Desert Sojourn: A Woman's Forty Days and Nights Alone

Desert Sojourn: A Woman's Forty Days and Nights Alone

by Debi Holmes-Binney

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At age 31, having left a stifling decade-long marriage, Debi Holmes-Binney set off alone into the harsh Utah desert to find direction and spiritual renewal. Armed with only basic supplies and her writing journals, she planned to spend forty days and nights alone; what followed was an extended sojourn in a place by turns physically terrifying, psychologically invigorating, and gloriously beautiful. Desert Sojourn is a wonderfully fresh, perceptive, and moving account of self-discovery that will appeal to both physical and spiritual adventurers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781580054188
Publisher: Basic Books
Publication date: 07/12/2011
Series: Adventura Books
Sold by: Hachette Digital, Inc.
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 364 KB

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Day 1, November 11

I wake to pitch black with no idea where I am. The terrifying thing is that I could be anywhere. For the past three years I've traveled almost constantly from coast to coast, north to south, back and forth. My mind struggles to make any sense of my surroundings. I'm in a bed, but it's not my own. I have no bed of my own. No bedroom, no kitchen, no home of my own, not anymore, but I am in a room.

    My eyes dart around for anything familiar, even a clock. I rise to my elbows and notice the faint beam of a streetlight shining through a crack where rubber-lined curtains don't quite close. The beam strikes a television mounted on brackets high on the opposite wall. I don't see any glowing numbers on a digital clock, and the clues begin to come together. Motel 6s have rubber-lined curtains and HBO on channel 3, but they don't have clock radios. In a sudden gush I remember everything.

    Motel 6. I checked in last night after driving all day, fourteen hours. Yesterday morning I watched seagulls float over the Pacific shore in California. Today I wake to a different shore. I am in Salt Lake City on the edge of the Great Salt Lake, on the edge of the Great Salt Lake Desert, one of the most remote and rugged wildernesses in the United States. The desert. That's why I've come.

   The advantage of Motel 6s is that they're all almost exactly the same, and I've stayed in enough of them to locate the light over the faux wood bedstand even in the dark. I squint in the sudden glare to read the dial on my wind-up travel alarm. It never has glowed in thedark. 3:30 a.m. It was set to go off in fifteen minutes anyway.

    The fog that first engulfed my mind is gone, and I take in the room's contents in a single sweeping glance—from the orange short-pile carpet to the mismatched blue-and-gold upholstered chairs, from the dresser that doubles as a coffee table to the floor-length mirror with a large gash in its pressboard frame. I slide one leg to the floor and then the other, slowly, deliberately, more deliberately than I have ever risen from bed before, aware as the sheets fold back that by tonight I will be in a place where there are no sheets at all. No bedstands, no lamps.

    Flicking on the television to the local news, I pad across the room to a metal unit beneath the window that blows cold air in summer and hot in winter. I turn it full blast to the red zone. By tonight I'll be where there are no heaters. By tonight I'll be where there is no news.

    The bathroom tile slickens with steam as hot water floods through the shower pipes. Stepping into the stall, I'm met with a meager but needle-sharp spray, making me all the more aware that by tonight I'll be in a place where there are no pipes, no hot water, no water at all. I dry myself with a towel hardly bigger than a pillow case, too small to reach across my back even if it wasn't frayed, but I'm more mindful of the fact that this is the last towel I will use, my last shower for forty days.

    There will be no call for cosmetics where I'm going. Perhaps that's why I take extra care smoothing the foundation over my cheeks, scrutinizing my face as always for any possible flaw. I see hair that never does what I want it to do and eyebrows that need to be plucked. Stroking blush across my cheeks, I realize that I might as well be polishing my shoes, covering the blemishes for the sake of a public kind enough to overlook the scuffs and scrapes disguised by the polish. I only wish there was a makeup that could conceal the eyes' secret regrets. Perhaps that is why a polite society tacitly agrees not to look too close.

    As a teenager I had not yet learned that rule, or at least I still dared to break it. I had been taught all my life, don't stare, so maybe it was a subtle form of rebellion that my friends and I played a game we called Stare Dare. The object was to look into each other's eyes as long as possible until somebody couldn't stand it anymore and had to look away. It's harder than it sounds. At first you can hardly keep from laughing but then this sort of unease and seriousness sets in. You feel a kind of vulnerability, like you're naked in a way you've never been before, and you realize the eyes really are the window to the soul. This person can see into me, into what I really am.

