Living and dying in the desert BY ROBIN FLINCHUM
: THE LAST TIME WE SAW our friend Jim he was riding off into the horizon, that delicate line where the never-ending blue sky meets the muted colors of the panoptic desert. In my memory now, he simply fades into a poof of bone colored dust and becomes one with the landscape.
In reality, the ambulance that carried him turned left just before the narrow dirt road would have crested on the horizon. Then it traveled onward, producing the little dust cloud that persists in my mind. Jim, eighty-five and being consumed from within by end-stage metastatic cancer, waved to us through the little back window as long as he was able, and we, my son and I, stood in the road waving back while the dust settled around us.
We knew we would never see him again. The pandemic, that invisible wall separating us from so much that is familiar and sacred, kept us from climbing aboard the ambulance or meeting him at the hospital. Instead the EMTs, in worn out crew shirts and rough work pants, with good hearts and firm hands, escorted him like boat pilots on the River Styx to a land where we could not go. They handled him with reverence and care. He had been one of them once, and a community volunteer. In this little outpost, where less than 200 souls are scattered among the creosote and mesquite to the southwest of Death Valley National Park, it takes all of us to keep the volunteer emergency service district going.
Resting Springs Range and Nopah Range from Shoshone. Photo by Molly Hanson
The old ambulance would travel onward, creeping along the rutted road, moving faster when it reached the pavement, then hitting the poorly maintained two lane highway, and finally carrying our Jim across state lines to a hospital where they could relieve his pain with medications we couldn’t get for him here. Here, in a pocket of silence and majesty so pure that it humbles and refreshes the overburdened soul. Here, where we are alone with our thoughts, our horizon, our stillness and our sky. And here, where, for better or for worse, we are also alone with our pain.
It’s the reason many of us came here, to find our salvation in a land where everything is stripped away and nothing comes between us and our creator. We wrestle with our spiritual pain out under the wide open sky, deep in the canyons, and along the banks of the elusive Amargosa River. We wrestle with our physical pain in the legendary mineral waters and in the benediction of the warm sunshine.
In the stillness we are uplifted, but we pay a price for the choice to live away from the world, those of us who give ourselves to it completely, who have no second home, no welcoming hearth in an easier place. We move slowly throughout the long summers, when temperatures fall off the ends of standard 120 degree thermometers. We give up easy access to everything, including health care and groceries. We give up pizza delivery, effortless socializing, high paying jobs. We give up home health and hospice visits. When one of our EMTs goes on vacation or moves away and there are too few volunteers to respond, we even give up prompt emergency aid.
We do this willingly, for the gift of walking out the front door and into the wide open spaces. When the pandemic came and the virus plowed mercilessly through cities all over the world, I could look out at the Nopah Mountains and say with certainty, there is no Coronavirus here. It was a luxury not many had, and it was, for me, a moment of deep awareness of the benefits of sheltering under the desert sky.
Then our Jim lost his appetite. On Sundays, when we sat outside his trailer watching the sun go down over those mountains, he talked of the spirits he could feel all around him, waiting. A visit to the doctor, a diagnosis that came as no surprise, the doctor alarmed and nonplussed that we could get no home hospice visits, urging Jim to consider a nursing facility. Jim was at peace, ready to go. All he wanted was to die at home, in that chair, looking out at the view if he could. It went without saying, as long as we’d been friends, that I would be there to do whatever was in my power.
On his last night here in this landscape we both loved, his suffering became acute. Through the long hours I struggled to find a way to relieve it, moving his frail body, a taste of water, a pillow, all futile. He could barely speak and could no longer swallow the pain medication, the strongest thing the doctor could give him without Hospice to administer it. Ultimately, all I could do was hold onto him and pray.
Finally, at daybreak, we surrendered to the inevitable. I went home, woke my son and called my dear friend, an EMT who would start the chain of waking and alerting the other EMTs. We would not rely solely on a dispatch call that would, if all the repeaters were working, go out from a transmission center four hours away.
Then, in the full morning sun, we said our goodbyes and watched our Jim drive off into the horizon. Three days later, again at daybreak, when I heard the phone ring I knew that Jim had gone home. I ran out into the desert, as I always do when my heart is too full. The greatest sorrows and the greatest joys of my life have been mourned or celebrated on my knees in the dirt, under this vivid blue sky. It’s where I go to weep, to pray, to walk and sing.
