Everything in the Desert is Trying to Kill You

From my journal, 11/4:

Everything in the desert is trying to kill you. That’s what I’m surmising. Spiny, thorny everythings that jump out at you, almost with their own sense of malice, some sort of surprise vendetta play, reasons known only to them. Venomous insects and snakes: stingers and teeth. They’re all out there, trying to take you down every time you put boot to trail.

 Or so we would think. But the desert, like all the natural world, is majestically impersonal. We are shown that these things are not trying to hurt or kill, but to survive. The living things in the desert have produced though hides, sharp edges, and the ability to melt into the background, all so they can keep on living. Some, like the Saguaros of Southern Arizona, age gracefully, flowering only past 50 years. Those thorns are one of the most essential pieces to their long life. The thorns keep animals from drinking the lifeblood that flows through their fibrous cells.

 We’re the same way. We are just as fragile and we live in a harsh world full of attack. We develop defense mechanisms to ward off the violence and trauma. We prepare ourselves for it every day, and some of us develop spines, venomous bites, and offer them to anyone who gets close to us. We are trying to protect ourselves, trying to prevent any catastrophic damage.

 It’s a misnomer that we need to do this. We don’t need to take advice from the desert here; in fact, we should do the exact opposite. Where we have instinct to push people away with our needles and teeth gnashing we should instead act to pull them closer, allowing them to help us move through life and survive.

 Somewhere along the way we have collectively been damaged. It’s not just those of us who have been damaged directly; it’s everyone. For the past 150 years much of the world has had access to the most horrid tales of history, and the tales continue to be written day after day, and endless onslaught of secondary trauma. We are so afraid, and it is so disheartening. We seem to be seeing an uptick of these horrid tales, and why should we be surprised? It’s long been known that damaged people can easily damage others with those spines and thorns and teeth.

 Breathe.  

cactus

The desert is full of surprises. One of the scariest looking creatures, the tarantula, is also the one of the meekest. It trundles across the road like a furry, eight-legged turtle. The formidable cactus can surprise us, too: get past the thorns and teeth and there is life and sweet fruit inside. More lessons from the desert.

Prelude

The sun set an orange blaze to see the day’s end arrive. I drove, as I have so many times before, with that fire to my right and a cold blue washing over the fields to my left. Eastern New Mexico is often ignored for the more prominent northern and southern parts, yet the flat plains and farms are certainly pastoral and such land has long held my fascination. I grew up in a city, then just on the outskirts (although we had a wonderful creek that rippled behind our house), but not far from Lancaster city proper lies the rolling hills and farms of the Amish and Mennonite communities: green and gold, thriving or fallow. I chose to move away from the populated areas when I was 19 when I went to college in the smallest of towns in central Kansas. The flatlands lacked the green waves of Lancaster County, but they were nonetheless beautiful. I can remember quite clearly the first summer storms I experienced in the middle of a picked over milo field. There were at least half a dozen gray, silver, and charcoal systems pounding the land in the distance, stabbing it with hot lightening. I don’t know if it was the storms or my fancy, but the air felt electric. I then moved on to the mountains of Virginia, which held more farms plowed into the side of the Appalachia. The glens did sing true in the spring and fall, painting with the sound of growing and dying, both colors handsome and new.

And here, more than a decade from the time I left the emerald east, I drive through land that has been recently harvested and so reflects the burning of the day. Silos and grain elevators silhouette against the oncoming rush of blue while irrigation pivots still themselves for the night. I’ve secured a small and simple cabin about ten miles north of Carlsbad. I’m on my way to Big Bend National Park in Texas, and this is the first of thirty-one nights I will spend alone. Tonight is Halloween; I won’t be home until the calendar reads December.

I’ve been chosen to explore, and craft music inspired by a harsh and beautiful piece of far west Texas called the Big Bend. It’s named so because the seemingly never ending Rio Grande cuts a sharp U-turn north after having travelled south since the Colorado/New Mexico border. It carves its way through a canyon land seldom seen by America. A dusty corner, forgotten and sunburnt, where the sun shines hot and hard and only the most adaptable of creatures, human or otherwise, survive. It is a place of trial, but as is so often the case with such places, it is the perfect environment for healing and creating.

The dark fog of the past three months has moved on from me and for this I am grateful. To begin this journey free of depression is nothing short of a miracle. The level of anxiety I have experienced over this trip has been observably more than your average person would experience, but a lot less considering what passes for normal in my brain. As I packed the Gray Haven full of every essential piece of camping and survival gear, music and recording equipment of all types, an inflatable kayak, and what seemed to my wife and I to be an adequate amount of frozen chili and lentils to last me an entire month, I found that I was stalling. There was a charged excitement that had slowly settled over me in the months since I found out about my appointment as one of centennial resident artists for Big Bend National Park, it over the weekend it had approached its zenith. But I kept slowing myself down, even when I was in the car and on the road there were last minute errands that “just had to be done” (they didn’t). I said goodbye to Deborah in the morning when she left for work. It was hard but we had a great weekend together and I’ll see her the week of Thanksgiving. I’m not sure that was what was holding me in town. Although I will miss having her next to me every night, I think what was chaining me to the middle Rio Grande valley was not a fear of what negative encounters I may have, but of the positive changes and healing that could occur during such a sojourn. Change has always been an exciting prospect throughout my life, one that has kept me moving forward, but in recent years I have grown weary and apprehensive of change. Subsequently, I feel my progression in healing has been stunted, and perhaps it is a change of this nature that can be a shot in the arm.

Even so, I have worked hard to keep myself from holding any expectations for the following weeks. Tempered expectations are one of the keys to a good life. My aunt always told me, “If you don’t expect anything, you won’t get disappointed.” A Zen master couldn’t have spoken truth more clearly. It’s hard to have expectations for something you have never attempted before, and its for the best. Still, creating goals is always a smart thing and I definitely have some broadly defined ideas as to what I would like to see happen, without forming an attachment to them:

  1. Write music.
  2. Hike a lot.
  3. Get better.

I feel these are reasonable and accomplishable goals when given a month in one of the most amazing and dramatic national parks in America. I’ll stay in my little cabin tonight, no doubt listening to a Stephen King audio book until my eyelids feel heavy. Tomorrow I’ll explore Carlsbad Caverns in the morning before making the final push towards Big Bend. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of positive mystery.

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Night time needle grass infestation in Carlsbad, NM.

The earth has fascinated me since I was a small boy playing in our tiny backyard in downtown Lancaster. I’ve watched that fascination grow with each move forward in my life. The correlation is not coincidental: the earth has a power that can only be understood when connected to it. I began that journey a long time ago, and it’s taken me more time than some others to get where I am. Now that I’m here I won’t be wasting any time. I’m at another point where that forward momentum is going to take me somewhere. As hard as I try to temper it, my imagination is running wild tonight.

