In the morning, I refreshed with a swim in Lake Mead and changed into my last clean set of clothes. The swim was the closest I was going to get to a shower before sitting on a plane for three hours.
We headed into Las Vegas and embarked on a desperate and hopeless search for a coffee shop, which ended in us camped out at a Starbucks, listening to bizarre conversations and searching in vain for a bus tub that didn’t exist. We didn’t need coffee, we had each already had a cup at camp and undoubtedly there would be some either at the airport or on the plane. I think we were just homesick. Our search for coffee shops had intensified after Slab City, and had gone unsatisfied at every turn.
Navigating Las Vegas itself is a bit of a puzzle to me. It seems to me that all areas of the city, with the notable exception of the Las Vegas strip, look the same; a large gambling hall of some kind, surrounded by mass produced condos and little strip malls. The city also is extremely flat and lacks much of anything in the way of natural landmarks. Without GPS, I don’t know if we’d have made it out.
Back at McCarran, we shuffled through security, now such an ordeal, and headed to the gate. We plugged in at a nearby charging station and waited for boarding time. I remember walking to the ladies room and feeling as though the ground were falling away from me with every step. The sensation was so strong that it caused me to stumble. A week on very little sleep and in very high heat, along with a meager granola bar breakfast had brought me to this.
When boarding started and our section was called, I had to step over a bearded young hippie sprawled in the aisle between rows of seats. Air transportation has now become such an uncomfortable thing that all kinds of behavior now pass unremarked; our stewardess quipped that air travel was becoming increasingly uncomfortable to prepare mankind for space travel.
I fell asleep within minutes of sitting down and fastening the safety belt, but our chatty stewardess woke me up prior to take off. I’m a nervous flier, even after having been on planes since infancy… ascent and descent are the most uncomfortable, and I wished that she had let me sleep.
I felt fondness as I watched the floor of the desert recede. I was exhausted and absolutely ready to head home, but I would miss this place… the magic and the solitude of it. I would miss the rhythms of travel, of waking before dawn, of working until the sun started to fall, of camp and meals taken hastily at picnic benches and in the moving car. I would miss the sprawling endless desert, the sun and the dry wind.
When Phil’s ex-wife dropped me off at my apartment, I dragged my luggage inside and sank into my sofa. I felt a little chilled, despite the fact that the temperatures were still in the seventies and eighties. I think I slept twelve hours that night.
The next day, when I was unpacking my suitcase, I was rolling the tent to fit back in its bag and I caught a smell reminiscent of barbecue. I smelled the tent material over and over, and then it came to me… the mesquite at Texas Springs had set a layer of needles on the ground where I’d pitched my tent… and the smell had stuck over the last five or six days.
There was a sort of a depression that set in that didn’t wear away for about a week and a half. My normal life just seemed so… normal. There were so many things to take care of, so many things to worry about, and all of them with little direct reward. There had been so many things on the trip that we hadn’t seen… more Nevada ghost towns, and more Salton Sea ruins. There was a feeling of lost innocence, an emotional exhaustion brought on by the horrors and exaltations of the last six days. It was only once I was knee deep in writing up my notes from the trip that things started to look a little brighter. The written word had brought the impermanent into permanence.
In this reflective state, the state of remembering and recording, I was left pondering a question that had been rattling around in my head since the second day of the trip: what is it about the desert that attracts the creative soul? Not just me, and not just Phil, but also the folks who maintained the Goldwell Open Air Museum, and the folks in Slab City, and the men in charge of maintaining Salvation Mountain? Is it the emptiness of the place that beckons us, giving the brain space to impose itself on the land? Is it the simple living? The absence of television and much internet access that allows for work to be pursued with fewer distractions? Is it that we feel more comfortable in a land as strange as we are? Or is it the harshness of the landscape and climate? Situations of extremity that further the breakdown of ego?
As I looked at the three now-dry sprigs of eucalyptus that I stole from Boulder Beach, their scent now so delicate as to be almost imperceptible, I knew it was probably all of these things and a thousand other reasons… at least one reason for every artist that contemplates parking a trailer at the end of an unpaved road.
All things fade; all things end, die, are ripped away from us. In the desert, so mercurial and also so strangely unchanging, the products of our hands and minds last perhaps a few days longer, for good or bad. In the desert, we are mice in the face of enormity, but we are also titans of an endless landscape.