“You can only be a beginner once,” the counselor tells my seventh graders as they select their elective courses for next year. The statement resonates in my own head as well.
As you’ve read a time (or seventeen) before, this year I moved to the desert. Oddly enough, this was also the year that I wholly embraced a winter sport. As fall came to its golden end, impulse struck me. You should get a season pass to Bear Mountain, it said. You should become a ski bunny like you’ve wanted, it encouraged. This is your chance, it pressured. As you also probably know, peer pressure has never been something I can turn from. I bought the season pass before Thanksgiving, ensuring the “lowest price” before winter arrived in all its southern California splendor and jacked the rates up. I followed this with careful scouring of forums and gear sites before choosing the equipment I’d need. The twin resorts at Big Bear opened in mid-December but I stayed away. By my math, I’d have to visit 6 times to justify the season pass price. The same calculations convinced me that if I went every weekend in January and February, I’d reach that goal before the lifts stopped spinning in early March (by my projections). Over Christmas, as part of my strategy, I convinced my mom to take lessons with me in Idaho to get familiar with the basics of the activity, and also to use her for my own selfish means of seeing someone perform worse than me. (It worked like a charm!) Finally, on January 6th, my plan was ready to put into place. Despite a bike accident, I swallowed my concern and brought my inexperienced ass to the mountain.
It was a learning process throughout, but especially that first session. The following day my entire body was sore. I questioned my good sense, my fitness, my motives, and my future as a ski bunny. The day following that, I was planning my next trip up the mountain.
I went every weekend for the next three months, skipping only twice and sometimes visiting both Saturday and Sunday. The weather fluctuated from balmy sunny 60’s where I shed layers or wore short sleeves to snowy, windy days that froze my camelback to days with zero viz at the top and clear skies at the base. I got to try it all. I rode the gamut of lines, at first accidentally visiting the black diamonds and at the end willingly following others down the moguls. I made friends on the lifts, at the bars, around the mountain, and even lured some of my friends along on occasions.
Growth was noticeable almost immediately and was incredibly addictive. The sport gave me a physical outlet for the angst, confusion, and energy I acquired during a week. The sport gave me the camaraderie I am always seeking. The sport gave me confidence. The sport gave me purpose.
When the resorts closed in mid-April, I had gone 12 times. I had brought 4 friends to use up my buddy passes. I had talked two friends into lessons. I had stayed overnight 4 times. I had collected a dozen phone numbers saved with first names and snowboarder emojis. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye and still felt I had more to learn.
Days before Spring Break began, I saw Mammoth’s forecast called for six inches of powder. I immediately made plans to be there for the storm. I was nervous about visiting a real mountain—a mountain that Olympians regularly visit or compete in events at. (DSTSY though, right?) It was the best choice I could have possibly made. At Mammoth I had one of the best ski days of my entire life (aka the season) in the midst of their late season storm. It dumped for more than 12 hours, or the entirety of the day following a heavy overnight blanketing. My new friends from the hostel and I rode all the open lifts, shrieked our way down the diamonds, were ravaged by the wind at the summit and along the knife-edge ridges, and had the most incredible powder runs through the trees. At one point we emerged from the woods with a foot of powder atop our boards. I told them I would probably cry that evening in my bunk, due to the beauty of our experience. They laughed and agreed.
I assumed that beatific moment was the conclusion of my season. I packed everything away. I began taking my bike to Big Bear instead of my board. But I am nothing if not impulsive and last week I decided to visit Mammoth again. I booked the hostel from work on Thursday and was on the road to the mountain by 3pm Friday. For the grand finale of my inaugural ski season, I spent Cinco de Mayo weekend shredding in Mammoth.
It was not the beautiful stormy poetry of April, but it was the perfect ending. As the day waned, I hurled myself down the slope of the park in pursuit of a new friend and, under the shadow of the lift, landed my largest jump with the most unbelievable grace. Shortly thereafter, I wrecked hard and scraped the bare skin of my back with the ice of a feature as I slid down its surface like a starfish, but the memory of that airborne moment is the finale of my year as a beginner.
You can only be a beginner once, they say. I agree. Next year I return to the slopes as a novice, bolstered by the knowledge and skills I’ve acquired as a beginner and looking forward to climbing the next rung of the ladder of experience.
