Monday, October 28, 2013

The Far Sabbatical

     I don’t know what first attracted me to the desert. Maybe it was surviving within the inhospitable conditions. Or it could have just been the emptiness and solitude. But I finally made it out there last week after a few years. I had wanted to make a habit of taking a yearly sabbatical, where I just go off by myself for a bit, take my little 4WD truck and have some alone time.
I had been to Joshua Tree, then Death Valley and the last place I went was the Mojave National Preserve in 2010. My last sabbatical was right before I changed jobs. I wanted to go to Death Valley again next, but couldn’t in 2011 or 2012. This year I finally got my act together, but because of the government shutdown and the road conditions I couldn’t go to where I wanted to in Death Valley, so I picked a place in The Mojave National Preserve.
Roadside camping is where there is an established spot. There is a cleared area, perhaps with a fire ring. They’re all over, including national parks. The park’s website listed them, including the one I had been to last time. And I found another one that I remembered considering. This one was in Caruthers Canyon. It was accessible only with four-wheel drive. Like all roadside camping spots, there was no water, no facilities. I planned my trip and made this my destination.
October seemed the right time. My truck’s air conditioning doesn’t work so the drive wouldn’t be too hot. But it wouldn’t be too cold either. Plus, it would be just a couple weeks before National Novel Writing Month. Before the month begins I like to write up story outlines, character biographies, and backstory. I would take notebooks and pens and write. I would sit out in the desert and write, how utterly cool would that be? It’s what I wanted to do last year. I ended up going to Starbucks to do it. This year I would do it right.
I left at 5:00 am on Monday and got to the Costco in Victorville right when the gas station opened at 6. I got a cup of coffee at the Starbucks nearby and lamented that their Wi-Fi was down and I couldn’t use my iPod to check in. Then I got back out on the road headed northeast on interstate 15.
The drive was wonderful. I stayed in the slow lane most of the time. The air was cool. I passed through Barstow without stopping and kept on. The sun came up to my front right. I kept up with big-rigs as cars passed on the left. I stopped at Zyzzx to take a few pictures and then drove into Baker where I topped off the gas tank, grabbed a Subway sandwich and a can of Coke and texted Prajna that I was well.
I put the coke into the 10 gallon cooler strapped into the back of the truck. I had put two bags of ice in it the night before and topped it off with hose water.
Then I headed out. I was now farther on the 15 than I had ever been. I drove on through Mountain Pass where the scenery was stunning. Shortly before the Nevada Boarder, I turned off onto a highway. After the highway, I entered the Mojave Preserve.
I drove on a road for several miles. The pavement ended and it became pretty rough. I looked at my printed directions and my odometer to figure out when my turn would be coming. It seemed to take a long time and I wondered if I had missed it. But finally there it was, New York Mountain Road. The road was two ruts with grass in the middle and pretty sandy. I put the truck in 4WD and second gear, drove on and watched for my next turn.
I drove slowly. The last vehicle I had passed was the previous rough road about 30 minutes back. I had no cell signal. There was my next turn. I got onto Caruthers Canyon Road, still in 4WD. And now the road was uneven too. Parts of the road were washed out and there were ruts off to the left of it going around. At one point, I stopped and backed up to the alternate path. Then at one point, the newer path joined the old one in a rough dip. I stopped the truck, got out and assessed the road. I could make it. And I did. First gear, four-wheels, it wasn’t a problem, but it was a rough jolt. Once past it I looked in my mirror and saw my water cooler on its side. All my water had spilled out.
I got out of the truck and jumped in the bed. Ice was everywhere. I righted the cooler and began hand-scooping the ice chips back in. I was just a short way from my destination. But this was almost all my water. Aside from this, I had two 16 ounce containers. If I lost my water, I would have to go get some. I would have to brave those roads again for hours. I scooped and grabbed, not worrying that the bed of the truck and my hands were dirty. I kept at it until I couldn’t get any more. The cooler now was about 1/3 of the way full of ice. Once melted, it would be about 2 gallons.
I strapped the cooler down again. I had not slacked in securing it before, it was just a significant jolt. Then I drove on. I was jittery. The road split and I went to the left. A few minutes later, the road ended in a little circle. There was a fire ring. I had made it.
I pulled the truck around so it faced out and shut it off. Water was dripping out of the back. I still was awfully tense. I got my gear out and pitched my tent. I ate half my sandwich and drank the Coke. 