Walk On

What if I got rid of everything that is unnecessary in my life and just started walking? Not going anywhere in particular, just walking. I’d come home, but it would be unencumbered by things I don’t need. What if I sold all my comic books, blu-rays, and TV? What If I got rid of the superfluous clothes and only kept what I needed? So many unused books could go to ones who would benefit from them. Then I would walk.

I would start by going north on 47th Street, towards Atrisco and the desert edge of the Bosque. There’s a path there, about a quarter of a mile from our house, going east and cutting down a slope of thick desert sage before it reaches the golden banks of the muddy river. I’ve seen it when I’ve been driving somewhere to buy things I don’t need. I’d walk that path slowly and forget about The Noise. I would breathe deep, and it would be a dry pull of air that hits my throat. It would be savory, like a wedding dinner for an old friend.

The path would hit the trail  running the strand of the Rio Grande and cutting through the heart of Albuquerque. I could go south, ducking under the golden cottonwoods and oakbrush, listening to the fallen leaves crack beneath me like broken old bones. I’d breathe deep, and it would be the sickly sweet aroma of fall foliage littering the soil, decomposing, giving itself back to which it came. It would remind me of my childhood in Pennsylvania, piles of leaves in the yard by the creek, and the fear and sadness.

In a mile I would hit Central Avenue and The City and The Noise. I would breathe deep the death that lay there. My hands, until that point hanging freely by my side and swinging with the sway of my walk, would inevitably wriggle into my pockets. Instead of looking up through a golden green canopy to the light of the sun, I would look down at the dead sidewalk and quickly circle back to my house.

There I would breathe deep the musky balm of home, of dogs and food, and living. Where I would sit, in patient silence, without things, and wait for my next walk.

October Rain

October is arguably the best month of the year in New Mexico. The heat of the summer has tapered off into the pleasant and dry 70s during the day, and a comfortably chilly mid-40s at night. It’s not quite time to put away the short sleeves, but cool enough in the mornings to wear a cozy sweater. Like the rest of the country, our leaves begin changing rapidly around the 3rd week. I live near the Bosque, which describes the east and west banks of the Rio Grande. Sudden bursts of yellow explode within the green cottonwood trees that fill the strand, creating an amalgam of emerald and gold. The air smells crisp in the morning and dry with heat in the afternoons before settling into a refreshing bite as the stars emerge above the city of Albuquerque.

It’s the perfect time of year for hiking, camping, fishing, walking the dogs, eating breakfast on the patio, and potlucks with friends in the park. The intoxicating smell of roasting green chile is on the air, the balloon fiesta happens (hundreds of hot air balloons filling the sky every morning is an amazing site), and the outdoor patios at all our fine breweries gather fine folks like moths to a flame. To my wife and I, October also means Annibirthary week. This is when we celebrate my birthday, our anniversary, and her birthday on consecutive days by going on some type of outdoors adventure together.

October brings together some of what I consider the best things in life. But the advent of autumn also carries a hard and heavy weight for me. For the past 25 years I’ve spent my favorite time of year covered in a months-long blanket of depression. I can hear it breathing behind me as August turns, and by the end of September I’m in the fog. At my birthday I’m glued in, enveloped in gray that stands in stark contrast with the season of gold.

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The result is that I live a sort of half-life: I’m experiencing the brilliance of the season through a shroud. This October I took a trip across the country, stopping at such awe-inspiring locales as the Ozarks and Great Smoky Mountains. I met my wife on the coast and we attended the wedding of a dear and old friend. For this year’s Annibirthary we were to stay in a trailer on the land my wife bought in West Virginia, and experience I was looking forward to. We were then to travel to Cuyahoga National Park, stay with friends, before driving back to Albuquerque. The first half of the week went fine. Once the wedding was over the meltdown started. My depression snapped at my face like a rabid dog, and the breathing I’d heard early in August had turned to fire on the back of my neck. Daily panic attacks meant plans had to change. The pain I felt in my heart was only equaled by the pain I forced upon myself thinking that I was ruining my wife’s vacation, and it was all my fault (one of depression’s most effective lies). We salvaged what we could, and we have some happy memories of the week, but mostly its polluted by hour long stops on the side of the highway to calm me down, and unstoppable tears.

Every autumn my hope for the best trumps my expectation of the worst, yet the worst always seems to happen no matter what I do. This year has been particularly hard: constant suicidal thoughts, self-injurious panic attacks, and I just don’t know how a body can hold that many tears. It’s also been particularly productive in spite of its hardships. My creative life is unbottling, sometimes at an obsessive rate. I don’t sleep, but more often its because my creative mind won’t shut down, rather than ruminating over what I would write in my suicide note. I count this as a valuable treasure, a ray of light cutting through the rain.

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I’m heading off to Big Bend National Park in a couple weeks as I begin my month-long artist residency. I’ll be in one of the most remote areas of the contiguous United States, hours from the nearest professional psychiatric help, and an entire day’s drive from home. But I’ll be minutes from the Chisos Mountains, towering seven thousand feet in the Texas desert. I’ll be a short walk from the red canyons of the Rio Grande. The only expectation that I have been given is to be inspired and create. My hope is that the depression will clear by the time I get there and I can make the most out of this experience. Something tells me that it won’t make a difference if my dark tourist is accompanying me for the ride.

Let’s Talk Cannabis

Sandbridge Beach in Virginia is a favorite place for my wife and me. Each year we are privileged enough to spend a week with her family amongst the dunes and waves, laughing and bouncing up and down in the water, getting minor sun burns, and avoiding the tiny, translucent fiddler crabs poking out of their dens in the sand and running across the playa. It’s a joyous reunion: dozens of family members converge upon several different beach houses and spend the week recharging their batteries in unison. I love this week and look forward to it every year. Walking the beach at sunrise and sunset, letting the sun slowly brown my typically pasty skin, watching the kids play in the sand and water. These things are surely energizing and life-giving. There’s only one problem with this week: I’m not allowed to take the only medicine that is effective for my mental health.

Throughout my life I have been on over a dozen medications to treat my intractable depression and posttraumatic stress disorder: Lithium, Lamictal, Prozac, Abilify, Celexa, Lexapro, Paxil, Cymbalta, Effexor, Serzone, Tofranil, Remeron, Seroquel, Zyprexa, BuSpar, Wellbutrin, Trazadone, Topamax, Prazosin, Brintellix,  and most recently Zoloft… not to mention the following benzodiazepines to combat anxiety: Xanax, Klonopin, Ativan, and even Halcyon. None of them has done anything to alleviate my depression or symptoms related to my PTSD. Here’s what they have done:

  • Caused me to gain 60 pounds in 3 months (Abilify)
  • Caused my digestive system to be in constant upheaval
  • Time loss (when all of a sudden its an hour later and you don’t know how that happened, different from forgetting, more like blacking out)
  • Suicidal thoughts have been exaggerated (they’re always there, but they come harder on some meds)
  • Severe withdrawal symptoms
  • Thousands of dollars

These are all just off the top of my head. If I thought harder and read my old journals, I could easily list more detrimental effects. These are the most salient, the ones that have impacted my daily life for over twenty years. I’ve continually put myself through further hell and pain by following the advice of several doctors because, well, they’re doctors. All of them, save two, had no understanding of the Endocannabinoid System, or ECS.

