Having scaled the steep rock mass to gain a panorama of the canyon, I stood facing an expanse of parched earth that seemed to be without end. My heart pounded, not because of the climb but because, from my precipitous perch on the edge of this overhanging slab, I could not afford the slightest misstep. If I slipped I would plunge into the canyon and die. The thought then struck me: no one would know. A mile off trail and eight miles from the nearest trail head, I felt absolutely, preternaturally alone, which accounts for both why I feared the climb and why I did it. The desert made me do it.
Desert is wilderness—desolate, hostile terrain that defies but does not preclude life. As I, like every other Catholic, pass dutifully from yet another Lent into yet another Easter, I can’t help asking what it is in me that seeks and finds the richness of desert—as metaphor, as landscape, as soulscape. The desert has long been rich soil for ascetic seclusion among anchorites, monks, even Christ himself, not to mention those raised to emulate such holiness. But if I weren’t Christian, if I espoused no organized religion, would the wild and unforgiving desert still move me to peer over the precipice as it does?
To answer, I turn to a favorite desert classic of a decidedly secular bent, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. Subtitled “A Season in the Wilderness,” Abbey’s book is an eclectic mix of memoir, poetry, natural description, philosophy and polemic stemming from his years as a seasonal park ranger at Arches National Monument in Utah during the 1960’s. What compels me in the book, despite Abbey’s occasional paranoia and anarchistic strain, is his uncluttered instinct for the interrelationship between place and spirit, rock and symbol—the wilderness without and the wilderness within.
For Abbey the desert is a place to be alone but not lonely: “Loneliness has passed like a shadow, has come and is gone.” What transforms the ache of loneliness into the solace of solitude is for Abbey as simple and as elusive as attention to detail. Providing the opportunity for such focus is the desert’s marvelous and exacting gift. Stripped nearly bare, the landscape unveils itself with the clarity of “spareness and simplicity so that the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock.”
This habitual raw encounter with the thing itself resonates deeply within Abbey and offers a nearly fathomless sense of liberation. “Wilderness,” he writes, “is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.” The desert is distinctly other, quintessentially uncivilized and anti-civilization. It is terra incognita and by natural extension engenders that part of ourselves from which we stand—whether by cultural convention or personal fear—furthest apart. What Abbey sought in the desert was both the topography and the state of being most unknown in civilization: wilderness.
The desert is, for Abbey as for the Lenten sojourner, the ultimate sanctum. In removing us from the world, it draws us out of ourselves even while forcing us into our own deepest regions. “Wilderness, wilderness.... The word suggests the past and the unknown, the womb of earth from which we all emerged. It means something lost and something still present, something remote and at the same time intimate, something buried in our blood and nerves, something beyond us and without limit.” What that “something” is Abbey does not call God, though it is everything that humans are not. Abbey’s desert nonetheless makes him more human.
It has ever been thus—to know the thing in itself is to know what is truly essential, though knowing doesn’t necessarily imply understanding. And this is how the desert, wilderness, is so intertwined in the human story: we wander in places inhospitable to life seeking answers to questions we haven’t yet articulated. The desert, like the human endeavor, is layered in dust and mystery, a life process now withering, now rejuvenating, that shows no sign of ceasing. Abbey’s experience during years in the desert spent listening and observing left him no less sharply ambivalent about himself or humanity than he was when he started, but nevertheless more at peace with his unknowing, a condition he described as “paradox and bedrock.”
Paradox, indeed, for my own growing attraction to the desert experience has nothing and everything to do with my faith, often in a bone-dry state of self-exile. As I age and go about exploring the desert wilderness, it seems that any attempt to separate in my mind the desert as metaphor from the literal desert becomes impossible. To be parched and want water; to feel the relentless heat and want shade; to cry out and hear no echo: such are the acts of yearning to which we aspire and that we dread as human beings and broken believers. How can we know God unless we’ve been radically alone, deserted? This is the wilderness journey, the retreat, Desert Solitaire, Lent—whatever form and name one chooses to give it. The desert is more than an escape from what Abbey calls “the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus.” If we go there, we will know something of the desert’s emptiness; and such emptiness, I have to believe, is its own reward.