    Sometimes I wished I could see what my friends saw in my eyes. I wanted to see what I really am. I wanted to see my soul. Sometimes I thought I could because on rare occasions when I stared into a mirror, the eyes that stared back seemed different than my own. They seemed to hold a knowledge beyond my own. They seemed to divulge my entire future, to assure me of all the wonders yet to come. I saw a life far removed from humdrum routine. I saw passion and intrigue. I would sail even farther than the seven seas. My life would be one long string of adventures and romance, but not merely with a knight in shining armor. Rather, I would find a deep, profound love, a love that would reach to the depths of our souls.

    In those mirror eyes I saw that my life would be more than I had ever dreamed; I was more than the skin and bones that would someday grow old and die. I saw a woman with a unique purpose in this world, a purpose that only I could fulfill. My life would have meaning because who I am truly mattered. Oh, how I had wanted to believe what I saw reflected in the mirror way back then.

    As I finish applying the last eyeshadow that I'll wear for forty days, I dare myself to look straight into the eyes of the thirty-one-year-old that I have become, as if I might, just once more, catch a glimpse of my soul. If I did, I would demand an explanation. I would demand to know what happened to that bright future that was so certainly mine. I'd demand to know what that business of a unique purpose was all about.

    Looking into the mirror now, however, I see eyes filled not with assurance and promise but with uncertainty and trepidation. I'm not surprised. If it were as easy as looking in a mirror, my problems would have been solved long ago. If the soul answered to command performances, I wouldn't be going to the desert. Maybe it's not possible to summon one's soul at all, but maybe it's a matter of what a person is willing to do to find it. I have to believe that. I'm willing to risk my life on the chance that sometimes that's what it takes.

* * *

The aisles at the supermarket are empty, and the only two people in sight—a box boy and a cashier—eye me with suspicion. It could be the way I'm dressed. A blue print bandanna covers every trace of my hair except my bangs, and I bought my jeans and flannel shirt from a thrift shop. Maybe they're just curious because most people don't shop at 4:30 in the morning, two hours before the sun will peek over the Wasatch range to bathe Salt Lake City in morning's glow. The box boy pushing a mop doesn't look up as I pass by.

    "Could you point me to the bottled water?"

    "Three aisles over."

    The market is festive in pre-Thanksgiving celebration. Paper turkeys with orange and brown tissue tail feathers dangle from the ceiling. Pumpkins and cornstalks adorn the checkout lanes.

    I turn into the aisle. The floor still glistens from its recent mop job. I spot the water midway down, but as I approach it a tiny flash of fur darts in front of me. I catch my breath. Mouse. When I was three years old, just before my sisters—twins—were born, my parents and I lived in a tiny bedroom-and-a-half university apartment. Dad was working on his Ph.D. in genetics, studying field mice, which he kept in a cage in the only available space in the apartment—my half-bedroom. That was also where he kept his snakes, to dispose of his used mice, I suppose. And I've always been afraid of both.

    A shiver runs down my spine as the rodent disappears into a space between the shelves. I wish I hadn't seen it, for it only reminds me that on a scale of one to ten—one being brave, ten being an absolute coward—I peg out at about twelve. The desert is one of the few remaining natural habitats of the mountain lion. If a mouse sends my heart pounding, how will I cope with real danger?

    I wheel my cart in front of the bottled water and begin to load up. I've calculated that a gallon a day is enough, but to be on the safe side I add another half gallon a day. Four jugs remain on the shelf and I grab those as well. The cart is so heavy that the wheels squeak against the linoleum as I steer toward the checkout counter. I think of the homeless and toothless old women I've seen on the streets of New York City, pushing their stolen shopping carts loaded with all of their worldly possessions, cast by fate into a type of emptiness from which one never recovers.

    "What in the world?" The clerk's name tag reads Wanda.

    She calls to the box boy. "Scotty, get your tail-end over here. Can't you see we need some help? Honey, where are you goin' with all that water? Nobody told me about no drought."

    "Camping," I say.

    "Must be some trip," Wanda says, staring at the cart. "Whatcha got—a whole army to look after?"

    "I'm going alone."

    "Taking your Jacuzzi, eh?" She laughs, poking the box boy with her elbow.

    "This has to last me forty days," I say. "I'm going to the desert."

    Her laughter freezes along with her fingers in midair above the cash register. "Forty days? Alone? Lord, girl, what's the matter with you? It's dangerous out there."

    "Aren't you scared?" the box boy asks.

    "A little," I answer. A twelve.

    "You got a gun, don't you?" Wanda says, her eyes widening by the second.


    "Short-wave radio?" the box boy asks.


    "No cell phone?" Wanda says. "No way anyone can reach you? Now that I could go for. Forty days without hearing from the bank. It's not like this job pays enough to keep my family's head above water. I'm afraid to even answer the phone anymore. Honey, I'd give a fair chunk of change to trade places with you."