So what is the ECS? It is the “essential regulator in bodily function…” (Russo, 2004). Its basic functions are “relax, eat, sleep, forget, and protect” (DiMarzo, 1998). It’s a very nuanced system that mediates a physiological homeostasis when in balance. When it is out of balance we start experience some serious, and often mysterious, health concerns. According to Phytecs, its discovery was only a generation ago and therefore many in the medical community have a knowledge deficiency when it comes to this crucial component in healthy bodies. In fact, there may be medical practitioners who have no knowledge of it whatsoever. This is truly an oversight in our medical community.

Recent research has shown that an ECS that is out of balance can result in many adverse medical conditions, some that are heretofore mysteries to the medical community (e.g. fibromyalgia). A hyperactive ECS is linked to morbid obesity, diabetes, and hepatic liver fibrosis. Similarly, we see a deficiency in endocannabinoids in persons experiencing fibromyalgia, migraines, and idiopathic bowel syndrome (IBS). Further research is beginning to show links between deficient levels of endocannabinoids and retractable depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and various neuropathic pain conditions.

This is pretty revolutionary stuff. But here’s the big kicker: persons with cancer have been observed to possess increased levels of the two main endocannabinoids. What does this actually mean? It means that when the body encounters cancer it fights it using the natural method it has: the ECS. The problem is that our bodies do not have enough endocannabinoids to fully do the job and both stop the growth of cancer cells as well as kill them off. In research coming out of Europe, the addition of extreme ECS therapy in cancer cases is showing incredibly positive results. Qualitative reports have been popping up in the media quite a bit over the past 2 years, most famously President Jimmy Carter’s miraculous recover from cancer by using 1000s of mg of THC and CBD, the main chemical responders in cannabis.

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Endocannabinoid sounds an awful lot like “cannabis,” right? There’s no coincidence there. Cannabis, more derisively known as marijuana, weed, and pot, is the key to balancing an out-of-whack ECS. This is the science behind medical marijuana, this is why it works. Simply put: using cannabis in conjunction with other supplements is going to straighten out a lot of medical problems. With someone like myself who experiences posttraumatic stress, the experience of adverse memories is lessened, not because I’m stoned- that’s more of a necessary side-effect, but because of what the endocannabinoids are doing to my brain’s chemistry. They’re assisting me in experiencing the awful memories of my trauma in a different way. This manifests itself in decreased levels of hyper-vigilance and anxiety, decreased experiences of depression, and decreased adverse dream-states (no more nightmares), to name a few. The result of these decreased negative experiences is that I can function in my day-to-day life. I can get up, do my work, take care of my hygiene, clean the house, and cuddle happily with my wife and dogs. It’s an amazing reaction that I’ve never gotten from any of the multitude of pharmaceuticals I’ve been prescribed. Better yet: it doesn’t give me any negative side effects.

Those of my friends who know me are aware of my long-standing love affair with cannabis. I first started using it when I was 13 and have rarely looked back since. Cannabis was an exclusively recreational plant for me until four years ago. As I began to understand how medicinal it can be my entire paradigm around its use shifted. That’s not to say I don’t recommend it for recreation, because I most certainly do. For a lot of people, it can be a lot of fun, and regardless of what the media has always tried to portray, it has far fewer detrimental effects than other recreational substances (I’m looking at you, booze). Yes, it needs to be used mindfully. So does everything else in this world.

I now see my own personal use as a mixture of medical and recreational, with a strong emphasis on the former. There’s a misnomer in our society that says that one cannot enjoy taking their medicine. For a lot of situations this has a lot of truth and utility: someone who enjoys taking their pain medication too much is bound for a lot of trouble down the road. It can’t be a hard and fast understanding. Cannabis makes me feel good on a medical level, and it makes me feel good on a recreational level. Why is that so wrong?

Here are the facts:

  • Cannabis has not been linked to deteriorating lung functioning or lung cancer
  • Cannabis has not been proven to be addictive
  • Cannabis has not been proven to have accompanying withdrawal symptoms
  • You cannot overdose on cannabis (but you can take too much and feel miserable if you’re not careful)
  • Cannabis leads to eating excessive amounts of Hot Cheetoh’s and pizza, so you must take care when using it.

When Nixon put out the Schafer Commission Report (which has since been debunked as an attempt to corral the African-American and left wing communities and omitting the final conclusions that cannabis should be folded into the medical community) policies were set in motion and propaganda machines went full press to demonize cannabis. We are now in a day and age where we can see through these transparent attempts to keep the public in the dark, if we open our eyes (they don’t want you to do that).

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I’m typing this lengthy post in the living room of my in-law’s rental. It’s sunny with clear blue skies. If I poke my head out of the window I can hear the lull of waves crashing on the beach and children playing. I’m in Virginia, a state that has not approved medical cannabis. I have nowhere to get it and if I had it in my possession I’m at risk for prosecution by a state with archaic drug laws taken directly from Nixon’s little report. Therefore, I’ve been struggling with my depression and anxiety all week. It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed myself, I certainly have. But then I start feeling the ball in my chest grow and I have to leave where I am and sit alone until the tears stop. Sometimes this lasts all afternoon when the sky is clear and the air smells of salt and sunscreen. And I’m inside typing a blog about how I can’t use the only medication that works for me. I sincerely hope that those who read this with an antagonist opinion have done so with an open mind. As always, I would love to help anyone understand this pretty complicated issue via personal communication.

 

Works Cited

Di Marzo, V. 1998. “‘Endocannabinoids’ and other fatty acid derivatives with       cannabimimetic properties: biochemistry and possible physiopathological relevance.” Biochim Biophys Acta 1392 (2-3):153- 75.

Russo, E.B. 2004. “Clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD): Can this concept explain therapeutic benefits of cannabis in migraine, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome and other treatment resistant conditions?” Neuroendocrinol Lett 25 (1-2):31-39.

TOP 5 THINGS YOU NEED FOR SUMMER ADVENTURES!!!

I love Pinterest. I discovered it a few months ago and have not looked back. When I’m bored I pull it up and read about Star Wars, cannabis, and recipes. I use it to dream about my next tour vehicle and discovering new camping hacks. It is truly junk food in the written word. One of my favorite things about Pinterest is the amount of lists for camping gear they have. Headlines almost always include some arbitrary number: 49 Things you MUST have for your next camping trip. The same items appear on almost every list and yet I read them each time and think to myself, “I absolutely need to get that inflatable lantern.”

