He went out the mountain to pray… Luke 6:12

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Lost in the Desert

Nevada Desert Humboldt Range as seen from French Boys Canyon

Me and my adventurous ways have really got us in the mire this time.  –Mathew McGough, stranded with his five-year-old daughter for seven days in the Australian outback

When I read stories about people getting lost in the desert, I begin with two assumptions.  The first is that the traveler did something wrong that resulted in him getting lost; the second is that he did something right if he lived to tell the tale. The second assumption is generous because lots of people who get lost in the desert are found only after arduous searches.   Still, the adventurer gets credit for telling someone who would notice him missing, where he was going and when he intended to return.  Leaving an itinerary with a responsible party is a preeminent rule of desert survival.  Mine is often a scrawled note that I tuck under one of the windshield wipers of our neighbor’s Chevy pick-up right before we depart on a Nevada desert journey.

I recently read with fascination Tom Mahood’s account of his investigative role in uncovering the fate of a German tourist family who vanished while traveling in Death Valley National Park.  Mahood stumbled on the story on the internet, twelve years after the family disappeared.  In 2008 he read that a Death Valley Ranger performing an aerial search for illegal drug operations, had spotted a passenger van on an abandoned desert road.  “The van was clearly stuck in the wash, sunk up to its axles in the sand, with its two rear tires flattened and its left front tire also flat,” Mahood writes in a measuredly ambling voice.  Despite his casual gait I felt my heart rate increase, having myself been confronted many times in the desert with flat tires, a mired vehicle and, once, a vehicle we had to abandon.

Hooked on the mystery, Mahood undertook a long and rugged trajectory.  He learned that the German family who rented the van in July of 1996, didn’t make their flight back to Germany–and were listed by Interpol as missing.  He learned that in the fall of 2008, the same year the van was discovered, a search of the Anvil Canyon area where it was found produced no clues as to the family’s whereabouts. Read the rest of this page »

Why I Yearn to be in Awe

Nevada Desert Road to Star City Ghost Town g2

This recent image of the Nevada desert is one of my husband’s favorites.  The road in the foreground wanders into the foothills of the Humboldt Range to Star City, a former mining community and now a ghost town listed on the Nevada registry of landmarks.  A couple of months ago when we stood here, we were awed by the view and the daunting prospect of entering those mountains.

Today I came across a piece titled, “The Science of Awe” by Jake Abrahamson.  Abrahamson quoted an article published in a professional journal in which researchers described awe as, “[i]n the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear…”  That phrase characterizes my overall vast experience of desert travel.  Through my journeys it has become clear that a response of awe to nature yields beneficial effects–it stimulates the spirit and settles the mind.  Awe is the antithesis of neuroses, an antidote for modernity and a portal to reverence and prayer.  Awe provides an important perspective that every loving parent gives his child: you are many things, but among those is not the author of this wild and wondrous world.  There is a certain sense of surrender that I enjoy with being made to feel small in this way.

According to Abrahamson, awe also has the healing power to inspire (and presumably reinforce) virtue:

…[A] state of awe…psychologists are coming to understand, can have profoundly positive effects on people.  It happens when people encounter a vast and unexpected stimulus, something that makes them feel small and forces them to revise their mental modes of what’s possible in the world.  In its wake, people act more generously and ethically, think more critically when encountering persuasive stimuli…and often feel a deeper connection to others and the world in general.  Awe prompts people to redirect concern away from the self and toward everything else.  And about three-quarters of the time, it’s elicited by nature.

It was only 11 years ago that psychologists Dacher Keltner of the University of California, Berkeley, and Jonathan Haidt, then at the University of Virginia, proposed awe as an emotion worth studying.  “In the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear,” they wrote in the journal Cognition and Emotion in 2003, awe is felt…  Fleeting and rare, experiences of awe can change the course of a life in profound and permanent ways.”  –Jake Abrahamson, “The Science of Awe,” Sierra Magazine: November-December 2014.