Epiphany at Joshua Tree

A woman confronts her painful past on an Outward Bound pilgrimage into the heart of fear.

By Barbara Wilson

Published November 20, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Rock Face

I am plastered to hardness, my face to burning hot boulder face, my booted toes jammed in cracks, my fingertips poking blindly in search of a hold. Splayed on the rock wall, I'm not as terrified as I imagined I'd be; I'm more frustrated. I scrambled partway up out of bravado, and now I'm stuck like a bug about to be smashed. My clothes reek sourly in the heat, as if I hadn't washed for months, not just a few days. Clinging to the side of the cliff, my armpits close to my nose, I smell anxiety as well as sweat. I can't figure out a way to go up another step.

From below, Dana, our instructor, calls up, "Try that little crack to the right. Can you get your toe wedged in over there?"

I see the crack; it's big enough to stuff with a thin notebook, not a boot toe. My upper arms don't have enough strength to haul my weight over in that direction. They feel like Jell-O. I mutter something despairing. I'm hot. My knees are battered, and the toenails of my big toes are turning black -- I can feel them. I am angry and hot and sweating. I don't like heights. But I am not afraid of that, strangely enough. After all, I'm staring at a rock face, not measuring the length of a fall. And even if I did fall, I'd be OK; I am harnessed and belayed. I can feel the harness cutting into my crotch. No, I'm not afraid of falling. I'm afraid of my weakness. Of letting myself down. Letting Outward Bound down. Being the one who will not be able to do this terrible thing, make this climb.

Dana keeps on calling up calm advice. This crack. Or that one. Don't think too much. Trust and go. She has all the time in the world. But red-haired, emotional Sarah, anchoring me with blistering hands, suddenly shouts, "Trust your body, Barbara. Trust it."

Does anyone who's been abused trust her body? Or anyone else's? Or anyone? Much less anyone to hold her in belay, to hold her on the side of a cliff?

The Outward Bound catalog called it simply a women's course in desert backpacking at Joshua Tree National Park, in the Mojave Desert outside Palm Springs, Calif. A week in the high desert at wildflower time, a week learning outdoor skills, living simply, sleeping under the stars. Rappelling was mentioned, I recall, and rock climbing. I passed mentally over those words in favor of "stark yet beautiful landscape." I knew it would be hard, but then, I wanted it to be hard: a pilgrimage in search of something I didn't understand.

A pilgrimage with other women who also wanted and didn't want it to be hard.

The five of us flew in from far away; those from the East Coast left icy temperatures. They imagined balmy desert nights, sunny days to work on tans. We plaster ourselves with sunscreen during the day and wear sunglasses and hats. It is the high desert at the end of winter, bright with thin, cold air. We wear our thermal underwear almost all the time, and at night we put on layers and more layers, all we have, and get into our sleeping bags during dinner. In the morning there is ice on our bags. And a brightness that is almost too much to bear.

Nilda came from the Philippines as a young woman to marry a man she met in an ad. She is small and tough, upset with the others for using such vulgar language ("Fuck!" Andi screams while rock climbing. "Fuck fuck fuck!" So it rings out over the desert). She does yoga and is flexible; she looks like a snail with her huge black pack weighing her down. She chose an all-women's trip because "Men always think they know everything. Men always try to tell you what to do." She never speaks of her husband, who seems to be wealthy and retired, with any affection.

Sarah is married too, to a dentist in New York. She has two boys. She is close to my age but in much better shape. She says she exercises for hours every day to blow off steam, to get rid of her excess energy. She came on this women's trip because she was afraid that if there were men, she would fall in love. She tells us with a laugh, "I know myself. I'd be obsessed with being beautiful and attracting some young stud. My father died when I was 10 and I've been falling in love ever since. I know myself. I don't need that." Sarah is the only one of us to try to keep up some semblance of attractiveness, which gets harder with each passing day. She puts on mascara every morning. She folds her bandanna in new ways; she wears her hat at a jaunty angle.

