I just recently returned from driving around and hiking through the southwest inspired by completing a recent book project where the desert is a tangential subject. I wanted to celebrate by seeing, for the first time, a landscape that was unique to my experience and background. And considering how I do things, I don’t just dip my toes in. I dive in.
The itinerary of the trip was to fly in to Las Vegas, spend a few days in Death Valley, drive to Joshua Tree and hike there for a few days, and then wrap things up by hiking into depths of Grand Canyon. A full circle through the desert, admiring the perfect bleakness and seeking the answer to its unsolvable riddle.
On this trip, I felt like I was living in a novel. I hiked a lot of different trails and terrain. I met some incredibly interesting people. I had a near death experience on the second day. I lived on a bus on a compound owned by Italian prince. I toured the remnant of a ghost town. I discovered hidden aspects of the desert that I had never anticipated.
I also did a ton of driving. So much driving. Clocked in nearly 30 hours in the car and almost hit 1700 miles on the road. Living in Chicago, I never drive. I was a bit anxious about all the miles thinking that I was gonna be constantly maneuvering around fishtailing semis on four lane interstates. Actually, the opposite happened. I expected small desert roadways in and out of the parks, but I never expected that driving four to six hours from one park to the next. And It was rather lovely, peaceful, and quiet.
When I finished hiking through Death Valley, the next stop was Joshua Tree. I got up at 5 AM from my Airbnb and hit the road. For these long drives, I solicited album and playlist recommendations that had desert vibes or made sense in the context of the trip (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly soundtrack and Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs as examples). I also put together my own playlists based on pop culture projects that evoked desert locales and imagery (Fallout: New Vegas soundtrack for example). These were really helpful as not only they set the mood and elevated the context of the environment I was driving through, they gave me entertainment considering I as driving through areas with little to no radio reception.
On this drive to Joshua Tree, I spent half the trip driving through the Mojave National Preserve. This was just a single two-lane road that went through the heart of the preserve where I would only see another vehicle every 30 minutes or so and, because of the timing of when I left Death Valley, drive through during sunrise which allowed me to see the sand, rocks, and trees change shape and color with the rising of the sun. It was absolutely stunning.
AS the landscape was slowly shifting from black to blue to purple to red to orange, I felt like I had the right soundtrack for the experience. As one of the road trip albums I selected before the trip, I put on Robert Plant’s second studio album The Principle of Moments. Released in 1983, this album is a departure from Led Zeppelin’s hard rock sounds incorporating a moody landscape of synth and pop, made ethereal with dreamy, existential lyrics. A great album to get lost in while on the road.
The best song on the album, and the one that truly made this driving experience perfect, was “Big Log.” The first single off the album, it is a slow, methodical tune with tight percussion and a dreamy guitar lick that is reminiscent of the “Happy Together” by the Turtles. In the song, Plant sings about his love of the highway and the excitement he gets seeing the cities fly by and the slow changing of light as the sun sets ad the tail lights come to life. His relationship with the road and why he goes down it is unknown. Plant sings that it is leading him on, joined by a soft chorus repeating line, almost as if he is pursuing something. Perhaps searching for the unattainable truth all men seek when they wander into the desert. Even the music video for the song finds Plant lost in the desert, seeking truth and knowledge as he eventually confronts his own limitations in a mysterious classroom. Given that his car,in the end is towed, has he found what he has looking for, or as he perished on the journey for truth? Either way, there is no turning back.
This was such a remarkable trip and one I hope to do again someday. The calm and clarity one obtains when hiking, driving, or wandering through the desert provides a value that is only clear when you realize and abandon the superfluous nature of the unnecessary aspects of our existence.