The Silence Is Deafening

Posted: February 21, 2011 in Writing

I found myself out of breath, halfway up the side of some godforsaken hill in a cave that had been carved out by a shit ton of recent water, and decided that it was not in the best interest of my feet and lungs to go any farther. So I sat down, lit a smoke, and dug into my Camelbak to see what sort of goodies I had left myself earlier when I was at home, sober, and preparing like an Eagle Scout for just this occasion. I found a clipboard with some blank paper, a good pen with excellent ink flow, and a can of Budweiser. I sipped some water from the bladder and thought I had found nirvana. I sat there quietly, in awe: the silence was deafening.

My Mud Cave

My Mud Cave

Brother Jamie had imported some buddies from Portland that wanted to go camping. They had never been to the desert. Huffman was determined to show them “the Mud Caves”. Anyone who has heard Jamie and Freer wax reminiscent about their last trip is familiar with the legend of “the Mud Monkeys” and all sorts of these two idiots just collapsing into laughter about an experience that you weren’t part of. Tall tales and bullshit.

This is how I found myself out beyond Octatillo Wells off of the 8 East freeway in the dark on a Friday night in my new yellow Nissan Xterra not five days after I signed the papers to take it home on a $125.00 down payment. This is the replacement for the venerable-but-dead Nissan Truck that I gimped around to the alley that is Edgemont Place right into the “do not disturb, I’ll be parked here for quite a while” spot in the neighborhood. I was driving a new-to-me-at-least 2007 4×4 out to the desert specifically to test out its personality. It passed; I’m in love.

We arrived where the pavement ends way after dark. After some coordination, Jamie in his packed-to-the-gills Tacoma and me and Moonbow in the Xterra set off into the desert on dirt roads. After about 30 minutes of bumping around in the pitch dark except for headlights, Jamie pulled over and pointed out a lonely brown BLM sign in the middle of nowhere. “The mud caves are this way” he intoned, and then sped off down one of the many winding roads into the darkness. Following, we arrived at a campsite off of the road and proceeded to set up camp by the glow of our headlights.

Michael, Jamie, Tommy, Ryan, and Matthew

Michael, Jamie, Tommy, Ryan, and Matthew

Rachel, Gina, Jason

Rachel, Gina, Jason

Moonbow, Surface, Froggacuda, and fire

Moonbow, Surface, Froggacuda, and fire

Anyone who has been camping with me recently knows that I like to camp in style. My buddy Steve quips that we “eat like Vikings”; Moon says that my ridiculous rig is “P-I-M-P”; I just like to be prepared, and if I overpack for that reason, at least when we get to where we are going in the vehicles, I can set up my cooking area and start firing up the grill and the stove in order to produce magic out of the sometimes random and always overstocked food that people have brought to the occasion. Everyone thinks that whatever they brought would be good to eat; nobody — or few people — actually think all the way through and figure out exactly how they are going to cook it, serve it, eat it, prepare it, and then clean up afterward in accordance to the A-16 sticker I still live my outdoor life by: “take only memories, leave only footprints”. This philosophy is important, although I might change the last line to “leave only tire tracks”. Every time I go camping, I go for the experience, and that includes the illusion that I am the first person that has ever camped there. If you camp in style or bare bones, please, for everyone’s sakes, clean up your mess so that others can enjoy the same spot tomorrow or the next week.

Epic Camp Kitchen

Epic Camp Kitchen

After getting tents set up, the fire ring custom manufactured by Surface Furniture blazing, and the red checkered vinyl tablecloth across the thrift store aluminum folding table ready to get busy, I started prepping and cooking. Jamie and Moonbow went out in the Tacoma to find Gina and Rachel who were rolling in late. They returned to the boys from Portland (Tommy, Ryan, and Matthew) entertaining themselves by using my Eastwing camp axe and hatchet to split the abominably wet eucalyptus logs that we stole from the Edgemont compound and me cooking up a storm on the portable gourmet kitchen. Even my Mom, who has a Masters degree in Home Economics and is a bitchin’ chef would be at home with this much hardware. Fresh cut vegetable medley of peppers, onions, baby Portabella mushrooms, and other goodies was first off of the BBQ. And that’s when the drinking really began; there’s nothing like getting a full belly in the great outdoors  to think that repeated shots of scotch and tequila are a good idea.

Xterra Sound System

Xterra Sound System

That’s when several people decided to go hiking. I think it is noteworthy that Jamie, Moon, and I all stayed behind, preferring to really desecrate the quiet of the desert by rejiggering the location of the Xterra, flinging all four doors open, and blasting Lady Gaga remixes at top volume on the new JVC KW-XR810 color changing stereo with the 10″ JL subwoofer. OK, we were all inebriated, but there’s a categorical wisdom delta between staying in camp and blasting King Fantastic and going out into the wilderness on a late night hike in treacherous territory with scrounged flashlights.

