Behind the veil: The Red Desert and the human spirit

As I remember, I first came across the work of Roy Chapman Andrews in the summer of my tenth year.

Andrews was one of the more remarkable men of the early twentieth century. He put himself through college doing taxidermy work, and with his fresh bachelor’s degree in hand, he went to New York, walked into the American Museum of Natural History, and asked for a job.  The man at the museum told him there was nothing available.

“I’m not asking for a position,” Andrews replied.  “You have to have someone to clean floors.  Couldn’t I do that?”

The boss reportedly expressed doubt that a young man with a college degree would scrub floors for a living.

“Not anybody’s floors,” Andrews said. “But the Museum floors are different.  I’ll clean them and love it, if you’ll let me.”

He was hired.

Over the next couple of years, he worked his way into the museum’s taxidermy department while he completed a master’s degree in mammalogy at Columbia.  In 1909, he began a series of collecting expeditions in the East Indies, the Arctic, and China, and in 1920, he convinced the director of the museum to launch a series of expeditions to central Asia. Over the next decade, he and his colleagues explored the vast interior of Mongolia, collecting some of the most significant paleontological specimens ever found, while dodging bullets, brigands, invasions, revolutions.

Some people say Andrews was the inspiration behind Indiana Jones.  I wouldn’t know about that.  But Andrews wrote about the life of an explorer and scientist in a way no ten-year-old boy could ignore. He wasn’t given to extended descriptions, but between his stiff-upper-lip tales of high adventure, he occasionally paused to evoke the spirit of the Gobi Desert:

“We looked out over a wild chaos of ravines and canyons and gigantic chasms, yellow, red and gray,” he wrote in This Business of Exploring. “A huge obo built by the Mongols as an offering to the gods of this fantastic spot crowned a sentinel butte. Sunset shadows filled the mysterious chasms with soft purple masses. Pinnacles and spires stood in silhouette against the sky. Over this tumultuous land sea lay the exquisite calm of a desert evening.”

At another point, he offered this description of a sandstorm approaching his camp: “A breathless silence, suddenly dropping like a pall over the desert, brought me out from dinner in the mess tent the night we made camp. In the west a tawny cloud shot through with shafts of dull red boiled up out of the flaming pit into which the sun had disappeared. Already the purple line of distant mountains was blotted from the sky. A twisting, whirling skirmish line of tiny wind devils danced their way across the basin floor. Behind them the solid yellow mass advanced swiftly, ominously, engulfing the hills and canyons of the badlands like a devouring monster. Slowly we became conscious of a pulsing throb, which beat upon our eardrums in an un-earthly, soundless noise . . .”

Camped on the shore of Chagan Nor, the White Lake, looking out toward the Altai Mountains from the edge of a field of dunes, he made this journal entry:

“ Late in the afternoon, there was a little rain, and, just at sunset, a glorious rainbow stretched its fairy arch from the plain across the lake to the summit of Baga Bogdo. Below it, the sky was ablaze with ragged tongues of flame; in the west, billowy gold-margined clouds shot through with red, lay thick upon the desert. Wave after wave of light flooded the mountain across the lake— lavender, green, and deepest purple— colors which blazed and faded almost before they could be named. We exclaimed breathlessly at first and then grew silent with awe. Never might we see the like again.”

Thus wrote Roy Chapman Andrews of the Gobi Desert.

I finished my first Andrews book in late June of 1961, and as luck would have it, my family took its first vacation west in August of that same year.  We went all the way to the Olympic Peninsula on the Washington coast. For my sisters and me, it was two weeks studded with firsts: Summer snow and the alpine tundra.  Old Faithful and the Norris Geyser Basin.  Black bears and prairie dogs.  Streams so clean we could drink out of them.  The impossibly huge Doug fir and Sitka spruce of the Olympic rain forest. The waves of the Pacific.

I’d never presume to designate one of those places as “the best,” not then, not now.  But for me, the South Dakota badlands were something special.  Maybe that was Andrews’ doing; I don’t know.  What is there about those strange saw-toothed ridges of clay chiseled out of the horizontal immensity of the High Plains?  I took to following the dry watercourses up into the formations where they narrowed down to shadowy slits in the ground, a hundred feet below the surface, like caves without roofs, only the sliver of prairie sky far above.  And when I felt confined, I’d find a crack and scramble up to the top of one of the ridges to stand on the crumbling knife edge with a view to the horizon so far away it seemed to curve in the distance.  Unlike Andrews and his men, I found no fossils, though I’m sure I passed by many without recognizing them, and the lack of old bones made no difference whatsoever.  I was simply captivated by the land itself.