The truth is nobody needs to get the inflatable lantern, the inflatable tent, or even the inflatable hammock (all real things, by the way). What do we need for summer camping? Or camping and outdoors-ing in general? My list for the things I need this summer looks a lot different than the ones I have seen on Pinterest.

Openness

Openness to experience, or the level to which someone accepts new experiences, is incredibly important to reaching full potential when exploring nature. Not only does it cause a statistically significant increase in cognitive ability and decision making (Lapine, Colquit, & Erez, 2000), it affords the mind a respite from the normal worries of every day life back in the city. Accepting and inviting whatever it is that comes our way means we won’t get bent out of shape when things don’t go according to plan. It means losing our attachment to the way we think things ought to be. When exploring nature this trait is invaluable and constantly utilized. Sometimes you forget the can opener and you don’t realize it until you unpack at the campsite that’s an hour and a half from anywhere. Other times it unexpectedly pours down rain the entire weekend for a backpacking trip and you forgot the cover to your backpack. Or maybe your keys fell out of your pocket when you were hiking out of the Grand Canyon that one time and you didn’t realize it until you got to the car. Yeah, these have all happened to me and caused minor to major meltdowns. Not this year, friends. If I drive all the way to the Jemez and forget my fishing rod I’m going to go hiking instead. Who knows? I may see something I’ve never seen before.

Mindfulness

Take it all in. What does the air smell like exactly? How cold is the water in the stream? How do different trails feel beneath your feet? What happens to your mind and body during a long hike? How does the campfire smell? What memories comeback when that smell lingers on your clothes? What thoughts are you having as you sit by the lake? Think about how you are part of nature, not separate from it when you lay down in camp at night. By being mindful of every aspect of our outdoors experience we ground ourselves in the natural world and allow it to work its healing in our lives. Five deep breaths are all it takes to connect yourself to the moment. When your mind naturally makes its way towards problems and stressors you’ve encountered during the work week, allow them to pass like leaves on a river. Observe them, then move your attention back to the present moment by connecting with the feeling of your breath and labeling your five sense. A more enriching interaction with the natural world is your reward.

Compassion

As we walk through the natural world we must do so with the intention that we will keep it as such: natural. This is a result of the compassion we feel towards ourselves, our communities, and the earth we live in. The three realms are not separate from each other. When we feel compassion for one realm it will inform our interactions with another. We feel compassion towards ourselves, this will extend to our community. If we have compassion for our community and ourselves, we will desire to enrich and conserve the natural environment we find ourselves in. Our environment feeds our communities in many ways, from the farms that grow our food to the mountains that feed our souls. Having compassion towards our environment means that we tread lightly and preserve them so the community we love can continue to benefit from the land long into the future.

Stealth

Have you ever been hiking in pristine wilderness only to come around a bend in the trail and see leftover food trash? It’s a miserable experience. Leave no trace ethics are paramount to keeping our natural lands healthy and ensuring their survival. Do you know how to poop in the woods? What about what you should do to erase your campsite? Do you know what cryptobiotic soil is? Educate yourself on how you can enjoy the natural world in the most responsible way. Wherever you are, leave the earth looking better than when you found it.

Self-Reflexivity

This refers to your ability to think and process your experiences while they are happening and after they happen. When you are in the wild it is important to let your mind explore your soul. What better place to ask the big questions than surrounded by a cluster of 14,000 foot peaks? Or staring at a sunset while listening to the lull of waves at the shore?  The ability to reflect on your experiences is the key to learning from them. Sometimes it doesn’t come naturally, but here are some questions you can ask yourself if you’re finding it hard to get started:

  • How is this experience affecting me?
  • Why did I do that?
  • What do I really need right now?

IMG_3729Enjoy your adventures this summer. Wear sunscreen and drink plenty of water. Bring your maps and a raincoat. Don’t forget the snacks and inflatable hammock. Don’t forget why your doing it, either.

365 Days

Above image: Guadalupe Mountains National Park, TX

For the past year I have been undergoing a bit of an experiment on myself. Last May I made a commitment to spend as much time in the outdoors as possible and see how much of a tangible impact it would have on my mental health. Being a staunch believer in ecopsychology and using the natural world to heal mental health, this seemed logical.

Let’s start with where I was mentally at this time in 2015: Depressed, suicidal, burned-out on my job and my life. I was at an end, in a lot of ways. There didn’t seem to be very many options for me and giving up seemed like the easiest thing to do. It was at this point when I decided to reframe what it meant to “give up”. Instead of giving up my entire life, I would give up all of those things that held me down. I’m quite fond of the expression, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” and that was my intention.

The first thing I gave up was my job. In June I left my work as a behavioral health consultant and completely turned my back on the counseling career I had been building for upwards of a decade. My plan was to play music full-time; a plan which I have carried into fruition but had no idea the impact it would have on my outdoors adventuring. I no longer had to worry about paperwork and hours, taxes and billing, and most important of all I could focus on my own mental health concerns without being fettered by those of others. I began by taking walks in the east mountains every morning, fly-fishing in the Jemez on Fridays, and simply preparing dinner outside in our jungle of a backyard. The first month was brilliant and I felt fantastic pretty much the entire time. Sure enough, depression crept back in, but I had a hedge against it in the mountains.

I took 4 trips to Colorado last summer and enjoyed exploring what is one of my favorite states. From Durango and Telluride on the western edges, to the green valley of the south central (packed with mosquitos, by the way), to the red rocks of the front range. Colorado was my go-to state for 2 months. One of the better adventures happened later in the summer when I spontaneously drove from Albuquerque to the Green Mountain Reservoir near Rocky Mountain National Park. That trip instilled in me an idea: I could pretty much point to a place on the map and book shows all the way there. I could go anywhere, all I needed was the proper ride. In early October I got that wish when we bought Eleanor, the Gray Haven.

Eleanor is a gray and black, 2005 Honda Element. I removed the back seats and build a modular sleeping platform that is perfect for one. I hung curtains on bungee cords, built a drawer system that peeks out of the hatchback for kitchen supplies and food, as well as another drawer system that opens into the sleeping compartment for clothes. My musical equipment stores nicely under the sleeping platform, which is topped with a 4-inch, high-density foam mattress. I hung my hammock on the roof rack so that I can enjoy hammock naps no matter where I am (this has come in quite handy on long tours). I even set up a bit of an entertainment system so I could watch movies before turning in at night. It’s been a great little vehicle and has cut down on my costs quite a bit. No hotel rooms for me: I can live quite cheaply out of the Gray Haven. Furthermore, I have become fond of calling it my “kennel”. As dog owners know, kennel crates can be a safe and special place for dogs. That’s the way I feel about Eleanor. After a long day of driving, playing music, and socializing, its nice to get back there and relax in my own little space.

