We were driving home from a friend’s house. It was pitch black outside, because here in the desert there are no streetlights, and the houses are too far away from the road to shed light on it. We caught the man in the headlights, stumbling around in the sand outside our house: Bald, half naked, barefoot. All he was missing was blistered skin and red eyes, and I might have believed that the zombie apocalypse was really happening.
I live in the desert, and this is perfectly normal.
My husband and I moved here about two months ago; we’re each thousands of miles away from our immediate families, all of whom have never been to this part of the world, so we get asked very often what “desert life” is like. The truth is, my explanations have been woefully inadequate thus far. It’s difficult to put into words how absolutely other-worldly this place is. I grew up in the green, forest-scattered depths of rural England, where the wildest occurrence was no more bracing than being held up by a herd of cattle on one’s way to school in the morning. Now, I live in a place that resembles the surface of Mars; it’s the Mordor to Frodo Baggins’ Shire (very literally, in some ways).
We didn’t have a choice as to whether or not we wanted to move here; my husband is in the military, so he does what he’s told and I follow him. Thus, while my friends swarmed into London and New York, we packed up our cats and moved out to the Mojave desert. I knew precious little about this vast, dry part of the world before we got here, except that our water bills would be cripplingly high, that there were a lot of nightmarish critters to be found lurking in dark corners (check your shoes, they said) and that people joked about meth a lot. Awesome.
In the military, you’re told to “bloom where you’re planted” a lot. But, my mind shrieked, how can you bloom where you’re planted when you’re plonked in a place where literally nothing grows?
At first, it seemed that the warnings had merit: There was a clause in our rental agreement that no-one had been using meth amphetamines in our house in the past three years, we were told to get our house sprayed for creepy crawlies ASAP, and our back yard was literally a sand pit. Aside from a few shrivelled bushes, some science fiction-esque trees covered in thorns as long as my arm, and a smattering of cacti, there was no natural vegatation to be seen in the few miles surrounding our new abode. While people posted pictures of their feet crunching through fall leaves, we were sweating through a hundred-degree October. I grew used to the sand trails we’d traipse into the house, and learnt that sweeping was an exercise in futility. We woke up one morning to find our cat’s food bowl covered in red ants the size of my fingernail. Needless to say, I wasn’t pioneering a fan club for the blasted hellscape I now called home.
As I write this, there are rolls of thunder overhead that sound like bombs being detonated. Last night, we woke up after a bolt of lightning hit the ground near our house; the power went out, the house shook, and for a dazed few seconds I thought that there was an explosion nearby. On the few occasions that it’s rained out here, it has poured, each raindrop large enough to fill a teaspoon, hammering down with all the force of hail. Then, within minutes, the parched land transforms into swollen lakes and muddy torrents, flooding roads and houses in the span of half an hour. The desert is extreme.
I have wished, several times, that I could only go home to a more civilized part of the world where the houses don’t look like shacks, and the need for AC isn’t paramount in October, somewhere where grass grows and the largest critters you’ll find are hedgehogs nesting under the garden shed. I have craved the ability to walk less than a mile to a bar, and to hear rain that doesn’t threaten to tear our house down, and to feel confident that our neighbors aren’t cooking meth on the side.
But, when I think about it, I’m not sure if I’m ready to go back to normality just yet.
I wasn’t prepared to love the desert, but I do.
The desert is beautiful. Imagine the post apocalyptic wastelands of Mad Max: That’s exactly it. Not a day has gone by where I haven’t felt the most heart-stopping sense of awe, beholding the sun sinking behind the horizon, hundreds of miles from where I stand. Never does it cease to amaze me, when we drive to work in the early morning sun, how the sky wakes up and turns a bright, deep azure. At night, there are more stars than I have ever seen, and all around us—with no streetlights, no bustling highways, no thickets of houses—there is just pure, pitch black.
Compared to anywhere I’ve lived before, this is a world apart. It is nature spectacularly amplified to an extreme I could barely comprehend until it was right there in front of me. There is a certain charm to living in a place where few living creatures—let alone humans—should naturally flourish; it’s a privilege to drink in each view, sip coffee while thunder shakes the house, to watch the sun burn out over the mountains at night.
More so than anything else I’ve experienced, the desert has shown me that there is happiness to be found anywhere.
The desert has taught me that, while life doesn’t go according to plan and you don’t always end up where you thought you would, there is still so much to love. If you’d asked me a year ago how I’d feel about still working in retail, and living thousands of miles away from my friends, I’d probably have booked the first flight home to England and told my dear husband to come see me at Christmas. But here I am.
And if you asked me now, if I’d give up the encounters with strange meth zombies, or the risk of a scorpion scuttling across the kitchen floor, or the floods and the heat and the sand … you know, I probably wouldn’t. Not yet.