Growing up near the beach, I never thought that I would ever enjoy the desert. I mean, sure the beaches and deserts both had sands, but the beaches also had plenty of water and fresh water streams flowing into the sea. We were fortunate in my homeland to have rain and a verdant, lush landscape. I was born and raised in a land richly inundated, bounded, and blessed by waters. The desert was a strange, perilous, exotic place to me. I could not imagine life in a barren, dry desert. I could not imagine any relief from the hellish heat and the gritty scorching sands.
I was fascinated by the stories told to us by travelers who had been to the desert. It all seemed so unreal and foreign and so mysterious and dangerous. In my head, I pictured the searing sun and miles of endless wasteland--a harsh, post apocalyptic landscape, bleak and hopeless. Nothing could ever entice me to venture out to those burning sands. I could not understand why anyone would want to live in a desert. Nothing grows there! I felt pity for those who perished in agony in such a terrible, awful, inhospitable place.
But life has a way of putting you in the strangest circumstances. And I found myself on the edges of the Sahara, working a job that landed in me the desert. And it was excruciatingly harsh, unforgiving, and punishing those first few weeks. We were clueless and helpless and suffered so in this strange, ancient, foreign land that did not care for our plans nor did it grant us any leeway for the grand changes and profits we sought to make.
I count myself lucky to have born curious and raised to be courteous. That fourth day, we arrived at the small outlying village right before dawn. It had been a long, slow journey that had taken all night. We had entered the old country through its ancient port city and began unloading our gear and cargo, all while making acquaintances with our hired guides and translators. And after three days of staging and accounting for all personnel and equipment, we left the big, ancient port city that afternoon and began our long, slow, rough trek into the wild, deep interior of this rugged, unfamiliar land.
It had taken our convoy all night, with a few rest breaks, to arrive at our destination before the sun rose. The guides had been very helpful in getting us so far inland into these back country places and rural, untamed spaces. This last stop at this small, rough and tough village, right before the end of our journey, was very important for our company.
We stopped at this remote, tiny village so that our leaders could formalize relationships with the local leaders. I had a quick breakfast of cereal and milk in the back of the back of the truck before I started exploring the village while my coworkers stayed with the vehicles and equipment.
I wandered and smiled at the exoticness and yet familiarity of this small village on the border of the wild, untamed desert. Their language was strange. Their structures were foreign to me. But I recognized the relationship between families and friends, the elders sitting out front under the shade, drinking tea as they were done with morning prayers at dawn. The younger adults went about the business of life, getting ready for work after having their breakfast.
I was pleasantly surprised to recognize the characteristics of a small farming community. How they managed to grow anything or raise any animals out in this desolate place was beyond me. But as a farm boy who grew up in the farm life, I recognized the same actions and similar methods these people used to care for their scant crops and hardy livestock--goats and chickens, animals that were adapted to somehow survive in this harsh world. I watched them tend to their crops and livestock, watering them, going over them with care and expertise honed from years of practice.
I saw the bare shelters that they had built to shield the animals from the hottest heat of the sun. I watched them refill the water bowls for the animals and water their plants early in the dawn before the sun got too hot. I observed them tending to their fences and doing maintenance on their homes and pathways, clearing away desert debris and dust. And I watched the mothers going about their day with small children in tow, sometimes with a baby wrapped tightly to the mother. The fathers and older children and adults made their way to the fields and started herding their flocks to the secret places where they would somehow find sustenance in this harsh, rugged land. Farm life is hard, and I admired these people so much for their resilience and hard work.
The biggest surprise in my wanderings was that a group of elders waved me over. I tried to remember the customs and important etiquette lessons that the translator we had hired from the big city had taught us a few days before we ventured out here and drove all night. This culture valued hospitality, so it wasn't so different from mine. To be invited to a meal was a sign of great respect and honor. So I hurried over to the elders, bowed slightly, and extended my right hand to shake theirs in greeting.
I recalled how to say hello in their language and tried my best to communicate my name and learn theirs. But amid the various hand gestures, nods, and smiles, I shared their breakfast of spicy eggs and veggies, goat cheese, and flat bread with a drink of strong, fragrant tea sweetened with what I guessed was honey. It was an incredible experience, and I was moved by the generosity of these remote desert dwellers who looked to barely have enough to survive yet still shared their humble, delicious meal with me.
