Faith in the Desert

A man spends six days in the desert with only his faith in God to protect him.

Posted in , May 16, 2011

Faith in the Desert

I stood atop a desert peak. All around me, silence. In the distance were more mountains. The landscape was jagged and dry. Every fold and wrinkle of the terrain, every bone-dry gully and rock-strewn canyon, every detail of this beautiful, dangerous place stood out with crystalline clarity.

It was the middle of a September day, the hottest season in Joshua Tree National Park, where I’d come to do some hiking to celebrate a recent real-estate deal. I’m a real-estate broker in downtown Los Angeles, not exactly a lucrative line of work in a recession. Until that September I hadn’t had so much as a nibble for a year. You could call my return to business a miracle, except I didn’t believe in miracles. The desert was as close as I came to spirituality. I felt a great peace out there amid all that silence.

Just three days earlier I’d been surrounded by reporters and cameramen in L.A. as I announced the sale of Clifton’s Cafeteria, a historic restaurant in the heart of downtown. It had taken three years to put the deal together. A few days later another big sale closed on another historic building. Some people might celebrate with a fancy dinner out.

I headed for the desert. I kissed my wife of 21 years, Nicole, goodbye and got on the freeway toward Joshua Tree. Nicole’s used to my hiking trips. Most week­ends I walk in the Santa Monica Mountains near home. I try to make it to the desert at least once a year. I planned to hike to the top of Warren Peak, a four-mile trek through rugged Black Rock Canyon.

Imade it to the top of the peak midday Friday with no problem. I’m 64, but I’d hiked this route half a dozen times. I didn’t bring much in my backpack, just a water bottle, some lunch and a few supplies—a whistle, matches, flares, a pen and a lightweight reflective blanket made of Mylar.

I ate my tomato sandwich, hard-boiled egg and a few dates then sat for a while soaking up the silence. It’s hard to describe desert silence. It’s like its own sound, a presence created by absence. Finally, the midday heat beat down uncomfortably so I took a gulp of water and headed back down the peak.

I scrambled down some rocks and descended a sandy slope toward where I thought the trail was, but after a few minutes I hadn’t found it. I stopped to look around. The landscape was confusing, hills and canyons in every direction, but I recognized my mistake. I’d come down the wrong side of the peak. I saw a canyon leading back in the right direction. I figured it would intersect the trail at some point so I clambered into it.

The canyon quickly narrowed and became very steep. Soon I was hoisting myself down a five-foot drop-off. I walked through sand and came to another drop-off. Then another. Finally the canyon ended and I emerged atop a wide, barren hillside. I recognized none of the landscape. I was going in the right direction. All I had to do was descend this hill, climb that one there and surely I’d hit the trail. I strode down, climbed up and, yep, there was a trail. It didn’t look familiar…maybe I’d been lost in thought when I walked this part. I set off down the path.

I walked and walked. The sun lowered in the sky but lost none of its heat. I wasn’t sure how long I’d been on this trail, but I knew it was longer than it had taken me to reach Warren Peak. I came to a canyon and ventured inside. Everything became narrow, stony, impassable. I stopped. This was the wrong trail. I was lost.

It was too late in the day to retrace my steps and, besides, I didn’t know if I could climb back up those rocky drop-offs. I’d have to spend the night and find my way home in the morning. I opened my water bottle. A few swallows at most. I looked in my lunch bag. A couple of energy bars, but I was too parched to eat. Well, no dinner.

I made my way back to the mouth of the canyon and found a sandy spot on a hillside. I took a sip of water. The sun tipped below the horizon and suddenly the temperature plummeted. I wrapped myself in my blanket and lay down. The sky turned greenish-blue, then purple, then black, carpeted with so many stars it made me dizzy. A cold wind stirred. I shivered and fell into a fitful sleep.

I practically shouted for joy when I saw the first hint of dawn. I’d made it through the night! I took my last sip of water. Before the heat got too intense I set out along the trail. Soon I saw a wash that seemed to lead in the right direction. I followed it. No, that was the wrong way. I retraced my steps and tried an arroyo. No luck. Finally I returned to the hillside, admitting defeat.

The heat was becoming unbearable and I was thirsty. I saw a lone desert pine growing out of the sand. I made my way to it and flopped down in the shade. I lay there the rest of the day thinking almost nothing. I tried to hold up the blanket for shade, but I must’ve torn it during the night. It was shredded. That night I nearly froze.

The next day was Sunday. All I could think about was finding a lower place to sleep. Lower would be warmer. I stumbled down a wash for an hour or so until the heat got to be too much. I hid in a shady canyon. Something buzzed. A horsefly was circling my head. Company at last! I watched the fly in a daze. My throat felt hot and rough. Breathing was an effort.

The day dragged on and the light slowly faded. I stared at the stars. For some reason I remembered a news story I’d read about the famous physicist Stephen Hawking. He’d been quoted saying the laws of physics alone were sufficient to account for the creation of the universe. God was not necessary. I didn’t quite think that, but I certainly didn’t believe God would do anything to help me. Still, I wondered. It was obvious I was lost and in no shape to find my way home. Without a miracle I’d die out here.

There was no miracle Monday. Figuring I was nearing the end, I took a pen from my backpack and scrawled messages on my hat. I told Nicole and our daughter, Hilary, how much I loved them. I wrote instructions for my funeral. That night words came to my lips I’d never seriously uttered before. The Shema Yisrael is a foundational prayer of Judaism, one Jews are taught to pray whenever they fear they may not wake again. I let the ancient words wash over me: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. I said those words over and over until I fell asleep.

Another day, another night. Wednesday the sky looked different, redder. More words came to mind: Red sky at morning, sailors take warning. Surely it wasn’t going to rain! September is the dry season in California, and Joshua Tree is one of the driest places on earth. I tried praying again. I thought I remembered the Hebrew word for water. I said the word several times. I waited. Five seconds. Ten seconds.

 A drop hit my face. Then another. Suddenly it was raining. Drops poured down on me. I opened my mouth. The sensation was indescribable. I swallowed as well as I could. The rain fell for most of the afternoon. The air cooled and the barren landscape, just that morning the landscape of my death, seemed alive. I was witnessing a miracle. An answer to prayers I hadn’t expected to be answered. Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God. Out of absence there was now presence. In this desert place there was something—no, Someone—who’d been waiting for me. I wasn’t lost. I was right where I was supposed to be.

That night I slept peacefully and the following morning I heard the whup-whup of an approaching helicopter. I waved. The helicopter descended and a man in a search-and-rescue uniform jumped out. He carried me to the helicopter. Then I was lying in a hospital bed staring at Nicole’s and Hilary’s faces. Soon I’d be surrounded by more reporters and cameramen—my ordeal had made national news—but for now I basked in my own miracle. Is God necessary for the creation of the universe? I’ll leave that to the experts. All I know is how necessary God is to me. Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God. Those are words to live by, in the desert or wherever I may be.

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