Andi wants to be the clown. Later she admits it's only nervousness that makes her crack constant jokes. She is the youngest and the slowest. "Pokey," her family called her. When everyone else has her pack on, Andi is still desperately looking for her toothbrush. She is strong and eager, the youngest, the chattiest. She signed up because she realized she had no friends who wanted to do the physical things that interested her.

Chandra wants transformation. She ended a long-term relationship not because she fell in love with someone else, but because she was yearning for something more. She has trained mightily for this trek to the desert, but physical challenge is not of great interest to her. When she climbs the cliff, she goes straight up, but she doesn't care to do it again. She came not to prove anything about her strength or agility but to discover more of who she is and might be. She has no patience when Andi and Sarah start talking about fashion and beauty. She wants to hit them. She has often wanted to fit in and "be nice" in her life, but she can sometimes be rude to the others. She is the first to go to bed after dinner. I know from the beginning that she will be my friend on the trip, though we don't talk much until the third or fourth day.

I don't understand entirely why I'm here. I have signed up for an Outward Bound women's trip when I could have spent the same money to live in luxury in Palm Springs for a week. I am the oldest and the least fit. I have trained for this trek by losing weight, walking 5 miles a day with a pack. By the time I left home, my pack weighed 20 pounds. I knew I wasn't prepared, but then, nothing could have prepared me. Everything that I fear and everything that is strong in me is here for me to look at and deal with.

By the time we come to the "boulder wonderland," where we will rock climb and rappel, we have been walking for three days. We've learned to read topographical maps and to find our way with compasses over ridges, saddles, peaks and washes. Sarah navigates with me one day down from Quail Mountain, and Chandra another as we find our way through washes. We never walk on trails. We fan out across the desert in order to do as little damage as possible to the fragile ecology; we climb straight up mountains with 60-pound packs full of cooking supplies, emergency gear and climbing ropes. The water we carry is precious -- and heavy. Under the weight of these huge black backpacks, we squeeze over and under giant boulders in washes buried by stone falls; we walk the sides of mountains, hugging invisible contour lines, trying to keep steady and not waste energy by going up or down in elevation.

The desert begins to seem familiar. Barrel cacti with their bright red blossoms, prickly pear, beavertail cactus. Mesquite, yucca and a spiny plant called blackbrush, which from a distance looks like a spray of iron filings clustered on a magnet. In rock crevices are tiny, fat, succulent rosettes; and strewn carelessly everywhere are single wildflowers, blue and white mostly, and here and there a yellow or a bright red one. There is also, of course, the Joshua tree, which studs the desert and gives this particular place its name. The Joshua tree is not a tree but a shrub. It grows the way it does, tall and branched, like a Dr. Seuss drawing, multilimbed with tufts for hands, because of a weevil. It would like to grow straight, but the weevil irritates its very being, threatens its plant sanity. The Joshua tree, struggling to outrun the weevil, moves outward, building new plant cells that eventually form a new limb. It responds to pain and irritation by growing.

I am taking forever to get up this rock face. I am not good at climbing. My ankles are weak, my knees already creak from age, my arms have no strength. I am a big baby. I am an old woman. I should not have to do this. "Think about it, but not too much," Dana calls up, encouragingly, "and then move."

I call back down in frustration, after I have slipped from my hold three times in succession, "I know how to get there, but I can't get there."

"You're not putting everything into it."

I know and don't know what that means. After all, I am halfway up and somehow I got here. I hoisted and pushed and saw the right way for me and went. Tenderhearted Sarah wept for me when I got over the last rough spot, but now I am stuck again.

The method of Outward Bound is simple -- to toss you into the middle of something that seems impossible and then stay with you while you do it. Phoebe and Dana made climbing look so easy. Unharnessed, they scrambled up this rock face to set the course for us. They've already instructed us in knot tying, navigation by compass and map, stove lighting and desert toiletry etiquette. We depend on them utterly, even though they keep telling us that by the end of the trip we will be depending on ourselves and one another. We adore them when we aren't hating them, when we don't imagine they are tormenting us for the sheer pleasure of seeing grown women weep.

