The earth blows out a large exhale of breath, lifting up sand in a big swoosh across the level plain right through our group, causing us to turn one by one, bringing our hands up to shield our eyes, like a giant corkscrew. A soft-spoken 18-year-old unfolds a laminated map, holds it up, guides us to the right. I look at him in wonder bordering on disbelief, there isn’t so much as a mountain or a tree in sight, what kind of marker does he have for this collective turn? Soon, large, windswept expanses give way to mountains emerging on all sides, majestic, statuesque, imposing; and I forget the bag weighing heavily on my shoulders, the sun beating down on my arms, on the tips of my cheeks.
I walk and my mind empties itself. Of the to-do lists, the endless tasks, the chatter, the routine scheduling of time: clean the house, do laundry, finish, finish, finish, meet for coffee, do dishes, return calls, answer emails. The desert rolls out endlessly, with its sparse palette of beiges and browns, and my mind shifts gears, slowing into park.
There’s something about the desert’s harsh, elemental bareness that challenges one’s physical limits in a way that plenty of shade and fruit trees and running brooks do not. The sand enters my eyes, and I drink my bottled water, and I’m reminded of how basic what we need really is; I’m reminded, too, that I have so much more than that, that I’m living a life of luxury. Yet, often, these luxuries, this modern life, wraps layers upon layers around one’s soul, until it’s muffled beneath so much padding. The desert performs a dramatic unraveling- of these creature comforts, of the padding, and of the solace they provide, leaving you bare in the face of the wide, vast, limitless landscape.
Hiking over twenty kilometers a day in the desert dictates its own pace, its own rhythm. The nature of the hike- walking for hours in the unforgiving heat- meant that you fell into pace with different people at different points of the day, one person as you walk briskly, energized by your morning coffee and the slight breeze, and someone else beneath the harsh mid-afternoon sun; falling into conversations with people you might not gravitate towards in a crowded room. There was a group of carefree, post-army girls, on pause from life, floating, laughing, light, and another group of hardcore hippies, one of whom would clamber up mountains, bare-foot, blow on a long horn she carried with her at all times, and race back down to join us. I fell into easy, open conversations with a man in his fifties from South Africa, planning to do the entire 81-day trek, and with a woman in her twenties from Germany, filming a documentary. And, sometimes, I walked alone, absorbing the scenery and letting my thoughts drift.
I traveled with a friend of mine. At night, when we reached the camp, all I wanted to do was build our tent, crawl inside, stretch out, zip down the doors. She came alive at night, fluttering around the bonfire, talking to everyone, leaning in deeply. I lose my boundaries when I’m with people, their stories, their struggles, pierce into me; my skin feels raw and permeable. I need time alone to recharge, to re-center; to allow my skin to form again.
At night, the desert’s harsh heat gives way to an equally harsh cold. I bundle up in everything I have: a long-sleeve shirt, two sweaters, a windbreaker, a scarf, a hat, a sleeping bag, two blankets, in a tent. I’m still cold.
At dawn, I walk to the edge of our camp, where the earth tumbles down in a heartbreaking sigh. I sit at the edge of this cliff, my legs dangling, opposite an expanse of sand, cliffs jutting up at the horizon. The sky is covered in a thick cloud, and it lifts slowly from the earth with the rising sun.
A truck pulled a wagon with piles of thin mattresses, and our large overnight bags, from camp to camp, while a second truck pulled a wagon that functioned as a makeshift kitchen. Once parked, the tarp on one side would get rolled up, revealing shelves groaning with cartons of fruits and vegetables coated with desert sand, huge burlap sacs bulging with oatmeal, rice and flour, and giant plastic canisters containing coffee, tea and sugar. Towering above everything was a giant black water tank. A low table rigged with faucets on each corner would be placed near the truck, with pipes connecting it to the water tank. The second side of the wagon unlatched to form a dishwashing counter. Have you heard of the three-bowl dishwashing system? (I hadn’t.) You place your dish- grimy with the remains of the morning’s oatmeal- into the first bowl, where you give it a good scrub with a sponge and soap. Next, you dip it into the second bowl to get rid of the soap, before its final plunge in the third “clean” water bowl. After a couple dishes, trust me, the relationship of the clean water bowl to actual clean water is one of semantics only.
In the morning the sun emerges, warming our tents beaded with dew, and we emerge, slowly gathering around the embers of the previous night’s fire. Someone rekindles the fire, someone puts on big pots of tea and coffee, and we sit cross-legged, warming up, waking up.
There’s oatmeal for breakfast, or cornflakes with walnuts added in for protein, with a pour of thin, powdered milk, sugar optional, and, two mornings in a row, a man traveling with his wife and daughter made us a pale, sluggish porridge- a warm, surprising throwback to childhood.
We prepared lunches in the morning, which we packed into tins: quinoa or barley or rice, with fresh or cooked vegetables, which slid uncomfortably into each other after a couple hours of hiking. And, once, memorably: large, freshly made, Bedouin-style pitas, with garlicky-lemony tehina and chunks of fresh vegetables.
On the last night, we gathered around the bonfire and ate vegetable soup. The soup was warm and comforting after a long hike: huge chunks of potatoes with their skins at that perfect, elusive point between crunch and collapse, sweet, tender carrots, onions, celery, lots of wilted greens. Voices floated up from around the bonfire; at one end, someone was playing the guitar, and people were singing; my hands were warm from cradling the bowl of soup, and stars stretched down to the earth on all sides.
Desert Trail Mix
Makes 1 kilo (2.2 pounds); Enough for 4 generous snacks to share.
200 grams (7 oz) raw Brazil nuts
200 grams (7 oz) raw walnuts
200 grams (7 oz) roasted salted almonds
200 grams (7 oz) small golden raisins
100-200 grams (3.5-7 oz) dark chocolate chips
Combine all of the ingredients in a large bowl, and transfer to an airtight container, or portion into bags.