The word “weird” has been trivialized in modern use.  These days, it’s used mainly by teenagers to express mild surprise tinged with disapproval.  My Scandinavian ancestors took the word much more seriously.  It was originally the name of one of the three goddesses who wove the fabric of the destinies of gods and men.  The Norsemen used the word as a noun, not an adjective— the modern synonym is probably “fate,” although for the Norse, the term carried nuances of the unexpected, the supernatural, that it has long since lost for us.

When I think of my first encounter with the badlands, the word comes to mind, in its original, almost magical, sense.  It was a landscape of the weird, a place where the veil between what we understand and what is hidden grows thin.

South Dakota’s badlands have drawn me back many times since that inaugural visit, first with my parents, later on my own, and I’ve also had the chance to indulge my taste for barren ground in other desert country across the West, from the saguaro expanses of Sonora to the Missouri Breaks in Montana, from the Cretaceous chalk of the Smoky Hill in western Kansas to the rainbow clay of Adobe Town.

The inclination seems as natural to me as breathing, but over the years, I’ve often been called upon to defend it, usually by some upper-class inmate of a major metropolitan area whose idea of star-gazing is attending a Broadway play on opening night.  I have found the exercise . . .  daunting.  It’s a little like being challenged to mount a rational explanation for the way I feel about my children— there are some things in life that simply aren’t covered by logic.  In fact, some of the very best things . . .

 

If there is any way of understanding, rather than simply feeling, the lure of the desert, it begins with an appreciation of our roots. According to the best evidence we have at hand today, Homo sapiens has been around some 200,000 years, give or take.  We spent at least ninety-five percent of that immense span of time as hunter-gatherers, which is to say, entirely dependent on wild places for our sustenance and shelter.

In spite of our best efforts at domesticating ourselves, we are still largely untamed creatures living in cages of our own making, penned in with a constant, fundamental contradiction.  We pride ourselves on our penetrating insight, our astonishing technological aptitude, but we’re faintly uncomfortable with our appetite for meat.  We dote on our gifted children filling classrooms with newly discovered knowledge but chastise them for staring out the window on a warm spring afternoon.  We make plans to visit other planets and try to forget our fear of the dark.  In short, we are pleased to have the legacy of our African ancestors but embarrassed by the covenant that comes with it.

The last 8,000 years of Western culture have been characterized by our violent struggle to deny that covenant.  Somewhere in the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer, we took up the destruction of wilderness with a terrible enthusiasm.  It was more than an effort to protect our flocks and fields, more than the pursuit of wealth.  For many generations, it amounted to a holy war.

We had nearly finished the job before we began to recognize the potential cost.  The list of practical values of wild places has mounted with our understanding of native environments.  At the turn of the last century, we finally recognized what wetlands and timber meant to the protection of topsoil and clean water.  In the decades since, we have found out much more: the possibility of new drugs and fibers; natural pesticides to protect our crops; new genes to make them more efficient; natural processes that soften the effects of man-made climate change and pollution.  There has been sophisticated discussion of natural diversity as an investment in global stability— something even a Wall Street stockbroker can appreciate.

What we may still fail to appreciate is the place wildness occupies in the human spirit.  All too often, we still assume we can excise the need for it from our character without disturbing anything else.  That’s not too surprising.  After all, it’s the way we’ve dealt with every other unruly facet of nature we’ve encountered.  Maybe it’s time we took a lesson from our failures.  All our best efforts notwithstanding, we are beginning to find that the world doesn’t run properly without some measure of wildness in it.

The same can probably be said of the human animal itself.  Whether we recognize it or not, our hunt is still going on— the same restless search to the horizon that has brought us from the plains of the African Pliocene— or Eden, if you prefer— to where we are now. If we’re far enough removed from wilderness, we may not even recognize the root of the feeling, but that makes very little difference— we still can’t leave it behind.  Now and then, it demands free rein in an empty place, a long run beyond the fences.  Without that, it will subside at last into pacing the perimeter of our circumscribed lives, without direction or rest, looking for a way out and finding none.

