My first day back in the desert, a brisk wind was blowing. In the ordinary course, I would expect that its strength would decline with the sun. And so, rather than looking for a protected cove among the rocks to camp, I shopped for the best view instead. The view delivered nicely, and I enjoyed watching the sunset fade into darkness until the rapidly falling temperature sent me to bed. True to form, the wind abated.
But only for a time. Around midnight, a front moved in from the west, and with it came the wind. Soon it was gusting 30 and 40 miles per hour, rushing by and rattling my ground cloth between the tent stakes I had driven to hold it down.On each downbeat, the edge of the ground cloth would scoop up a scatter of grit. And on each upbeat, it would rain those particles down like sleet on my head, causing me to pull the top of my mummy bag ever more tightly down over my face. But as the wind rose, the half moon set, and with the fading of its light the constellations blazed forth. Orion shone almost directly overhead, and was soon joined by the Pleiades, the Milky Way, and numberless points of light in between.
Whenever I awoke, which was often, I put on my glasses and looked up to the skies. The front, you see, had brought not only wind, but a night of exceptional clarity and urgent beauty. A fair trade, I thought, and didn’t mourn the lost sleep. The distant stars shimmered all the more brightly through the cold, clean wind that rushed overhead. And as they did, the stars wheeled slowly around the pivot of Polaris throughout the night, as they always have and always will, in the great empty expanse of the high desert sky.
The next day dawned clear, windy and cold, just above freezing. I waited for the sun to clear the ridgeline to the east before emerging from my sleeping bag. When it did, the sensation of warmth on my face was instantaneous and luxuriant. But still there was the wind to be reckoned with, gusting harder than ever. Lighting a camp stove was out of the question, so I broke camp quickly, contenting myself with a half cup of cold, left over coffee I found in the cup holder of the car. Eventually, I thought, I’ll find a cove sufficiently sheltered where I could boil a little water.
That proved to be a vain hope, and over the next two days, the gusts sometimes reached 60 miles an hour, while the sun shone brightly. When it was over, more than a few Joshua trees lay uprooted on the ground.
There are many comforts of life in first world nations that we take for granted unless we stop to think – electric lights, running water, a warm, dry place to sleep. But one of the lesser blessings that is unlikely to occur to us is protection from the wind. Unless you have spent hours in a heavy wind (I’ve spent days), you are probably unaware of how wearing it can be to be constantly buffeted, chilled and audibly assaulted by an unseen and inescapable force. In the desert, it brings tears to your eyes, when it is not catching you up with a sudden blast of grit. In high mountains, it can roar overhead, inspiring awe, if you are fortunate enough to have found a protected nook to shelter in.
When a big wind blows, some things become difficult, and others impossible. Nailing a tent to the ground can become an athletic event, and matches are useless. Even with shelter, the incessant sound of a big wind as it rises and falls eventually tires you out. Without realizing it, you begin to yearn unconsciously, and then quite deliberately, for relief from the onslaught. When the wind finally abates, the quiet of the still air is a revelation.
As it is now, several days later, as I sit outside and hear nothing – nothing at all but birdsongs – many miles from the nearest manmade sound, and liberated from the wind.
In the desert, as at sea, the wind can seem almost a living thing, determined and all-powerful, or, at times, eccentric and irresolute. On warm summer days, dust devils are born mystically in the shimmering distance out on the flats, spiraling suddenly into existence and sending columns of dust, salt, or alkali hundreds of feet into the air. As suddenly as they coalesce, they dissolve again into stillness and calm after one minute or fifteen. From a higher point, you can watch one or a half dozen at a time drifting wraithlike across the valley below, each as furious as it is purposeless and without a final destination.
The fronts of winter, though, produce winds that very much have a direction, sweeping everything loose before them. When they course through dry valleys, all becomes obscured for miles around by a dry fog of dust that is swept high into the sky, carrying for great distances, even across hundreds or thousands of miles, when the dust is fine. Those who endured the dust bowl conditions of the 1930s in the south central United States knew that when the a dust storm arose, outside was no place to be. Not only did the “Okies” that moved west lose their ranches; the bankers who foreclosed on them found that the winds had gotten their first, foreclosing on most of the topsoil and banking it far to the east.
So shelter from the wind is a gift, whether we remain aware of it or not. But the protection of our modern homes from the elements comes at a cost. Most of them today are tightly clustered, too close together for almost anyone to enjoy a sunset anymore (can you remember when last you enjoyed one with an unobstructed view?). The light that keeps the dark away inside and makes our streets feel safe outside also washes away the starlight. Many city dwellers have never seen the Milky Way. No so long ago, nearly everyone in the United States could see the arms of our galaxy every clear night. Today it might be what – 2%? Less? If you haven’t, it’s a grand sight to see.
This is old news, of course, and, you might ask, so what? Isn’t this why we have national parks and other public lands? The answer, I think, is both yes and no. Our modern shelters, it seems, are becoming more seductive than ever. Not only are on-line and other electronic entertainments negatively impacting television and print journalism, but use of public parks in the US is falling off as well, even as population continues to rise. Apparently, our affinity for the out of doors is fighting a losing battle against the delights of our electronically-enabled cocoons.
It strikes me that this is an especially inauspicious time for mankind to become less connected to the natural world. That world is increasingly under attack – by us. The more insulated we are from it, the more abstract that impact will seem. Already we know that the opportunity to brake global warming before it has catastrophic effects is rapidly slipping away. And yet we know that we are doing too little to avoid such consequences.
What we do to the earth will certainly have profound effects on humanity. But the earth is ancient and patient, and able to recover in the fullness of time – without us - from the worst that we can inflict upon it. What would be at most a slight fever for Gaia would be at best disastrous, and at worst fatal for modern civilization. There is no doubt who the winner and loser in this conflict will be.
It’s easy to think such thoughts, gazing at the stars on a windy night in the high desert. Perhaps the earth does us a favor when it holds us in the unseen grip of the wind, reminding us of our proper place in the natural order of things.
For further blog entries in Not Here but There: a Wilderness Journal, click here