It was absolutely silent. The wind made noise in the tree or flapped the tent, but there wasn’t even the sound of birds or insects. I was there. Now what? I couldn’t relax. For a minute I thought I had lost my iPod and almost flew into a panic. There is was next to the driver’s seat where it had come off my belt. There was a little tree there at the campsite and I set my chair under it with my writing materials. I got my composition book out and sat in the chair. Then I spent a long time journaling. And that is what I did more than anything for the time I spent there.
I got out my big notebook and worked on the outline for my November novel. I took my time with it and tried to write a lot. But I was still jittery. Someone who had camped there before had fixed a rock into a part of the tree I was under and it made a little seat. I sat on that for a bit and did some writing.  Blue Like Jazz and watched a Jerusalem Beetle crawl to some shade my tent made.
I felt a little like a biblical prophet, but it wasn’t comfortable like my camp chair. I journaled more, read some of
The air was cool in the shade, perfect in the sun. I figured when the sun went down it would get pretty cold. I cooked my supper just as the sun went down. There was hills surrounding me and the sun disappeared before 5 pm. It was dark by 6. I bundled up and lit my camping lamp. Then sat next to my truck and read my book. I plugged speakers into my iPod and listened to soft music.
I kept getting up and walking away from my light to look at the stars. There were more stars visible in the sky than I had ever seen, even on my previous trips, now I had eyeglasses. At one point, I looked to the west and saw the tops of the mountains lit up with moonlight. The moon was shining on them before it reached me on the ground.
I watched the moon come up later. It was coming up on 9pm. I was tired and went to bed. It was cold and uncomfortable, but I managed to sleep off and on. The moonlight was brilliant enough that I could almost read by it.
I finally got up when it was light. I made coffee and breakfast. There was a lot more I wanted to work on for my novel. But I just couldn’t seem to focus on it. I was worried about getting through the big step on the way out. I was worried about the rest of the roads. And I finally broke down and admitted the truth to myself:
I was not having such a good time being farther than I had ever been from another living soul. This was a little too lonely. I was shocked at myself. The über cool loner wasn’t as much of a loner as he wanted to admit. This was too much, too far and I just couldn’t relax. Maybe it was losing all of my water, I don’t know. But I felt a little better when I finally just accepted the fact that I would have done better to spend an afternoon in Starbucks.
I packed up everything I had brought in, including the firewood I was going to use, but didn’t for lack of water to put it out. I selected a favorite CD and prayed to God that I would make it safely out without getting stuck or disabled.
I made it past the big dip and out onto the rough 4WD roads. I took one wrong turn and made it back and had no more trouble. By noon I was at the Kelso Depot, which is the park headquarters. I texted Prajna that I was alright and that I missed her.
I had a wonderful drive home though desert communities. As I drove past homes that were isolated, my first thought was how much I wished I could live there. But the thoughts faltered right away and something I never thought before replaced them. I don’t want to live way out in the middle of nowhere. I like living in the town I’m in.
I got home and everyone was watching MacGyver on Amazon Prime. People were happy to see me, but everything was just as it had been. Nothing had changed but me.

