Coming late to the party here at the BLM’s Imperial Dam LTVA (long-term visitor area) near Yuma, AZ, I had to take an available campsite from the handful remaining. But over the weeks, I kept my eye out for a better spot vacated by someone leaving early (season here ends April 15). Finally, patience paid off and got a spot I will stay at until I leave here in late February (my third campsite here). This one overlooks one of the deep, arroyo canyons with a nearly unimpeded view of the mountains beyond. Too bad photographs do not convey well what the human sees, relative to distance and perspective. In reality, these mountains are much taller and closer than the photo would suggest.
To commemorate catching a choice spot, I took a three-mile hike into and along the deep arroyo, a quiet, solitary hike providing continuing appreciation of this desert landscape. When I left the arroyo a few times to walk the level plain above, the landscape resembled a moon landscape more than Earthscape. Obvious that little water falls here, but equally obvious the plants and living creatures thriving here are amazing and have a beauty unique to them.
On this hike, as with many other hikes in the past, I came across a few small, hand-painted stones along the path. There must be a name for these, but since I do not know what, I coined a name for them: smile markers.If you know the name and the premise behind them, please add a comment and let me know. Whenever I come across them, whether on a nature hike or walking in a city or town, they make me smile and appreciate both the artistry and the selfless giving of something handmade to the wild and to the passing hiker.
Ostensibly, I hit the road back in September to travel west, immerse in nature, and spend quiet days on writing projects. It was not until recently that I finally realized why I needed to travel: to experience an extended contactless personal retreat.
I have long desired to spend time on personal retreats, whether to an isolated cabin in the woods, or some stone-walled monastery inhabited by faithful monks seeking silence and contemplation. There are places such as monasteries, abbeys, and other spiritual retreats, where one can experience such times for a fee. But that was before Covid times and now such an endeavor is probably not a good idea. And to be clear, my contemplative reasons are not religious in nature, as would be monks around me or the influence of a monastery.
I have spent almost a month at this long-term visitor area inside an expansive BLM property on the far southeastern border of California near Yuma, AZ. Until last week, when I decided not to attend a van meet up at Quartzite from a concern for socializing with others at a time when Covid contagion is once again a high risk, I finally realized the other unknown reason I wanted to stay where I was: this semi-isolated desert place pulled me here for the solitude and sameness of days, two important ingredients for any retreat.
While, unlike hermits of early Europe who shunned society to live in stone huts void of any civilized trappings, and eating barely subsistence foods, I live in this steel cave with windows, this ”hermitage” through which I can enjoy and be inspired by the beauty of desert sunrises, and the calming effect of multi-colored surrounding hills and mountains throughout the sun’s arcing path across the desert winter’s sky. I make no apologies for eating well as opposed to the ancient hermits, nor for the breaks I take some nights to binge Netflix. My interpreted hermitage is about an open environment to spend time in contemplative and creative pursuits, but not in perpetual suffering in search of being worthy as did the hermits. I am, in my mind, feeding my practice of becoming a more effective solitary for my improvement.
Plans now are to live for the remaining two months here in my winter hermitage, spending time in quiet walks, deeper reading, even deeper journaling, and a renewed focus to complete several open writing projects. I am not completely without contact, since at least once a week I have to journey to Yuma to replenish supplies, and there is the weekly small talk at the RV dump and water stations here plus with volunteers at the service center where I get packages and propane when needed. But mostly, it is a solitary experience, and that is my need for now.
Even today in an expanded, though at times inconsistent, acceptance of behavior, many people still perceive someone walking alone, reading alone, spending a lot of time alone as lonely, or at least deficient without a partner or constantly in the company of many. The media and others would label such people as “singles,” as though the only measure of reference is “opposite of married.” Historically, some of our best creatives have been what is now coined as a more apt phrase—solitaries—for those who enjoy their own company more than that of others, such as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and the artist Cezanne. The famed Trappist monk Thomas Merton first coined “solitaries” to be a word independent of gender and without the burden of societal’s increased value for those married.
What many do not understand is that living alone or enjoying time alone is not a habit nor a “what else can I do?” predicament. A habit is a way of living, followed because you did it yesterday and the day before and so on, and is a way of being that controls you and your actions. A practice is a way of living that you create and renew each day, one that you control deliberately, and that is open to possibilities unknown. That is why such things as yoga and meditation practices and not habits, because each time they take us further, not just repeat what we did last time. Being a solitary is a lifestyle innate from within, not a choice or the best of one’s options, but deliberate and in one’s truest nature, one more open to intellectual and creative growth than any habit-driven existence.
