If anyone were to ask me if I liked deserts, I’d reply with a resounding, “NO!” I have never liked the desert. I love trees and water. I love color and contrasts. I love cute, furry animals…even the ones who can bite your head off. Except I have caveats: I don’t like humidity. Or heat. Deserts, on the other hand, are all brown and tan. Monotonous. They lack “real” trees and water. And they are filled with slithery, creepy, stinging and biting reptiles, insects, and arachnids. No. Not for me. But I’d have caveats here, too. No humidity in the desert is a good thing. And lizards are adorable. This is what we do in life, as humans. We categorize everything, and paint with broad strokes the characteristics of members of each category, and then lump them into good or bad, likes or dislikes. When we run into a member of that category that doesn’t quite fit, we make exceptions or add caveats, while still maintaining that our neat little categories work for us, for maintaining our order and our perspectives on the world. We put people into categories based on religion, politics, ethnicity, skin color, economic status. Animals fall into cute and cuddly, dangerous and deadly, mammal, reptile, insect…or dinner. We put emotions and actions in simplified terms, defying the complexities at the roots of many of our actions and in the simultaneous and sometimes conflicting emotions we feel at any given time.
But now I’m out traveling in the desert. I first made southern Utah an exception to my desert perspective last year when I traveled these parts and hiked in Arches and Capitol Reef on my way to my brother and now sister-in-law’s wedding in California. Now, however, my exceptions grow. I am finding it harder to paint the desert only in browns and tans. I am not just passing through, glancing at beauty that surprises me and runs counter to my idea of what makes a desert. I move more slowly. I spend more time. I am getting to know more deeply the desert, from northern New Mexico to here, in southwestern Utah. I am seeing beyond the surface. I am having to shift perspectives, to broaden my conceptualization of desert and desert life. The scene of red, white, pink, and rust rock against a blue sky is full of color and contrast. A river running through a canyon supports abundant trees, and trees grow in transition zones or cling to life on rocky heights, defying and adapted to a lack of rainfall. I have a new-found appreciation for tarantulas now that I see them in their environment and I know more about them and their struggles for survival. I don’t want to surprise or piss off a rattle snake by stepping on its turf, but I like knowing they are here. I no longer feel a stranger to this land because I know and understand it better. The desert and I are becoming friends, and I feel a connection I never thought I would feel. Though, I can’t say I’ve made peace with scorpions yet; but, then, I’ve not yet had an opportunity to get to know them either.
I am finding the same out here with the people I meet. We are all in this together out here. I walk to the restroom past rigs older than mine; rigs new and ginormous and glamorously outfitted; tiny little trailers that I can’t, for the life of me, figure out how two people can possibly sleep inside (though I still think they are awesome little things); vans; and tents. All sharing this space, sitting side-by-side, with few delineations between neighborhoods or jobs or socioeconomic standards to determine who sits next to you. I’ve been in places where I am sure my neighbor has been forced into this situation because of hardships or where people have turned their rigs into more permanents structures because they’ve set down roots (whether out of need or desire is really irrelevant). I am sitting now in a National Park where some have no trouble affording the sites here, while others, I’m sure, save up all their pennies just for the opportunity to see this wondrous landscape.
To be sure, not everyone out here escapes their judgmental tendencies even when escaping “real” life to come out into the “surreal” life of nature. It is also certain that there are those places where the artificial boundaries erected in society exist just as strongly. There are those RV parks I would never be allowed into, even if I wanted to because my rig isn’t bright, shiny, and new enough. But most of my experiences since arriving in the west have shown me kindness reigns when people shed their blinders. When they find themselves in a place where a majority have an awe and wonder of the space they are in. When there is a common ground of appreciation for this life and for travel. When you are in a space or engaged in an activity that erases stress and worry and anxiety, even if only for a time, and puts a smile on your face and a lightness in your step, you greet your neighbors with kindness without even thinking about it. You don’t ask or wonder about their politics or religion or socioeconomic status. You just smile, say hello, and receive the same in return. And maybe you strike up a conversation or exchange small talk. And sometimes you find yourself sitting next door to someone whom, after much conversation, you realize has differences that would have divided you in the “real” world, but, out here, you can still get to know them and enjoy their company and even have discussions around those topics that would have never been discussed under normal circumstances. And you discover you enjoy this person’s company, and a friendship is formed that will continue beyond the goodbyes of moving on.
I am not blind to the issues that exist in this world right now. They are plentiful. I know and understand they are out there, and I realize that these problems did not go away just because I moved into a new space. But it seems to me these very real issues stem from artificial sources we humans have created in our society. Can we fix the problems by continuing on paths that offer up divisiveness and anger, anxiety and fear, a me before we mentality? Or would we be better served to loosen up the strict and confining bounds of our categories, to allow for the possibility of more exceptions to the characteristics we assign members of any given category, to get to know those whose differences normally keep us separated and find the common threads that tie us all together, and to let kindness reign? I don’t know what the right path is, but the path we are currently on doesn’t seem like it leads us to any positive outcomes. I don’t believe there is only one right way, just that the way we’ve chosen creates a much harsher and cruel reality. It seems to me a smile and kindness for your neighbor or the stranger in the shops or the person you see as you leave the voting booth today does more to start healing what ails us than a scowl and angry words. And a walk in nature soothes the soul and quiets the mind more than our screens do. What I do know is that we really are all in this together. And time spent in the desert teaches us that there are more exceptions than our confining category of “desert” can allow for when we slow down and take the time to get to know and understand it.