Here’s some pictures from my trips.
First it was months, then it was double digits, then it was weeks. He is eagerly counting down the days, his trip having lost some allure after many months away. He perhaps intuits me better than I thought, because he doesn’t ask questions or make statements about future plans that I, or he, or we may have.
I am living each day more recklessly, knowing they are fewer each morning. This privacy, this solitude, this freedom has allowed me to become my best self and I am not eager to shutter her away. Then don’t, my friends encourage. How can I not? I reply. This version of me cannot exist in tandem with the version he expects. One must cease to be for the other to emerge.
My best self is busy always, is resting never. My best self is not cooking meals regularly or keeping a tidy house. My best self is somewhere every weekend, and some weeknights as well. My best self sets goals and crushes them. My best self travels solo and loves every moment. My best self enjoys the company of others, without the weight of a partner alongside or waiting at home. I don’t know how to go back to all those constraints when I have been so liberated. I don’t know how to stop being my best self. I don’t want to stop being my best self.
It’s weeks and he eagerly counts the days. It’s weeks and I’m having an identity crisis.
It began as a running joke I maintained in my head and in conversation with certain individuals.
“What types of things do you guys do?” a friend asked when I tell him I call myself a desert lesbian. “Make out?”
“Such a dude response,” I reply with a laugh. “We talked about riding bikes, cooking dinner together, then doing some watercolors probably this weekend.”
“Oh that sounds like a lesbo date for sure,” he responds.
“I’m okay with it”
Last night I met her out at the homestead after 8, starlight and high-beams charting the course through the desert sands. We opened Sierra Nevadas and visited around the kitchen table while we finished them. Grabbing seconds, we hiked into the night to the neighboring homestead. A large group of climbers was gathered on the patio under the soft lights already, a pack of dogs roaming amongst the legs and couches. Caileen’s new guitar was being passed around the circle, bluegrass floating from its strings. Have you ever noticed how much bluegrass involves murder-suicide? Sabre points out the ratio of females to males is pretty promising, then Will steps from the house and cuts the numbers less in favor of Tomas and Rod. We laugh, and Caileen takes another turn at the guitar. Her voice drifts over and around us, out into the steadily darkening night. The climbers have an early wake-up call and disperse in bunches to their tents and sleeper-vehicles. Caileen, Sabre, and I stand around the indoor-outdoor kitchen and talk about life, love, mystery. I tell them about my low-key kidnapping earlier in the week. They share my horror. We conclude he must have Aspergers to have missed all the cues. Ah man, dudes suck. We agree. We make plans for Saturday night – we’ll meet next door and make lasagna and drink wine and enjoy more female company.
Caileen and I head back through the brush and sand to the homestead. The water pump has shut off, so we reset it in the storage container out back with sparks and laughter. We uncover the solar panels connected to the water tank so we can perhaps enjoy a hot tub tomorrow night as well as company. Back inside, she throws blankets down from the loft to me and I cocoon myself on the couch below. Plugging our noses, we take valerian root for sleep and wash it down with well water. She reads aloud to me. We fall asleep.
We awaken after 6 (sleeping in!) and enjoy the gray, overcast morning. She puts on a record and the speakers crackle to life with classic tunes. We broil toast in the old-fashioned oven, drizzle it with olive oil, seasonings, and nutritional yeast, and eat outside on the front step. She grabs a carrot from the fridge and we sit in the sand and toss bits to a cottontail. The little feller feels comfortable enough to approach and sniff her extended feet as we recline in the dirt. We make a grocery list for the coming evening’s soiree. We hug and part ways. Following the sandy wash back down from the homestead into Joshua Tree, I am struck by how free and how happy I am. It was a perfect desbian evening and I can’t wait to spend the day by myself fulfilling my introverted needs before rejoining this lovely pack for another night of female fellowship, love, laughter, and authenticity.
If I can be anything, I am not upset that the current manifestation is as a strong, independent, and well-supported desbian.
I frequently say variants of the phrase “I hate men” and for the most part, I mean it in jest and not literally. It’s easier to say than the truth. It feels flippant and earns laughter or light mockery. No one leaves the conversation worse for the wear.
But what do I mean?
