As I forced open my sleep filled eyes I tried to focus my vision on the unfamiliar and strange landscape. Through my blurred sight I could still make out the moon. Its electric blue light shone down from the heavens and onto the mountains of rock. Crooks and crannies within the rocks came to life with the creature like shadows. In utter confusion I thought to myself “Where am I? Was this the moon…another planet…maybe a dream?” I reached for my glasses hoping they would show me the truth, but no. Coming into framed focus my eyes unveiled a stainless steel pod structure, enhancing my confusion. Then it hit to me, ahhh, that’s right…you’re in the desert.

 Large boulder rocks in Joshua Tree California

Large boulder rocks in Joshua Tree California

In the Spring of 2015, before becoming a nomad, I spent two days at Andrea Zittel’s Wagon Station Encampment outside Joshua Tree, California. I considered this my nomadic training.

The night before I left for the Encampment was a sleepless one. As I lay in bed, I tossed and turned with the thoughts of scorpions, rattlesnakes and other creatures crossing my path. “You can do this,” I told myself. “If bitten by a rattlesnake, just suck out the venom! Right? What the hell am I getting myself into?” With that nagging thought it was time to load the car, grab my coffee and sunhat, and then hit the road. Regardless if I was prepared or not I was leaving, with bear spray in tow. Wait, there are bears in the desert, right?

 Skidmark, my Surly Karate Monkey and transportation while staying at A-Z West.

Skidmark, my Surly Karate Monkey and transportation while staying at A-Z West.

Andrea highly recommends that you have your own transportation, aka car, when staying at the Encampment. You are pretty much on your own fending for yourself when staying at the encampment.

I broke the rules, of course. My brother dropped me off and was gonna pick me up in a few days.  My transportation around the desert roads would be Skidmark, my Surly Karate Monkey. I had no desire or need to go to town.

Arriving at Andrea’s marked the start of the powwow before Power Hour. Power Hour is a daily hour long ‘chore’ to help out around the Encampment. Nora, the intern, and I chatted in the back of Andrea’s studio after the powwow. She just happened to be from my hometown in Nebraska. I found comfort in meeting a new friend along with connecting with a fellow Midwesterner.

As we played 6 degrees of separation we followed the herd of zinc covered, sunhat wearing, shorts loving ‘Encampers’ to the compound. The compound is an old shipping containers converted to storage and a chicken coup.

The first power hour we hauled buckets of dirt. Pretty simple. As the hour passed, I felt my skin glisten with desert heat and its paleness welcomed the long missed sun.  

Once Power Hour was over Nora gave me a tour of the Encampment.  But first things, first, I had to pick a pod. It just happened that someone was leaving and giving up a prime spot, with Nora’s advice I snatched it. After making my claim, I was shown the communal kitchen, outdoor showers and composting toilets. I was told to just pee outside and not in the buckets, the moisture made it difficult for the compost to dry out. I was then left to be alone, alone in the desert. 

 Chilling in my pod and testing out my sun hat at A-Z West.

Chilling in my pod and testing out my sun hat at A-Z West.

I unpacked my belongings and made my bed. The pods have much more room than I expected. I filled up the double bed size pod with my two bags. I put my bike pump, a few books, and belongings on the shelf. Next to the back down hung a sun hats and dust brush. The door was for when the pod was closed. It provides another way out. Nora suggested I sleep with the pod lid open at night, adamant that it would be an experience I shouldn’t miss.

 A-Z Pod #3 is now Home Sweet Home.

A-Z Pod #3 is now Home Sweet Home.

As I sat in the open pod, I ate a small lunch I had packed. Looking around I just took it all in. It was so nice to be away from the computer, away from the intensity of LA and not driving in my car. I had missed isolation and I was finally alone with no one in sight. Well, almost no one. There were the fellow Encampers and I could slightly see and hear the cars on the highway heading in and out of Joshua Tree. I also had cell phone service, which kind of bummed me out. I wanted to be in forced isolation. I now had to reply on my own discipline to completely commit to this experience.  Phone off. Done.