This is why wild places exert such a gravitational attraction on many of us— they are our home.

But here, we’re considering a very specific wild place, the desert, which, I’ll readily admit, is not the first landscape most Americans think of when they drive out of town, looking for a refuge.  That shouldn’t come as a great shock— over the millennia, the human view of desert has always been equivocal.  These days, there’s a tendency to focus on what we find inconvenient or uncomfortable in these forsaken lands, but there is a long tradition of other, more positive associations.

More than 4,000 years ago, a Sumerian scribe sat down with his clay tablets and recorded a tale that had grown among the people of the Fertile Crescent, the story of Gilgamesh, a king of the ancient world.  He was “supreme over other kings, lordly in appearance,” the story went, a mighty warrior consumed by ego, so arrogant he offended the gods.

One of the Sumerian goddesses decided to restore a balance in the kingdom by offering a challenge to the king, and so, the scribe recorded, “in the wildness, she created valiant Enkidu, born of silence, endowed with strength,” a being who “knew neither people nor settled living,” a child of the desert places.

He was not evil.  The tablets described him as eating grasses with the gazelles and joining the animals at the watering hole.  But he was powerful, “the mightiest in the land,” the tablets said; “his strength is as mighty as the meteorite of Anu!“  In the course of the story, a trapper sees Enkidu on the other side of a water hole far out in the wilds. “On seeing him, the trapper’s face went stark with fear.  He was rigid with fear, though stock-still, his heart pounded and his face drained of color.”

It was the first written expression of a theme that would emerge from time to time over the centuries— the desert as the province of the supernatural, a place of power, a counterpoint to the civilized world.

The Old Testament is rooted in this same tradition.  The desert is often a place of danger where believers can lose their way or a metaphorical landscape watered by divine intervention, but, at times, it is a refuge for believers and occasionally provides the backdrop for divine revelation.  Consider Isaac [Genesis 21:20]: “God was with the lad; and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness and became an archer.”  Or Moses [Exodus 3: 1-2]: “Now Moses . . . led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God. And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush [was] not consumed.”  Or David [1st Samuel 23: 14]: “David abode in the wilderness in strong holds, and remained in the wilderness of Ziph. And Saul sought him every day, but God delivered him not into his hand.”

In the New Testament, miracles occurred in the untamed fastness of the desert.  You may recall that, according to Saint Mark, Jesus fed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fishes [Mark 6: 31-42].  You may not recall that the 5,000 were without food because they had followed Him “out of all cities . . . into a desert place” far from the comings and goings of civilization.  According to Mark, Jesus began the work of redemption when he heard a voice from heaven saying, “’Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.  And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness. And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.”  [Mark 1: 11-13]

I’m not any kind of expert on the Gospel, but I have to offer my own view of this passage.  Some have found it to be proof that Satan himself lived in the desert.  I challenge that notion.  The temptations Jesus faced in that lonely place seemed to be temptations he brought with him.  It was clear that He needed to confront them, cast them out.  I wonder if the voice sent Him to the desert because it was easier to recognize them there.

In the end, this may be the magnet that draws at least some of us to these desolate spaces: the simplicity.  Certainly, from an ecological point of view, the desert is not complicated.  Few living things, plant or animal, have the endurance to make a living there, so the bones of the country lie naked to the sky and the silence is seldom disturbed by anything except the wind.

And the desert isn’t burdened with humanity.  There are no fences, no houses, few roads, fewer signs.  Through most of the year, there are no people at all.  Those few who are persistent enough— or crazy enough— to get out into the country earn the shelter of solitude . . . and a feeling of possession, not the kind that comes with a deed but the kind you get when there’s no one within forty miles to dispute it.  The desert strips away distractions and quiets the hive of details that follows us all in more settled places so that we can hear ourselves think.  These are gifts some of us have always cherished, and as the world fills with people, they become ever more precious.