I remembered that a culture of hospitality also required reciprocity--I was expected to be hospitable in return. It would be a few weeks before I was able to find a suitable thanks to my esteemed hosts. I had access to some cases of individual boxes of cereal, a case of canned fruit cocktail, and a case of canned tuna that I was able to acquire and gave to my gracious hosts about three weeks after they first invited me over for breakfast. But until then, I didn't have anything of value equal to their generosity. My words of thanks in their language seemed short and insufficient, and I felt that I needed to do more to show my appreciation.
So after breakfast was over, I thanked them heartily, went back to the truck, and retrieved a large bag of M&M candies--the kind with the snack size bags in them. I had bought that large bag as a treat that I would ration over the long months of our work here in the desert wilderness. But somehow, it was the best that I could come up with to repay my kind hosts for their generosity. So I returned to the elders and gave them the bag of peanut M&Ms. They smiled and thanked me, and then they shared the candy snack bags among the curious, excited village children. The M&Ms were a big hit. And it was wonderful to see the children smile and hear their laughter as they enjoyed their M&Ms with the elders.
I left feeling good and told my coworkers what had gone down. They were impressed. Soon after, the leaders meeting ended, and we proceeded about three miles outside the village to the location where our advanced team had scouted a well, and we proceeded to dig out that well to get access to precious drinking water. The dig would take all day, but the machines did all the heavy work. We spread out and started laying the groundwork for our tents and equipment. We felt excited to start working and setting up our venture.
The interpreter came up to me and congratulated me on my successful interaction with the locals. He laughed when we spoke of the M&Ms exchange that I had done. He said though the elders had offered hospitality as is their custom, the fact that I was a foreigner allowed me an excuse from performing reciprocity, because I was a traveler, one who wasn't a local nor likely to settle there. So I wasn't expected to offer anything in return. Their offer to share breakfast was done out of custom and genuine kindness.
But the fact that I actually gave something in return, even if it was just candy, was a great sign of respect and reciprocity on my part. He said that I definitely made a great impression that would go a long way to establishing a rapport and trust with the locals. And he chuckled, 'Hey, people like chocolate candy coated peanut M&Ms, even out here in the desert.' And I joined him in laughter before going back to work.
I wish that I could say that things went smoothly according to plan. But in life, things rarely go as planned. And there are some things that you just cannot be prepared for, either because they are unknowable or worse, because you're too stupid to comprehend the big picture, missing out the really important, essential information--blinded by your own ignorance and prejudices.
We came with the idiotic, ignorant notion of mastering this unruly land, but we soon learned the hard way that this land cannot be mastered nor can it be ruled. You cannot bend the desert to your will. You bend to the will of the desert. This was the secret to surviving in the desert. This was the truth that the locals knew, and we the foolish foreigners would learn the hard way. The desert is the law. Follow and respect the law and you will live. Break the desert law and you will perish and suffer in the most excruciating ways.
We were burned by the blazing sun that got hotter by the minute as it climbed the empty skies. The sun was so much more fiery and blistering out here in the wild than it was at the port. There were no buildings to shade us, no air conditioning to cool us, no wind from the sea to temper the sweltering heat. The fierce intense light blinded us and hurt our eyes; the blinding brilliance confused our minds and caused us to lose our bearings and stumble about. We were disoriented by the raging sun; we chased after mirages that weren't there. We were fooled by illusions of the extreme heat radiating from the sun baked rocks that singed any exposed flesh unfortunate enough to make contact.
It was only the first day, but the oppressive sun severely hindered our efforts, and we ourselves were in danger of getting lost if we ventured out of sight of the camp. This was the wild, unending desert. We were on the farthest edge of civilization. A tiny, ramshackle village outpost was just three miles away, but it may as well have been a one tiny pebble in the endless expansive sea of sand! It was barely visible from camp through the high powered binoculars. There were no paved roads here--not even any dirt tracks we could follow. What the sun did not burn away was blown off by the fickle, fierce, hot winds.