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Eleanor, the Gray Haven 

The maiden voyage of Eleanor was a week long trip through Utah before meeting my parents and Deborah in Zion National Park. Eleanor did fantastic and kept me warm and comfortable most of the nights. The final night before I met my family was a little rough for me, so I took a room at a hotel outside the park entrance. Even though I was staying in a room, nature had something special in store for me. As I walked up to my secluded suit I saw a young elk calf that was sitting on the porch directly adjacent to my room. He looked at me as I unloaded my things, and then I sat with him for about 2 hours as I read. He was about an arms length from me and didn’t get spooked once. I went to eat dinner (elk meatloaf, of all things) and when I came back he was gone. I was feeling incredibly depressed when I walked up to my room and that young elk seemed to lift my spirits quite a bit. As he sat there it was almost as though he was placed there for me, to be there with me while I healed. There are plenty of psychotherapists that could take notes from this gentle animal.

As fall was turning to winter I toured went on a seemingly disastrous tour through Arizona and southern New Mexico. I was depressed before I left but reluctant to cancel the tour. I thought that the exposure to the natural world would be healing. I made it through, but not without incident. I was stuck in Silver City, suicidal and miserable, for a few days before cancelling my show and heading back to Albuquerque. It made me nervous and took quite a while to recover from.

But winter arrived and with it the holiday season. Deborah and I had decided that we would take a week-long trip to Joshua Tree National Park, which is my favorite national park. Deborah had never been and I was excited to share with her the magic of that desert wonderland. Looking at the forecast caused some concern: the nighttime temperature was supposed to average in the 20’s. It didn’t matter to us. We hit the road on a blustery, snowy day after Christmas and drove till the snow was gone. Our first night at J-Tree was the coldest I’ve ever spent and one of the best times I’ve ever had with my wife. We snuggled into our sleeping bags and laughed at how cold it was outside of them. We bundled ourselves together and slept wonderfully, waking the next morning with the sun to hot coffee (her) and tea (me). We spent the next 5 days hiking through the rocks and desert. It was the best vacation I’d ever had in my life.

Winter held a lot of depression. Although it was mild in the high desert of Albuquerque, I stayed in quite a bit. Depression has a way of Velcro-ing a body to the couch, or the bed, and as a result my access to nature was confined to what I could see out my window (when the shades weren’t drawn) and snuggling with my dogs. I had another Arizona tour in February. This time I made my way north from Tucson to Flagstaff. I camped in Saguaro National Park, the Mogollon Rim of Sedona, and Petrified Forest National Park. The latter being a surprising little gem that everyone driving along I-40 should stop and experience. The tour was better, I was buoyed, and I returned home to record my debut solo album.

Spring arrived with another opportunity to travel. I booked a last-minute tour from Hood River, Oregon all the way to Yuma, Arizona. As I passed the Colorado border into Utah it started sprinkling rain. By the time I hit Salt Lake City it was pouring. It didn’t stop raining until the final day of the tour, a week and a half later. This tour was fraught with battles inside my head. Even though I was sleeping amongst the redwoods I found myself trapped in a cycle of awful thoughts and by the time I got off the Pacific Coast Highway a couple days later I was in bad shape. The rain followed me to Joshua Tree and finally let up once I hit Yuma. Brow-beaten, I turned eastward toward the warm comfort of home.

After getting back from the west coast I as able assess the functionality of my medication with a new psychiatric provider and we found that I was a far too high a dose. I had known that some people can experience an increase in depression and anxiety due to SSRI medication, but never fully understood it till it happened to me. My doctor lowered my dose of Zoloft and the effects were almost instantaneous. The fog of depression lifted for the first time in at least two years, just in time for my latest escapade: a month-long journey across the country. From Tucson to Philadelphia and back.

I just got home from that tour this past Monday. I was able to see both the Guadalupe Mountains and Big Bend National Parks. It rained most of the time, but it didn’t bother me a bit. I was happy and in a good mood for the majority of the tour. I slept in the Gray Haven even though I didn’t have to. I realized that I could be alive.IMG_3301

Hot Spring Trail, Rio Grande River, Big Bend National Park, TX

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Here I am, a year later. My mental health is better than it was at this point last year, but it’s not without its struggles. There are times when I feel like giving up, but those times are fewer and further between than they ever have been. My depression doesn’t feel like a life sentence anymore, and that is something special. I know that it will be there for the rest of my life, but it won’t always have the same affect. I can cope with it now.
How much of this do I attribute to the natural world? Quite a bit, to be sure. My desire to be in the natural world helped lead me to decisions that have been incredibly beneficial: Leaving my job, playing music full-time, living in a small SUV… The contact I’ve had with nature has left a tangible mark on me as well. From the sunburns and the weight-loss, to the focus and the energy, nature has been more helpful to me than any medications, therapists, or hospital stays ever have. That’s not to say that everyone will have this reaction, but I firmly believe that connection with the natural world must be an adjunctive treatment for anyone who is struggling with mental health. The healing property is undeniable. Getting out there can be tough, and being there can be tough, but when it’s all said and done it is clearly beneficial for everyone to renew their connection with the natural world.

In This Together

I drove north, planning on camping on the Pecos river and fly-fishing for a few days. As I passed the brown Adobe of Santa Fe I didn’t understand why I would stop at the Pecos Wilderness. I could keep driving north, on through to Colorado, meeting my wife in Denver for a concert later in the week. So I did.

I drove through the setting sun, into the mountains of southern Colorado, and watched as their silhouettes grew more jagged and prominent in the rising moon. I climbed further north and deeper into the night. I had no real destination to speak of, but my directions were taking me towards Rocky Mountain National Park. As I began to tire I pulled over somewhere northwest of Silverthorne, about an hour south of the park. I found a campground and set myself up as light shown through the gathering clouds. I heard the slapping of waves coming from somewhere just beyond the mouth of my tent, but, exhausted, I decided to leave that exploring for the morning.

When I awoke I saw I had chosen a campsite alongside a large body of water with lower-hanging mountains on its eastern edge. My hamlet rested fairly lonesome above the high-water line, less that a hundred yards east of the entrance to a cove, about three-hundred yards across from north to south. The water was sapphire blue with occasional chop lapping against the banks: stoney outcrops backed by steep black pack, crested with sage and purple and yellow asters. A beauty to be sure. The gray clouds had gathered significantly and framed my yellow tent with a swath of pencil-lead. It was here I would lay my head for the next few days, exploring the nearby Arkansas River and hiking the relatively low mountains. Rain came and went and I enjoyed the rhythm of the waves on those dark and cloudy August nights. Lightening provided a show the likes of which cannot be duplicated by a television.

I packed leisurely the morning of my departure, looking upon my inlet in content and nostalgic silence until the hum of a motor grew louder and I saw a speed boat power through my field of vision, straight into the narrow cove, pulling a water skier in it’s wake. The chop increased. Time to go, I thought, and started the car with a sense of irony.