They are younger than most of us -- in my case, far younger. They live the kinds of lives that were made possible by their single mothers, by my generation of feminists. They live in their cars for periods when not working, bike around India, hike in New Zealand, rock climb for sport. They know how to take care of themselves in the wilderness, and although they are instructors on many types of Outward Bound courses, they like women's courses best because of the group spirit that develops, the support of women for one another, the personal transformation that often happens.

In the evening Phoebe sits around with some of us and tells long, slow, hilarious stories of her childhood in a hippie commune, and of her travels ever since. Dana goes off to be alone before sleep, to read and to write. Across our desert camp I see her bulked in her sleeping bag against the cold, her lamp illuminating the pale disk of her face.

I would like to be young again, young like them, strong and curious and unafraid. With all the world before me.

I have two stories I tell myself abut my body. One is that I always was an active child who loved to bike, roller skate and swim. This child grew into a girl who excelled in modern dance classes and who wasn't bad at soccer and basketball. She became a young woman who rode her bike every day, who liked to dance, who could walk for miles. In her 30s she hiked in the Pyrenees and the Canadian Rockies, kayaked for a week off Vancouver Island.

The other story is of a child abused at age 7, who grew up without a clear sense of where she ended and where the rights of another person's desire began. A girl who early ran to fat and whose attempts at dieting kept pushing her weight up over the years. A girl who liked to lie around reading for hours at a time. A woman who had weak ankles and slightly creaky knees, who developed sciatica and asthma in her 30s.

Who pushed herself only up to a point and then began complaining. Who was afraid of hurting her body. Who was afraid of pushing her body. Who was afraid of trusting her body.

Who was afraid.

Dana and Sarah are quiet down below. They are watching Andi, who is shouting out her own fear and frustration on a pitch some yards away from me.

"I want to give up," I call down peevishly. "I can't go any farther."

"Just try a little longer," says Dana, calm and kind. "I know you can do it."

I try and fail, making a small leap that has no juice in it. The harness cuts into my legs and crotch. I have only tried to show them I am a failure.

God, what a wimp I am. I am violently angry all of a sudden. Oh, just fucking do it, I think, and shut up, and I lash out at myself, at the rock, hot as metal and unyielding as memory. "Fucking hell," I mutter, and it echoes back at me.

I am up. Almost uncomprehending. Exuberant. How?

Dana cries, "Go, girl!" And Sarah doesn't cry for me this time -- she cheers.


The desert has a hallucinatory quality anyway, but there is something about living at the edge of one's ability that gives everything an added shimmer. The day after my rock climb I wake up feeling ill, but in no recognizable way. I don't have a cold or the flu. My bowels feel oddly shaky, dry. I am dizzy under the intense blue of the sky. I am probably dehydrated, says Dana, and she makes me drink a quart of water.

We are walking through a wash that runs among boulders of piled immensity: peach granite worn to shapes of bones and faces, thighs and animals. The wash is like a path of white sand in a painting by Piero della Francesca. Everything is clean and bright. The birds sing and the sky is a heartbreaking blue, with a pale circle of moon sitting on one of the boulder piles like a halo. No one has much energy today. We fall into pairs, wander and chat. We are walking on a floral carpet, punctuated with bobcat prints. Because of El Niqo there has been an unusual amount of rain this year, and the water has pooled up in certain areas. Amazingly, a pair of mallards en route somewhere else have settled with delight into a pond in the shadow of the rocks.

Chandra tells me some of her life story, about her long relationship and the newness and strangeness of living alone. We exchange theories of why we're here, under this Giotto blue sky, walking endlessly through the desert. Why would we choose to spend money to be so uncomfortable, so fearful, so tired and so cold? (Though at the moment we feel cheerful, and warm and relaxed.)