There were no recognizable landmarks. Every dune looked just like another; every rock formation seemed to morph and change shape constantly, further confusing and disorienting us. The changing light and shadows made the landscape look different everytime we turned away and looked back again. Everything looked the same and different at the same time. We did not know this land. We were on the brink of disaster and tragedy. And a sense of dread developed in the pit of our stomachs that grew with each hour and increased with our panic.
Work suddenly became very difficult, and a few of us started hallucinating and became delirious in the blinding heat. We were called back to base camp to regroup. We dreaded it and feared the worst. So many thoughts and fears and conflicting emotions ran through our minds as we reluctantly made our way back. All work had come to a stop, because we were struggling and making mistakes, taking way too long to complete our planned tasks.
The enthusiasm and invincibility we had felt just that morning and yesterday before our dawn arrival had been driven out of us by the ferocious, unforgiving sun. Our bold plans now seemed but a foolhardy, reckless venture. We were warned by the locals of the dangers of the desert, but like fools we thought ourselves to be stronger and smarter and more educated than these poor, unambitious, uneducated natives who dwelt in dust covered hovels and tents, who failed to somehow grasp that perhaps it was wiser to leave these godforsaken lands for better lands where crops and livestock could thrive and grow abundant.
We were blind to the world around us. And we paid dearly for it. Our sun stroke coworkers were delirious from the heat and thirst. We rushed our injured to the medical station where the doc and crew worked to heal and rehydrate them. Their injuries were severe--burnt skin, cracked bleeding lips, and bodies and minds pushed and pummeled beyond the very extremes just before death could take hold. It would take days for their bodies to recover; their minds needed a whole lot longer.
We thought we were strong and undefeatable. We were so stupid. But the desert was going to teach us a hard lesson about true strength and what real power looked like. It was as if we had mentally blocked out the dangers in an ill conceived effort to deal with our reality. There was a disconnect between mind and belief and it showed in our actions.
We knew that the desert was dangerous, and it showed us what the ungodly heat could do to the unsuspecting and unprepared man. But somehow, in spite of the harsh evidence, we still illogically clung to the desperate belief that we were better and stronger and smarter. But as the sun climbed higher into the heavens, the blasting heat increased exponentially, and by noon, we began to suffer under the excruciating brilliance of the sun.
We faltered in our work and sought refuge in the baking hot shadows of our makeshift shelters when the relentless sun was at its most intense in the midday and afternoon hours. More of us passed out from the heat. Our skins reddened, blistered, and screamed under the punishing sun. We couldn't think straight and our minds and bodies couldn't communicate properly, which led to confusing actions or inaction on our part. We struggled to stay sane in the severe heat wave that turned exposed metallic engineered parts into fiery hot surfaces. Those of us who weren't beaten into submission and passed out from the oppressive heat were driven mad and listless, languishing under the fierce lashings of the flaming sun.
Hell. We had died and gone to hell. That first week was hell. We were made to suffer eternal, infernal punishments for the sins we had committed in our lives. There was no respite. We prayed for salvation from our fiery damnation. But no savior came for us. In our heat induced grief and insanity, we alternated between begging for deliverance in exchange for promises of faith and obedience; even the faithless and godless prayed to any and all deities for clemency. And when no mercy came, we cursed and turned against the gods who had abandoned us. Agony and suffering was our lot. There was no way things could get any worse. But we were wrong. So wrong.
Those very few of us who barely survived into the second week were devoured by a ravenous sandstorm that lasted two days! The sharp sands cut into our exposed skins and stripped the paint off our vehicles and equipment. What wasn't blown away by the fierce, unrelenting winds was buried by mountains of sand. The swirling dust blocked out the sun as the sand slowly entombed us in our tents. We watched in horror as the sands kept piling higher and higher around us, and there was nothing we could do against the desert onslaught. Death had come for us. And yet, after all the horrors we had suffered that first week, we welcomed death as the blessed release our accursed existence.
And when the sun finally broke through on the third day and the winds had finally abated, we found the will and strength to dig ourselves out of the sand tombs and walked out into a new world. Gone were any more foolish notions of our invincibility and superiority. Our equipment, our gear, our highly trained and advanced workforce were reduced to near ruin and total annihilation by the unstoppable forces of the desert.