In the silence of my solitary walks I hear the voices of the trees. I hear them singing of a solitude that admits no loneliness.
Fenton Johnson, ”At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life”
Being someone who enjoys his own company and likes to contemplate on things, spending quiet time in thought and mediation, the idea of a formal retreat appeals to me. While I have yet to do a formal monastery retreat, that is still on my bucket list.
Given the pandemic situation, now is not the best time for such a structured effort, but certainly is a great time to do a self-imposed desert retreat. That is essentially what I began on December 5 here in extreme southeast California, so close to Yuma and Mexico I could almost ride a bike there. I am at the Imperial Dam LTVA, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Long-Term Visitor Area (LTVA), until late February when I begin the arduous task of a beeline five-day drive back to Ann Arbor. For two weeks before the 5th I bought my long-term permit ($180 lets you stay from September 15 to April 15 each year) and bounced around various LTVAs in the region until I discovered the Imperial Dam LTVA. Here I have all the right supports and resources in place or nearby, from the landscape, to services (showers, water, dump, trash, mail/package service, propane, etc.), and a thirty-minute drive to Yuma, a good-sized city for groceries, laundry, etc.
I am isolated here, visually seeing other RVs but none closer than several hundred feet. My days are my own to control, and other than the infrequent chore days for refilling water, dumping waste, or driving into Yuma the van does not move and I fill my days with quiet thinking time, journaling, meditating, yoga, walking, reading, writing, etc. All that is missing to make this spot seem monastic is the chanting of monks (but I have an iPhone playlist for those if I wish).
The weather is ultra-cooperative, with nearly every day sunny in the high 60s or low 70s, with nights falling into the 40s. And dry with low humidity, so much that my hair has never been this straight for this many days in a row in recent or even distant memory! Helpful, since I am still sporting a pandemic hair style (translation: have not cut my hair in nearly a year).
Such an environment and freedom of external tasks and forces also allows for undisturbed writing time. I would love to say I have never been so productive with writing before, but that would be a little fib. Well, a big one actually. Writing projects lay orphaned, yet expectations and sheer hope remain that I will kick-start into those any day now! Not going to beat myself up about that, since I spend the days in present-mindedness and pursuing these nourishing self-care routines.
Still, I get to enjoy relaxed and unpressured days until I point VanGeist (my camper van) roughly northeast toward Michigan to begin the long pounding of interstate roads to get home between weather events. Should be fun. For now, though, all focus is on the now, on this opportunity for a desert retreat and the soul-sustaining energy that brings.
In my youth, I would often deny accountability or blame other factors when something went wrong. Not always, but typically unless it was too obvious to deny!
I took this photo shortly after getting towed out of being stuck, deeply enough that the bottom of the engine touched the ground. Despite efforts to dig out, layering rocks under the tires, and try my recovery boards for traction, I kept going deeper. Luckily, a good samaritan Canadian RVer camped next to me has a big pickup and carries tow chains and straps. He got me out of this jam in a matter of seconds.
But the story does not end there. Because, as hinted, above, there was no blame avoidance: just gratitude for getting stuck where there was help and remorse over not getting out of the van once I felt the front tires digging down instead of continuing to power-out of the dilemma. And yet, the positive upside is I am now more aware of my van’s limitations, whereas before this I was getting a little too cocky about where I could take VanGeist without a problem. But this was also my first long-term time in sandy areas, and sand is its own sneaky beast that eats vehicles. A front-wheel-drive, 7,200 pound vehicle is not a four-wheel-drive jeep (although I have gotten stuck in those in my youth, too, but are far easier to unstuck).
I spent the rest of the day thinking about what I could have, should have done differently, and by the end of the day appreciated the ”safe” lesson learned and now possessing new knowledge that could come in handy down the road (or, off the road more likely). Yes, it bothered me at first, but not until after getting free. During the time I worked at getting out via powering the wheels and the time spent digging and under-rocking and trying the recovery boards, I was calm and analytical about solving the problem. It reached the point where I realized there was nothing else I could do, so put out the call for the calvary to arrive and save the day.
I love where I am staying, feeling much like a retreat with a lot of introvert time, but this was a life lesson in sometimes we all need help. Self-reliance is fine much of the time, but there are those other times where one’s own effort and abilities are not enough. Will it change where I take the van? Probably not, but it will change HOW I take the van places and gave me better insights on how to see the terrain ahead. Also reinforced that the correct step is STOP on first evidence of an issue (e.g., when I first felt the tires digging down), get out, and assess the situation. Wait to take any action until remembering all you know about remedies for the situation. Here I completely forgot about the airing down tires trick to get out of loose sand. Might have worked, especially if I did that when the front tires were just 3-4″ in the sand.
