Most trees in the Davis Mountains are stunted —low to the ground as if cowering from the sunlight. Mesquite, evergreen sumac, cholla, and pinyon juniper — all scattered yet multitudinous. I can imagine their careful root systems through the hard sandy soil, inching through time until they run into their neighbors’ roots, whereupon these thirsty tentacles shrink back in deference but—only so far.
There are exceptions, oak, madrone, ponderosa pine have all found footholds in this ancient, weather beaten, volcanic landscape.
Most of these plants keep some kind of winter foliage as if survival here means never giving the parched land (approx. 16.5” precipitation annually) a chance to get the upper hand.
It’s here I have found myself in utter darkness on a January night, curled up inside Blanche, truly “boondocking” for the first time. I have heard one vehicle pass us since we parked six hours prior. It’s 11 pm and in the dark with my propane heater cycling, Sammy snoring, no Internet, not even a signal to inform loved ones that I am safe and comfortable, I have finally reached emotional equilibrium.
My phone informs me it is “wind down” time and for a split second, I think that means the wind is down so I can relax. Of course, that’s a long “i” and it is telling me I need to prepare to sleep if I want to awaken at 6:00 bright and alert.
The wind is blessedly calm here in this canyon. Because it is winter, there’s simply no sound at all. No crickets or katydids. No amorous coyotes. We passed javelina and deer on the way into the canyon but they have surely bedded down against the cold night as well. I have no idea how cold this night will be. I don’t retain information like that anymore. I looked at numerous forecasts for several towns. It’s either in the 30s or freezing. Boondocking below freezing isn’t ideal. I need to run the heater even if I don’t want to use too much propane. I know my other tank is full but I also know if I have to get to it, I will be fighting with it in the cold in complete darkness. There are no street lights here and there is no moon. The stars are brilliant but the cold keeps me at bay.
This was my plan: boondocking, that is. The isolation of the spot? Not so much. I couldn’t tell much on the app about the location. I got a late start so going farther to see if a better rest stop lay ahead is unrealistic. We arrived here moments before the southwestern sky turned deep orange and crimson and I settled for Blanche on a nose-down slope and no other humans for miles.
I didn’t cry.
It was a close call though. When I realized the cell signal I had just moments before I rolled around the bend and downhill was now nonexistent, my gut began to lurch. I worried I was going to revisit the unpleasant chicken sandwich I had half consumed back in Van Horn.
We are naturally and necessarily afraid of the dark. It’s not a silly childhood fear although many a modern-day, light-at-your-fingertips parent chastises their child as such. Fear of the dark is hard-wired in us. We have to learn to not be afraid of it through parental reassurance and other social conditioning. A healthy respect for the danger of it remains within as we walk dark streets and dark woods and venture into dark houses and basements. It is utterly rational to be afraid or anxious of these unlit places.
So when I accepted our fate at this “Depression era rest area” in blooming nowhere, it was still light out and I was fine. Not happy. Not comfortable. Not scared.
When night fell early as it does in winter, and I had only my most basic resources (but thank the universe for this new phone with its excellent battery) THAT is when I became unsettled. That is when my reptilian brain reminded me that humans get eaten by bears and gored by angry javelina moms and what if someone said this was a safe overnight parking place on the app just so unsuspecting nitwits like me would park and be vulnerable without her cell reception?
The perfectly rational fear of the dark became irrational.
I crawled under the covers with dog, got the urge to snack to ease my discomfort, and began to think of other options. I could pack Sammy and me back in the truck, throw the chocks back in Blanche and lift the tongue jack and head back out. Go back toward I-10 and hope I found something before dawn. Or head on to Fort Davis and look for a better spot there or even see if they had available spots at the pricey RV place in town.
Or just stay. My maps didn’t work without a signal so I couldn’t be sure what I was heading into either way nor how long it would take.
I sat in the dark, missing humans, well, a human. I wanted to text anyone really, or call some presence out there in the ether for reassurance that if worst came to worst, they’d come get me and take care of me. But I hadn’t even been specific with my brother about where I was going to stay the night so all he knew was that I was heading for the Fort Davis, TX or Marfa, TX.
Then the oddest thought struck me and it will sound negative or even cruel but isn’t meant to be: My biggest fear in this moment is, have I put myself in danger?
Rather than answer that directly, I answered with a hypothetical. So what if this is my last night on this earth?
Disregarding for a moment that the loss would hurt others, it ultimately means nothing to me. I will simply be gone. I have done, in the last few months, things I never expected to do when I was still married: Published poetry online & in print, had a lover, fallen in love, lived alone in a house, lived alone in a camper, traveled across Texas alone pulling said camper, made my own repairs to said camper, and finally, boondocked in the middle of an ancient cluster of hills and mountains near the U.S.-Mexico border with just the dog, a propane heater, and some nice memories.
There was a time when I would tell you that though I didn’t fear my death, I did care that I hadn’t done the things I wanted to do in my life and I regretted that. I didn’t care about my life, nonetheless. Recently, that’s been turning around and I care about my life in that I want to make the most of these last years, however many there are of them. I would tell you now that I don’t fear my death AND I don’t feel I must accomplish anything in particular before I die. Would I like to do so? Sure. I simply no longer have that fear of a wasted life. I don’t expect to ever love again. I don’t expect to ever be particularly useful to society or produce anything of value. I am useful to my family and that’s enough.
In the morning I will drive away from this secluded little spot, assuming the chaotic universe allows. I had considered doubling back to I-10; go the safe route and make my journey back to Dallas and my grandbabies less exciting but safer.
I think, if my phone tells me I have the fuel, I will go to Fort Davis instead. Take the long way home as I had intended when I packed my truck last night when I had street lights and electricity that gave me courage. When cottonwood and elm were bright and airy and reaching tall into the winter sky because they had the Rio Grande seep feeding their roots.
Tomorrow I’ll put faith in the crouching trees and dark, narrow rivers of blacktop, set my phone to “shuffle” and sing my way east.