Life in the Real Desert: Pilgrim’s Progress

Author photo March 2013
Finishing my first cup of tea and ruminating over the past few days events has left me with an epiphany of sorts. Let me explain: Back in 2012 while I was in Basildon Hospital, in the UK, and recovering from the dual surgery that saved my life, I got a visit from a lovely lady who worked in the medical facility. She warned me that one day, it would all sink in about how close to death I had been. “It is usual for survivors to experience crushing depression,” she said.

Well, it is now over two and a half years since that fateful day; where my universe shrank down to a tiny space of unbelievable pain, and that depression has still not made an appearance. Certainly I do feel down sometimes, these happen at the oddest times as well. Yesterday, for example, had this new desert dweller becoming the recipient of not one, but several acts of kindness. Yet when arriving back home, I was caught up in a blue funk that lasted till sleep.

Most of that was from being overly tired. My only mechanical mode of transport was out of commision for a few days, requiring a back inner tube, so it was two days of attempting to patch said tube and one day of angrily marching a total of 3.5 miles only to realize that by the time I got to the store it would be closed. It was then a much slower trip home as the anger was spent and I was tired, after all the wasted adrenaline drained away.

That walk, although not too hot according to the thermometer, beat the hell out of me and for the next two days I hurt everywhere. Lesson learned: Do not storm off on a moderately hot day in a foul mood.

This pilgrim’s progress has been slow and not just to adjusting to life in the desert here in the southwestern state of Arizona. The reason for this slow acclimation to things since that August day where I should have died not once, but twice, came to me this morning after an odd dream in the wee hours just as the sun was peeping over the mountains in the east.

Sleeping fitfully, I moved between dozing and wakefulness, I thought, all night. As the sky began to light up, I was laying on my left side, half-awake and grumpily cursing the doves and their annoying nest noises; they stomp on the brittle twigs making a sound like people walking on gravel which is very disconcerting when half-asleep.

As the birds settled down and began to make their cooing noises, I felt the cover beside me move. Four little feet made their way to my back and a small warm body then lay carefully next to my upper back. I could “feel” a bushy tail move up near my neck and could “smell” a fusty fur smell. I instantly relaxed, although in the back of my head was the awareness that there are no animals in the place, and felt totally at peace as sleep reclaimed me.

That this was a dream became apparent later when I had an amusing thought that I could well have a wild skunk lying right on top of me and I turned to see what was snuggled against me. I found a rag doll in the shape of pointy nose elf-like creature with a sewn on striped cone hat. We conversed, as one does, with no words but in our heads.

I did actually wake up at that point and found that I was alone and pondered the doll thing that my mind had dredged up. It made no sense, after all why would a two-legged doll walk on all fours to get across my cover. It was a surreal moment and the realization that it was so brought on my epiphany.

Speaking to someone a few days ago, I mentioned the forecast of massive depression from the medical lady in the hospital and said that I was still waiting for that shoe to drop. My “light-bulb” moment this morning was that this will not occur. What has happened instead is a constant state of surrealness, if you will.

I left Basildon Hospital (the cardiac section) four days after one of the most invasive surgeries one can endure, the first surgery should have been so routine that it was boring, and everything, it seems stems from that time. My second surgery took a long time, during which I was “technically dead.”

A machine kept my blood pumping and my lungs breathing while the doc’s stopped my heart to perform the aortic dissection and bypass, this after they whipped a vein out of my right leg, and the estimated time I was “dead” was around eight or more hours. Now, if you had asked me after I recovered from this procedure how long I was “out” or how long I was “dead” no answer would have been available. A lot of remembering had to happen before I could recall and this only happened after I asked my daughter, who had to live through all this.

The point being that from the moment I was moved from ICU to the recovery ward, everything has seemed surreal. You could even argue that my waking up during the first surgery, when they discovered that my aortic arch had been perforated and most of my aorta was split open, and managing to talk around the tube in my throat started the whole thing. This also is the reason, I believe, for the “gravel” in my voice since the surgery.