I did laugh out loud later when out of the blue one of my favorite Tolkien quotes came to mind: ”All who wander are not lost.” Yea, I thought, but some who wander may simply be stuck!
Long, long ago, I knew I wanted to visit the majestic redwoods on California’s northern coast. These have always been my favorite tree, despite never seeing one except in articles or photographs. I followed those early stories about tree-hugging hippies illegally camping high in a massive redwood tree to save it from the lumberjack’s chainsaw. I connected to their efforts but despite the peaceful protest, felt we would needlessly and eventually lose a special creation of nature.
Since back then, I have admired this amazing tree yet combined with shame and sadness at how our human race so quickly decimated the vast majority of these stately trees. Coastal California redwoods have been there for almost 20 million years and fossils of trees related to these coastal redwoods go back to the Jurassic Era, some 160 million years ago. Yet it took man less than one hundred years—from around 1850 on—to nearly wipe out these old-growth forests through relentless and uncontrolled harvesting.
Protection finally began around 1918 when a group began acquiring large acres of untouched old-growth forests. By the time national park designation came in 1968, what remained of the world’s old-growth redwood forests was a mere 5%. Scientists estimate the original coastal redwoods range was about two million acres. What’s left is about 116,000 acres. Over 95% of the world’s remaining old-growth redwoods are in California.
The history of these unbelievably huge and tall trees is both interesting and depressing, and serves to emphasize what a special privilege it is to walk among them and experience the spiritual cleansing that comes from being in wild, untouched nature such as these redwood forests.
In mid-November, even though not the best time to visit, I had two days and three nights to immerse into the woods. That time of the year is unpredictably cool but predictably wet. Between the fog that rolls in and nourishes the forest, and the fronts that come in from over the ocean, the area is, in concept, basically a rain forest. One realizes this in a few minutes after hiking into the woods and seeing the predominance of ferns and mosses around these gigantic trees and also covering the fallen tree trunks and limbs.
One of my favorite quotes says it all about how I feel when in a place like the redwood forests:
I believe in God, only I spell it n-a-t-u-r-e.
– Frank Lloyd Wright
Anytime I visit natural places where the beauty, scale, and sheer variety of life and form exists without evidence of human interference, trash, etc., I have felt closer to something spiritual than in any man-made edifice. It is unusual, however, to hike into a place so void of humanness both in sight and sound as it was hiking two long trails in the Redwoods National Park.
I have been thinking about what to write about these silent denizens of a very special forest in the week since I was there. To say I was moved to be in their midst does not convey the punch I felt. To reiterate, it was both humbling and sad to realizing the vast numbers lost before conservation took place is obvious, and I think most everyone would feel that as well.
From the rangers I learned that most who venture into these old-growth forests mention it being a religious or spiritual moment, or did not know trees grew as big as these redwoods, or found the absolute quiet of the deep woods both amazing and disarming. For me, I can add the amazement of unrelenting natural beauty at every turn and dip and rise along the soft paths. I have had some amazing hikes in my life, but the 10-mile hike the second day that took me ever deeper into the redwood forest may be the best I have ever trekked, if not the top two or three.
Photographically, I have never tried to capture the essence of tree like these before only to fail. Their immensity alone makes for difficult shots and lack of context or scale. Between the woods bathed in low light and the inability to back up to catch the enormity in the viewfinder, I managed to catch a few hikers beside trees and a few selfies of myself, but even these do not relate what my eyes were feasting on.
I will return and planning to spend at least a week there next summer, but I expect, because of crowds, my isolated experience will not be so easily repeatable. A helpful ranger, however, helped me understand the better trails to go on next time and the secret for better enjoyment in season: out walk the tourists. Most who visit rarely venture more than a mile or two into the popular trails. With over 75 miles of gorgeous, soft-pathed trails (from fallen ferns and redwood needles) throughout the park, hiking past most visitors should be doable.
I hope you enjoy the photos in the galleries below. I went a little crazy with the cameras (mix of Nikon and iPhone shots) but can assure you this is just a small selection of all the shots I took! If you are ever near the park, you will not regret stopping for a few days to wander amidst these giants who silently live out their lives (some to 2,000 years old) and quietly, spiritually, connect life and nature.