We were beaten, humbled, and subdued by the awesome power of the desert. And we had come to the most humiliating realization that if we were to survive these losses and save ourselves from total failure and obliteration, we had to change. And we had to begin by respecting the desert. To salvage the scattered remnants of our shattered company, we had to adapt our methods to the nature of the desert; we had to listen to wisdom of the ancients and locals who dwelt in these harsh lands and thrived under the unforgiving sun. And only then were we able to make some progress and achieve a measure of success.
That third week, we rushed to recover and fix the remaining gear and equipment and vehicles. We salvaged what we could, digging out the buried tools and machinery. We worked fast and furious in the cool hours of the morning before the sun got too hot. We performed the hardest and heaviest outdoor tasks in those cooling hours of twilight. We worked in the night using flashlights and the few surviving generators to complete what we could not finish under the blinding heat of the blazing sun. We were running on adrenaline, part desperation, part hope, and lots of coffee. And water. We drank lots of water to stay hydrated.
And then unexpectedly in the middle of that third week, I had a remarkable awakening. I was one of the few who had gotten up early, ready to face the day's tasks. I stood out in the cold dark, that transient time when the shadows of the night start to fade and the twinkling stars start to vanish in the brightening skies. In the calm of the dawn before the rising sun, my eyes were suddenly opened to the magnificence of the desert. The rich, vibrant hues of red, orange, and yellow radiating from beyond the horizon danced upon the sands, as shades of lavender and blue began retreating across the western skies.
In the quiet stillness of the blossoming dawn, I was stunned by the spectacular beauty of the desert. Behold, the rising sun painted the skies and terrain with resplendent, iridescent colors. It occurred to me then that I was witnessing what the ancients and locals had known. The desert is beautiful as well as dangerous. And as harsh and unforgiving this land was, it was also stunningly beautiful and magnificent.
For the rest of the time we worked out there, we adapted and grew to enjoy the desert. I was surprised at how well I had acclimatized and had become so comfortable blending in with the local culture and customs. Suddenly, I became aware that there was so much astonishing life in the desert. Life was so different and unique yet still so gorgeous in this marvelous landscape. I was making amazing discoveries about the desert and the life it supported and sustained. But perhaps the most interesting discovery of all was my realization that I loved the desert, and impossible as it was, I could picture myself living in the desert, being a part of this wondrous environment.
We eventually recovered from our disastrous start and later succeeded in our months long efforts in the desert. A short while after leaving the Sahara, I found myself assigned to the Empty Quarter--the vast, endless sand dunes of the Arabian Peninsula. My experience in the Sahara and eventual success salvaging our disastrous beginning was valuable and necessary to our venture in Arabia. The fact that I had forged early, strong relationships with the locals really impressed our leaders.
In fact, within three weeks of working in the Sahara, I was promoted from field work to assist our leaders in their weekly progress meetings with the local and regional leaders. I even managed to impress the regional leaders by using their own dialects and customary greetings, which were unique and meaningful to their part of the world. People appreciate it when you make an effort to learn and respect their language and culture. And I had taken a genuine interest in learning the Sahara culture and customs, listening to the locals, observing their beliefs and practices. And it made for a stronger, friendlier, even profitable and mutually beneficial relationship with the locals and natives. It was a rough start, but we eventually succeeded in our efforts, once we learned the lay of the land and learned to work with the desert--and not fight a losing war against it. The desert always wins.
Less than a year later, I found myself gazing at the unfathomable vastness the Empty Quarter. The lessons we had learned the hard way in the Sahara would serve us well in the Empty Quarter. But the desert still had so many lessons to teach me, so many secrets it would only reveal over time.
But I had learned enough from the Sahara to realize that I didn't know anything at all. And if we were to survive the Arabian desert, we had to learn to listen to the wisdom of the locals, and combine that with the lessons hard learned from the Sahara. I recognized the unstoppable force and ferocity of the desert. I also found life and beauty in those treacherous and tyrannical sands. Here, too, I was awed and mesmerized by the shifting mountains of dunes and the vivid colors of the boundless desert landscape. Such exquisite features!
The desert is full of such mysterious and exotic creatures, some more dangerous and deadly than others. You had to be tough and cunning and fierce to survive in the ferocious desert. Scorpions, snakes, spiders and all sorts of poisonous, vicious creatures crawled in the hazardous sands. Camels and donkeys and horses moved people and cargo across hundreds of miles on these searing, shifting seas of sand. Birds circled the skies in the sizzling heat of the day, always on the lookout for dead and dying prey. Death was ever present in the desert, as sure as the rising sun.