In the summer, in the heat, as the pandemic wore on, we were very much alone out here, but we congratulated ourselves on this boon of removal from a world that seemed to be falling apart. Here on the hottest days, we met up outside without masks, confident that the oven-like air would kill off any particles just as it absorbed any hint of moisture.
Then the weather began to cool and I watched the visitors return, crowding the little restaurants, riding over the protected hills in their ATVs, leaving trash for me to find on my morning walks out into a world that used to feel like it was mine alone. They seem to be coming now in larger numbers than they have in years. As the Coronavirus death toll mounts, people are hemmed in on all sides by restrictions, sorrows, worries, and deadly droplets that hang in the very air we breathe. I imagine we want somewhere we can feel free again, somewhere we can breathe fearlessly, where social distance is built in.
I get that. The deep need and relentless search for those things has defined most of my life experience. And yet, I confess, there are days when I feel a kind of rage that people are seeking it here with so little apparent regard for those of us who are already planted in this soil. When I -find those cigarette butts and half-finished cans of Coke in my wilderness, when in my mind’s eye all I can see when I drive past the clusters of unmasked visitors milling about in public spaces is a big cloud of Coronavirus droplets imported from the towns and cities these people are trying to escape, I give in to the evil of othering.
Tecopa Wetlands looking northeast. Photo by Molly Hanson
I have always felt a little edgy about the ways in which people trying to leave the city behind often end up bringing it along with them, but I also had a deep love for all who sought communion with this land, in whatever form. Jim’s passing dented me. It was a deeply profound experience to be alone with the agonies of death, to be impotent in the face of it, to be unable to fulfill my best friend’s dying wish.
In the void of loss that followed, I began to feel self-righteous. I had paid my dues, I felt, and earned the right to all the solace of this desert as it is. These outsiders, people who would cloud and defile, who come to party and then go home again, who talk casually of bringing their crowded, clamorous Burning Man festivals here, have not.
I do not don and shed this desert like a garment; I live in it like a skin. I was born less than a hundred miles from this very spot, and however far I travel in the world, this is the place to which I will always return. My son was born here and has walked with me, in my arms or on his own small legs, under this sky from the first day of his life, when I carried him outside at daybreak and introduced him to the land we call home. For the gift of waking every morning in this clean, clear landscape, of being able to walk for miles without encountering the noise of civilization, I have made many tradeoffs over the years. The hardest of these was relinquishing a kindred spirit to die among strangers.
Somehow, I want these things to matter in the decision making about how this desert will meet the future. I want it to count that I paid my dues. I want it, somehow, to guarantee the sanctity of this place. But if there is anything 2020 has taught us, it is that sanctity is a matter of perspective and that nothing is sacred to all of us.
The future is coming. The population, Coronavirus notwithstanding, is growing. Eyes are on this desert for recreation, residential, and even commercial purposes. I have long thought of it as my desert, but it isn’t. Apart from the tiny patch my husband and I own on paper, this desert belongs in small pieces to our neighbors and in enormous swaths to the people of this country.
I came here because I wanted to be quiet, I wanted out of the clamoring cacophony of political, religious, and cultural warfare. But it intrudes now in the growing frequency of attempts to erect irresponsible solar farms, in talks of renewed nuclear testing, in the growing demand for both responsible and reckless off road usage, and in the honest need of more and more beleaguered urbanites to stand in an open space and breathe.
It is coming and I can’t stop it any more than I could stop the angel of death from coming for Jim. Life is a constant evolution, even here in this faraway place. The newcomers will eventually be old timers, the outsiders are really only the next generation of me, and I must learn to see everyone I meet here in the light of our literally common ground.
We are all the same under the hot desert sun but what we do here matters, now more than ever. So it goes without saying, as long as we’ve been friends, this desert and me, that I will go on advocating for its protection until I, too, fade away in poof of bone colored dust.
Robin Flinchum has lived in Tecopa, California, for over twenty years and has written for the Pahrump Valley Times, Inyo Register, Nevada Magazine, the Desert Report and several other local outlets.