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A Desert Rat Comes Home: Finding the Meaning of Life

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I took this picture of Sierra Fog in the spring, but this is the kind of dampness that cuts you to the bone in the fall.

I’ve made the annual transformation from Mountain Man to Desert Rat. Fall had definitely arrived in the Sierra National Forest and winter was very close behind. It was cool during the day and cold at night and a storm was on the way which meant it would be raining or snowing anytime. There is something about the mountains that makes wet weather terribly uncomfortable. The damp coldness cuts you right down to the bones and makes you truly miserable.
But it wasn’t just the cold that was the problem; it was also the lack of sun. The Sierras has a very thick forest with very tall trees. During the summer, that isn’t a problem because the sun is so high in the sky that my solar panels got plenty of sun. But by October it had dropped so low in the sky that it was below the tree-line and I was not getting enough sun to keep my batteries charged. I had fallen back to emergency power conservation, and that is not the way I want to live. I have become addicted to having plenty of power and hate being without it.

The desert often blooms in the Spring. This is my camp outside Pahrump, NV.

So we left there last Thursday and have set up our new camp on free BLM land just north of Victorville, CA off highway 395. The weather here is glorious! Our first day back the wind was blowing a bit but it wasn’t terrible. But yesterday and today were perfect! Temps are in the 80s with little or no wind and the nights are in the 50s; warm enough to sleep well but just a little bit cool. Days like today remind me how much I love the desert. I know there are many people who don’t like the desert but generally I think that is because they haven’t spent enough time in it to let it grow on them.
To me, there is something magical about the desert. At first glance you may think it is just barren and ugly, but if you slow down and spend some time in it, something strange happens: it changes you. If you will let it, you will become a different (and better) Person:

The desert tortoise is the ultimate vandweller! He always has his home with him, he has to stick his neck out to get anywhere, and he is in no hurry to get there. he is my hero! I took this picture laying down beside the tongue of my trailer in the picture above.

1) The desert is Patient and Timeless: Our modern world is so rushed and stressed-out, we are all running around acting like chickens with our heads cut off. We are the Instant, “I want it right now!” culture. Most Americans are deeply in debt because they can’t wait till they have saved some money to pay cash for something. Instead we buy it right now on credit because we can’t wait. We eat huge amounts of fast food because we can’t take the time to cook a healthy meal. We rush around the freeway at 90 mph to save 5 minutes on our trip.
The desert is very different from that. Time in the desert is not measured in hours and minutes or even weeks, it is measured in years, decades and centuries. My favorite example is the incredible wildflower bloom in some parts of the desert. The seeds for those blooms fall to the ground and wait for a year for all the conditions to be just right to sprout and ultimately bloom. But if the conditions don’t happen, if the Spring rains don’t come, the seeds just wait another year for the conditions to be just right. Then, if the Spring rains don’t come again, the seeds just wait for another, better year. Finally, one year all the conditions are just right and the desert explodes with gorgeous, brilliant colors. For a few brief weeks or months the desert is one of the most beautiful places anywhere on the planet.
If you will let it, if you will spend time in the desert and slow down and absorb it, that timelessness can get deep into your soul. I wish I were a poet and could put it into words that would express it, but I am not. I can only tell you that when Homer and I go for our walks in the morning and evening, every so often I experience moments of Timeless joy, of Stillness at the core of my being. At those moments I have a deep sense of “Everything Is Right with the World.”
When you live in the desert without a job or a schedule of any kind, you become tuned to the sun following its ark across the sky. You are not tuned into your watch; you are tuned into the suns location. When that happens, you are well onto your way to returning to your true nature as a human.

The desert is huge and powerful. In comparison we are tiny and fragile. As long as we remember our true place, we are welcomed into its wonderful world.

2) The Desert will also give you a perspective of your size in the world. The desert is a big place. Most often there are mountains in the distance so there is a limit to how far you can see, but it is still very big. At night, when the stars come out, it is stunning to go sit outside and stare at the stars. That will give you some sense of your smallness in a huge Universe. Every morning Homer and I pick a spot in the distance and start walking toward it. After we walk for about half an hour, we turn around and head back. My trailer sits in a bit of a valley, so when I turn around, I am heading back toward my trailer and I have it in sight the whole time. What always stands out to me is that it is such a tiny, white dot in the immense desert. That also gives me a sense of perspective. That trailer has everything I own in the world in it, it is my whole world, and yet it is so tiny and insignificant. That puts my true importance into a scale I can begin to understand. All I have and do are not going to mean much in the long run. The only thing that is important is my impact on others.
I have made it my goal, that when I leave this planet, the most people possible will hear about it and say to themselves, “I’m sorry to hear he is gone, he was one of the good guys.” If that happens, then and only then, will my life have been a success.