    I hand the clerk a fifty-dollar bill, but it is my face that she studies. If I don't look away she will see beneath the surface, she will see the storm hurling me like a tin can in a tornado. I want to break her gaze, but then I notice that her eyes are green. Another chill runs down my spine as I remember other eyes, eyes that not so long ago looked so deeply into mine that they seemed to see everything that I am. I didn't want to hide anything from those eyes.

    Suddenly I wish I didn't have to hide anything from Wanda, either. I wish I could find the words to explain why I'm going to the desert for forty days, to a place almost as foreign to me as the moon. If I could tell her all that has happened, if I could tell her the most intimate details of my life, I would. Maybe she'd understand and then I wouldn't feel so lonely. I wouldn't be so afraid. But I can't find those words.

It has always amazed me that Henry David Thoreau captured the entire intent of his isolation at Walden Pond in just six little words: Because I wished to live deliberately. Six words that perfectly illuminated the nobility of his goal and the strength of his determination. Six words that anyone who refused to lead a life of quiet desperation could cling to for hope that another way indeed existed. Six words that conveyed one man's utter conviction that the fact that we live and breathe is such a miracle, it would be an insult to our very existence if we did not sit still to watch and ponder our place in all that surrounds us.

    But I have also always wondered what else was really behind those six words, what else really prompted Thoreau to spend two years in the woods. Some people scoff that he walked to town by day and entertained visitors by night, but still he must have been more solitary than his contemporaries, and surely more so than mine. If he had been lucky in love, or if the school he'd started with his brother hadn't gone belly up; if he hadn't ended up, essentially, as Emerson's handyman, would Thoreau have felt the same need? It couldn't have been easy in Emerson's shadow as audiences clamored to read the master's works and stood in line to hear him speak, while Thoreau watched from the wings.

    I've wondered if there was a certain moment when he threw up his hands and said that's it. Maybe he couldn't figure out exactly what quality Emerson had that he didn't. Despite his legendary bravado, Thoreau may not have understood why he felt different from everyone else, why he couldn't bring himself to get a steady job beyond that offered by his father in the family's pencil factory. Despite his criticism that the Concord townspeople led shallow and—by his standards—meaningless lives, perhaps Thoreau wondered if his own life had any more purpose and meaning than theirs. Maybe he even feared he would never be happy.

    I know the feeling. It's terrifying.

    James—we married in 1982, a week before my nineteenth birthday—once told our marriage counselor that he didn't think I could be happy. He told her that he wasn't even sure I wanted to be happy. Imagine that. A person who doesn't want happiness.

    No matter how good things were, James said, I always found something lacking. He provided for our family—his daughter Gina from a previous marriage and our son Tony—sixty grand-plus a year. We had a two-story house a mile from the beach in central California, two cars, nice clothes, money to put me through college. I graduated with a liberal arts degree after twice changing majors. First I thought I wanted to be a teacher; at the time both my parents taught at an American school in Taiwan, Dad science and Mom language arts. Then I thought I wanted to work in city government. I had also worked in an office supply company and then as an office manager for a real estate firm.

    "She could stay home with the kids," James told the counselor, "but she says that doesn't fulfill her. Nothing fulfills her. I think she expects too much."

    I wondered if maybe I did. That would explain everything, including the first time in our marriage I apparently held too-high expectations: My first attempt to cook Thanksgiving dinner, fifteen months after we married. At twenty years old I'd never cooked anything even approximating the bulk of a turkey before, and I didn't dare try. I scoured the magazines looking for the perfect recipe, and finally the solution appeared, pictured in full color: Cornish rock hens with sage thyme dressing. I followed the instructions to the letter, and by noon Thanksgiving Day, even Julia Child would have approved of the aroma simmering in my oven.

    "Where's dinner?" James said as I placed the delicate feast on the table. "Where's the turkey?"

    I had hoped he would say something like, "Cornish rock hens? How clever you are, my dear. It's just like you to try something new. Your creativity makes me love you all the more each day." But he didn't.

    "Next time just cook a turkey, OK? Like Mom does, OK?"

    Maybe I did want too much. Maybe I expected too much from the man I trusted to bolster my self-image instead of shatter it. But I felt something happen inside me that day. I felt myself pull away from him, like somebody had reached into the bathtub and yanked the plug, only it was a much slower drain.

    Within a year James's daughter, Gina, came to live with us. Two years later Tony was born. By then James and I had achieved what might be called a marriage of utility. We discussed the children. We paid the bills. We argued and we made up. He golfed on Saturday, while I and the other golf wives prepared an afternoon barbecue. When the guys returned, they played pool in the garage and rehashed their game play by play while we wives sat in the kitchen and talked about whose kid had just lost his first tooth.