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As I drove away from that space a question entered my mind regarding how we are to enjoy the natural world. Is there a better way? Ed Abbey railed against motorists in the National Parks 50 years ago to no avail, and if you travel to any of our nation’s most protected lands you will see the results of over half-a-century of automobile use and motorized recreation. These mod cons bring more people to the land and that can possibly cause more conservation efforts by those who have been touched by nature. More often motorists bring litter, pollution (both air and noise), and that sense of entitlement that comes with the privilege of being a private transportation traveler. It’s indicative of a greater problem: humans see themselves as separate from the natural world, observing it as though through a window at a zoo. This viewpoint has led to a health crisis not only for the Earth, but for the human race as well.

The answer to my previously posed question is a resounding “YES!” There is a correct way to enjoy nature, but not entirely for the reason some might think. The idea that human beings are separate from the natural world is an example of dualistic thinking. It’s the age-old “us and them” mentality and, as with most dualistic thinking, it’s quite incorrect. Humans are a part of the natural world; just like plants, animals, insects, dirt, and rivers. We come from the natural world, we are not born from something other. The two transitive properties that we now have are thus:

  1. Humans are separate from the natural world, we have consciousness and therefore we are above the nature. This leads to thoughts and actions that can be destructive to the environment.
  2. Humans are an intrinsic part of the natural world, our sense of consciousness encompasses all living things. If we are part of the natural world, we are subject to the all the consequences the natural world experiences. This leads to thoughts and actions that are uplifting and life-giving, both for the Earth and for ourselves.

One of the basic tenets of ecopsychology is that by healing the earth we can heal ourselves. There are a lot of reasons for this: a basic sense of altruism and fulfillment, a feeling of being grounded, and the simple fact that you get a heavy dose of vitamin D and endorphins when you engage outdoors activities being a only a few. I think the more salient affect comes from the innate connection human beings have with the planet: When we give life to the Earth, we give life to ourselves. The increased sense of isolation from our planet is killing both of us.

When we enjoy our public lands we have a responsibility to care for those lands so that they survive. If they don’t survive, we don’t survive. It’s not as simple a problem of hearing a buzzing dirt bike when you’re trying to quietly observe an eagle’s nest or fix a fly to your line. The problem is that the buzzing of a dirt bike cuts deep into the health of the Earth, and thereby cuts deep into the health of our society.

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We must enjoy nature with the care and responsibility that we approach anything else in our lives. It sustains us and it is a litmus for the health of humanity. Right now the prognosis is dim, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be turned around. Outdoors writer Ad Crable once told me that we should always aim to leave nature looking better than we found it. Perhaps that’s where we start. ATVs and dirt bikes are next.

Up from the Desert

IMG_2201The smell of creosote greets me as I emerge from The Gray Haven (also known as Eleanor), my 2005 Honda Element just before dawn. I find myself about a mile southeast from the entrance to Saguaro National Park. Late last night I drove the serpentine Gate’s Pass Road following a show I played in Tucson. The pull-off seemed set in place specifically for me and Eleanor, and I marveled at the silhouette of the giant Saguaro cacti and the sharp edges of the Tucson Mountains in the moonlight. Sleep came quickly but was disturbed by uncomfortable dreams and paranoia caused by a circling helicopter with a spotlight. As a result, I was up before the sun and allowed to revel in the scent of the desert as the globe slowly crept over the mountains, turning what were mere lines the night before into a jagged vision punctuated by various cacti, brush, and rock.

After a brief morning hike, I began traveling north on I-10 towards Phoenix, that sprawling slab of concrete in the middle of the desert. The landscape of Arizona seems to be split in half by latitude about an hour or so north of its largest city. As I begin to climb the mountains on I-17  I watch the giant Saguaros seemingly wave goodbye to me in the rearview mirror and the topography moves towards the piñon pine and juniper forests of the northern half of the state. I pull onto AZ 89 and begin the traverse towards Jerome, a true wild west town that was built into the side of the mountains, reminiscent of towns in Spain and Italy, with a decidedly Americana feel. Beyond Jerome, Sedona. The setting of a disastrous attempt at healing-by-nature in the fall of 2014. It was very much a watershed moment in my life, and now I find myself again staring at the Mogollon Rim, just west of Sedona, in the Coconino National Forest.

I’m surrounded by the sound of a breeze traveling through the juniper, giving off a decidedly fresh scent. Different than the smell of the low desert further south, but a calming and pleasing aroma just the same. Mingled among the deciduous trees are reminders that this too is a desert environment. On a hike through the forest surrounding my campsite, I recognize prickly pear and a barrel variety of cacti, and I have to watch my path as sharp fronds of Yucca threaten to impale my shins and knees. Small burrows pockmark the ground. These could belong to any variety of creatures attempting to survive both the harsh heat of the day and the stinging cold of the high desert nights. I see a desert cottontail lope across my path a few feet ahead. It gives pause as we regard each other mutually, then skips quickly away. And now, the sun is setting behind me drawing a line of shadow in the hills surrounding the red rock of the Mogollon, edging ever closer to the rim. The moon is already high in the sky, about to break free of its adolescence for its monthly night of adulthood and fullness.

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The desert, like most everything else in the natural world, screams with metaphor. But can a landscape serve as an archetype in the Jungian sense? I am more than enamored with the desert, I am more than inspired by it. I identify with it in a manner that one would normally reserve for another human being. I identify with the struggle to survive and the need to adapt more than anything else in my life, and certainly more than any of Carl’s suggested quintessence. More than that, I identify with the success of the desert. Not only the need to adapt and survive but the ability to do so under the most palpable adversity.

I live with severe depression. There are times when it waxes and wanes, but for the most part, it’s in the forefront of my experiences. Like the dirt and dust of the desert, it is a ubiquitous drone throughout my life. Rain comes in bursts of joy and happiness, contentment and peace, and when these showers arrive I soak them up and do my best to save them for future dry spells. I flower during these downpours, often exploding with creativity and love until there doesn’t seem like there could possibly be any left. When the joy and contentment clear I cleave to their memories with a desperation matched only by the cholla’s reservation of water. Those memories of how good things can get often pull me through.

St. John of the Cross coined the term “a long dark night of the soul” to describe the spiritual and emotional separation one feels when wading through upheaval and doubt, depression and anxiety. This is an apt and telling description of this experience, but I don’t think it holds as much water as the desert metaphor. The desert offers opportunities for change and survival, but one must recognize and take these gifts for what they are worth. The long, dark night only offers one option: Wait for the morning to break. I’d rather take my chances with action than waiting around for something to happen.

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The sun has continued to set and something interesting has begun to happen. The shadow-line it drew 15 minutes ago is blurring and the hills are lighting up again. The rim is now enveloped in the precursor to night. Yet another show from the desert, another lesson. Change can happen even when it’s least expected. Maybe there is something else.