But of all the wondrous creatures that I bore witness to living in the desolate desert lands, the most beautiful and most marvelous of all were the Fennec (desert) fox and the sand cat. These are two of natures most gorgeous creations! With big ears, beautiful eyes, lovely fur and coloring, tiny dynamic bodies engineered to survive and thrive in the brutal hellscape of scorching sands and scalding rocks, these astonishing creatures flourished in these blistering, savage sands, and they took my breath away every time that I was fortunate enough to glimpse them.
I was even lucky enough to entice them with cans of tuna and meat at night while doing patrols or just out admiring the alluring, sparkling stars of the desert night. They'd be out then, the Fennec fox and sand cat, hunting down their prey. The first few times that I spotted them, they were shy and kept out of sight and stayed far away, disappearing into the shadows of the night. It took two weeks of patience and setting out pieces of my dinner before I was able to catch a real good look at the fox. He was wary, cautious, and carefully made his way over to sniff, then steal bites of the food I had set out. Always he kept me in his line of vision as he partook of the food til it was all gone. I was ecstatic!
A few nights later, the sand cat approached and ate the tuna--giving me the idea that all cats love eating fish, even the cats out here in the desert, hundreds of miles from the nearest sea. He moved stealthily, eyes on me, ears alert for any other dangers, and slowly made his way over to the tuna. I kept still, even held my breath a few times, holding down my excitement and amazement at watching this tiny, stunning hunter make his way over to eat the food. What a remarkable and astonishing sight to witness!
And for the rest of my time there, I kept up the nightly feeding of my two friends. They didn't always show up together. One always arrived before the other. The fox first, then the cat. They kept their distance from each other and from me. Though by the end of a month, the fox actually started waiting for me to open up a second can and let me get close enough to offer it a second helping! The cat kept its distance, but it didn't run away and stopped disappearing after a while. It just retreated into the shadows and waited for its second helping. And always, they both emptied the bowl of water I had set out for them, right before they disappeared and ended our nightly visits.
I'm not going to lie. I so wanted to capture them and keep them both as pets. But I couldn't bring myself to take such gorgeous creatures from the wild where they belonged. And tempted as I was sometimes, I didn't tell the others what I was doing. It was a secret, mine and the fox and the cat alone. I didn't want to risk scaring off the two after working so hard to establish some sort of trust and relationship with them. And I didn't want them to lose their healthy wariness of human beings and human things. Wild creatures are much better off away from human intervention and interruptions.
There were other creatures that were just as beautiful, if not as exotic as the fox and sand cat that came into our camp. These were Mau, the original pet cats, the first wildcats domesticated in the world, worshipped by the Egyptians and depicted on the ancient pyramids. These cats were larger than housecats, wilder looking, faster, and yet so much more curious and tolerant of us humans. And they wowed us with their singing and sensational vocalizations. They were semi domesticated--fed by locals and living freely in the wild and villages. We loved feeding them. And we would've snuck them back to the States, if not for those pesky custom agents and immigration thoroughly searching our luggage and cargo.
Oh, how we loved feeding them and petting them, and playing with them! They made our days and nights fun and wonderful. They actually liked human contact, a few even learned to play fetch! They made us laugh and feel good and happy with their company and antics. We all wanted to take them home. But it was not to be, not if we wanted to avoid an international and cultural incident. This cat has been cherished in the region for eons. And until I was relocated to the Arabian Peninsula, I didn't realize that this variety was the original desert cat, whose range extended from the Nile along Africa's Sudan to the Persian Gulf of Asia.
To this day, the Mau remains one of the most gorgeous, friendliest, most playful cats I've ever been fortunate enough to encounter. And they were incredible hunters who thrilled us with their prowess and skills! Many a repugnant rat and filthy birds were slaughtered and slayed by these stealthy assassins, who kept the disgusting vermin from infesting our camp and minimizing our exposure to disease, protecting our stores of food. Maus are nature's most marvelous and stunning hunters.
