One more hour, maybe more. This was about what I was expecting given that we had just stopped for a water closet visit, however it was not the answer I had hoped for. Crossing the desert always takes longer than you think it will. Once you leave he 395 and head east to Barstow; leaving the mountains behind and turning towards the Mojave; the real test begins. Every time I make that run, from Tahoe to Prescott; every time it starts out awesome, inspired and feeling like it wont be nothing but a thing. Yet every time I fill up for gas in that stinking desert crossroads the reality of how much road still lies ahead is fully realized. It’s a f*^&ing slog it is. There is no doubt about it.
So it should have come as little surprise to me that this trip into the Sahara, coming down from the Atlas, would be a test of endurance. This route has me perched inside a tourist van with seats not designed with any concern for the long legged. The road is bumpy, beset by slow moving trucks, mopeds and three wheeling tuk tuks all of whom make the slog even sloggier. The seats around me are filled with 5 European couples whom I suspect thought me crazy (at best ) for skipping the tour of Ait Benhaddou. Sharing dinner with a pair of couples from Spain and Germany I discovered, much to my relief, that I was not alone in being annoyed with the surprise expense of that tour on a supposedly inclusive trip. Moreover I had no interest in spending what few hours I was given outside that cursed van being led around hearing some dude repeat the same spiel he repeats who knows how many times each day to who knows how many other poor souls stuck inside the dozens of other indistinguishable tour vans making the crossing from Marrakech. Besides it was much more interesting to explore the olive groves and talk to the barefooted artist along the banks of the river. He was explaining this technique that produces pieces that look to be water-color but apparently are created with some technique using fire…fire color. It could be bullshit, but it felt a hell of a lot more genuine than what was offered at that restaurant they shipped us to for lunch.
Having worked in the tourist business, in particular the day tripping high volume short stay tourist business of cruise lines in small town coastal Alaska I recognize what’s going on here. This is factory tourism and in an act of twisted sorcery the industrious tour company puts the consumer, not the product, on the assembly line. Ford would be proud. But that’s okay. This trip was cheaper than renting a car and booking my own rooms etc and afforded me the luxury of not having to brave the motorway maelstrom of Marrakech.
Departing from the famed Unesco site we pushed south and east through desert towns of unknown purpose, high end golf resorts and the seemingly limitless expanse of the Western Sahara. Oddly enough, or perhaps not oddly at all, these desert towns remind me a great deal of the desert towns of my homeland. They’re just out there and most of them have little if any claim to fame. I mean seriously, what the hell do you do all day in the middle of the desert? The desert posesses a unique beauty of course. In my youth I was so very proud of being from the arid lands which produce (and I have yet to observe any evidence to the contrary) the most radiant and beautiful of all sunsets. I felt like I was somehow tougher than those, for lack of a better term, wetlanders simply by virtue of groing up in the high and dry. It was more than that however, and it remains so today; even if my connection to it has waned over the years I have spent in the wet.
There is a spirit grasping purity and a heart tearing enchantment in the desert. A land so desolate and harsh and lonely illicits a beautiful sadness. The colors, bleached in the oppresive sun of day, unleash themselves at dusk. A pallet soft, rich and wonderful that is so magestic and glorious that it almost hurts to gaze upon. The splendor is heighted further by it’s contrast to the blasting furnace of the day: The repose and the relief. It is impossible to be here in this new desert and not think of home. Further memories of the desert, and also of the woman, were also fueled by reading The Glass Castle in the Fox Art Food cafe in Marrakech. Off topic, but that restaurant is awesome!!!! It is an oasis in the middle of the urban desert of the old medina and they actually have a fox…sort of. Anyway, back to the topic at hand.
This still doesn’t answer the question of what you do all day out in the deep desert. Sure tourists come through and that provides income. But what then? If you had no real prospect of and/or interest in leaving a small, way out there desert town what would you strive for? I suppose such a notion is not limited to the desert. Without question any person in any civilization in any geography could easily face such a question. I struggle with it daily and I don’t really live anywhere. Why do I, or for that matter why does anyone else, do anything?
I’m slipping dangerously close to falling into some circular, semantic determinism nonsense that will ultimately end with some unsatisfying “well it depends on your axioms of existence bro” kind of answer and nobody wants that.
A friend recently asked me if I have come across any insights so far. I don’t have any in particular to report unfortunately. The questions questions of meaning and purpose which have haunted me since my 15th year shall, barring some rapid spiritual development, shall follow me into my 35th. However, and it’s not clear to me whether it is something specific to the desert or just some form of growth, the barren landscape finds me, while no more enlightened, far less worried about it. The shifting sands and firey sunsets whisper “Dude, chill the F$#% out would you” and I be all like “whatever man, you win”. Perhaps, in the end, it’s the inescapability of the long desert crossings that has finally taught me the futility of needing answers while waxing existential. Well played arid lands…well played.