Cultivating Compassion

As I’ve entered and matured into my adulthood this world has slipped deeper into an epoch characterized by anxiety, anger, hatred, selfishness, distractibility, and fear. As a global culture we are truly captured by an existential crisis paralleled only by the discovery that we can wipe out our entire species with the push of a button (atomic bomb). Our global society is traumatized and scared for it’s survival. We are assaulted with images of violence and catastrophe on a daily basis and we have been informed that our doom is impending, within the next few generations. Our climate is collapsing quickly and our respect for one another is diminishing at an ever more rapid pace.

Over the past few months it seems that we are approaching another watershed in this crisis. With the violence in Beirut, Nigeria, and Paris occurring over the past month, and with the bombing of an MSF (Doctors Without Borders) hospital also looming in the recent past, we have become saturated with some of the most awful news, and, perhaps more destructive than the images, the opinions of those who are driven by negative states of consciousness and impulsive, knee-jerk words that are not chosen wisely.

Looking around social media I see and feel this tangible angst among many I know, and I feel the tension within my entire being. More than a few times I’ve heard or read people remark, “I feel like I’m going to lose my mind if I hear more negative news…” And yet the news keeps coming. How can we deal with this dangerous level of negativity that has taken hold in our collective mind? How can we can we cope with the vicarious trauma we experience every minute of every day? If we look inward we may find the key. _____________________________________________________

Metta Meditation, or Loving-Kindness Meditation is based on the understanding that all beings capable of feeling can experience both good and bad, and that all such sentient beings, given the choice, would choose the former rather than the latter. In fact, that’s the definition of “metta” in the Buddhist tradition. Basically, it’s saying that everything that can appreciate the distinction between “good” and “bad” experiences would rather have what they feel is a “good” experience. Meditation based on this idea assists us in cultivation (or Bhavana) of feelings of love and warmth towards not only ourselves and those whom we know and love dearly, but also extending that love, compassion, and warmth to those whom we do not know; including those towards whom we feel conflict and lack of compassion, those that we don’t know at all (e.g. refugees), and those toward whom we feel indifferent (strangers, people whom we do not interact with in any way whatsoever). I’m going to offer up an explanation of this simple meditation practice, beginning with a script:

As with all meditations, I encourage you to find a place where you can be alone, a place where you can concentrate. Find this place and sit with natural relaxation. Breathe deep and feel the air going into your body. Do this for 2-3 minutes, and begin the meditation when you feel ready.

May I feel happy and peaceful, May I feel healthy and safe

May my loved ones feel happy and peaceful, May they feel healthy and safe

May those who are suffering feel happy and peaceful, May they feel healthy and safe

May those whom I don’t like feel happy and peaceful, May they feel healthy and safe

May WE ALL be happy and peaceful, may we be healthy and safe

I practice this meditation and have led it in a group setting on numerous occasions, using a plethora of different scripts before writing my own that I felt was easiest to remember and recite. You can find other examples of the script anywhere online, but I think the words hold power regardless. Here is an explanation of the form: 

I:

This is directing the compassion and love towards ourselves. We must start within if we  intend to send love out to others. There must be an immense sense of self-compassion and nonjudgement before we can effectively send compassion out to others, especially towards those towards whom we harbor deep feelings of anger, fear, or resentment. Although this can sometimes be quite difficult, we start here. Cultivate a love for yourself. Understand the true nobility of your Self so that you can see it in others. As you say these words imagine yourself experiencing them deeply.

My loved ones:

When you are reciting this phrase bring to mind someone towards whom you feel an easy and natural affection: your partner or spouse, your children, a respected teacher, a dear friend, even your pet. Imagine them experiencing the words, picturing their face and all the things you love about them. Hold this love deeply inside yourself and let it warm your being. Often the easiest step, sending well-wishes comes quite naturally to us and so we let it fuel our love for every sentient thing that comes after. You may substitute the name of a particular loved one if you wish.

Those who are suffering:

All the bad news, all the pain we are watching and reading about, within our closest circles and throughout the entire world, causes us to feel helpless, hopeless, and dejected. Do something about it. Send this line to all the world’s suffering: both those at home as well as those unknown faces abroad. To the strangers on the train with saddened, share-cropper eyes,  to the neighbor next door who lost their job, to the refugee struggling to escape a violent war in order to live a life of peace. Imagine them all, one by one, experiencing happiness, peace, health, and safety. You may experience warmth from this, hold it close. It is a dear part of you. You may substitute the name of a particular person, or group of people, if you wish.

Those who you don’t like :

Jesus of Nazareth was no stranger to loving his enemies: “But I tell you love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you,” (Matt. 5:44). Great figures throughout our time have held compassion for those who would harm them in some way, recognizing the power this has to not only change the enemy, but more importantly to change the Self from within. When we choose to have compassion for our enemies we take their power away. Picture those with whom you have a troubled or disturbed relationship.  Make sure it is not someone who triggers some type of trauma response, make your choice reasonable. It is antithetical to the point if you are re-traumatizing yourself, and we don’t want that to happen. Recite this line, imagining them feeling the words as deep as your loved ones or yourself. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the meditation and that is OK, it doesn’t have to be easy. Perhaps it will get easier in time, perhaps not. If it gets easier try and move towards imagining you loving your enemies, you comforting them and keeping them safe. If this practice becomes too difficult, move backwards and begin reciting the “I” line again, then move on to reciting the “We” phrasing. You may substitute the particular name of a person or group if you wish.

We:

In this phrasing the point is to hold all of sentient existence with love and warmth. Our intention is to send all these wishes of well-being to all who can feel them. It doesn’t matter if the people are “good” people or “bad” people; they all have the same right to happiness and growth. Hold yourself, your loved ones, completely strangers, and enemies with this compassion.

Throughout the meditation it is important that you picture the phrases coming to life. Picture yourself feeling loved, picture those who are suffering experiencing relief, picture the person at work that you just can’t stand, looking healthy. Hold these images, the words in the phrases, and the sensation of your breath in the forefront of your experience and allow your muscles to relax and your heart to soften. Run through each phrasing at least 10 times before moving on. I use a traditional Mala (a string of beads) to help me keep track. If you find yourself overwhelmed you can always anchor yourself back to your breath, and stay with it as long as you’d like. _____________________________________________________

I was discussing this meditation several years ago with a friend of mine. He said that when he is feeling low, anxious, or angry he goes to the mountains that border Albuquerque and does “hundreds” of loving-kindness recitations. He says that he inevitably feels better when he leaves and heads back into the city. The sense of loving and accepting yourself unconditionally, then transferring that love to all living things that are found both inside and outside your consciousness is transformative. There is far more power in love than in fear. There is more strength in peace than in violence. This applies not only to the physical world around us, but also the spiritual world that is within all of us. Nurturing love instead of fear, and peace instead of violence: this is the path to healing. 

