I lock the car, scramble up a short drainage, and emerge onto a vast plateau. Doing a 360, I take in the low grassy mountain range cut with deep channels to the south. To the west are distant snow stippled peaks, to the east lie endless miles of dry grass and sage and irrigated farm fields, punctuated by imperceptible ridges and rises. To the north, in the far distance, lie a series of increasingly higher mountain ranges that march northward to the Canadian border. Incredible as it is, I am the sole human figure on this canvas. Even more amazing—today is the summer solstice and a less than 100 miles away, a quarter of a million people march like ants to the confines of their daily lives. I extend my arms, forming a cross on the ground beneath me, and do another 360 circle to celebrate freedom, to celebrate life.
The solitude is complete. The air is still and quiet. Even the birds, who woke me this morning with their bacchanalia, have settled down to the rigors of foraging. It feels…primordial; I feel like the only person on the planet. Sure, there are small reminders of past human presence: a rusty snarl of baling wire here, a sun bleached shell casing there, a faint two track road, a stock watering station. But here and now, I am the only person who counts. There are no cars, no trains, and blissfully, no ATVs in sight or sound.
It is lovely to share an adventure like this with a partner. But some visceral bliss permeates my soul when I am alone. There is something that goes beyond solitude. Perhaps it’s the freedom. Every decision is strictly yours. No one will second-guess your strategy. You are limited only by your enthusiasm, endurance, and the efficiency of the supplies you’ve brought with you.
I realize with surprise, how often I make minor adjustments. Enlightened by this reality, I become aware of each decision: to avoid the cheat grass by following this animal trail, to bear slightly right, to head for that small swell on the horizon or the larger point of the up tilted ridge? Should I keep going or turn back? Should I stop and take another inane photo? Should I drink now, or save my limited water for later?
A lone antelope springs across the horizon of my travel. I stop to watch him through my long lens. He stops to watch me through his keen eyes. I start to walk; he stares. I look over at him; he runs a bit further, then stops and stares. I stop and stare. I wonder if he will come towards me in curiosity. But he does not. He disappears down an imperceptible draw and a tiny tinge of disappointment shadows his departure. He was company in this vastness.
I make waypoints as I change course. It seems impossible to get lost in a flat expanse where the slant of the sun and a few distinctive geographical features frame right from left and forward from aft. But visions of bleached bones and stories of thirsty fools trudging in circles remind me that the desert is serious. My car is one small speck, which lies hidden beside a dry wash behind me. A few degrees in such country defines life and death. At last I find Little Jacks drainage, a chasm that abruptly cleaves the flat landscape and cradles miles worth of oasis. Trees and shrubs thrive on a year round supply of water from distant peaks. Hundred foot walls of basalt shelter a distinct ecosystem with different birds, flowers, insects, and trees. It was worth the long hike to see this.
On the way back to the car, each connection with a way point that matches a footprint produces satisfaction. My socks are covered with cheat grass and I’m low on water. The sun is overhead. I start down a gentle incline, expecting to find my car at the bottom. But there is no car, no path, just another hill. I silence alarm bells in the wake of false hope. Clearly I had missed this little draw on the way out because I chose a more westerly route to avoid unnecessary ups and downs. Another slight readjustment and I see the land dropping off in front of me again. These depressions are unexpected because the gaze from eye to horizon appears so smooth. I negotiate a shallow drainage, look to my left and there sits my dusty car. YES!