The root of it is: I say “no” infrequently for reasons of my own but when I do say it, I expect it to be honored. Women are great about this. Certain types of men* for some reason don’t hear it or choose not to believe it, however, and I hate that aspect of manhood SO MUCH. It is not new, it has been a part of life as long as my memory serves, and—if collective consciousness is any indication—it has occurred for time immeasurable preceding my own petty experiences.
It used to be harmless. It was Dad tickling me. It was boys chasing me.
The stakes are higher these days, but the pattern remains the same. I say “no” and they hear “yes” and nothing frustrates me faster, turns me away quicker, or ends a relationship swifter.
Some recent examples:
He has been a friend for a year or so, with occasional human interactions but largely just social media or text conversation. I am distant with him usually, because on several occasions he has been much pushier than I am comfortable with. I am in Chico for the night, and he is living in Sacramento. He calls me after 9 pm, after texting during the day. He has sent me a screen shot of the airbnb I’m staying in, cleverly identified from a picture I sent him of the cute space. He tells me he’s driving up and his ETA is about 3 hours. He tells me he just wants to talk and spoon. I explain first with laughter and then with sincerity that the situation he describes is absolutely untrue. We are adults, I restate, that’s not how sleepovers work. Don’t come here. Turn around. Go to your girlfriend’s place. We speak for an hour or more. He is halfway to Chico and my subtle rejections of his idea have become explicit and unyielding “no” statements. I am uncomfortable that you appear not to hear what I’m saying, I tell him. I’m passing Gridley, he replies. I’m going to hang up and I don’t want to see you here, I conclude. I’ll call back, he rejoins as I hit the red button and sever our connection. I mute my phone and make sure the door is deadbolted. In the morning I have 4 missed calls and three voicemails, as well as lengthy texts. I delete them all without hearing or reading. For the next several days he attempts to make plans to run into me as I skirt about the north state. He writes long fanciful messages – they are sometimes apologies for the persistence and my “misunderstanding” of his intentions, they are sometimes more graphic and describe what he would have liked to have done if I hadn’t the willpower to hang up and disengage. He praises me, says it was a test all along to assess my integrity. I block his number and, a few weeks later, I also block him on various social media platforms. He still reaches through the void on occasion, confused by my silence. This is my no. Honor my no.
I ask a friend to watch my house and dog while I am traveling. Midway through my trip, he calls to say something came up and he can’t keep his obligation. I find another sitter from thirteen hundred miles away on his behalf, he drops Scout off with the stranger, and disappears. When I get home a week later, I find my house in disarray. A sink full of dirty dishes, both beds unmade, towels piled in the hallway, shattered Christmas decor and wrapping paper strewn across several rooms, blinds askew. It is after 9pm but I clean everything and run several loads of laundry before settling into a fresh bed. I ignore all his calls and texts after this, because when I lose interest I lose it fully and without regret. He writes novels and leaves voicemails. He has a house key still that he’d like to return. He has some tupperware and glassware still. He left some weed in the kitchen. I acknowledge none of it. He asks to stop by and see Scout, says he misses her and needs some dog cuddles. I sometimes reply. I say I’m working late or out of town or running errands. These are my no’s and he continues to persist. He stops by without notice. I do not answer the door. I am careful to avoid the places I know he frequents. This is my no. Honor my no.
A fellow from the dog park is friendly but lacks social skills. He looks like every former military member and I am exceptionally uninterested. However, I know ‘how to human’ so I make conversation. He interprets the conversation as interest. My mistake, I explain. I have a boyfriend. Unfortunately, while I was traveling my house/pet sitter had brought Scout to the dog park and set the tongues (and tails) to wagging and word at the park is I’m single. The fellow pounces when I return. I explain the situation to the group, express apologies for worrying everyone, and unhappily share my number with the assorted dog moms and dads so that we can stay in better contact in case of pet sitting emergencies. He is there and swiftly texts to confirm my name and number. He asks me to dinner that night. I decline and he suggests the following night. I explain I have a fridge full of groceries to eat. He asks if I’d like company. No, I state. He is persistent. I stop going to the dog park. I explain after several days of not acknowledging his texts that I’ve been busy and Scout doesn’t like the german shepherds who harass her. We will not be going back, I apologize. Thus begins his siege. Daily well-meaning invites to run our dogs in the desert or meet for dinner or attend an upcoming renn faire. I decline or do not reply. This is my no. Honor my no.