I say, "I wonder if we sometimes do a hard thing not in order to be able to do that hard thing again, but so that other hard things, or less hard things -- the things we really want to do -- will seem easy in comparison."

I know that I never want to rock climb again, and yet I am still lingering in the amazement of having done it at all.

"I had a moment," I explain, "when I wasn't myself, with all my fear and holding back -- when I was just going up. When I was up."

The others are at a crossroads, peering at the map and deciding which direction to take. Chandra and I linger, with the sense of playing hooky, just for a minute. I take a closer look at a prickly pear, seemingly constructed of flat green pancakes, and at a beavertail cactus. In this clear hallucinatory air, it invites caressing, with its pale green skin and red soft spines. The cactus leaves are shaped less like beavertails than hearts. In each case, a fresh young "heart" is growing out of an old one, which dries and then crumbles around it.

The group ahead looks at us meaningfully: We're to speed up and join them. But Chandra says, "The hardest thing for me is to learn to be alone. I'm just realizing that I've never been without a partner in my life. I think I came to the desert to find that out. I want to be more alone than I am here. I don't want to be with all the others. I am so much looking forward to the solo. For the experience of being alone, completely alone, in the desert."

I too have begun to look forward to my solo time. A week ago I couldn't have imagined that 24 hours by myself in the desert with only water and a small bag of gorp would seem alluring. But I've had no time to myself for five days. Every minute has been accounted for; there's been little time to sit and dream. We are walking. We are climbing. We are unpacking and packing up, we are cooking, cleaning, practicing our knots. We are telling stories and working out how to live so closely with one another. We are sleeping.

Sitting in a circle now, listening to Dana and Phoebe explain how the solo works, how we will be out of sight of one another but not out of earshot, we look carefully at one another's faces, in respect and silence. We are asked what our fears are about being alone in the desert for a day and a night. I don't mention my worst one, the one I thought about at home in Seattle. The fear that a huge red-faced man with a greasy ponytail would roar up in his Harley Davidson or creep with a knife in his teeth through the mesquite in the dead of night, to rape and murder me.

Long ago, when I was small, my uncle went on a trip to Arizona with us and exposed himself to me in a secluded river canyon. That was the beginning of abuse that went on intermittently that summer. I don't remember much about it, and I began to remember it at all only as an adult. But I know that, always, my joy in being in the wilderness -- or even on a lonely path in a city park -- has been undercut by fear. Around any bend, along any stream, behind any tree there could be a man who intends to harm me. I have never slept outside, in the wilderness, by myself before. It was not something I could have imagined doing.

Dana leads Chandra and me silently to our "territories," where we will be for the next 24 hours. We are not to leave these spaces, which are bounded by a mesquite here, a wash there. The idea is not to go exploring but to sit and meditate. There's a whistle system to link us in case anyone gets in trouble. I find I have no fear as I nod goodbye to her and begin to set up my tent and organize my living space. The landscape of juniper, blackbush and Joshua trees, of sandy wash and tan boulder piles, seems utterly familiar to me now.

I set up my tarp and unroll my sleeping bag, drink a little water. What next? It is so delightful not to be walking, not to be carrying a heavy pack, not to be doing anything. I stretch out on the sleeping bag under the blue sky and feel myself relax. Perhaps I'll just sleep for 24 hours. Suddenly I smell myself, and then, quickly, I rip off all my clothes. I can't wash them, but I can air them out. I drape my long underwear and shorts, my socks and T-shirt, over a mesquite bush.

I have so very rarely been naked outdoors. Not nearly often enough. Why am I not afraid? Why do I feel so free? And so safe? The air is delicious against my bare skin. There is no sense of separation. There's no real sense of self either. My two stories of myself as a physical being, as either active or fearful, have given way to an empty but curious mind, a sensation of wind on skin.