Monday, October 14, 2013

My Guy Anchor

     There is something about a dark empty field in the middle of the night that just feels disquieting. And when a car sits in it with its hazard lights feebly blinking, that lets the panic monster shake the bars of the cage. Even worse is everything that assaults the mind after. I made it through though. I had a guy.
     I should have been concerned when my phone rang at 10 pm and it was Harrison’s ringtone. I missed the call and stood by my phone waiting to see if he would leave me a voicemail. He didn’t. He called again right away. Even then, I didn’t fret. I said hello. Harrison told me that the brakes had failed on the Honda.
     “Oh no,” I said casually, as I might say to someone who couldn’t find their keys. “I’m sorry.”
     Then Harrison told me that he kind of went off the road.
     “Oh,” I said, still not getting worried.
     “And the airbags deployed,” Harrison said.
     I paused for just a second.
     “So,” I said. “You’ve had an accident.”
     He didn’t want to actually use that word. Neither he nor Benjamin was hurt. I told him to call Triple A and explain to them that he needed a tow. I asked where he was and told him I would be right there.
     Most phone calls at night mean the alarm is going off at church. When that happens I put on my long black coat and grab my flashlight. I didn’t this time. I headed right out the door. I was serious, not terribly worried, so I took the van instead of my truck. I don’t know how my seriousness meant taking the family van other than that I wanted the safest most reliable vehicle we had. This wasn’t to be a fun drive.
     I left the house and drove down out of town and across the freeway to the road Harrison told me he was on. He said he would have his hazard lights flashing. At the end of a long straight stretch I saw black skid marks stretching across the centerline and leaving the road. My headlights fell on the car’s rear reflectors. The car was far off in a field. I crossed the road, flicked on the high beams and let them shine on where the car was. When I stepped out I saw the path the Honda had continued to make after it left the road. It had narrowly missed a guy anchor, which is the wire that comes down at an angle from a utility pole. The car had struck a dirt berm and continued for almost 100 feet. Weeds were pushed aside and there at the end of the cleared path was the little Honda Accord. The lights were blinking very dimly, as if the car’s life was ebbing away.
     Harrison and Benjamin were both in good spirits, laughing and joking. Harrison was shocked into somberness when I showed him how close he had come to the guy anchor. His spirits sunk further when I told him that the car was probably a total loss. He told me that the brakes initially didn’t work and when he stomped the pedal they locked up. He had lost control and went in a straight path when the road curved.  
     I called Prajna and told her how things were. I didn’t say what a close call the boys had experienced. Harrison’s phone started giving him notifications from friends asking if he was okay. Prajna had been on Facebook.
     The first tow truck to arrive couldn’t get close enough to the car for fear of sinking into the soft dirt. They called a lighter truck and hooked the winch up to it. The transmission wouldn’t get out of park and the wheels didn’t turn.  They dragged the car backwards through the dirt and weeds, got it on the truck and towed it to our house. Right now the car is sitting where my truck sat for 10 months.
     I was surprised that I fell right asleep that night. It was the next day that thoughts started scaring me. If they had hit the guy anchor it could have knocked the car sideways and they could have rolled. They could have hit the pole. They could have crossed the centerline right into the path on an oncoming vehicle. The brakes could have locked up farther down the road where there is a steep drop-off and the car could have plunged down into it and no-one would have known about it until the next day. The worst case scenarios got worse as I kept thinking about it all.
     But nothing like that happened. Benjamin got a scrape on his face from the airbag that he wears like a badge of honor. The car, yes, it’s a total loss, and we’re sad about that. But for now, Harrison is driving the family van, and I have my truck to run to the store or go water at the community garden. We’ll manage. And we will of course continue to thank God for His watching over everything and keeping my boys safe.
     It’s hard to sort out the feelings after an incident like this. The paralyzing fear of everything horrible that could have happened goes up against the fact that God it didn’t and I feel blessed.
     My mind keeps going back to that vast field under the night sky. It was cold. The car was sitting where a car shouldn’t be with a path behind it. The path came just a few feet from the guy anchor. The guy wire stuck in my mind.
     A guy anchor equalizes tension. A utility pole is stable enough to stand on its own. But if there is an unbalanced load or stress from high winds it keeps the pole upright.  As the overhead wires pull one way, the guy wire is anchored to the ground and provides counter support. There is tension, but stability through careful engineering.
     I did play out the sequences in my head of my sons being seriously hurt. I did what anyone might do and I wondered how I would handle it. I hope that I would be able to handle it reasonably well. Obviously I wouldn’t be cool as a cucumber, but I think I could function and not panic. And this is because I have a guy anchor. I have a network of support, a home church and friends who I know would be there for me. Of course I have God. But more than that, I have friends of God. And if and when I hit the kind of crisis that I might dread, I have them keep me from falling.
     The car won’t stay in the yard long. I called the wrecking yard that sold me the differential for my truck, my truck that’s working again just at the right time. Things worked out okay this time. If they don’t next time, I have my guy anchor.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Waiting in silence while voices Sing