Another local individual acquires my number from the dog park crowd. He will not stop trying to draw me out. I enjoy being alone, I explain. He remarks “thanks for the invite” on every photo or story I share, like I owe him that or anything else. I would rather be by myself, I explain when he presses. You’ll have to show me those trails you enjoy sometime he replies. I do not respond. One day I decide I would like wings and I text him on a whim since he is a local. Let’s get wings tomorrow after work, I suggest. He eagerly agrees and we set a plan to meet at 5:45 at a local place. He offers to drive and I decline. He pushes and I decide if he wants to double his driving distance, I’ll let him. When he picks me up, he tells me we’re going to Palm Springs. “What about the place here?” I ask, panic fluttering in my chest. “I was planning to do quite a bit of grading tonight; I was planning to be home no later than 7” I add when he continues driving and explaining why he’d rather have wings down the hill than down the street. I point out all the restaurants we pass in Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley. I suggest Pappy and Harriet’s in Pioneertown. They don’t have wings, he counters. No, they don’t, but I have so much work I need to finish tonight, I tell him. My bed time is 8; I wake at 4:45. It is no use. We make the long journey down the hill and reach Buffalo Wild Wings after 7pm. Dinner is nice even though his home-schooled and steadfastly Republican nature is very evident. He calls me a granola like it’s not exactly who I am and what I strive to be. We leave when it is nearly 9. He takes the wrong direction on the interstate, which i immediately notice. We’re headed towards the Salton Sea, I remark when he appears not to notice. No we aren’t he counters. We definitely are, I use a couple percentage of my phone’s precious battery to pull up Google Maps. Oops, he apologizes and takes forever to find an exit. Back on the right course, I tell him I don’t like metal music. He decides to prove me wrong and we listen to power metal covers for the rest of the drive. He asks about my breakup with my boyfriend. Thats untrue, I explain, I do have a boyfriend. We speak pretty often, I add. So I’m the other man? He questions. No, I respond with haste, because you’re nothing to me. You’re a guy who kidnapped me under the guise of getting wings. He laughs. At the base of the Morongo Grade ascending into the high desert where we live, he suddenly veers onto a dirt road. What are you doing? I question calmly, running through my escape options mentally. My jeep modifications aren’t really great for pavement so I like to take this way on dirt, he replies without concern. He genuinely doesn’t detect my unease or the way this behavior reflects upon him. He is spectacularly unaware of what you do and do not do on an outing with someone new. My phone battery is at 3% but I am taking casual videos with geotags and posting them on Snapchat. Unsurprisingly, he takes a wrong turn and needs to backtrack to a different jeep trail. 1% battery. He was correct and the trail eventually joins one of the dirt roads through Yucca. We rejoin the highway. After 10:30, he stops outside my house. I unbuckle and hop out before he can shut off the engine. Thanks, bye! I call over my shoulder. He texts me later and offers to help me grade. I do not respond. In the morning and through the afternoon he texts me. I respond tersely. I had to rewrite my whole lesson plan for today because I didn’t get to finish my work last night, I offer. I tell him I’m never getting in his car again. In the evening, when he asks about my afternoon of silence, I tell him I really enjoyed a hike by myself with no surprise detours. He accuses me of saltiness. I agree. This is my no. Honor my no.
These are some of my experiences. When I say “I hate men,” I don’t mean it. What I mean is, I hate that men think that my statements don’t apply to them, or are made to be disproven. I enjoy freedom, I enjoy space, and I enjoy being able to do and think what I want without needing to defend it. Women respect that. Why must that be viewed as such a conquest to men?
“Love you” I conclude our conversation, driven by familiarity, or reflex, or something further. Do I? In which eskimo-sense of the word? It is January. Months and miles separate us. I am unfazed.
It’s not fair to him at this time and in this place especially but it will be no less fair months or years from now, in any setting. Still, I will wait. God grant me the strength to break his gentle heart.
What or who do I love, if not this kind, quiet human who has given me the last x years? I love aspects of many individuals; many fine men and women have shown me which characteristics I admire. I would choose traits from each meaningful soul if it were up to me. (Isn’t it, though?) Conversely, I also know which elements of each soul have driven me away. I would choose to continue avoiding these characteristics. (Can’t I, though?)