And that was the duality and conflicting nature of the desert. It was both beautiful and dangerous. It gave life but also took it. It was harsh yet merciful. It was severe yet serene. It was ferocious yet fascinating, nasty yet nurturing, gruesome but also generous at times. The desert took hold of you, and though you may escape its grip and find yourself a whole world away, the desert doesn't let go. The desert becomes a part of your soul.
It was so astonishing to find such dangerous, irresistible glamour in nature. Death was a certainty in the desert, but oh, what a beautiful place to live and die! After the life changing experiences of the Sahara and Empty Quarter, I began to discover and explore the wonders of other massive, gorgeous deserts of this splendid, miraculous world. Each visit was a revelation, a new discovery that only deepened my amazement and respect for the unparalleled power of the desert and its many aspects.
The Chihuahuan, the Sonoran, the Great Basin, and the Mojave--such immense and intense landscapes--were wondrous and marvelous in so many different ways: The tall, steep, riveting red, orange, and yellow sandstone mountains; the abundance of captivating mesas; and the sacred, intriguing canyons--even the awe inspiring Grand Canyon. Glorious cliffs and spectacular buttes were naturally carved by the wind and waters into stunning figures and fantastic formations. The massive expanse of the blinding white salt flats of Utah and Texas were impressive, stretching endlessly across the far horizon, left over from great lakes that evaporated from the intense heat of the desert sun. And so many surprising fossils spread out across mountains and plains, the remnants of an inland sea that once covered all of the continent.
And water! Such a surprising amount of water flowed in the desert--winding rivers, raging torrents, sparkling waterfalls, and hidden springs. And surprisingly, it even gets freezing cold in the desert at night. The fierce, numbing cold was quite a shocking contrast to the hellish heat. It even snows in the desert sometimes! I was flummoxed to discover the complex existence and intricate interaction of both fire and ice shaping and sculpting the desert.
So much water created the desert, and so much water continues to change the core structures and very nature of the desert. Waterfalls are carving cliffs into deep canyons. Small rivers gather to form titanic gorges that gouge the land and wear down mountains. Ice covers the high peaks, their melt waters carry pieces of the mountains down to the plains, bringing minerals and nutrients that change the lay of the land. And where there is water, even a scant amount, there will be life. And life was varied and abundant and unique in this formidable land.
Exotic, fierce, and fabulous plants grew, bloomed, and took root in the desert. All sorts of animals and creatures lived in the desert--soaring the expansive skies, crawling the hot sands, roaming the rugged land, and dodging under the shadows of the mountains, hunting under the starry and moonlit nights. Life was everywhere in the desert--hidden, surviving, and thriving in secret and surprising spaces.
The desert was more incredible than I had ever imagined. The very rocks and mountains themselves were shaped and sculpted over eons into spectacular and fantastic shapes and natural monuments whose immeasurable beauty bewitched and beguiled all who laid eyes upon them. I had become drawn to the allure and adventure of the desert.
I had become enamored and driven to seek out the splendors and the miracles of the majestic deserts. I experienced a remarkable revelation: When that first sandstorm tore at the tender flesh of my body and overwhelmed my mind with its terrifying power, it had taken pieces of my soul. And it filled those torn pieces with a longing for the magic and marvels of the desert wonders.
The soul tearing suffering that I experienced and the savage torture inflicted upon my broken body were the ultimate punishment for my sins against the desert; it was the price that I paid for my ignorance and vanity. My hubris was going to cost me my life, and only too late did I realize that I was bound for obliteration, and there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that I could do to escape annihilation.
And yet, I was granted mercy when I had not earned it; forgiven my trespasses and delivered from oblivion; given a second chance at life when I did not deserve it; and I was reborn a penitent man, a true believer in the power and divinity of the desert and the sacredness of life that was nurtured and negated by the sun and the sands.
And suddenly, it didn't seem so strange to want to be in the desert. The desert is a special and enchanting place. It is a place that I enjoy experiencing and exploring. And if need be, a place that I can actually call home, with the same intense love that I have for beaches and forests and the wide open spaces of endless grasslands. Deserts aren't barren wastelands; deserts are full of vibrant life and vivid colors, if you know where to look. To survive the desert is to respect it. To experience its beauty and secrets is to accept the desert as a natural, powerful, wild wonder of nature.
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