Don’t call the desert empty


In the spareness of a desert hike, you become a Beckett character, faced with big space and big time” — Laurie Stone.

I write for a living, or what amounts to it, and because I’m a dreamer and a fool and one of the luckiest people I know, I also edit a literary magazine dedicated to the Interior West of the United States. Because of the latter, I read an awful lot of what’s written about the region and its landscapes: its chronic winds and temporary washes, tight-lipped lizards and rusted tin cans, as well as its sun, shade, and luck of the draw.

What I’ve found in my reading is the greatest misconception about the West and its deserts is that they’re empty. “Empty” is a word that shows up on an almost daily basis in my inbox. Without fail writers of all stripes eventually find themselves or their characters in the desert where they are often lost, lonely, and scanning the miles of sagebrush and its “sea of emptiness.” Invariably they are “in the middle of nowhere.”

Such phrasing never fails to disappoint me because to my way of thinking they are really in the beginning of everywhere. In contrast, I currently walk the canyons of Manhattan trying to remember the last time I used the word “horizon,” considered a diminishing point, or saw a star that wasn’t stepping out of a limo.

I can understand the misconception of the West by people who have never been left of New Jersey, but if you’re from the West or lived there for any amount of time (roamed its good badlands and driven its bad back roads) how can you call the deserts empty or a nothingness? There’s so much of it. You can’t turn around without bumping into more.

From my perspective, the desert is full, chock-a-block full of beauty, perspective, humility and patience -- the stuff of life. True, there’s greater biodiversity in a rain forest, and more tourists to be found in New York’s Times Square, but you won’t find peace of mind in any greater quantity than when watching the sun rise in the desert, or more sanity than when you’re watching it go down.

Speaking from experience, common sense strikes a person just about as hard as the sun does in the desert, and fear is there as well. Just take that last swig of water or get snake-bit. Forget about the Internet for a moment; in the desert God, the devil, heaven and hell — the very things and places we consider the opposite of nothingness — are everywhere. Even if you don’t believe in such things, you come back from the desert muttering some kind of prayer. Maybe it’s the sight of all those bones bleached by the sun.

Last year, I was sitting at lunch in Bend, Ore., with Dennis Jenkins, an archaeologist from the University of Oregon. He’s spent more time in the desert regions of the West than most tumbleweeds I know. Over a sandwich and beer, we got talking about the desert. Wiping a salt-and-pepper mustache and leveling his blue eyes, he said without prompting, “The desert is honest.”

One more thing, I thought, to add to the list. I think any of us hate to see a place we love misrepresented. Maybe that’s why it’s a sore point with me. Then again, I’m torn. I’m happy to have people think there’s nothing to draw them to the playas, buttes, washes, and scrub of the Interior West. In her collection of essays, Where the Crooked River Rises, Ellen Waterston says, “The high desert country is flat beautiful.” And it is. But sometimes we don’t want people to know. Because you know what happens when they do.

I admit to liking the buzz of New York, the hustle and bustle, the taxis and their horns, the danger, and the feeling that something is going on, somewhere — everywhere — around me; that I’m in the center of things. Then I get back out West and walk into the desert, alone, where things really are going on, and I see how wrong I am.

The desert is full — full of time and space and distance and silence. These things fill it up, spill over the edges. To really see the desert means adjusting one’s ideas of what emptiness and nothingness are. Believe me, in the desert there is so much space it can become claustrophobic. And outside the desert is a lifetime of noise.

Charles Finn is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is the editor of High Desert Journal and shortly after writing this essay, he moved back to the West.

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