catastrophe. Follow the stars, unshaken by the precipice below our feet.
The thing is, the view from home is fixed, the known road is comforting.
But the elsewhere. Elsewhere is a game of chance, and with any game there is a loser – a jester sitting in a pig sty, hat askew, wondering how the hell he got there.
Nonetheless, he dusts himself off and back to the journey he goes.
To the wanderer, home can be hell, and nothing more painful than stasis.
Out there are stories.
Stories that make the storms circle and the birds squawk.
Stories for nights in canyons without sleep.
It is time to pick up the bindle and head off for the tantalizing depths of another adventure.
If happiness is the absence of suffering, then the end of summer here in Phoenix means I am a slap happy fool.
The mornings are now in the high 60s-70 degree range. The birds are back to joyous morning arias. The oleander outside my window is heavy with white blossoms. And, here I am with all of my desert topographic maps spread across the floor, finally feeling like sweaty is no longer my daily adjective.
There are plans on the horizon to trek across some formidable volcanic landscapes, to befriend a few places unknown. I look forward to getting into solo backpacking and hiking again – both a tinge unnerving and blissfully unblemished by “company”.
I’ll admit to being a curmudgeon. I find it harder these days to find consistent company I enjoy when I am outdoors – and forget about hiking groups. Of course, being alone comes with its risks – a twisted ankle, a wacko on the trail, being dragged off by the Mogollon Monster (now, that would be a story). Still, I have made it this far, and there are precautions I always take.
But, when I am alone I notice things – things I might not notice otherwise. I am more aware, more alive in my senses.
I’ve learned to be content with my isolation, so that when I can share my time with others, it feels right, not forced.
I look forward to sharing some of these magical observations this winter.
Along with planning upcoming desert adventures, I have revived my voluntary simplicity group here in the Valley of the Sun. I’ve done this for a few reasons – first, I like idea-sharing, especially when it comes to cheap/free resources – and second, I need to be motivated on order to make next spring’s plans come to fruition.
Really, next spring is a carry-over from last spring’s dead-in-the-water plan to get out of Phoenix by way of some type of off-grid or nomadic lifestyle. This entails quite a bit of planning and the purchase of a truck. Ideally, I would like to find a group of other off-grid, low impact types to form a resource-sharing community of sorts.
Knowing others who share my approach to living is important. And, I recognize this and grapple with being a contrary isolationist (see above) versus someone who longs for a community and family.
I also have accepted that I need some initial seed money.
I mean, I could go live in a cave somewhere (and, I could – see below), but that wouldn’t allow me to participate in a land purchase, buy building materials, take care of my furry companions who count on me for food, vet care, etc., and gather together the resources to get out of here and reestablish elsewhere.
Despite being fascinated with those who choose a cash-free existence, I also acknowledge that supreme sacrifice as being counterproductive to my objectives and responsibilities. I recognize some cash flow is necessary and also will help get me to the point of greater self-sufficiency.
So, I need to look at this time in Phoenix as an incubation period.
My options are to go back to corporate marketing (stabs self in neck) or I could split time between maintaining my freelancing workload and adding PT nonprofit hours.
The quandary I have been pondering is how to do what I would like to do as cheaply as possible while continuing to freelance and wander around (what I love).
I have lived on $12-15K before and without trying all that hard (I am my Depression era grandparents’ granddaughter, for sure).
Looking at my low impact life plans, I can see where my $ is going:
* Higher cost of living in a downtown urban center
* Convenience foods/specialty foods
* Entertainment/eating out
* Healthcare/insurance for self, cat, and dog
* Car maintenance and gas (no car payment, but an old car needs lots of TLC)
Given there is room for cost reduction in each of these, I’m hoping to get a solid group of low impact-minded individuals together to share those important ideas and resources, and perhaps even do a little bit of bartering.
All of this is to say, The Wild Muse will be a place where I will share my experiences going as low impact, off-grid, and feral-girl as possible, along with stories of my usual shenanigans in the wild.
If you are interested in tagging along for the ride, follow my blog or bookmark for future tales of joy and foibles.