I want to do a great deal on my solo. I want to draw pictures. And think about my life. Do some writing. Dana and Phoebe have suggested several projects. One is to make a "regrets list," to pretend we are 85 and looking back on our lives. What are we sorry we didn't do? When I was 14 I made a list of all the things I hoped to accomplish in future years. I wanted to travel, to write poetry, to live in Europe, to read all the classics ever written. I have done many of the things I imagined. Now I make another list. I shouldn't be surprised that it is still full of travel. A great desire to live in Buenos Aires possesses me temporarily. And then leaves. Once again, the desert is all there is. I don't really need to do anything more except be here, and look at the sky and feel the wind on my bare skin. When I am 85 I will have no regrets.

I am so tired that, after a tiny dinner of gorp and water, I fall asleep just after sundown. The moon is hidden behind clouds. I think briefly, What if a bobcat comes and eats me? I fall asleep before I can answer the question. I wake once during night. The stars are out. Red stars and blue stars, the Twins and the Charioteer and every stud on Orion's belt. The dippers in the north sky carelessly scoop starlight. The moon is out, a silver lamp illuminating my tiny camp. I am alone, as alone as I have ever been. In whistling distance are the others, sleeping or waking, fearful perhaps, joyful and prayerful. I say a prayer, too.

I wake before dawn and watch the sky lighten from the warmth of my sleeping bag. I could stay here for another day, for a week. Not eating. A contemplative nun. My mind seems to expand, width-wise, so that I'm capable of holding different thoughts, separate but all visible at once. It's like the table function in a word-processing program. At 20 I once took acid and drew a picture of the universe and my place in it. The next day I looked at this sketch only to find that it consisted of just a few arrows and a wobbly circle on the page. But my solo insights are calm and few; they seem to focus on the Joshua tree that anchors my tarp, that seems to dance like a Keith Haring figure in the clear morning sun.

The Joshua tree grows new limbs in response to the weevil of irritation, pain and fear. It keeps growing in new directions.

The Valley

It is raining on the last morning. We get up at 5:30 and pack up in order to make the pickup at 11:00. I'm expecting a brisk walk and then a harder section as we traverse a stretch of wash that will be, as Dana puts it, "a little choky." Meaning boulder-strewn. I'm expecting to have some last good conversations as we make our way to the bus that will take us back to the desert office of Outward Bound and then to the airport. My flight to Seattle is at 4:30, only eight or nine hours from now.

At first the dark, wet sky just makes everything more beautiful. The rain paints the barrel cactus a more luscious red, the boulders a duskier, delicious orange. I feel awake and capable, interested in the world, reluctant to leave the desert. Sarah and I walk together over the damp earth, talking about painting, wishing we had our watercolors with us. The wash we have entered is narrowing, the boulders pushing forward as if to claim our attention. We pick our way more carefully. The light rain begins to thicken and we hear water running. The rain gear I've been given is too large, the pants especially; their crotch hits me halfway down my thighs, and the rolled-up cuffs keep filling up with rain. Inside all these wet, stiff clothes, I have less agility than usual and feel that I can hardly raise my legs to step from boulder to boulder while keeping my balance under the huge pack that has gotten lighter but no smaller. My face and hands are soaked and cold.

And then the small, sandy trail that is the wash vanishes and we are dwarfed by gigantic wet boulders, some the size of cars, others like two-story houses. The rain pours down and the wash begins to run like the stream bed it is, so that we also have to avoid stepping into ankle-deep water.

We all stop talking and concentrate on following Dana and Phoebe as they find their way forward. I'm not afraid, just disgruntled and uncomfortable. Until, while taking a long step down off a boulder, my pack pushes me forward and I pull the muscle behind my knee. The pain is quick and searing, and like a door it opens into a room of abject misery and anger at the unfairness of all this. I sit down abruptly like a 2-year-old who's hurt herself, and 2-year-old sobs suddenly well up loudly from my chest. I've had to do so many hard things in the last week: marching up and down ridges for eight hours a day with heavy water bottles in my pack, huddling at night from the cold, and waking up to ice on my sleeping bag; rock climbing, rappelling backward off a hundred-foot cliff. Today was supposed to be easy. This was supposed to be over.

