on the edge (but not over)

lately i’ve become acutely aware of my innate and perverse tendency to adamantly (and sometimes stupidly) confront things that scare me, usually much to my own displeasure. it’s a strange compulsion that i’ve had since i was a child and i simply cannot stop myself from pushing the limits of my own being to the very edge from time to time. sometimes it’s emotional, sometimes it’s mental, sometimes it’s physical, but this time it was rather literal in it’s edginess.

it all started a few months ago while i was running with a friend who insisted on scrambling up what could only generously be termed a path up the the rocky cliffs of la jolla. i did this twice, had an asthma attack once and both times felt the strongest sense of dread as i skidded along the loose gravelly rocks in my well-worn sneakers, just a few inches at times from sheer drop offs. did i mention i frequently experience vertigo in looking into the kitchen sink?

so that was several months ago. yesterday it was lovely outside (as per usual in sunny san diego), with warm weather that felt just like summer. i happened to be clad in athletic gear and in la jolla and decided to go for a quick jog on the beach. two and a half hours later i was delirious. but here’s what happened in the interim: i took off at a good clip down the coast of la jolla shores and before i knew it was surrounded by nude men, mostly over the age of 60. it was pretty much the opposite of eye candy in every sense of the word. i had run this route before, but today was different–it was beach weather and the nudists were in full force, playing volleyball, walking jauntily about and were frankly inescapable. i ran faster–i don’t think there’s anything wrong with black’s beach, but suffice it to say, it’s not my scene.

than i remembered the climb, that i could go up what the numerous warnings signs referred to as “unstable cliffs” and avoid running back through black’s beach on the return. it would be good for me i thought–face this fear, on my own and conquer the mountain. it seems whenever i have major life changes ahead i try to push forward with these types of fear-busting initiatives in an unrelated area of my life.  i was also rather jazzed after having a few people like a quote from kerouac that i posted recently (how sad is that?): “because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. climb that goddamn mountain.”

so i climbed that goddamn mountain. and nearly killed myself in the process–or as someone lovingly put it, nearly became a quadriplegic–a state i would prefer to avoid if possible. it didn’t look too bad, i thought to myself from the ground. i already felt a bit faint after running hard in the heat of the day with little more than some oats and a green juice to sustain me. probably not a good idea i thought to myself. somehow this voice in my head frequently gets overridden by sheer stubbornness. it’s not all that charming of a quality, but it’s true nonetheless.  about a quarter of the way in and several near misses, i decided that this was clearly a very bad idea given my low energy level and lightheadness, my well-worn shoes and the fact that i had no one to spot me if i needed help. upon making this decision, i turned around decisively, only to find that the way down seemed even more risky than the way up. i felt mild panic, did some deep breathing and decided i would just have to continue upward.

i climbed on my feet and hands nearly the whole way up, with one or both feet sliding out from under me with the dry gravelly earth no less than a dozen times. while i’m sure it can’t be this hard for everyone, i’m rather uncoordinated and tend to not fare well on this type of terrain as a general rule. about half way up i realized i my breath had turned panicky and i was no longer looking ahead to find the best path, just scuttling up the side of rocks without any sense of planning. this was a good way to die i thought to myself and knew i had to calm down and start thinking about staying on the actual path (what little of one there was at least). i thought about the boy i like and about my dog and my family and friends, how much i would miss them, how grateful i would be to just enjoy my life and drink a lemonade if i made it over this, how i would never ever ever do this again. i thought about the story on the news that sounds like a few others i had heard in recent months about girls falling over the sides of cliffs in southern california. i could be one of those girls. granted, it’s truly over-the-top dramatic, but i was terrified to the point of nearly hyperventilating and my mind was running wild. worst of all, i didn’t even have my phone to document the experience.

somehow there was next to no one on the trail, save for a kind but dorky man in his late 30s who was kind enough to chat with me casually for a few moments, which was essential to me calming down before making the final ascent. i sat down and asked him about his shoes, the silly kind that separate your toes out to build strength in your feet (who cares about strong feet, really? maybe everyone but me.) this tiny bit of human interaction helped–i also was able to watch which route he took for part of the path, which at the time was immensely helpful. i sat and meditated for a few minutes, regaining my breath and a modicum of clarity and focus.

long story short, i made it up the side of the mountain. on the way back, i received a round of applause and a bevy of high fives–it was almost as if these kind beach people knew what i had been through and were congratulating me for my courage. in reality, they were just some fratty boys that i would never acknowledge under normal circumstances, but this time i was gleeful–tipping my hat, big smile and one high five after the next. i made it up the mountain and back on my own–and the lemonade has never tasted so good.

desert dreaming

after my jaunt to salvation mountain i’ve been craving the dry desert air, but more of the poolside with cocktail variety. and what better place for that than palm springs?

made it to the mountain

it feels like i’ve been talking about it forever, but i finally made it to salvation mountain, just a few short weeks after the death of it’s creator, leonard knight. as a generally optimistic person, my expectations are usually quite high and are rarely exceeded–but this journey was an exception.