I spend the afternoon just staring out at the landscape.  Once the day was coming to an end, I watched the sunset. How peaceful. I was falling in love with the desert more and more. Once the blues faded to black I thought I would make dinner. Even thought I was hungry, I was also exhausted from the previous sleepless night. All I really wanted to do was go to bed. But suddenly my fatigue was quickly replaced with excitement; I get to explore the kitchen!

 Lanterns sit in the kitchen at A-Z West.

Lanterns sit in the kitchen at A-Z West.

Walking into the kitchen, I found three other Encampers getting ready for dinner. Two cooking and the other sitting at a table with three piles of salt, wedges of lime and three bowls, which appeared to be filled with tequila. Ok, let the exploring begin. (I later found out that Andrea only has bowls in the kitchen, no cups or plates. I was told this is because all ya really need is a bowl.)

All three Encampers were artists, one from North Carolina and the other two from Canada. The other motley crew of characters staying where a sculpture professor from Chicago with his lady friend (an artist as well), a student from Cincinnati who was converting a school bus into a live/work space, another artist from LA and a couple researching lizards.

I quickly made my meal, ate it just as fast and stumbled in the dark to find my way back to my new home: A-Z Wagon Station #03. I poured wine into a cup I had brought, snuggled into my sleeping bag and gazed out of my open pod into the vast big sky of stars.

Wow, this WAS an experience. The moon had this glow again the massive rocks that made this place look unreal. I really thought I was in an old 60’s sci-fi movie. I found myself looking for a robot to come around the corner sputtering the phrase “Danger Will Robinson”. Alas, no robots, no monsters or creatures just peacefulness. After a few sips of wine I passed out. I tried to stay awake so I could look around and keep this moment going but sleep won me over.

The bliss of a full night's sleep and the crisp desert air kept me snuggled in my bed the next morning. Remembering I had planned to check out the deserted roads by bike, I jumped out of bed like a kid on Christmas morn. Rushing through my morning rituals I took to Skidmark. Sporting motorcycle boots, a studded belt and bandana, I looked more like Mad Max than a cyclist.

 Reflection of art found while biking through Joshua Tree sandy roads.

Reflection of art found while biking through Joshua Tree sandy roads.

I pedaled down the thick sandy roads checking out rocks, trees, and some really cool hidden art work embedded into the rocks. I stopped to pick up cool finds along the road stuffing them in my pockets like I did as a kid exploring the never-ending cornfields of my Nebraska backyard.

After about an hour I returned for a quick bite before taking part in Power Hour, day 2. This Power Hour we swept the compounds. Sporting my uniform of zinc covered skin and sun hat; I was now an official ‘Encamper’. But I drew the line at shorts.

 Encampment Library book to help identify plants in the desert. I was seeking Sage.

Encampment Library book to help identify plants in the desert. I was seeking Sage.

I spent the rest of the day exploring the camp, getting to know the others and writing. I found myself bored and really loving it. Thanks to the books in the communal pod’s library, I explored the open desert trying to identify different plant life around the camp. I rearranged the coolers, organized the kitchen, and wandered. At one point I was peeing so often that I decided to time how long it took the desert to dry out each wet spot. (Bout 20 minutes, just in case you were wondering.)

The camp was empty and I was all alone. Grabbing a few beers and my camera I hiked up some large rocks. Perching myself on the rocks edge, my boots dangled over the side like a child on a bar stool. I leaned back against a rock and got nice and comfy. As I sat watching the sunset I became utterly peaceful as the desert said its radiant Goodnight.

After sunset, the other Encampers returned from town. I joined them around the blazing community campfire. We sat talking, telling scary stories, laughing, and just enjoying each other. We were a bunch of strangers in the middle of nowhere just being and enjoying life.

My final night in the pod has been just as peaceful as the night before. I, again, slept with the lid open. In the morning, I was sad to go. I had become one with the desert and found new confidence in just a few days. I knew that I now could survive and thrive with next to nothing. My nomad training was now over and I had to leave. Driving back to LA I was ready. Ready for the open road, ready to be alone and ready to go from being a Sheppard to becoming a Nomad.     


#heartshapedworld

 #heartshapedworld metal cage embedded in rocks near Joshua Tree, CA

#heartshapedworld metal cage embedded in rocks near Joshua Tree, CA

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