The desert has many ways to kill you. We think first of the heat, but the cold can be just as deadly. Picture taken in Pahrump, NV.

3) The desert teaches me that humans are terribly fragile creatures. The desert is a place of terrible extremes. It goes from deadly, fatal extreme heat to numbing cold. It ranges from dead calm to hurricane force winds. There are many wild animals, reptiles and insects that are ready to kill humans at the blink of an eye. The desert is a humbling place. If you will learn its lessons, and take your proper place in the grand scheme of things, everything in life will start to make sense. I firmly believe you will find peace of mind.

Cactus in bloom in Pahrump, NV.

4) The desert can’t be stereotyped. Modern humans fall into the trap of classifying things and then losing sight of the individuals. We think of the desert as hot, barren, empty and lifeless, and there are deserts that are like that. But there also deserts that are just the opposite. Many deserts are full of varied vegetation, animal life and very cold in the winter. The desert around Pahrump, NV (my home base) is full of Joshua Trees, Yuccas cactus, sagebrush and wildflowers. In the spring there is even wild green grass! Almost every day that I have been there I have seen wildlife: coyotes, jackrabbits, lizards, rattlesnakes, desert tortoise, ground squirrels, and wild horses and burros. It’s a living, varied and wonderful environment. It can also be very cold. Every winter that I have been there it has snowed at least once.
So I want to encourage you all to break free from your stereotypes and come join me in the desert and see if it doesn’t change you and make you a better person. I really think you will be glad you did! Bob


  1. Kim

    Profound. I’ve never spent any time in the desert (other than passing through) and it seems a foreboding place. But I look forward to getting to know it better. I expect the sky at night is beyond compare. I’m ready to gaze at the Milky Way.

    • Bob

      Kim, there is something so magical about a really dark, starry night. One of the strongest memories I have is when I drove the Alaska Highway from Anchorage, AK to college in Idaho in 1973. We stopped in the middle of the night for a bathroom break and we jumped out to relieve ourselves somewhere in the Yukon Territory. It was fall and crystal clear and in 1973 there wasn’t nearly as much light pollution as their is now, especially that far north. To say the sky was full of stars is a total understatement. The Milky Way literally glowed a solid white light with stars. When I go out and look at it now ,it makes me sad that I will probably never see anything like that again, and the majority of people will never see it.
      But I still love the night sky in the desert!! Bob

  2. McBe

    On my first trip to the Arizona desert, I was struck by how still and sacred the landscape felt.

    • LaVonne

      “On my first trip to the Arizona desert, I was struck by how still and sacred the landscape felt.”
      Same here, and I can’t wait to get back. Counting down the months!

    • Bob

      McBe, very well said. I also consider it a sacred place. Bob

      • Gary Stern

        Pardon my ignorance, but what does “on free BLM land just north of Victorville, CA off highway 395” mean? Firstly, are you saying that there are no limitations on what one can do on this land and that it is not policed by some self important governmental agency? Secondly, how does one find BLM sites around the country, where one can just put temporary roots without molestation? People write about “boondocking” and “stealth” camping, so I was wondering if these places are well known or just out of the way?

        • Bob

          Hi Gary, what I do is technically called “dispersed camping.” A huge amount of land in the country is held in Public Trust and essentially owned by the Federal government. The majority of it is in the National Forests, National Parks and BLM land. National parks are different, so I am only talking about National Forests and BLM land. Those two are classified as “MULTI-USE” and one of their primary uses is for recreation: hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, biking etc. The Feds actively encourage people to go camping on Public Land. There are two kinds of camping on Public land, campgrounds and dispersed camping. Dispersed camping means that you can go and camp anywhere you want. There are restrictions on where you can camp, but much less than you would think.
          You must understand, it is illegal to live on Public Land! There are always time-limits on how long you can stay in one place or in the Forest as a whole. Generally it is 14 days, but sometimes it is less and sometimes it is more. You have to check with the local Ranger Station to find details for your area. However, enforcement on the time limit is very spotty. In some areas it is strictly enforced and in others it is not enforced at all. it has been my experience that the federal agencies have a limited amount of manpower and they aren’t going to go look for you. If you camp in an out of the way place where you aren’t easily noticed, you can pretty much stay as long as you want. If you camp in a place that is obvious, they almost have no choice but ask you to move on. The weather will limit you, eventually the National Forest will get terribly cold and the desert will get terribly hot.
          How to find it? Do a google search on the National Forest or BLM in the state you want to be in and call the local Ranger Station and ask where you can go dispersed camping and they will tell you. I did a search on “blm arizona” and it sent me here:

