On my first full day on the road I got up early, went to the supermarket and stocked up things necessary for a few days in the desert – water mostly, some food, firewood, and the like. My plan was to drive to Yuma along the old road, the “Camino del Diablo,” a nearly waterless 150-mile dirt road through the desert. It ran through an unpopulated waste now taken up by the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge and the Barry Goldwater Air Force Range. The latter area, supposedly still full of unexploded ordinance, is about the size of Rhode Island, a monument to all the ironies of “small government” Goldwater. I heard the jets overhead while walking to the supermarket, though unlike my time in White Sands, I did not actually hear them dropping any bombs.
Traversing the Camino requires a permit, which I was loath to do, but as it was the only desert area I knew of in Arizona which allows backcountry camping, I figured getting the permit was simply the price of admission for a little solitude. The unexploded ordinance was hardly ideal, but certain activities here are banished to the edges. Part of getting a permit was signing a waiver acknowledging the risk of “permanent, painful, disabling, and disfiguring injury or death due to high explosive detonations from falling objects” as well as “bombs, rockets, cannon rounds, flares, and other types of warheads.” So be it. I have had access to wilderness for so long it astonishes me that people live without it. Certain basic things – loud singing, dancing, fires, sun on skin – which I take as a necessary and appropriate part of daily life are almost absent here. I would camp in a warzone to have them again.
Driving to the office of the Wildlife Refuge I saw a young woman at a water pump at a gas station filling up bottles of water. This struck me as promising. She looked like she was heading into the desert too. I had the brief but satisfying feeling I was in the right place.
At the office I asked the old man behind the desk for a permit to drive the Camino del Diablo. ”Well, that might be kinda tough,” he said.
“It’s kinda closed.”
“Is that like ‘kind of pregnant’?”
“Well, it depends. Let me go ask.” He had to talk with someone who knew the regulations – why he himself didn’t I’m not sure – and he pulled out a map and showed me that everything except for one little area at the far end of the road was closed.
“So I can’t drive the road?”
“Nope. It’s closed. See we’ve got the bighorn sheep, they’re lambing right now.”
I had been warned about this. My guide book said “the road through Cabeza Prieta closes every year for a couple of months during antelope [sic] birthing season, usually starting in April or May, so call the office to make sure it’s open.” There you go. It closed March 15th this year.
I was unsure what to do, so I figured I’d drive south to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. They didn’t allow backcountry camping there, and staying in a campground offers about as much wildness as staying in a condo – fluorescent lights, generators, people watching t.v. and listening to their radios, all in very close proximity – but I felt trapped. I had to go somewhere.
Driving there I found myself thinking about divorce – one of the key experiences of divorce is unintentionality, or reality, or whatever you want to call your inability to control your own life. Divorce is always unintended – it is a turn in your life that makes it diverge, permanently, from the life you would have wanted for yourself. What you do with this confrontation with powerlessness is highly significant, and may in fact be the most significant part of your life; but there are almost no guides for it. The most commonly cited guide – your own desires – have already failed to guide you. The commonly recommended counterpoise for your desires – the Law, of God or Man – obviously creates bad people, and so that will not work either. But the tertium quid is entirely mysterious – what it is, what to call it, and where to find it. In middle age my life is beginning to have a shape beyond my power to define it. I thought about this while in the motel in Ajo. I think that in my first thirty-six years I have shared a motel room with a woman once – it happened in New Orleans, with a friend whom I was not dating, but it was fun nonetheless. It seemed like an adventure. My ex-wife had no interest in travelling in America, so I never went anywhere with her. One year we had to go to a wedding in California, and since we were going to be out there anyway, I wanted to take the opportunity to go visit the Giant Sequoias. This she absolutely vetoed – she had to get back East to get back to the library. I ended up going alone, as with so many of my trips. But somehow this loneliness I had never intended – I had always intended to share things with people. In fact it felt like part of my nature to want nothing more than this. But my life was turning out otherwise. This entire most recent trip to Arizona was not one I intended to do alone – I made efforts to not do it alone, in fact – but alone I was anyway.
As I was thinking these things I pulled up to the police checkpoint just outside of the National Park. It was the second police checkpoint I had been through in less than twenty-four hours. I knew I would have to go through it again when I was leaving the park. It bugged me. I was tired of the constant confrontation with suspicion.
About a mile past the checkpoint I pulled to the side of the road. I was unhappy. I really did not know where I wanted to go anymore, but I knew I wanted to be far away. I turned the car around and headed right back to the checkpoint. It was better to have this done rather than to have it over my head the entire time.
“Hello there sir. You travelling alone today?”
“Are you coming from Mexico or the Park?”
“I’m coming from about a mile down the road.”
“You’re coming from a mile down the road? Do you work around here?”
“No, I was going to go to the park, I just came through the checkpoint, but I decided not to go.”
“Why didn’t you go to the park?”
“I didn’t like going through the checkpoints. I want to get out of here.”
“Do you have a job?”
“I’m on spring break.”
“And you’re spending it driving around not going to parks.”
“You live in New York?”
“I’m teaching right now in Tucson.”
“Are you an American citizen?”
“Fine, have a good day. Enjoy your spring break.”
So I headed north.