It happens every time I’m here. I will be walking along, minding my own business, lost in my own thoughts, and then someone starts shouting at me. Or toward me. Or near me. Within earshot, anyway, the words clearly words but too muffled to make out. The intonations conveying excitement, or anger, or something else equally animated. Shouting.
It figures that someone noisy would be out here in the Wee Thump Joshua Tree Wilderness on the one day in years I’ve managed to get out here, I think to myself. My mood tightens one click of the emotional ratchet. I keep walking, straining to make out the source of the voice.
I fail. It sounds like a woman shouting, somewhere far enough away that her voice fades entirely when the breeze shifts. I’m caught. With a male voice, I’d be more likely to dismiss the shouting as hijinks. I’d be more likely to be able to ignore it. A female voice shouting in what might be alarm? I was raised on tales of Kitty Genovese told as morality play. I feel compelled to do something.
The something I do is that I keep listening. There are minutes of silence, or at least minutes chock-full of natural sounds and those of my boots crunching on sand and gravel but with no shouting. And then her voice returns, and I cease my footfalls for a moment, and I strain to hear.
There is no one here. I am as far along the dirt road ringing the wilderness as one can get before turning back toward the pavement. There were no vehicles along the way except the one I got here in. No cars or trucks at the sole trailhead parking lot. None parked along Nipton Road. The possibility that there is anyone else with me here today in Wee Thump is exceedingly slim. Aside from the Joshua trees, I mean, and the ravens and cactus wrens, the barrel cacti and chollas and desert woodrats. Aside from the usual suspects.
Minutes pass. There she is again. Something has changed in her timbre. The harmonics are simpler, almost as if autotuned. A wind through the transmission lines? Maybe. Did someone tune these transmission lines to a Phrygian scale?
I now have no idea what she is, but I know she is not human. I leave it at that.
It really has been a while since I’ve been here — perhaps three years ago, with the dog for an hour or two — and much longer since I’ve been here alone. So it takes me a while to remember that this has happened to me before: the persistent, distant shouting nagging at the back of my brain, my straining to make out the words, and then after some double-digit number of minutes the voice resolves into something non-human. A scolding cactus wren, in one case. The rusty creaking of the abandoned windmill toward the road.
It is a kind of apophenia, the layering of meaning onto more or less random events, in this case the sorts of events that cause air molecules to vibrate at somewhere between 300 and 500 times per second. I used to write off my hearing voices here as a psychological compensation for the sudden absolute solitude I had after divorce, after leaving my home of 26 years in the Bay Area, after moving to Nipton where one friend had flat out guaranteed I would lose my mind due to isolation. I in point of fact had found Nipton a trifle busy, but that explanation for the voices made sense.
But now? I’m no longer afflicted by loneliness. I urgently feel a lack of the hikers and gardeners and poets and crusaders and editors I feel closest to, but I have no lack of voices in my life, especially not of disembodied ones. If I was going to apophenia myself up something I miss with a pang these days, the Joshua trees and rocks and cacti would suddenly seem very much like a cheap breakfast place with bottomless coffee and one of the above-mentioned poets or editors or hikers across the table doing serious damage to a plate of biscuits and gravy.
I suddenly remember, also not for the first time, lying prone on a sandbank on the Green River in Utah, shoulders and head hanging over a cutbank toward the river, watching wisps of dark suspended sand moving via current in the lighter, rippled sand of the riverbed. It seemed a form of calligraphy, writing in a language older than any humans use. I struggled to read the writing. Every time I felt like I might be starting to get the weakest glimmer of meaning, the water would move the darker sand still farther, wiping the slate clean.
Then, as now, I struggled to learn what the wilderness was trying to tell me.
I’m raising money for the Mojave Desert Land Trust this month. I’m hiking at least 75 miles by March 31 and hoping to raise $3,000 for MDLT thereby. So far I’m at 61.3 and $2,523, respectively. Check it out here: you can give any amount.
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