          I poked around and withing 5 minutes found this:

          That’s a large scale map, but you can call the local Ranger Station and find very specific information. Bob

          • Boonie

            There is no secret where public land is and how to find it. I stopped buying those fold-up maps years ago and just bought ($20 each) a DeLorme or Benchmark atlas that identifies which agency administers which parcel of land.
            Better yet, with a little practice, you get good at interpreting the type of dashed line that Benchmark uses for dirt roads on forest service or BLM land.
            With the heavy dashed line I will drive pull my 20 foot trailer down the road with no fear. A lighter dash means to check it out first with the tow vehicle or a mountain bike.
            If you drive a van or a pickup camper, you could go down most of the light dashes without checking it out first.
            Also, the DeLorme map product on CD disks ($70?) also identifies forest service land, BLM, and most of the dirt roads.

          • Bob

            Very good information Boonie. I also am a big fan of the Delorme or Benchmark Atlas. I own one for each state I spend any length of time in. Amazon sells them for a big savings. Bob

  3. CAE

    When I was much younger I thought the desert was just a barren bunch of nothing. Then I spent some time in it and was amazed at what I had never noticed. If you take the time, it will impress you. I have to agree that we have a tendency to compartmentalize things in order to simplify.

    • Bob

      The Buddhists have a saying; don’t confuse the moon with the finger that points at the moon. The first thing humans do is give something a name. The danger is that from then on we don’t see individuals, we see the class. So we all know the word “tree”, the danger is that from then on we will no longer see an individual tree, we will only see the class “tree.” That’s how come we can so easily destroy our planet or hate a group of people. They aren’t individuals, they are just concepts and we don’t form attachments to concepts.
      Mindfulness is the act of looking beyond the concept to the reality of the thing. Bob

  4. Offroad

    All should pick up the book by author Edward Abbey called DESERT SOLITAIRE and just get into the right frame of mind about the desert. Well worth the read.

    • Bob

      Very good suggestion Offroad! I loved that book! Bob

  5. Calvin R

    Bob, this is excellent writing. Your connection to the desert shines through your writing and you bring out the feeling of connection very well.

    • Bob

      Thanks for your kind words Calvin. They are appreciated. Bob

  6. Boonie

    Bob, I agree with everything you said about the desert, but don’t we need a couple more choices than mountains and deserts? (grin)
    How about grasslands/savanna as a third choice that is just right for the shoulder seasons? After all, grasslands are of primal importance to homo sapiens. How beautiful and sacred would deserts be if we couldn’t just jump in our gas hogs and drive to the grocery store to buy food?

    • Bob

      Hi Boonie, you are very right! But having grown up in Alaska, a love of mountains is deeply instilled in my soul. Flatlands freak me out! I need mountains, I am addicted to them! So I only go where there are mountains. No Mountains=no Bob! I’m sure you are right, if I could overcome my prejudice I would learn to love them to. I’m afraid I will never give them a chance. Bob

  7. Cedric

    Hi Bob, nice piece of writing. I enjoyed it very much. I am planning to head out soon in my mini RV for some site seeing of America. I plan to try boondocking as much as possible.
    I am curious what you find to keep busy in the desert? I see you take a daily walk with your pup but is the rest of the time taken up with the chores of living in the desert? thanks for writing your blog. it gives me inspiration for heading out on my own. cedric

    • Bob

      Hi Cedric, I always try to park where I have internet access. So most of my day is taken up in front of the keyboard with writing emails and for the sites, forum and blog. For the last year I have had friends in camp so I visit with them every day. It seems like I always have a project around the trailer I am working on. In the evening after dark I watch a movie or TV on DVD. I am seriously considering getting Dish TV to watch TV at night.
      Somehow, every day is full and I can’t get everything done. Pretty amazing to me how busy I am. Bob

  8. Linda D.

    Bob, Love your analogy of the desert tortoise. I am just learning the desert somewhat; having recently moved to southeast Arizona from the midwest. Unfortunately, I’m living in a house instead of a van, but, that will work out eventually. I have to get my disabled son settled first before I can “get out on the highway” “looking for adventure”. Hope to meet lots of you good folks living out there in your vans/Rv’s, etc.

