People say it’s hard to come down from the mountaintop.
I found it to be the opposite: coming down from the mountaintop is euphoric. Getting to the top of the mountain is exhausting, scary, and uncertain. It’s after the mountaintop experience when you begin to process the feeling of accomplishment and growth that it becomes joyful.
I felt that way today, after everything I experienced from the night before. I was headed down into the desert, excited about the future. On today’s agenda was a short trip through Corrizo Plain National Monument, a little known park in California’s central valley. I am not fully sure why I picked Carrizo out for my trip, other than the fact I had never been there before and it was sort of on the way to San Luis Obispo (SLO to you non-Californians). I have been up route 101 (the PCH) many times, and though I love it, I wanted to go in a different direction this trip.
Coming down from Pine Ridge I very quickly found myself in a desert. Or what should have been a desert. But instead, this:
Thanks to the legacy of Mulholland and others of his ilk, our carrots are baked right into the hard-packed high desert plain. You’ve probably heard about the California drought by now and its effects on the state, but this is not a new phenomenon. There’s a reading group headed by a professor of mine, John Thompson, that just finished Cadillac Desert, a written history of how industrial agriculture and sprawling cities were forced onto a land with no water.
The truth is, I understand the motivation. People moved out west with the promise of opportunity and a new beginning, and they had to make things work. That entrepreneurial spirit still continues today, for better and worse. California land, once you water it and plant seeds, is incredibly fertile and the year-round mild climate makes it an amazing place to grow food.
I don’t think it’s bad to try to get out of the desert, or even to change your surroundings. But in California’s case and often in our own lives, we try to do it on the cheap. And sometimes the temptation to change the landscape to meet your needs is overpowering. I know this all too well.
For ten years, my wife and I have felt like we’ve been a personal desert. Like many other millenials, we graduated near the recession and tried to figure out what to do with life. In addition, we felt called to Christian ministry. We’ve tried to live that out, working as InterVarsity staff, as a worship director, at a non-profit Christian coffee startup, treasurer of a church board, etc. It turns out that we don’t always fit in the church, but it’s not like we’ve been missing out on a great vocational life in the business world. It’s taken us a long time to figure out what our passions are, what we want to do, and how we want to spend our time. We’ve always been a little unconventional: it turns out that unconventional during a global recession is a recipe for disappointment.
So I can understand the urge to leave or to remake the desert. Unfortunately it often generates an underclass in society, where we lease the desert to others and they in turn bring in labor on the cheap to generate wealth for us. Along the way I passed many different migrant workers out in the fields, and I asked several of them if I could take their portrait. Most declined, and I think I can guess why. These problems are complex; it’s not any one person’s fault and we usually share corporate, and often ignorant, complicity rather than individual malice.
Today, however, rather than escaping I was going out into the desert. And if you want to go to somewhere, Carrizo Plain National Monument is nowhere. It’s the weirdest park space I’ve visited; even national forests have ranger stations, but in Carrizo there is nothing besides a map at the south end of the park and three or four points of interest. The Devil’s Punch Bowl had a little office with rattlesnakes in terrariums. Here I saw four cars all afternoon.
Despite the emptiness I spent hours here: literally hours. I entered the Park at around 12, and didn’t leave until 6 in the afternoon. The park is only 45 miles long, and trust me, it’s pretty much a straight shot.
Of course only the first and last five miles are paved, so that did slow me down a little bit, but not that much. What did I do the whole time? Tried to burn a hole in my SD cards.
Honestly, I feel like God’s been following me around this whole trip, setting up a lighting display. We’ve had the most unusual period of rain in July in an entire generation. A tropical storm has blown up from the south and brought rain and clouds every day between the hours of 11 and 3. This meant that in the height of summer, I have been able to shoot everyday, all day; landscape photographers understand what this means. Normally the middle of the day is a black hole: the shadows become extremely harsh and it can be difficult to expose photos correctly without losing data in the shadows or highlights. Combine this July with a graduated nd filter, and you get shots like this.
After a while, though, I started just sitting and listening to the wind. Seeing all this dust and rock, I started thinking about how underneath the forest and plants and trees is just another desert. The Earth is just like Mars and Mercury and Pluto. And that’s mostly what the entire universe is: just one big giant desert. Here on Earth, oxygen and carbon and hydrogen have combined to make it a pretty extraordinary place. But underneath all that is desert: waiting, enduring. We think that by turning away from whatever desert we find ourselves in we can get away and hide from it. But it’s everywhere.
I’ve been so desperate so many times these past few years hoping for our ship to come in, so to speak. Not just financially, though we would certainly like to be more comfortable. Desperate to try to figure out some thing to escape the pain and struggle we’ve felt. But God wouldn’t let us out. And I think that’s because we wouldn’t be leaving the desert; we might think we had left it behind, but our problems would just follow us around. I can’t tell you how many wealthy people I’ve met in Los Angeles who are completely miserable.
I realized about a year and half ago that I should stop looking to the future and just try to love myself and be happy now. I wouldn’t say that I am content, but I have had a growing sense of confidence and peace.
Out here in the desolation that is Carrizo Plain National Monument, I took pictures, listened to the wind, and stared off into the distance. Out here I’ve found communion with a presence greater than ourselves. Christians call it the spirit of God, but whatever you call it and whatever it is, I believe it’s the substrate of all existence. When God takes away all our distractions and toys and grinds them into dust we find ourselves able to finally listen. It’s no accident that all the great prophets and heros in Scripture spent time in the desert. All their shit got stripped away and they became strong and powerful, nourished in God’s presence.
I hope that’s something that’s happening to me, to all of us. Like most travelers I don’t know where the road leads. But we all end up back here, out in the dust and silence. And it’s here that I’ve found peace.
Most of this sounds pretty romantic, I’m sure. And most days, I hate being out here. It’s hot, painful, and frustrating. But that day is not today. And I think the desert fathers would agree with me, so not bad company.
A gallery with a few more images from the day
Or just watch this video of my little friend. Free 8×10 to the first person who can tell me what he is.