It’s been a while since I have written anything. No poems. No essays. No short stories.
When I look at the newsfeeds of my prolific friends, I feel a little guilty. “Have you been writing,” one friend asks? Another inquires if I am at least submitting work for publication. Strangely, I have made scant progress on anything related to my own creative fiction and nonfiction.
This uncomfortable truth doesn’t take away the tinges of guilt and envy when I am surrounded by writers and artists who are producing circles around me. And, sure, enlightenment says this isn’t a race or competition… but, we all know it is. At least, the business of what we do compels us to be productive. To produce.
Most of us need the feedback, accolades, connection, and (although laughable at times) financial support we gain from taking our work to the streets. Some might argue the value of the creative process is moving through the creative process, as if just doing is enough.
For spiritualists and believers, the creative process is communication between self and Spirit or God. For others, and I would dare say the majority, writing, painting, music, etc. is our means of expression, communicating our deepest, most intimate selves (souls?) to the world (and, hey, maybe even the means to earn a living).
There are also many others whose work is the catalyst for social and political change – a meaningful vision, an ideal.
Back to Me
Through all of the definitions and pressures to produce for reasons both menial and purposeful, I seem to have lost my way. For several months I worried that I was simply bored with my writing. I was restless. I wandered around looking for something I couldn’t seem to find.
Sheepishly, I took all of those “what is your true calling” quizzes. I re-read the Enneagram (Tragic Romantic 4, no surprise). I took all of the career path tests and continued to draw the Writer card. Dammit. My other choices: Clergy or Psychologist.
Writers are akin to preachers, after all, channeling the message of the unseen, unexpressed, and under-appreciated.
“Writers are healers… words are balm,” one friend reminds. The narrative of our pain can conjure healing.
But, lately, I am neither wordsmith evangelist nor wounded healer. Even poetry seems flat to me, a personal chore, like pumicing dead skin. That old glass slipper that once fit perfectly doesn’t seem to encapsulate my big toe now. Bluntly, I am fucking terrified.
Still, in my terror, I refuse to produce for the sake of saying, “Hey, look, I made something!” (says every potty-training toddler).
Another friend lamented, and I will paraphrase, “There are too many photographers and not enough readers.” I argued against this notion of “too many,” but can understand his point.
People are writing and producing art more than ever before with the advent of print-on-demand and the vanity press. We’re all looking for a little appreciation, I guess. To be heard, seen, validated. Through the billions of Tweets and fragments, photos and paintings, the practice of the creative life has been shanghaied.
Let me say it again: the practice…
I’m aghast at the grammatical errors found in professional articles and essays. If the pros can’t even manage the discipline to edit and hone skills, I really cannot rail against the amateur. In essence, we are in a creative frenzy, a race to stay ahead of the ADD public.
It’s as if, culturally speaking, we are still living the message of those 1990s Baby Einstein, Baby Monet, Baby Mozart cds … we believe talent just kinda makes itself. Everyone’s an artist, right?
Practice takes too long. Being unproductive means no attention. And, god forbid, the humble role of the student, of being willing to be taught.
The Muse is Dead… Long Live the Muse
None of this is exactly hot off the press news. And, I am not sure analyzing the state of the arts is going to alleviate my fucking terror at my own lack of motivation.
I’m driven by the same insecurity of silence. I want to have my muse back NOW and sell books that will actually be read. But, I am cursed with having to take my own mad advice.
So, maybe I will wait it out some more and see what shakes. Stay curious. Be zen about it.
Tomorrow I am going to one of my favorite mountains. She and I know I won’t share anything about it with you. Because, at least for now, the practice needs to be enough.
The onyx hour of those forgotten gods of the earth who haunt the fire.
It’s 6:55 a.m. and the first light of morning appears above the familiar hills and peaks of the South Mountains in Phoenix, Arizona. I have hiked into the western edge of the San Juan Valley, currently closed off to bike and car travel and thus creating a secret spot, an oasis of quiet for now. Many wild species have taken advantage of this unusual pause in humanity. Javelina run across the pavement, shitting on roads and under ramadas. Coyotes yawn, unmotivated, along rock walls.
