I’m writing to you from the public library in Pahrump, Nevada. We’re here for the free Wi-Fi. Outside, the Spring Mountains rise jaggedly to the east. A few bedraggled clouds, ripped apart by wind, speed over the peaks. Inside, senior citizens stare suspiciously at laptop computers as if they will explode. Occasionally, they type, bird-like. I’m suspicious, too, but for other reasons. This town, like so many Nevada towns, is strange and inscrutable. There’s a man who’s lived in Pahrump as long as anybody can remember, who walks up and down the main drag, waving his huge, bright American flag at the passing cars. There are two legal brothels here—Sheri’s Ranch and Chicken Ranch—and numberless slot machines. A big Wal-Mart. I can’t say I recommend it. Which is saying something, coming from me: I love a dive desert town. I don’t love Pahrump.
My boyfriend, Chris, studies birds just across the border in California, near Death Valley. We’re staying in a tipi there, next to a farm of date palms. He works all day. When he’s out, there’s not much to do: it’s hot; he has the car. Mostly, I lie in our bed inside the tipi, reading novels and dozing off. Occasionally, I get up, slip on my shoes, and walk over to the nearby gift shop for a date shake. A local specialty. They are delicious; also, disasters. After I eat one, I lie in the tipi, slightly catatonic, a pillow to my bloated belly. But they are worth it, those shakes. You can add banana chips on top, or pecans, or, yes, dates, and to sit under a date tree spooning the stuff into your mouth on a summer day is a small, piercing pleasure. Ice cream, I say to myself as I take another bite, surveying the tourists with their large cameras and large hats and the bare desert hills beyond. Ice cream.
In the desert, you must treasure these cold moments, or else you’ll lose it. Ice cream. Gatorade. An air conditioning unit that actually works. You must enjoy the cold, when you get it, and, crucially, you’ve got to stop worrying about the heat. It’s hot. It’s going to stay hot. And you’re going to be hot, most of the time. There are things you can do about this. Drink water, for instance, gallons of it. You can go to REI and buy beige, breathable clothing, and those hats with the flaps in the back, and wraparound sunglasses that make you look like a very large, very beige insect. You can buy sunscreen and reapply it assiduously. Or, you can do what Chris does: 1) drink coffee, 2) forget to drink water, 3) eat PayDays, and 4) wear no sunscreen. You will lose weight this way because the heat is going to kill your once-healthy appetite. You will also tan, deeply, or burn, deeply—depending. He tans. He is lucky that way. You might not be.
In the desert, you’ve got to stop worrying about snakes. There are snakes. There will always be. I suggest befriending a herpetologist. Convince him, over cocktails, to tell you all of the Cool Facts about Snakes. Develop a respect for snakes, and when you do encounter your first snake crossing your hiking trail so swiftly and silently that you think you hallucinated it, don’t think about it for too much. Don’t, for instance, think about how thick and round and big that snake was. Also, don’t watch that Planet Earth about the large, green, swimming snakes in the Indian Ocean, how they swim together in groups.
In the desert, you might want to ask yourself why you are out here, in the middle of the desert, blinking dumbly into the sun, anyway. It takes a certain type of person to want to survive in the desert. A certain type of person to put “want” and “desert” in the same sentence. Are you that kind of person?
In the desert, you’ll discover that you have this weird thing—is crush the right word?—for desert mountains. You like to sit in a camping chair and watch the afternoon light play across them. You also, unsurprisingly, like to climb them, to their very tip tops. To feel elemental, alone, etc. You also get a little scared, when you’re hiking alone. So high up there, so sunny, so close to the sky.
“Could it be,” my therapist asks, after I tell her about this, “that you’re most at home in extremes?”
What I do know is that I feel a little claustrophobic around too many trees. It’s not that I dislike water and lakes and lush gardens, but something in me comes alive in the desert’s blaze. Maybe it’s because I see so much beauty in it, in what may seem–at first glance–unforgiving and undesirable and remote. Godforsaken. But I like it. The big thunderclouds, lonely mountain ranges, turquoise sunsets, roads leading to nowhere, to forever. I like it when a two-inch tall pincushion cactus blossoms for one or two effervescent days. I like how garishly pink the flower is. I like how it’s so easy to miss, but how I didn’t miss it.