The Healing Power of the Desert Southwest

I’ve long considered the desert a magical place of extreme contrast, a desolate environment filled with surprisingly abundant life. The stark landscape and bold colors, sweeping winds and beautiful silence, bright stars and blue skies, all create a powerful energy.

A land of contrast and extremes.

Last week I returned from an almost two week trip to the Southwest, partly in Vegas for work, the rest boondocking in the Nevada desert, visiting an old friend in Utah, and exploring Valley of Fire, Zion, and Bryce.

I love to write and use my blog to share the stories of the beautiful places I’ve been. I don’t usually write about my personal life except through the lens of my adventures. Lately I haven’t even been writing at all. Life threw me a few unexpected hits lately that took some time to absorb.

When I finally sat down to write again, specifically about this trip, I realized I couldn’t really tell the story without diving a bit into my personal life.

It’s vulnerable to write about your troubles and challenges, but we all have them. Many times they’re what drive me into the backcountry. It’s the adventures I’ve done during my toughest times that are often the most memorable.

I waffled a lot on whether to write this, but doing it as the usual trip report seemed a disservice to my entire desert experience. One day I’ll come back and read this and remember how the desert saved me.

Losing my way.

Most people who know me characterize me as a bubbly, smiling, often annoying optimist. It’s true, I can find a silver lining in even the worst of situations. I don’t know what makes me the way I am, but I’m the ridiculously happy person everyone wants to punch. I marvel at rainbows, play with butterflies, and dance in the rain.

That’s me!

This is pretty much my usual mood. Big fat goober.

Then last year, my seemingly never-ending happiness disappeared amongst a flood of unexpected loss.

It started with the breakup of an almost 4-year relationship with my partner. Honestly, I think our relationship had been faltering for a while, but my rampant optimism often leaves me clinging to what I should not. Late in November while I was boarding a flight to Vegas for a work conference, we finally called it over for good.

We’re both private people so I’ll save the details other than to say that our expectations were simply misaligned. We didn’t share the same priorities or path in life.

Let me tell you, Vegas isn’t the healthiest of nurturing environments when you end a relationship with not only your lover and partner but also your best friend. That trip went down in history as the worst trip of my life.

We both have a lot of mutual respect and affection for each other and it was an amicable breakup, but I was still angry, disappointed, and heartbroken. I’ve been in a few serious relationships in my life, but never one that felt more true to me than this one. I thought I had finally met my match.

I was wrong.

Two weeks later I lost an uncle who I hadn’t seen in probably 25 years. Growing up, he was like a second father to me and one of the nicest, kindest, most caring people I’ve ever known. I was filled with regret for not seeing him again. My heart cracked open a bit more.

Then only a few weeks later, I faced my biggest loss of all, my beloved Jake dog, my best friend and adventure partner. What was left of my heart shattered into a million pieces.

Jake and I on one of our early adventures in the Methow Valley. He was always by my side.

There’s no putting into words the anguish and heartbreak of knowingly counting down your best friends last 24 hours of life. On January 4, Jake dog crossed over the rainbow bridge.

He was my co-pilot in life for nearly 13 years and that crazy dog went with me everywhere. Together we climbed mountains, camped, backpacked, swam, road tripped, and curled up together on the couch to watch movies. Wherever I went he was by my side.

My best adventure buddy.

We were a team and I can’t think of a single memory without him. I even bought my condo with him and coming home alone for the first time in 13 years didn’t feel like home at all.

In the span of barely 5 weeks I had lost everything that meant anything to me and all the things that I loved lost their meaning. I told myself I’d bounce back. I forced myself outside to try to make it ok, but it wasn’t. I was hollow.

I won’t lie, for most of December, January, and February, I fell into a pretty dark place. I stayed in bed. I stopped writing. I stopped hiking. I tried to hide it, but it was the first time in my life my happiness was completely gone and I couldn’t will it back.

The sparkle of snow.

In mid-February, snow started falling from the sky. I’m sure if you live anywhere in western Washington you remember that! In fact, it would turn into a record-breaking snow storm that buried the city and entire region in a blanket of white.

For the first time in months I felt a small estranged glimmer of excitement. I walked to work in the snow and then one morning I grabbed my skis and headed out my front door for first tracks along Lake Washington.

The first time I felt a small bit of happiness.