i received a detailed email that read as a travelogue of one of your hippest friends, someone who knows and loves the area with a kind of intimacy that is unmistakable and hard to replicate. these bits of insider information guided us through the first half of our desert venture, until we reached the stone tower of in-koh-pah, where we spent what felt like a great deal of time talking about the state of agriculture, drought and politics with the caretaker of the tower. surrounded by his (five that we counted) dogs from the moment we stepped out of the car, we knew quite quickly that we weren’t in kansas–or at least not the california that we knew–any longer. it was barren, desolate, the colors of the sky and earth faded and melding together seamlessly. after a quick photo shoot, we were ready to get back on the road to our primary destination, not without a warning from the kindly (if rather chatty) caretaker, who advised us that under no circumstances should we spend the night there–he made us promise that we’d be back in san diego, or at least leaving the desert by nightfall. this didn’t bode well for us–we had already been warned by said hip travelogue friend that he and his than-girlfriend had a gun pulled on them during one of their desert ventures. this was concerning for two reasons (and probably many more): one being that i’m not very scrappy and would probably rather die than try to fight violently for my life and two, that this gun was pulled on two people who are probably the least threatening, most peaceable people i know–and certainly not flashy. luckily i felt somewhat safe with my friend in tow–although she’s incredibly girlish in some ways, i also felt fairly convinced that she could be fierce, or at least more so than i, if need be. it was still not horribly reassuring, but we pressed onward.

we stepped out of the car for a quick bathroom/stretch break at a nearby rest stop and were distrubed to notice that all of the vending machines were behind not one, but two sets of bars. we wondered if they were even operable. this seemed like a bad sign. we got a snack, thought briefly of the implications and headed further into the east. i somehow failed to mention that at this point we were no longer following our gps, but an alternate route given to use by the man at the tower, who cited it as “more scenic”–why we decided to heed his advice, i’m still not quite sure. we ended up at the sonny bono center at the south tip of the salton sea. it was ok. we were back in the car after 15 minutes of intense heat coupled with an even more intense stench.

after switching back to gps and consulting a makeshift map from the wildlife center, we were again on the path to the mountain. after flying by the easily missed main street and doing a u-turn in the middle of a deserted highway in what looked to be an abandoned town and passing a hazardous waste facility and a state prison, we finally saw a glimpse of bright candy colors on the horizon.

as we pulled up to the mountain and scrambled out of our air-conditioned comfort, i was struck not only by the flat, bold hues that contrasted so dramatically with the dim landscape, but also with the scale of this so-called mountain–it felt so small, so nearly insignificant again the expansive stretches of desert. while we sojourned to see what we both considered an important contemporary art project, there were many there who could be considered true believers, making a pilgrimage in a different devotional sense. after a few photos and a bit of rambling around the shrines, we were soon approached by a volunteer clad all in desert khaki and a floppy hat, a man that decidedly fell into the true believer camp. while my partner in crime tuned out, i couldn’t help but be drawn into his story, wishing desperately that i could whip out my notebook without alarming him or stifling his stream-of-consciousness speech. he told us the story of leonard, how he slept in his truck through the 110 degree desert heat, how he was saved and felt unworthy, how he made two other attempts to spread the good news–he referred to these as mistakes numbers one and two. the first mistake was constructing his own hot air balloon, which he deemed to be the largest in the world, adorned with god’s message. it didn’t work. the second mistake was creating a giant concrete wall with the word “repent” emblazoned on it in bold. it crumbled at the current site of the mountain. both of the these mistakes were attributed as errors due to leonard telling god what he wanted to do, rather than asking god what he wanted from leonard. as the volunteer told it, when leonard finally asked god what he wanted from him, the response was salvation mountain.

at the end of this story and after fielding a few questions, the volunteer began his pitch, although it was different than i had anticipated. growing up in the south, i had heard stories like this before and felt prepared for almost anything. that was, until he asked us to come volunteer for a work weekend on the mountain. samantha and i exchanged a look. he definitely had pegged us wrong–with marc jacobs flats, immaculately polished nails and a penchant for decent dining and comfortable temperatures–as well as an aversion to hard physical labor, he had found the wrong girls to pitch this too. we couldn’t help but giggle and demur his offer. while we both love art, this was not going to be out outlet for it, despite his solicitous appeal and promise of a mid-day pizza party.

we eventually managed to excuse ourselves from the evangelical volunteer and made our way up the yellow brick road to the top, and only than realized that it was all a facade, wondering if the irony was realized or lost entirely. before we got back into the car, i took one last look–it was likely to be the one and only time i was ever in this special place–at least in it’s current state–it had just been repainted a few days before we had arrived. the message “love is universal” struck me. it was settled, i liked leonard. it was such a great disappointment that i hadn’t made it there before his passing, but the pilgrimage was still a journey i won’t soon forget. it made me wonder about the lines we draw between people that are mad, people that are true believe, people that are artists, people that are simply, incredibly passionate. it’s a fine line by any standard, one that sometimes blurs into uncharted territory. thinking back on it though, all the lines seem rather arbitrary anyways.

before heading home, we drove through slab city, a bit too concerned by leering groups of hitchhikers to get out of the locked car. it would probably be fine, but we were both hot, tired and not wanting to risk it. we drove about, snapped a few photos and felt incredibly tempted to try the oasis lounge–it was like the upside-down version of palm springs. as we drove back across the desert, i couldn’t help but feel pulled by a deep longing–i really did want a drink at the oasis lounge. it wouldn’t be unlike walking on the moon for me in a world foreign to my understanding.