I wasn’t 10 minutes into the park when I felt the overwhelming need to remove my bra. It wasn’t the right kind of bra for such an adventure. It was a polite society bra, the kind you wear to the grocery store, to dinner, to work, to anywhere but the wild. It wasn’t a bra I could sweat in, and, given my arrival into the desert, it was time to sweat.
I could have stopped, sure. I could have pulled over on the side of the road, hopped into the back of my car and completed a quick, modest bra change. I could have waited until getting to the visitor center, or my campsite even, but no. The Mojave Desert pulls the trigger on my feral aptitude. Instead of modesty or ease, I bared my breasts to the desert again, this time while driving. I pulled my shirt off, chucked my polite society bra into the back of the car (where it would remain for the next seven days), screeched when I saw a roadrunner contemplating a road crossing and tugged my easy-going scamper bra over my head. This is not a thing I’d do at home, it’s not even something I’d consider, but in Mojave, everything is different.
Last year, my brief scamper through Mojave National Preserve was the closing act of an incredible desert-filled adventure. This year, it was the commencement, the very beginning of a solo sojourn that started in Los Angeles and took me through Arizona, Nevada and Utah. It wasn’t intentional, I hadn’t meant to start where I’d left off, but it immediately felt like the right choice. As soon as I hit the park I felt it, the comfort and security of a wild place that feels like home.
Once I completed my bra swap, I drove through the park, stopping briefly at the visitor center to say a (distant) hello to a coyote trotting through the parking lot and to top off my water supply. The sight of those mountains hit me in the heart, reminded me what love feels like. I drove past the Kelso Dunes, shivered at their majesty and then bumped down a dirt road to a selection of out-of-the-way campsites. I was selective, picky, determined to conduct a thorough assessment of my options before settling, happily, on my home for the night.
I took my shoes off almost immediately. I was done with them, desert prickers be damned. I set up my tent, my chair, cracked a beer and scrambled up some rocks, walked down the road, stood frozen when I encountered a tarantula, me and it both still as the boulders around us. I said hello, picked a wide path around the thing and let the desert show me what it wanted, collecting splinters in my feet as I went.
All my life I thought I was a mountain girl. That’s where I’m from, where I was born. Then I went to the desert and everything shifted. I love my forest-laden Virginia mountains, but the desert owns my heart, it’s what I think about when I can’t sleep, when I’m lonely, when I want to feel good and safe and strong, it’s always the desert, always Death Valley or Mojave, sometimes Joshua Tree or Saguaro, that rips and threads its way through me, that soothes me and holds me when everything else just seems like a little too much.
I lit a fire as night fell, pulled out another beer and a handful of snacks. I’d never slept so alone in a place before and I felt the enormity of the desert as the stars started to pinprick their way across the sky. I wasn’t sure what it would feel like to be out there by myself, wasn’t sure what the fear would feel like, if the sound of my solitude would be loud enough to spook me. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about fear this year, and especially its role in my adventures. I’m a 135-pound woman who goes alone into the wild, and when I tell people this, when I talk about this propensity for scampering alone, I’m almost always asked if it scares me. The answer is simple on the surface – sometimes yes, sometimes no, but it’s more than that. The world is scary. There’s danger everywhere we go, whether we stay in or go out, and at some point I made the decision to push at the limits of my fear, to unravel its tangled hold on me and just fucking go because what other choice is there? I can’t not go, I can’t hide from the fear. The only real choice is to face it, to take control of my life and live it as loudly and as freely as possible.
When the fire went out, when I was tired, when it was time for bed, when everything was dark, the fear came, as I knew it would. There’s so much empty space in the night, so much room for fear to creep and settle. I slept in my tent without the rain fly and felt exposed, even clothed and curled in my tent. Everything was open sky, open desert and so incredibly vast. I wanted the fear though, I wanted to scare myself a little bit, to put more trust into the desert I love so much. I wanted to push against my limits, wanted to do a thing a younger me would never have considered.
In the morning, I watched the light creep up and over the horizon, watched as it splashed across the rocks, the sand and, finally, me. I felt as though the desert and I had reached a new level of intimacy after our night alone together. I’d taken all of me and placed it into the arms of its wildness to do with what it wanted. I’d trusted the desert to care for me, to hold me and protect me, to give me all the things I needed to survive, and it did. Of course it did.
In the tent that night, I’d imagined night creatures creeping past my tent, thought I heard the crunch of paws on sand, the breeze of heavy wings passing overhead. And that’s when I stopped being scared, when I realized I was just anther desert creature, just another feral animal trying to make myself at home in a pricker-filled paradise.
Mojave National Preserve sits in California hugging the Nevada border. It includes more than 1.5 million acres and is the third largest unit of the National Park System in the contiguous United States. It’s also filled with magic.