 

Several years ago, I was rambling out under Joe Hay Rim on a warm, dry day in early September. I could see Continental Divide Peak off to the north, and I suddenly took it into my head to drive up that way from the south and west, an approach I’d never tried before.  I took the first two-track to the north and wandered out into the Bear Creek Basin, the Martian landscape of the Honeycombs on the horizon.

No one had been on that trail that day; in fact, when I got to the first of the dry washes, I discovered that no one had been there since the last significant rain, which had probably fallen sometime in July.  The runoff had cut down a couple of feet or more, right through the two-track, leaving a low vertical wall in the clay on each side.

Over my years in the backcountry, I’ve discovered a major disadvantage of four-wheel-drive— it doesn’t work when all four wheels are off the ground. With that in mind, I studied the cut for a minute and decided I wasn’t interested in getting high-centered on either edge of the wash or down at the bottom.  So I broke out the shovel and “improved” the grade, which took about fifteen minutes of heavy-duty earth-moving, then made the crossing without incident.

There were four more of these washes, each one requiring an extensive and temporary modification before I could pass.  It was a little more than two hours before I eased out on the alkali flat at the base of the Honeycombs.

I grabbed a camera and a canteen and hiked up into the breaks.  The find of the afternoon was a clay arch twenty feet tall, the kind of temporary attraction the badlands produce and erase in a matter of days.  I was taking pictures when the light suddenly dimmed.  I walked out of the ravine to see a line of thunderstorms over the hills to the west.  The lightning flickered silently through the curtains of rain, too far away to be heard.

I looked back at the truck.  I had a little less than an hour before the squall line arrived.  It was two hours back to the gravel by the way I’d come, maybe an hour and a half to a dependable road north and east.  Which was to say that I couldn’t get out in time.  The floor of that basin is mostly bentonite, a mineral that mixes with water to produce a colloidal substance combining the most inconvenient properties of fish slime and Elmer’s glue.  If the rain came, I was going to spend the night right where I was, and possibly the next day as well.

So I sat and watched, taking the lesson in patience for what it was.  The clouds darkened and rolled inexorably toward me, until, at the last minute, the waters parted.  The cell to the south drifted off toward Chain Lakes Flat, and the cell to the north rumbled up over South Pass, leaving a Technicolor sunset in its wake.  Now and then, I get lucky.

As I stood there in the last orange light of the day with the silence seeping back into the basin, I recalled a passage from Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow.  He wrote of the country along the Frenchman River straddling the border between Montana and Saskatchewan, but it applies as well to the big sky country of the Red Desert.

“”Desolate?  Forbidding?  There was never a country that in its good moments was more beautiful.  Even in drouth or dust storm or blizzard it is the reverse of monotonous, once you have submitted to it with all the senses.  You don’t get out of the wind, but learn to lean and squint against it.  You don’t escape sky and sun, but wear them in your eyeballs and on your back.  You become acutely aware of yourself.  The world is very large, the sky even larger, and you are very small.  But also the world is flat, empty, nearly abstract, and in its flatness you are a challenging upright thing, as sudden as an exclamation mark, as enigmatic as a question mark.

“It is a country to breed mystical people, egocentric people, perhaps poetic people.  But not humble ones.  At noon the total sun pours on your single head; at sunrise or sunset you throw a shadow a hundred yards long.  Puny you may feel there, and vulnerable, but not unnoticed.  This is a land to mark the sparrow’s fall.”

 

Few visitors appreciate the desert. Most see the drive across the sage basins as the price they have to pay in order to see the Tetons and Old Faithful.  I’m not sure how I feel about that.  On one hand, their indifference leaves the desert to the tiny minority of people who treasure it.  As many of my other favorite places are discovered, it’s good to know there is this one last refuge.  On the other hand, in this modern age, no wild place can survive for long without a large and committed group of backers, people who will stand for a piece of country because they simply couldn’t live without it.

More than a century ago, one of my heroes, George Bird Grinnell, took over a publication called Forest and Stream.  It covered the outdoor sports, but it also championed the emerging cause of conservation.  The masthead of the magazine bore this credo: “A refined taste in natural objects.”  A refined taste in natural objects— that’s what the desert requires of us.  It hides its secrets in plain view, drifting on the wind, warming the evening light, changing the way we see.  It is a place where the wild in us can run free.  A place that sustains the spirit.

Copyright Chris Madson. All rights reserved.

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