Bactine stings, but Gina laughs it off

Bactine stings, but Gina laughs it off

One of the mentioned — and often ridiculed — things about the Nissan Xterra is that there is a recess in the rear hatch that is meant for a first aid kit. Mine didn’t come with one — and Pacific Nissan made every effort to find one for me before I left the lot — but one of the first things I did when I drove it home was to produce a spare kit from my camping gear and lash it into that space. It fit perfectly. So when the midnight hikers made it back safely, but having sustained several injuries, guess what: out came the first aid kit. One gouged eyelid, one monster shin-scrape, and one set of bruised ribs was the damage. For years I had overpacked gear for just such an occasion, and as Jason and I treated the walking wounded, I couldn’t help repeatedly pointing out that we were prepared. Including, apparently, having enough liquor to drown the pain of these injuries: we proceeded to get even more wasted, burning all of the wood that Jamie had lashed into the back of the truck next to Sioux the desert dawg, and draining two out of three of the tri-flasks that my great-aunt Peggy has bequeathed to me and that I had filled several years ago with Hornitos and Glenfiddich.

At some point, everyone passed out after stumbling to their tents, or in my case, to the Xterra. I curled up in the back seats in my North Face sleeping bag that I had inherited from Bela Chris, and slept like the dead. The next morning, after the legendary Murdoch breakfast burritos (next-day Unorthodox potatoes, eggs, cheese, maple sausages, next-day vegetables, Tapatillo from the kitchen kit in warmed flour tortillas), we packed up camp and set out in our three vehicles for the Mud Caves. There is something special about motoring through the canyons of Anza-Borrego with a frosty Budweiser in one hand and the steering wheel in the other.

The Badlands Camp

The Badlands Camp

Arriving at one of the Mud Caves, the troops disembarked, took some pictures, and proceeded to try to wrangle up enough flashlights to explore this dark hole in the side of the hill. Although the cool, crisp air pouring out of it was inviting, I decided to stay back and supervise my cooler of Budweiser rather than venture into the cave without my headlamp, which I couldn’t find while intoxicated the night before. Side note: when I returned home, my trusty Inova was right where it should have been, in my action vest.

After the party emerged from the first cave, we all decided to head up into the main cavern system, which alternated between carved canyons and fully roofed tunnels, some of which you had to scramble through sideways. It was after 40 minutes or so of this adventure that I decided that I had seen enough of the Mud Caves and found the cool corner of the tunnel where I wrote the beginnings of this blog post. Shaking rocks out of the Steve Madden sneakers that I decided to hike in and letting the footfalls of my companions retreat higher into the gorge, I became aware of how powerful the quiet was. The strength of this lack of sound grew and grew as to become almost deafening; it was in this state that I realized that I was the farthest away from technology that I had been in a long while. No iPhone, no MacBook Pro, no constantly updating streams of information from Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc. No noises were emanating from my pockets or backpack noting newly received e-mails and push notifications, no hum of cars or sirens in the distance. Just an overwhelming quietude as I sat in a beautiful corner of a wide tunnel that had captured the frozen sweep of water, receding off into the distance like a series of pictures taken with different camera lenses. Very Marcel Duchamp.

The Crew at the Mud Caves

The Crew at the Mud Caves

In the depths of the caverns

In the depths of the caverns

Da Boyz and Sioux

Da Boyz and Sioux

I had come out to the desert to get drunk, party with friends, and make a lot of noise: the best part of the whole trip was the hour or so that I spent in complete silence by myself. Like so many things in life, this was a lesson that I needed to re-learn. In my kitchen I have a well-worn wooden copy of Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata, the beginning of which has always struck me as extraordinarily powerful:

Desiderata in my kitchen

Desiderata in my kitchen

“Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, /and remember what peace there may be in silence.”

The next week my homeboy T-Boz came over and pointed out something so obvious I was stunned. Then I started laughing uncontrollably. “Yo Mike, why is it that every time I’m watching [the cable television series] ‘I Should Be Dead‘ it’s always stupid white boys going out to the boondocks to camp or something?” This is true. That’s why I had been telling him tales of this camping trip: people going on midnight hikes with questionable flashlights; the testosterin-fueled impromptu WWE wrestling matches in the talcum powder dust of the desert floor; drinking so much that you had trouble walking, never mind avoiding nocturnal desert flora and fauna. It’s true — I am not sure what comes over me to leave my comfortable home to go out into the back country and “rough it”. Part of it, for sure, was putting my new vehicle through its paces, but other than that, I think that food tastes better, the air is cleaner, the beauty of my surroundings more palpable, the highs higher, each step is more important somehow because it is hiking, not just walking from the couch to the refrigerator and back.

It is also the power of silence; this is similar to being in the pitch dark — another feature of being in the middle of nowhere — the richness of nothing is equal to, and sometimes more than, a world full of color and sound, or “noise and haste”. I am content with this being my answer to why I am driven (or drive myself) to adventure into the seemingly uncomfortable, inconvenient, and sometimes dangerous areas outside of civilization: you cannot get the same experience in the city, no matter how hard you try. But if you make the effort to occasionally soak up some true silence and some true darkness, then you have a recent memory as a touchstone to remind you of the beauty and peace that was here long before us, and will remain long after we human beings are gone.

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