My presence is neither startling nor appreciated. Wary gazes and increased movement attest to this.
From a granite boulder, I watch the light fall across a cluster of cholla and brittlebush whose blue-gray leaves are the color of calm to me, if color could be assigned to a state of mind. Six coyotes take their places along the opposite ridge, watching me as I watch them. Together we listen to the old morning song of a grandfather Great Horned… all owls seeming ancient, a forgotten species of gnarled bone and pale-faced time.
Looking at the Sierra Estrellas, I consider my place here, or rather my lack of place. As the city swells itself into a greater beast, highways dig their tracks where stands of mesquite and creosote fall. We make way for more neighborhoods to plop their massive girth atop old habitat. The mountains, oh the mountains, wait patiently for human time to tumble, our animal selves to collapse and with it, all of our concepts and ideas.
Is this the mountains’ dream, or is it just the dream of a tired misanthrope?
Coming here, I am a stranger. By saying home, do I make it so? Many people would say yes, but I have my doubts.
I grew up among tulip trees and farms, verdant hills of hay and soybean, ponds and cattle. I slept beneath the field’s wide skies and woke with dew on my sleeping bag. I rested with the song of whippoorwill and cricket. I never had to long for the smell of rain, the touch of moisture. I spoke to deer. I sang to yarrow. I wandered the woods, consumed with its treasures.
Given that watery upbringing, it might strike you as odd that I am now not only infatuated with the Sonoran desert, I am distinctly and inseparably tied to this arid place.
The rain I follow in small hollows of granite, fleshed into pockets against long washes, is water enough. These tinajas, now known to me as intimately as the smooth flesh of deer—the food of my people, the bane of every Midwestern driver. I rest here, against the cool stone, as the heat of the morning warms my skin.
The desert and I had an awkward introduction.
I rambled with the shopping cart wheels and asphalt of my first desert home, where my family spent a short year bargaining with the devils of pipelines and job-promise. My Las Vegas childhood… holding the prize of stuffed toys tight while the adults swam in their longed for loot and oppression.
When I think back on this time, I remember metal screen doors and blinding aqua pools with too much chlorine and chipping paint. Is this also my origin? Or can I claim a desert that has no history for me?
I have friends who can trace their ancestry here for centuries—before the settlers, before the promise and betrayal.
I look out upon these foothills as the city spreads, filling everything with its plastic and concrete. Can I make peace with my body here—like the manicured palms, the asphalt, the ever-encroaching unrest that stitches the hymns of us together?
Animals of great distance—how I love their propensity for movement. We, too, are a moving species and our stories of creation, in turn, create us—give us place to our wandering, order to chaos. We may fall from the sky or sprout from the ground or be born in the image of… but in the end we are animals of movement.
No matter how much our minds long to connect us to place, we have—at some point in time—been the wanderer, the interloper, the dreaded other.
Many wanderers and scientists, story tellers and poets tread lightly on the topic of home. Untethered and centuries away from place, there remains an ache to find home, and so the sweeping topography of earth becomes that destination.
The problem therein is the problem of the wandering animal—the humanity that propels us across the next geographic barrier, the next country, the new.
When I was a girl, my family was too poor to own anything, but the countryside itself was ours, a place of unbridled adventure—a challenge to not be caught between one man’s field and the next. We swam in ponds owned by farmers, slept in the shadows of stone quarries, ventured beyond the boundaries of national forests, and walked the deer paths of unintentional wildlife preserves.
Places we call ours, places we call theirs. Among other animals, these fables matter little.
When I was a girl, I longed to be a woman of movement. I wanted to continue to climb over fences, to follow the call of the spellbound hawk, the night-silent owl, the mouse who made his bed wherever he desired.
My mythology is not to be replicated here. I have no claims to make, no flags to plant. Being in the desert is the closest I have come to feeling at home. A child of coal mines and forgotten lineage, I can only hope to know the stories, my place among these stones.