A Green Summer

This post was originally written for Melinda Wilder’s blog: HeyLouWrites. Check out her amazing writing here: http://www.heylouwrites.com

Living in the desert has its obvious challenges, not least of all is the constant search for water. All living things residing in desert climes face this similar fate; for a creature can exist for quite some time without food, but water is the stuff of life. It would seem that nothing can survive long without it. The desert, that ever changing and surprising landscape, holds so many secrets of survival that nothing is ever as it seems.

New Mexico, like much of the great southwest, depends on monsoon rains during July and August to buoy yearly rainfall totals. Rainfall throughout the rest of the year is lackluster at best, and there have been many late spring months where residents of Albuquerque and beyond have felt the emotional toll that a dry fall and winter can have on a body and mind. Not only do the rains hold the key for physical life to continue and flourish, they provide a vital service to the mind and spirit; invigorating, revitalizing.

So it is with great anticipation that the desert awaits its drink. The months of April and May, casually letting loose the clouds on much of the rest of the country, deny the southwest their respite from up to 6 months with less than an inch of precipitation. June comes in with a deeply draining sense of hopelessness, until the last weeks, when a cold breeze begins applying itself to the west. Then, sometime in early July, late in the afternoon, big bellied clouds roll in off the volcanoes in the west, catching against the Jemez, Sandia, and Manzano mountains, and piling up in great towers of darkened cotton. All at once they drop their payload, often for 45 minutes at a time, then breaking away allowing the sun one last glimpse of the earth before clocking out from it’s shift. Not to worry, the great cumulus clouds will return tomorrow, and they are efficiently punctual.

The desert that greets the sun the morning following the first monsoon rains is not the same as the one from the day before. Small green ground cover begins to appear in what was only one day ago a great brown ocean, the cholla and prickly pear cacti start showing the faint traces of flower, and blue gramma and buffalo grasses begin the short journey towards shedding their seeds and perpetuating their survival. As the days pass with their daily downpours late in the afternoon, the burnt landscape begins its seasonal transformation. And the desert knows exactly what it needs: summer rainfall late in the day or overnight is far more beneficial than the late morning or afternoon. During the peak heat times of the day the rain can evaporate so quickly that it won’t make a difference if it makes it to the ground, and often won’t make it to the ground at all. Rain late in the day and at night allows for the rain to hit the desert floor and soak in, nurturing the soil for as long as it can.

Watching the walls of water spread out in the distance is a captivating experience. As the thunderheads migrate eastward, great sheets of rain paint the horizon below the clouds different shades of slate, gray, and charcoal, based upon the intensity of the downpour. These screens stretch for miles and miles, blanketing the distance but inching ever closer towards the volcanoes on the edge of Albuquerque where I bear witness to their unfurling. The volcanoes are the best place in Albuquerque to watch a storm: they provide a complete panorama of the city edged against the great Sandia Mountains to the east as well as the vast expanse of nowhere reaching North, South, and West. The city in the valley below sparkles in the twilight as lights turn on to greet the coming night. Why are you people in your homes? Why are you not outside to catch some of the life that will soon be spilling out of the skies?

Water hitting hot, dry ground has always produced one of the most aromatherapeutic smells in the natural, or unnatural world. As a child I remember the smell of the first rain drops hitting the dark macadam of the city streets where I grew up. A sweet, slightly metallic odor rises as the water mixes with the oils on the blacktop. The heat causing the cold drops to create small geysers of steam that dissipate about a foot off the ground, releasing the familiar, long-awaited smell before soaking the earth and morphing into something a little more sickly-sweet, losing the metallic layers in the process. I never thought there was a better smell until I experienced the rain hitting dry dust instead of the tar of industry, and sage, rosemary, and desert willow instead of grass and the old mulch of far-fallen leaves from the previous autumn. Equally earthy, but much more natural, pure, cleansing. The ground of my youth was polluted by an overabundance of smells that overwhelmed the olfactory system. In contrast, the desert smells mix menthol and camphor, clearing the nasal passages and calming frazzled nerves quickly. The air is think with a dusty scent in accompaniment as the parched sand and dirt fly into the air with each new strike of the raindrops.

While this process repeats itself for two weeks every summer, every ten years or so an anomaly may arise like the cumulonimbus clouds towering the horizon. During this type of year the monsoons stay not for two weeks, but stretch from the end of June till the middle of August, enveloping most of the summer in a perpetual forecast of moisture. The year I arrived in the southwest, 2006, was one such year. This year, 2015, has been another. In fact, the rains began in the beginning of May and have not quit. Rain has not show it’s face every day, but more days than not have been marked by puddled gutters and wonderfully smelling desert plant life. When looking west towards the volcanoes a great green country greets the eye, beckoning. Driving through the region, north through Colorado and west through northern Arizona, the same site is present. Ten-year water numbers are vastly improving due to the amount of water falling from the sky. Rivers rise above their banks throughout the area and the Rio Grande, running mere blocks from my home, is high and muddy on a consistent basis; a tell-tale sign of extreme runoff. The desert has changed before my eyes: once a barren, desolate patch, promising a harsh and unforgiving existence is now a healing factor, stitching the wounds of my year and applying a needed salve.
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The desert is analogous to life in many ways. St. John had his long dark night of the soul, but I feel like what he was describing is better termed as a long walk through the desert. Periods of extreme drought followed by an outpouring of growth and beauty. Creatures that have adapted to the harsh life offered by the desert have one constant instinct: get water, stay alive. Again, this is analogous to what humans need throughout their lives. There must be a constant search for that which gives life, that which sustains. When I am parched from these things I dry up and become emotionally dormant, unable to grow and show the world the beauty that is my true identity. On the converse, when I find and drink the water of life I flourish and bloom, my winsome nature becoming apparent not only to the world around me, but also to myself.

Finding the well can be difficult, and from time to time the water dries up, leaving me to search for a new draught. Fortunate for me there are dowsers as a guide: exercise, connecting with nature, exploring spirituality. Unfortunate for me, there are also springs that promise to quench thirst, and seem to do exactly that at first, only to reveal themselves to be a poison. Or they are actually feeding the side of me that takes away life.

Consider the Cherokee legend of the two wolves: A grandfather explains to his grandchild that he has two wolves fighting within him. One wolf is malice, anger, shame, and pain. The other is love, compassion, peace, and contentment. The child asks, “Which will win?” The grandfather replies, “The one I feed.”

I see that there is water that will feed my beauty, and there is water that will feed my pain. There aren’t always clear signs hanging from those wells that hold poison, but I have always felt that there are signs on the wells that give life. So I continue to search through the desert, drinking greedily when I come to the latter.
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A western hike through the volcanoes this week shows the signs of the dry season to come: gold-brown patches have appeared amongst the green, and the walls of water that once dominated the sky are no longer. It will be a while before desperation creeps back over these lands, but it is inevitable. Like the amazing Rose of Jericho, the desert will crawl into its dusty brown turmoil, looking dead until the next season of monsoons hit, allowing it to bloom for only another moment.