Mostly at this time and from this experience, I have learned that I love this newest version of me the best. She is alone; she is aware; she is strong; she is unafraid. Perhaps the ultimate purpose of this chapter in my story was this precise moment of recognition. Maybe I would not have come to this eureka moment without having experienced this episode. The lesson is this: My happiness is not dependent on my status with others; it is related directly to comfort with and confidence in myself and in this moment, in the waning twilight of my time alone, I am very comfortable with and confident in myself.
Date someone you have very little in common with and maintain only surface-level conversation and honesty with one another and sure, there will be challenges, but the partner will be a gentle, non-disruptive presence in your life. Life will be a placid lake, always glassy and maybe kissed by a lingering fog. You will be bored and you will want for more, but you will not be burned. These individuals will not set your heart and mind on fire, but they also will not have the capacity to extinguish those flames without warning or reason. You will be bored, but you will be safe.
I know this because I have been on both sides of the fires. I have set them and ran, and I have felt them and suffered. I have spent years floating in a placid lake or two, so the enveloping heat is always attractive. I love stepping from the cool water, wringing out my hair as I stalk towards the simmering draw of another rapidly firing mind. I love finding the ways our psyches match, and exploring where they differ. Nothing is as attractive as a beautiful mind, and my reaction when I stumble across one is as predictable as the end result.
In the cyclical nature of life, this is my Sisyphean task. I should learn really, but the climb is so mesmerizing and the heat at the peak is just-almost worth the rapid slide back down into the still, lonely waters.
Stay bored; stay safe.
Picture these scenes:
An afterwork hike up some south side single-track, drifting in and out of microclimates as you curl around rock formations, through gullies, and over boulder piles. Looking up at a wall of red rock to see Scout’s twin staring back down, head tilted in curiosity. Greeting another wandering desert soul, commenting on dog similarities, and heading different ways without farewells. Blazing your own trail up a wash as the sun sets, smelling campfire char and creosote on the breeze. Following another single-track further into the rock garden. Walking back down the dirt road once you reach trail’s end, watching the Joshua Trees fade into the murky dusk until, in the final minutes, you must wear a headlamp on the approach to your car. You can’t wipe the smile from your face.
Another day, another afterwork venture. This time you’re incorporating the new trails you walked into your favorite circuit to ride. You tag every rock you pass, and do much more vert than you imagined, but you watch the sunset from a clear high vantage. You race the twilight back down to the car. As you crawl down the rocky double track towards town, three lithe forms materialize in front of you, keeping pace. “Howling Moon” is playing through your speakers and drifting out your open windows, out which your left arm also dangles. The coyotes nonchalantly lead the way, unconcerned about the vehicle following slowly behind. The sky is purple like a bruise above, the dirt silver like a scar below. The coyotes leave the road, pausing on the edge. You pass within spitting distance but do nothing but tip your head and grin widely in acknowledgment of the moment. You leave the bike and dog at home, grab a handful of pretzels, and head to yoga. Afterward, you curl yourself onto the couch between Scout and a bowl of popcorn.
You realize that it happened slowly at first and then all at once. You have fallen in a type of love with this place you vowed to hate. If you must be here, you are not upset about it. Many parts are challenging but many parts are immensely rewarding. You breathe deeply. You bring your hands to heart center. “Namaste” you state to no one in particular.
“So are you a lesbian now lol” he asks from somewhere far and east.
“I think so!” I reply. Am I joking?
I am living as part of my dream community here in the high desert. I used to call us desert orphans, marooned here by our choices. Now I consider us more of a supportive commune. We are strong, independent, active, and caring but also, we are all female.
We bike, and climb, and yoga, and ride, and camp, and discuss, and dine, and drink, and laugh, and cry. I get to do as much or as little as I want, with as many or as few companions as I want. I answer their calls without hesitation, but I also answer to no one. It is splendid. These women and this life of utter independence are exactly what I have wanted.
