I’m alone somewhere in the foothills on the east side of Lake Mead. Surreal, really, this place so barren and desolate and empty.
This is a fierce landscape. And part of what makes it fierce is its indifference to me. This wilderness cares not one whit about my presence. Or my absence. If I follow the rules, if I respect the power of this place, then I’ll survive and be back in the office on Monday. If I don’t, if I fail to recognize my limits and my insignificance, this place can and will kill me.
I think of a lesser-known theological item, way back in the Judeo-Christian theological cupboard, behind the cream of celery soup that you’re never going to open: The aseity of God. A wholly otherness. A movement of The Holy that is known almost always by its immutable silence. Its absence. Its refusal to be possessed by sentiment or intellect.
I’ve come to this wilderness because I was feeling alone. Oh, I’ve felt alone before. Many times. “Alone” is a very ordinary human experience. But, for most of my life, when aloneness came to visit, I would promptly vacate the premises. Anything to deny or ignore it. I was — and still can be — the master of distraction when it comes to the deeper work of being human.
But not this weekend. This weekend I go camping. And I invite Aloneness to come camping with me.
I unpack my minimal gear, lay out my sleeping bag, and sit back against a rock, munching trail mix. What wine are you supposed to serve with trail mix?
That’s when I see Mr. Turkey Vulture, almost motionless in midair, like a kite on a string, looking at me, close enough for me to see the leathery red wrinkles of its head. “You’re early,” I call out, my voice sounding oddly loud against the silence, “but, hang around if you want and we’ll see what happens.” Then I laugh out loud, because we both know what will happen, sometime between the next few minutes and 30 years from now.
Next is Ms. Pepsis Wasp. I swear these things must be launched from aircraft carriers. They are huge. But, since I’m not a tarantula, I simply wish her well on her hunt for the hapless arachnid that will be anesthetized, knocked out and sound asleep as mama’s larvae hatch and dine.
I wander, going nowhere and somewhere all at the same time. Up, then down a ravine. Across a wash. And up again. I clear the hill, and, for only the second time in my life, I see a mountain lion in the wild.
She’s facing me below. Maybe 30 yards away. Frozen, except for the twitching tail. “Well, hello,” I say with a smile and all admiration. I have no idea why I wasn’t afraid. Trust? Arrogance? Reckless naivete? Perhaps a consequence of leaning into insignificance is that your grip on self-preservation is momentarily loosened.
She trots away a few paces, looks back over her shoulder to consider my presence once more, then she simply levitates straight up an 80 degree incline. Mountain lions don’t do gravity. I’ve played the scene over and over in my mind. I watched her do it. I just don’t know how she did it. It looked like water flowing uphill. One last glance from the top of the bluff, and she simply evaporated.
And I felt changed. Can’t say for better or worse. Just different. Can’t even put into words what was different. But if you can see what I saw and not be changed, I’d say you were embalmed.
The next evening I was back on my porch. Kelly the Wonderdog was on alert, fussing at something over in the corner of the patio. What looked like a dirt clod began to move. Took me a minute to believe what I was seeing. A Mojave desert tortoise, no more than a two-week hatchling, was motoring across my patio.
I banished Kelly indoors, and wondered what to do. These noble, perfect creatures are protected by law. I called the Desert Tortoise Hotline, whose recorded message told me to “insert the 10-digit number of the Embarq mailbox you wish to reach.” Since I had no idea what the hell that meant, I placed the beast in my tomato garden, where there is safety, moisture and plenty to eat.
I hope the tortoise pops out and visits me again sometime. He and his friends made me feel less alone this weekend. They filled some empty places in my soul with wonder. I walked into aloneness and found companionship.
Creation is born of the void. You can’t have one until you make friends with the other.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at email@example.com.