    "It's like we're living some kind of charade, going through the motions," I told the marriage counselor after James and I had been married eight years. "I'm twenty-seven years old and I feel like ... this is it? I want more from life."

    "She wants something that doesn't exist," James said.

    I was beginning to suspect he was right, because the life I had seen reflected in my eyes in the mirror years before had not materialized. Passion and intrigue belonged to the soap operas. My unique purpose revolved around making sure my family had clean underwear in their drawers. Thanks to my parents, I had at least sailed a few seas. James and I visited them once in Asia, and another summer we joined them in Italy. But on our own we wouldn't have taken either trip. When James refused their third invitation, I knew our travel days were over. Slowly I began to fear that the life and love I had imagined for myself were just that: imaginations.

    A year later, in 1991, I heard about a postgraduate editing seminar in Denver. I had been working on a freelance basis for some of my former college professors editing their texts before publication. Formal certification would add to my credentials, and I thought I was on the way to finding a satisfying occupation, albeit a low-paying one. James agreed to hold down the household while I attended the month-long course at Denver University.

    Most of the hundred participants were just out of college, and at twenty-eight I was among the oldest. We were housed in dorms. Having not started college until after I married, I hadn't lived on campus since that bedroom-and-a-half apartment when I was three years old. I had never once eaten in a university cafeteria. Now I did so, three very delicious meals a day. Food that had been prepared for me. Dishes I didn't have to wash. Not a bad deal.

    Going out for a beer after studying until ten was par for the course for those who had gone straight from high school to college, but for me it was a whole different world. I went out every weekend with my classmates, barely making it back before the dorm's doors locked for curfew at two. Once, we didn't return until two-thirty, and we had to climb up the ivy to sneak in through a second-story window, a plan I hadn't considered wise since I was about sixteen. As for other extracurricular activities, I was one of the few who had brought along a car, so I was never short on takers for a free lift to Boulder or Colorado Springs or into the Rockies.

    I'd never had so much fun in my life. I felt like a whole new woman. And each day I felt more guilty.

    "Miss you too," I'd say when James called, and then I'd cringe as I forced the words from my throat. "Yeah, love you too."

    The days passed in a blur and before I knew it, three weeks of the seminar were gone. It was Friday afternoon. I remember it clearly because I was anxious for the weekend, the last weekend before the last five days of the seminar. I was picturing an ice-cold beer at the summit of Pikes Peak when the director introduced the final speaker of the day, Jerry Ellis, a writer from Alabama.

    Part Cherokee, Jerry had walked the same route, but in reverse, across the eight states that his ancestors had followed in the heart of the winter of 1838 during their forced evacuation to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, the nine-hundred-mile journey known as the Trail of Tears. By following their path in reverse, he meant to honor those ancestors and symbolically return their souls to their original homelands. Jerry's book about the journey, Walking the Trail, had earned him a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize.

    "The first night out," Jerry lectured from the podium, "I had blisters on my feet so bad I thought I'd never walk again. But that first night was the only time I had doubts. I was forced to depend on the strength of my mind as well as my body to keep me moving. All along the way I met people who reminded me that not everyone values the almighty dollar above all else. Walking alone, day after day, I got more in touch with who I am and my understanding of God. By the end of that trip, I no longer questioned myself. I had done something I believed in with all my soul."

    As I heard his words, all thoughts of weekend celebrations disappeared. I couldn't make out Jerry's features, I was sitting so far in the rear of the room, but the word soul cut through me like a knife. My heart began to pound as if I myself had run the same nine hundred miles he walked. I didn't understand why my hands went cold or why my head went dizzy. But I did understand, in one single moment, that I hadn't been wrong.

    My soul hadn't been wrong. It is possible to experience more in life than humdrum routine. Not a hundred feet away stood a man who felt the sense of purpose and meaning that I had always wanted for myself. He had found it because he had listened to his soul.

    I wasn't the only one who wanted to meet Jerry. I waited for an hour to shake his hand, hardly noticing the time, hardly noticing that the line slowly dwindled until I was the only one left, hardly recognizing my own voice when I asked him to dinner.

"This is your house?" I held the picture that Jerry pulled from his wallet closer to the candle that lit the table at the funky downtown Denver restaurant. The wine served in jelly jars—his red, mine white—matched the checkered tablecloth. "You're kidding. It started out as a tree house?"

    "My father and I built it seven years ago with my nephew," Jerry said. "The next year I built down to the ground and added a fireplace. Actually, I use it more for a retreat. It doesn't have electricity or running water."

