A person can accomplish some serious soul work by spending time in the desert. I went to Death Valley earlier this month to hang out with a good friend, for whom a destination is never incidental, and to consider what my rekindled life is meant to be about. We spent three days and three miraculous nights exploring the lean topography of this amazing place.
I share with Keith an improbable love of desert places. We hiked the canyons, climbed the craters and gazed upon some astonishing colors. We’ve previously spent time together in some of the best that eastern Oregon and the desert Southwest have to offer. On this particular pilgrimage, we drove more than 1200 miles to experience in 21st century comfort a place where hapless 49ers taking a shortcut to the gold fields of California ended up burying their dead, and where the most valuable mineral is one used in dishwasher detergent.
If you believe as I do that there’s a correlation between one’s spirituality and one’s sense of place, then I am at least in part a desert hermit. I find solace in fierce landscapes—to borrow a phrase from Belden Lane, who wrote a book by that title. Stripped of the luxuriousness of flora common to most of North America, the desert is a hard place to hide from an encounter with the divine. The great religions of the world were born in deserts, where there’s so much less to distract and divert. Austerity fosters contemplation which breeds spiritual revelation. There are paved roads, air-conditioned motels and cold beer in Death Valley, but it’s also easy to leave all that behind and make it an open-air hermitage.
It was a similar story, in a very different context, for Moses on Mount Sinai. The prophet did a tour of the Egyptian desert, wandering for 40 years with a bunch of rebellious Israelites. When Moses went up Sinai to receive God’s law, he was plunged into a truly mysterious darkness. He was able only to contemplate the place where God dwells, and not remain there himself. Likewise in Death Valley, it’s not advisable that a person remain there, at least without the aforementioned roads, motels and liquid refreshment. The God found in desert places is not a house-broken diety. He is fierce, and as remote as the natural forces that create deserts in the first place. Deserts can break the spirits of men as easily as deepen them.
On one night, Keith and I set out after sunset and under a full moon to hike Golden Canyon, one of hundreds of large crevices that splinter the eroded flanks of Death Valley. We took a headlamp with us, but once in the canyon found it bathed in light, allowing sure footing. It wasn’t long until conversation ceased and we walked apart through the sinuous, gravel-bottomed canyon with steep walls that in places closed to within a few feet. We brushed the polished stone with our fingertips. The formation known as Red Cathedral loomed above us. God didn’t speak to me on that occasion, but his presence was palpable. The ethereal light, the vacuum of sound, the barely discernible movement of soft night air—it was 90 minutes of worship. Words fail, as they must, when the spirit descends at such times.
I returned from this desert odyssey knowing afresh that human anxieties, to be seen for what they really are, need the expansive spaces that wildness provides. I better appreciate how big, unfathomable and ancient God is, and that his hand moves more slowly in creation than we can readily grasp. I hold within me the rapture of sleeping on a desert floor with a silver dollar of a moon sweeping across the firmament, awakening me repeatedly with an urgent sense of the need to pay attention. I am more serene about my life for having not heard a grand statement from God, and for simply letting his many whispers of truth pass through my soul. The desert hermit within me is alive and refreshed.