“Why does the desert have such a hold on me?” was the question I found scribbled one of my old 3x5 cards. That’s a good question. The desert doesn’t have trees or water or shade, three of life’s best gifts to humans. So why do I keep going back to the desert mountains?
One reason is because the desert is so stark and minimal, stripped of all excess. There is no pretention in the desert. What you see is what you get, and you can see a lot since none of it is hiding behind trees. In the desert you can always see the horizon, so you don’t have to worry about falling off the edge.
Specifically, I enjoy the Guadalupe Mountains, even though hiking and backpacking there can be very difficult. I love to sit up on Bush Mountain or Hunter Peak and look out across the desert expanse and imagine ancient oceans and infinite possibilities.
I need wild places in my life, and I haven’t been in a wild place in at least two years. That’s too long.
It’s just that with my deteriorating knees I couldn’t physically handle the trails up to the ledges, and any wild place I could drive to wasn’t truly wild. The closest I’ve come to a wild place is a mountain ridge I ran to last May, up a long winding well-maintained dirt road, if you are generous enough to consider what I did as running. I was uncomfortable (= in pain) the entire time but I kept going because the top was calling out my name, and besides, we were in Italy and I thought this would be a noble outing in case it turned out to be my last entry in my running log, a log that traces back to 1978.
It was hard work, and a stunning view of Tuscany, but it wasn’t very wild. I’m glad I hobbled to the top, but it didn’t feed the hunger in my heart for a wild place.
I need to feel dirt under my feet. I need to live off of whatever I can carry on my back. Why? Because God speaks to me most often when I’m moving, and when I’m vulnerable. Dirt trails have become a big part of my spiritual journey, and being on top of mountains helps keep my eyes open to the larger, wider, wilder world.
Barbara Kingsolver wrote, “We need it to experience a landscape that is timeless, whose agenda moves at the pace of speciation and glaciers.” (Small Wonder)
The wild place I immediately thought about when reading Kingsolver’s quote was Hunter Peak in the Guadalupe Mountains of Texas. It is a noble and brave place, and certainly wild. While the elevation is only 8,368’, small when compared to mountains of the world, it demands a vigorous hike, climbing 2,540’ elevation in 4.5 miles. Hunter Peak gives you a magnificent panorama of Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas.
The wilderness overtakes me when I sit just below the ridge facing east, so that all I can see is the harsh and prickly slopes broken only by dramatic cliffs, all of which drop suddenly 2,500’ to the Chihuahuan Desert. On a clear day you can easily see over a hundred miles to the east and south.
The starkness is breathtaking in its raw unconcern for the hiker. There is nothing in this scene friendly to man, and nothing that cares whether or not man crosses. It’s complete and self-contained and stingy, offering no comforts to sooth a human being. Oddly enough, it’s that very indifference that speaks to my heart. Again, from Barbara Kingsolver: “Looking out on a clean plank of planet earth, we can get shaken right down to the bone by the bronze-eyed possibility of lives that are not our own.”
The reason I rediscovered my old 3x5 card (with the question on it) was because I was digging through my backpacking file and dreaming of future adventures. Now that I have brand new knees I’m once again hungry for those favorite wild places. As my friend Paul Ross likes to say, “My boots are dancing in the closet.”
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32