     I just put gasoline in my truck and filled the tank for the first time in almost a year. The trip meter said just over three hundred miles. That wasn’t the plan. When I filled up the tank in Victorville, California in October 2012, I was going to top it off in Ridgecrest about two hours later. I was considering driving to Nevada on my way out of Death Valley for a tank of gas. But the plans went awry. I put 30 miles on the truck before it broke. Then the truck sat in my yard for almost a year before I finally fixed it. What took me so long?
     Last week I finally took my iPod to The Apple Store. When I bought the iPod secondhand just over a year ago, the headphones didn’t work right. If I plugged them in all the way I couldn’t get the sound. So I had to have the plug partway out of the jack. If I moved wrong the plug popped out. I had to watch my step at work and if I bent over it usually came unplugged. So several times a day, I had to stop what I was doing, back up whatever I was listening to, and carefully re-insert the plug and move on. If I needed to bend down to scrub a spot on the floor or wipe down a wall, I just expected it to pop out and worked in silence.
     But I finally made an appointment at “The Genius Bar” of The Apple Store. When I arrived for the appointment, store associates were moving around the crowds with iPads and I got helped right away. I explained to the man helping me what the problem was. I decided not to bother telling him about the few other problems with the iPod. If they could just fix the headphone jack I would be fine.
     He had heard of the problem. Apparently it was a chronic problem with my model. No, he wouldn’t fix it. But he would sell me a new one for a third of the cost. A new iPod cost 300 dollars and they let me have one for 99. It wasn’t what I was prepared to spend, but I also wasn’t prepared to have every problem with the device taken away and receive a brand new one, with a warrantee.
     I went back to work the next day and marveled at my ability to move freely about and keep listening to my sounds. I could bend down. I could drive the golf cart. It stayed plugged in. I was so delighted that I spent a long time on Friday in my knees wiping down all bases of all the toilets and the walls around them.
     Why did I wait so long? Is anyone else out there like this? My truck was one thing. I was afraid it wouldn’t get fixed. I thought that I didn’t actually need it. I was afraid it would cost too much. Maybe that was the same with the iPod. Does anyone else out there live their life with something missing, something broken, some unmet need?
     After I lost Naomi, I spent about 5 years living in my own miserable little world before finally getting help. And this is so much like my iPod I can’t believe it.
     Help was out there. I got rid of something that was slowing me down, hindering my life and actually causing me anxiety. I didn’t know it, but I was able to get something brand new, clean, with nothing wrong with it. I was amused and amazed at my reluctance to just go ahead and make things better.
     Things were better almost instantaneously when I got the new iPod. Not so much with Celebrate Recovery. But part of the healing was the time it took. The gradual change built my trust in God.
     But both times, I was depriving myself of something new. Both times, help was out there. Both times, there was joy in new things.
     But the big question is why did I wait? I’ve thought about it and I’m not all that sure. I just think that it might have been this: I didn’t know things could be better. I had convinced myself to just endure the situation and not expect things to get better. Don’t get my hopes up thinking of a better life. Just life in misery. Okay, the broken iPod wasn’t miserable. My analogies are crossing over each other. But the reasoning is pretty much the same. Both times, I didn’t want to experience the letdown if I tried to make things better and failed.
     And all along, help was out there.
     So here’s a message. I wish someone had told me. I wish I had come to my senses earlier. But what’s done is done. So I am passing on what I know now. If you’re suffering with some kind of hindrance, don’t be like me. Take steps to get help. Sometimes it means getting something new. One time, for me, it was a new life.