    "It looks like a big kid's dream come true. And where is this?"

    "Fort Payne, in the northeastern corner of Alabama. My folks bought two hundred acres back in the fifties. That's where I grew up. Even though I've lived all over the States, no other place could be home. I guess that's where I'll die."

    The wine warmed in my stomach, and a gentle haze floated from my cigarette to mingle with the candle's smoke as Janis Joplin softly strummed in the background. James, I knew, would despise this place, but I never wanted to leave.

    "You're not married?" I asked.

    "Once, back when I was in college," Jerry nodded. "She traded me in for the next year's model—that's about how long it lasted. A couple of times since I thought I found the right woman but ... I'm not so sure she's really out there."

    "She is." I wondered if he'd laugh at me for sounding so certain but no trace of a smile crossed his lips.

    "How do you know?" he said.

    "I just do."

    Jerry's eyes sparkled and for the first time I noticed their color, as green as the sea and flecked with gold that shimmered in the candlelight. "Thankfully, at least one of us knows true love."

    "Me? Oh. I guess so. We've been married almost nine years."

    "But you're not happy." It was neither a question nor an accusation; rather, it was a simple statement of fact, as simple as if Jerry had said that my eyes were brown, which they are. I realized I'd been staring into his eyes far longer than could be dismissed as casual observation. But he hadn't looked away.

    "James says being happy isn't in my repertoire," I said, forcing a little laugh, forcing myself to concentrate on my finger, tracing the outline of the checkered cloth. "He says I want something that doesn't exist."

    "It exists," Jerry said.

    "How do you know?"

    "I just do."

    I searched his eyes for some sign that he meant to mock me, but I only felt pulled further into their depths. He reached across the table and touched his fingers to my cheek. When he spoke his tone was so soft that it occurred to me I'd never heard such tenderness expressed by anyone before. "What you're looking for is real. Maybe it's a matter of what you're willing to do to find it."

    "I would do anything," I said, barely above a whisper.

    "I believe you."

    At that moment, I believed myself. I felt flung into a living dream where anything was possible, even happiness, even for a lifetime, even for me. But I wasn't thinking about a lifetime. Only that night mattered. Seven nights later I would go back to my family, to what I was and would always be. I would go on as if Denver never existed, as if I had never met a man who had listened to his soul, as if I had never believed for just one night that life could be even more than I had ever dared to dream.

    At the time I hardly noticed the flicker in Jerry's eyes as he held my stare, as if he sensed something in my future that I could not. Two days later I found a copy of Walden Pond on my pillow in the dorm room. On the inside cover he'd inscribed: There are a thousand ways to go to the Woods. Someday you'll find yours.

    Three years later I still wonder how he knew.

"I wish you luck," Wanda says, handing me my change as Scotty the box boy lugs the last gallon of water into my shopping cart. I blink as if I've been in another world, and perhaps I have. "Maybe someday I'll do something like you are, for whatever reason you're doing it."

    I could simply say, "I'm going to the desert because I wish to live deliberately." Six little words borrowed from a man who managed to say it all. Six little words from someone who broke free of his mentor's shadow, who carved out his own identity, who did not go to his grave with his purpose unfulfilled.

    And yet I hesitate, remembering the green eyes flecked with gold that once took me to the deepest part of myself, a place where I was not afraid to show someone else exactly who I am, a place I fear I may never reach again. Perhaps that is why I now tell Wanda the truth.

    "I'm going to the desert," I say, "because if I don't I think a part of me will die."

    "What part?" The clerk's tone is as gentle as a mother to a child, as if she somehow knows that I'm revealing the most intimate secret of my life.

    "The part that believes in my soul."

    She reaches across the cash register to cover my hand, and I can't hold back the rest.

    "I'm so tired of hurting," I say. "I've tried everything else I can think of. I don't mean to imply that I'm anything like them, but when Moses and Muhammad and Christ faced turning points in their lives, they went to the desert to ask ... to ask God what they should do. Sometimes I'm sure God has a purpose for me. But if he does, I can't figure out what it is. I've hurt the people I love the most and if there's not a reason ..."

    "It's quiet in the desert," Wanda says. Her voice is kind, without a trace of judgment. "Sometimes we can only hear our answers, no matter where they come from, in a quiet place. While you're out there, try to remember that you're not alone. We all wonder what life's all about—at least those of us who bother to think from time to time. You don't think I have my doubts? Most of us just don't have the courage to face them."

    "It's not courage," I say, shaking my head as I push the cart toward the door. The wheels squeak so loudly that I don't know if she hears my final words. "It's desperation."

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