    • Bob

      Hi Linda, always nice to meet another Stephenwolf fan! If possible, you might want to try to make it over to the RTR (Rubber Tramp Rendezvous) in Quartzsite, AZ. Should be an easy days drive and you will get to meet lots of great, like-minded people. Hope to see you there! Bob

  9. Sayward

    Great post! You’ve captured the magic of the desert wonderfully, and I’m looking forward to getting back to it. I love the expansive sky, from horizon to horizon, the plants of every kind – many of them medicinal, and the many dessert creatures – burrowing sand owls, colorful lizards, gorgeous snakes,amazing birds of every type, not to mention the coyotes and rabbits and other small mammals. Ohhh…now I want to head south again, too….soon, sooon :)))

    • Bob

      Sayward, it sounds like the desert has gotten into your blood and you need a fix! But the beauty of the desert is it’s patience. It’s here waiting and calling out to you! Bob

  10. Sam

    Hwy 395 is gem from southern California to Canada. A must item for everyones “bucket list”.

    • Bob

      I couldn’t agree more, Sam!! I think 395 is in my top 5 places in the country! One of the pictures in the desert article is from Lone Pine on 395. It is the one with the Red Paintbrush in the foreground and the mountains in the background. That’s the Alabama Hills, a truly spectacular place! Bob

  11. Andrew

    Hi Bob
    I liked your newest post and do believe you unearthed a sacred secret of the universe. Someone defined Sanity as “the ability to tell differences, no matter how minute, and know the width of those differences. The less one can tell differences and the closer one comes to thinking in identitites the less sane he is”
    A wise person once said “whatever the mass population is doing, do the opposite and you will be fine”. I wish it was that easy.
    When you get a chance go and look up the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) on google. Just type in HAARP and then get some strong coffee.

    • Bob

      Hi Andrew, I agree you you totally on the concept of “seeing differences”. One of the reasons so few people do it is we are constantly bombarded with so much sensory input that our brain subconsciously classifies it and pushes the huge majority out of conscious thought. It takes active effort on our part to slow our brain down and actually focus and “see” what is around you. When you live in nature, it starts to happen automatically because the mind slows down and the sensory input dramatically decreases. But I still find I have to actively force my mind to slow down and actually “see” individual trees, rocks hills, plants, etc. My mind still instantly falls into the groove of being on “auto pilot” and not seeing what is actually going on around me.
      The crucially important thing is to see people as individuals and not as categories: old-young, male-female, smart-dumb, attractive-unattractive, single-married, black-white-hispanic. I am getting better at that, but still find myself automatically doing it. My goal in life is to take the time to slow down and focus some of my attention into each individual I interact with. Of course that is made much easier by living in nature and having much fewer interactions with other people. I couldn’t do it in my old life. Bob

  12. Dave the Fireman

    Great essay, Bob. I miss the desert. I remember my first glance at one, when I deplaned at Albuquerque airport in the summer of 1995. I felt the desert before I saw it. It penetrated me instantly–its mystery. Even my friends who have been living in suburban Albuquerque for years still say “There’s something out there.”

    • Bob

      Thanks Dave. Mystery is a very good word for the desert! Some people are more “sensitive” to it than others. I generally have all the “sensitivity” of a rock, but even I can feel it! You must be a fairly open person to feel it so instantly. Bob

  13. Sharon

    Bob, you said that you were not a poet, but your description of the desert is pure poetry.

    • Bob

      Sharon, you are much too kind!! I appreciate the sentiment, but I can’t think of myself as a poet. As I get older I am more-and-more able to get in touch with my sentimental side and hopefully it comes out sometimes. Unfortunately I don’t know how to do it on demand. When I sit down at the keyboard I don’t know if what comes out will be from my right or left brain. In fact, I wrote that post and it was fairly technical/literal, but I lost the file and had to rewrite it. The second one (that I posted) was much more poetic.
      Thank you for your kind words!! Bob

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