On a recent Friday we sat on a back deck, overlooking miles of uninterrupted Mojave desert, discussing the five love languages and how they have shifted for us each personally through the years and relationships. We sipped red wine and curled into soft blankets on the mismatched patio chairs, watching the backside of the sunset fade through its pastel hues over the open desert. The conversation was so thoughtful that none of us wanted to be the one to end it, even as we shivered within our blanket cocoons, tucking legs, arms, and heads into the folds. We discussed relationship vs ownership, the importance of assertiveness, personal problems, and shared reflections. A teacup of persimmon slices slid from hand to hand, as we snacked and visited in our circle. It was a beautiful evening, even when we overstayed our welcome and the sunset became full night, rung in by a chorus of coyote song.
I am happy with these souls. I am content to spend time by myself and do so often, but I value the instances I get to spend in their midst as well. We share that sentiment; we are all happy to live our solitary and independent lives, but it is enriching to gather together and recharge in one another’s long desert shadows.
It’s our Girl World, and it’s wonderful. If it were not a gross misappropriation, I would call myself a desert lesbian and I would love every hairy-legged, gently-meditative, wholly-mindful, restorative minute.
It was 9pm on December 31st, 2017. The usual dirt road I turn onto to reach the neighborhood had a flickering torch at its otherwise unassuming entrance. I followed the dirt strip between creosote and chaparral as it wound its way out of the dry lake basin and up towards the rocky heights. Instead of parking at the homestead, I turned left at the upside down car and stayed left again at the tire pile. Ahead, in my headlights, a small structure caught the moonlight with its wall of windows. I parked near the other car I recognized as my friend’s, grabbed the bottle of white from the passenger seat, and zipped my keys into the pocket of my puffer. The flashing lights, sparking bonfire, and house music could be heard clearly though I was still a half mile from my destination. Initially, I struck out on the dirt road. Roads meander in the desert however and the moon was bright enough that I didn’t hesitate to abandon the double-track and head cross country in a beeline towards the homestead. There was a time in my life when such brazen disregard for the night would have been unthinkable; however, here I have learned that I no longer fear the darkness (figurative or literal). I stepped carefully though, guided by the glaring silver of the moon, because wool socks are warm and comfortable but poor defense against cholla or other spiny desert flora.
The homestead’s circular driveway was full of off-road vehicles, sprinter vans, old trucks, motorcycles, and other typical desert transport. The fire towered over the dark silhouettes surrounding it. I saw a shadow in the homestead’s window and headed indoors instead of towards the masses. In a stroke of luck, the individuals I most wanted to see were standing about the kitchen. Together, we joined the gathered crowd. I easily fell into conversation with a group of grad students from Santa Cruz as my friends melded into other gathered groups. My hands were swiftly filled with libations and my head with lively conversation. I have told my story enough in these settings that sometimes I believe it. The fire was large, fed with pallets and other desert detritus, and quite warm. It was easy to forget that the temperature further from the flames hovered around 40.
One of the residents of the neighborhood had rigged a GolfBoard to be desert-equipped Away from the fire, I joined a cluster admiring the machine and taking turns shooting around the driveway. Eventually, as I was considering how cold it was away from the fire’s heat, a friend took the can from my hand and placed the remote control in its place. The GolfBoard is unique in that you control speed with a handheld remote but direction is determined by the amount of torque you apply to the front handlebar. It was fast as hell and my turning skills made for some dicey moments as I practiced my laps amongst humans and machines, lit by flashing neon and firelight. It was every bit a scene from Mad Max.
Around midnight: we took handfuls of flour and threw them together into the bonfire. A flash of white and heat, and a cheer. Another explosion: this one carefully executed with used cooking oil. Finally: a crescendo of large-scale fireworks stopping our hearts with the concussion and filling the sky with reds and yellows.
There was no official countdown; it was 2017 and then it was 2018. The crowd continued to mingle and lubricate. I had spoken with several interesting individuals, had been gifted a sip of desert moonshine (“it’s more like mead” he replied gruffly when I question the drink I was proffered), and had tried some other new things. The desert evening was exactly what one would have expected to find in Joshua Tree. A man was returning to his own cabin near where I’d parked so I accompanied him. It was after 2 and I was ready to get home to my bed and Scout. After some discussion of future plans and a welcome drink of water, I retreated to my car, folded myself into the driver’s seat, wound my way around partygoers on dirt bikes, and headed back out the way I had came. The torch at the paved road sputtered in the early morning breeze, waving me on my way and welcoming the year ahead.