Jake dog had always loved the snow, probably more than life itself, and it was tough to be out there without him. I had also done little backcountry snowboarding this winter since breaking up with my partner meant I also lost my other ski buddy.

As I skied along Lake Washington that morning I cycled between fleeting happiness and sadness. At one point though, strange as it seems, I felt Jake dog bounding beside me, burying his nose in the snow and rolling excitedly just how he always did. Even though Jake was gone, it was clear to me that through my memories, he would live eternally. I could almost hear him tromping through the snow with me.

Jake always loved the snow.

I can’t explain it, but the snow began to slowly pull me back to life.

Then my work decided to send me to Vegas again at the end of March for a conference. My tiny sliver of happiness turned to instant dread. The last time I was in Vegas, my life unraveled and I hadn’t been the same since. I didn’t want to go.

The best way out is always through.

It took me a few days to contemplate the work trip, then I remembered a good friend of mine who moved to Kanab, Utah from Seattle a few years ago. I had often talked about visiting her, but with Jake’s deteriorating health and my relationship challenges, I had never made it happen.

The death of my uncle reminded me that you should never put off seeing those people who mean something to you. You know who I mean— the people who inspire you, make you laugh, and who appreciate you for exactly who you are. Those are special people.

I took a week of vacation after my work conference to roam the desert and visit my friend. A little over two weeks ago I boarded a flight to Vegas again, nervous as hell. It had been almost 4 months to the day since my last visit yet it felt like an eternity. “I hate Vegas” I told everyone. Well, that isn’t far from the truth.

Las Vegas is certainly every excess in life that I hate. But that first night in town I put on my running shoes and I made a game out of speed hiking the Strip. I found myself, surprisingly, smiling at the lights, the laughing people, and the Bellagio fountain show.

I survived 4 days on the Strip, alternating time between my hotel room and the conference and working outside at the pool where I could to take in fresh air and sunshine, then I fled.

Leaving Las Vegas.

I spent a day exploring the beauty of Valley of Fire outside Las Vegas before I drove my rental car into the middle of the Nevada desert. Don’t tell the rental car company I took their car off road.

I wrapped myself in a sleeping bag, sat on the ground, and cracked a bottle of wine. I alternated between soothing folk tunes and silence and watched a sunset that would turn into a million twinkling stars. All I felt was the desert wind. Distant RVs looked like little planets of light on the horizon.

Boondocking in the Nevada desert is magical.

I thought about everything. Jake. My uncle. My ex. My job. My life. Everything that brought me to this moment. I certainly didn’t have all the answers, but I knew that being here in this moment was something that made me feel alive. And happy.

Sometime in the morning I woke up and watched the moon rise over the distance mountains, then the sun come up behind it. You don’t spend extended time in the desert without having some kind of spiritual awakening. This landscape changes you. It was the first deep peace I experienced in months.

Sunrise in the desert. Truly soul stirring.

The next few days I wandered the desert, soaking up the sun, exploring by day, and marveling at star-filled skies by night. Whatever was broken inside me finally felt healed. My last night camped on a mesa in Utah, I heard nothing but the wind and the distant howls of coyotes. It was beautiful.

Nothing beats this when you need to recharge your life.

By the time I met my friend in Kanab, Utah a few days later, I felt like a wholly recharged person, back to my usual giddy happiness and funny stories. We spent the next few days visiting Bryce and Zion, laughing, and marveling at the wonder of the world.

The healing power of the desert.

“…the sweet is never as sweet without the sour…” – Vanilla Sky

Life is change. It’s intense grief and deep love, the bad and good, the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, much like the extremes of the desert.

Even in desolation there exists incredible life and beauty. There’s a reason I’ve been to Sedona many times and it’s no surprise to me that the supernatural desert Southwest brought back the magic to this sometimes silly, often difficult, but always amazing life.

You can’t spend time in a landscape like this and not be changed. It’s inspiring.

Now that I took that deep dive into my personal life, I’ll go back to writing my normal stories. I feel recharged and ready to tackle life with my usual annoying optimism. I’ll be posting some photos and trip reports from my travels to Valley of Fire, Zion, and Kanab. I also have a handful of half written articles to finish from the last few months.

Thanks for reading and if you ever need to go somewhere to find yourself again, I can’t think of a better place than the stunning Southwest. It’s full of magic!

I dedicate this post to my bestest of adventure buddies Jake dog and to the kindest, most gentle soul I ever met, my loving Uncle David.