One lovely thing about our annual January sojourn in the desert is the sense of being unplugged from all responsibilities, worries, and the sense that something must be accomplished. At the end of the day here, rather than looking for done tasks, I just think about the lovely and unusual experiences of the day.
But three things are keeping this annual pilgrimage from being the peaceful trip we anticipated, and you can probably guess them. The first is our furry travel companions, the second is the worsening COVID epidemic, and the third, the horror of the political scene that unfolded in Washington, DC, a few days ago.
In a normal year, we would be perusing headlines on our iPads over coffee and conversation, and then forget about them and go about our day. But last year was different. We both started getting banner headlines on our devices in early 2020, and we fell into the habit of checking them regularly. The unease that entered our lives last February has become a constant companion, and it almost feels like “if I am in the know” of small, disturbing waves of information, then I can somehow deal with the unsettling undertow; otherwise I may be overwhelmed by a tsunami of bad news.
And a tsunami of bad news is exactly what happened on January 6. Frequent checking in on political events could never have prepared anyone for the scene that unfolded at the Capitol Building. Unlike our single television at home, the TVs (there are three) here get network news, and we were watching them—from the breaching of the walls until completely overwhelmed. We tended to the dogs and fell heartbroken and emotionally exhausted into bed.
The next day I opened my email and read the COVID statistics for our county. Truly frightening: no ICU beds, high hospitalizations, high death rate, and refrigerated trucks used as temporary morgues. I thought about checking the local statistics for the desert community we are in, but decided I would not. The death of the Capitol policeman added to the sadness I already carried. John and I prayed for our country for healing from dissension and for the nation’s for healing from disease.
But you really cannot sit and stew and slide into depression when you own two mischievous nine-month-old dachshund puppies. On January 6, we had taken them on an extra-long early morning walk, and so they were pretty mellow the rest of the day. I think they were recharging their batteries, because the next day started out with ripping up the pee pad, and while I was trying to salvage what was left of it, they went outside to bark at the early morning golfers. I went outside to settle them down, and they dashed into the house. Teddy made a beeline for the couch and peed on the leg. About that time, John appeared and asked, “What’s happening?”
Really? Really? As I opened my mouth to speak, Sadie pooped about a foot away from the shredded pee pad that Teddy was now actually eating. John took a step back as if to avoid the chaos and stepped on a squeaky toy. I didn’t think he could jump that high. I smiled inside.
We decided that we better get breakfast into these juvenile delinquents and hit the trail. After an extremely long walk through the complex, we dropped off two exhausted beasts and headed to Thousand Palms Oasis for a hike of our own.
A short walk across a hot and dusty parking leads to the shadowed entrance of the oasis. After the heat of the desert sun, the sudden shade cools your skin. Under the canopy of palms, a small stream runs by the walking path. If you look hard, you will see tiny, almost transparent pupfish. At the edges of the running water, brackish water adds a pungent tang to the soft breeze that rustles the palms fronds.
The oasis trail leads out onto the flat desert floor. Here, yellow-flowered coreopsis, cacti, yucca, and brittlebush cover the sand. It is the land of the fringe-toed lizard, bighorn sheep, roadrunner, and other heat-loving creatures. On this trail the San Andreas Fault looms to the left, a jagged, somewhat ominous knife-edged outcropping. But beyond the fault surrounding the valley, mountains ranges and hills define the horizon. The San Jacinto Mountains are purple, craggy, and topped by snow. Faint pastel shades of peach, green, and lavender paint the tan undulating dunes of the Little San Bernardino range. The Santa Rosa Mountains, with the look of a prone Stegosaurus, are dark purple in the misty distance. Overhead, the cap of the clear blue sky and the golden sun float above the sere landscape. Peace. I raised my hands to the sky and took a deep breath, then two more. Letting my arms fall to my sides, I felt all the tension, anger, and fear leave me like toxic drops falling from my fingertips to be absorbed in the healing sand.
The sheer antiquity and vastness of this landscape puts everything into perspective. In the desert you can take a deep breath and let go. Yes, there is political uncertainty, a pandemic rages, and there are two very ornery dogs waiting at the condo. But positive political change is in the wind. COVID vaccines are being rolled out with the promise that more will become available quickly. And there are two mischievous adolescent dachshunds at home that will turn into more sober adult dogs, and we will probably miss their antics. In the meantime, they will greet us at the door with exuberant yips and wagging tails. And when we pick them up, they will lavish our faces with dog kisses.
I suspect all of us have one or more places where we can go that help us to rise up and look down on all that our lives are—a place that provides a different point of view. For me, one of those sacred places is here in the arid open spaces, in the dry air, in the sheer struggle for survival of flora and fauna. Perspective: that’s the gift, freely given and gratefully accepted.