I'm too miserable to be embarrassed. "My leg hurts," I sob. "It's too much." The others huddle around me. I hear someone say, "Let's lighten her load," and they take out the water bottles in the side pockets and a few things from the top of the pack. Dana looks at my knee and takes my hand to raise me up. "Can you go on?" she asks.

"Of course," I say. Because what else can I do? No helicopter is going to fly in and rescue me. One step at a time, I tell myself.

We all go on. For what feels like hours. Hours of rain and misery. At times we have to take off our packs and pass them down over huge boulders; at times we must crawl on our hands and knees through rock tunnels. It's clear that Dana and Phoebe weren't expecting this to be as hard as it is. Or were they? Is this our last test? I want to blame them, blame somebody. It's not fair.

Because I can't put my full weight on my knee, I continue to hold Dana's hand sometimes, when I'm traversing a ridge. Sometimes I sit down and slide, or pull myself with my arms across a boulder. I put my trust in Dana and will myself to believe that she knows exactly where she's going. I watch her feet and put my own where she has placed hers. I am not a trusting person. I especially don't trust people with my body. I have needed to protect myself, to learn self-sufficiency. That is another of my stories: where fear and independence come together. But I make the decision to give myself over to Dana, to let her lead me, to let her hold my hand through the worst of it.

Where are we and how long will it take? In the distance there is a wet blur of desert where presumably the van is now waiting for us. We are late and getting later. The rain pours down, gushes in gullies, and the water level is rising. I must follow and believe, I tell myself. It's no use being fearful or unafraid. It's no use calling on my willpower or my self-esteem. I've given all that up. I'm down to the bone. I'm soaking wet and weepy and worn and clear as glass. I will only follow Dana. Follow her and trust her; that's all I have to do, that and notice the horrible beauty of where we find ourselves. The contours of the massive stones and how they have been shaped by wind and occasional floods. The sound of water. The sky breaking its beakers over our heads.

When we finally emerge from this cascade of boulders we are 45 minutes late for the pick-up and there's no time to waste getting on the bus. Hardly any time to notice the lavish spill of blue and orange and white and yellow wildflowers around us. When we turn to look back at where we have come from, something more profound than pride takes hold of us. Awe. For the passageway looks majestic and menacing. How could we have managed to make our tiny way through that rocky hugeness? And a line from the Psalms comes to me:

"Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Thou art with me," I think. Thou is Dana. Thou are the women traveling with me. Thou is myself. Thou is the boulders and the rain and the pain and the push; thou is all of it.

We sometimes do a hard thing -- who knows why? To understand ourselves. To surprise ourselves. To redeem the past. To create the future. Should I take most pride in my rock climb, or in the humility that allowed me to let Dana lead me out of the Valley of the Shadow of Death? Shall I think back most to the moonlit heavens or the Giotto blue of the afternoon sun behind apricot piles of boulders? Or the warmth of my connection with women I never knew before, whose humor and strength got me through?

Since I've returned, I've found myself, at times, beginning to pull back from something that seems a little too hard or complicated, and then shrugging off my hesitation and moving ahead. I feel stronger, more agile. I feel I could do it again. And again. Grow new limbs and keep growing.

There was a moment -- there were many moments on that pilgrimage away from fear or right into its heart -- when my old, constructed stories fell away and I was no longer a brave, stubborn, active child, nor a timid and fearful one.

I was only desert wind on bare skin.

I was the moon and stars, a new heart emerging from a hardened cactus, a wash that was a path, a white path through a valley choked with old boulders.

Barbara Wilson

Barbara Wilson is the author of several mysteries and other novels, and of the childhood memoir "Blue Windows," which won a Lambda Literary Award in 1998. She lives in Seattle.

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