Sidenote: To the family who were staying in Basildon Hospital with their own medical emergency, “Thank you for the kindness you showed my child who had to deal with all this on her own.”

The epiphany this morning has been that I have never really gotten over the surreal stage of this whole heart attack malarkey. My brain seems to be operating in a sort of fugue state of semi-awareness with small moments of clarity. At times I can almost react to things normally but there is still that feeling of unreality flitting around the edges.

I find myself unable to function properly in social settings. The actor in me puts on a good show, but basic things like exchanging phone numbers while interacting with another person who has just asked for mine go by the wayside. Just trying to remember to thank someone for a good deed or act of kindness is also fraught with inactivity or at least poor responses.

Anyone who has known me well can tell you that I have a radar that can tell when a person is on the level or not to be trusted almost seconds after meeting them. That ability seems to have been left on the operating table along with some of my common sense. How else can I explain being taken in by a con artist so completely that I moved in with the bugger, and his wife, and only woke up after it seemed I was about to be made a patsy? (And upon learning that he was a “wanted” felon.)

There are a long list of things that all point to my mind still existing in this surreal state. A place where my subconscious is attempting to get round surviving back in 2012 and despite my resolute marching forward to this new beat of the drum, I am struggling. Not desperately, but just enough that my thinking is affected.

Everything happens for a reason. I firmly believe this, just as I believe that my “pilgrim’s progress” here in the desert is needed at the point in time. A step back from busy society and a chance for me to get my soldiers back in step. This quiet time is needed to help me get back on an even keel, or at least recognize that moving back to the foreign country I left so long ago is either my new “normality” or just another turn of the screw in my current directionless journey.

Time will tell and at least now I can realize where my “head is at.” Even if it took a two-legged dream doll to point me in the right direction.

19 May 2015

Michael Knox-Smith

Life in the Real Desert: Westerns and Old Movies

Town sign outside of Burger King
My life in the real desert thus far has consisted of much more than personal injury and the shock of having no television. It includes the reading of old western favorites and movies that remain in the collection. Split into blu-ray, NTSC, Region 0 and Pal, the DVDs are spread out between RV and 5th wheel. In terms of stimulation, the tales by Louis L’Amour are hard to beat. Each story a sort of male romance novel built around rugged and hard men who must either fight, solve a mystery or puzzle, or defeat a villain who has designs on the girl of the protagonist’s dreams.

It took me awhile to figure out that these adventure stories of the old west were, in fact, the male answer to Harlequin Romance. These gunfighters, gamblers, cowboys, miners, lawmen, soldiers and so on are all just men searching for something. In the books it is either home, land, destiny and/or a woman. Each hero is an individual who yearns to put down roots, eventually for some and sooner for others, and they are tired of being a lone traveller.

The best thing about the heroes in L’Amour’s books is that the partner they seek is not a helpless and timid female. These men want strong women who will be an equal partner in the relationship. In that sense the author, through his protagonists, was an early feminist supporter way before it became fashionable. Considering L’Amour wrote during the 1950s and 60s he was ahead of his time.

While hanging the title of feminist around the neck of this self-educated wandering man may feel awkward, it is worth remembering that L’Amour himself was a strong character. A man who struck out to explore the world and all it had to teach him in his early teens. There is little doubt that his own strength moved him to admire the trait in anyone else who possessed it and this is reflected in his writing.

Each of the many books written by the late author are “page-turners,” and impossible to put down until the tale is finished. Many of his stories have been made into films or, in the case of the Sackett sagas, made for TV programs starring Sam Elliott and Tom Selleck as two of the many brothers in the large clan.

Perhaps it is the location I’m in that makes the reading of these books seem a necessity. While L’Amour’s writing about the West took in all of the frontier, many of his characters crossed not only the plains but the deserts of the southwest. Some died from attacks by indigenous tribes of the region and others for lack of water in a dry and barren land. Still more were victims of a slow draw or died as the result of poor judgement.

The area where I live, like others that have been home in the US, feels like a land “out of time” and if one suddenly came across a calvary patrol, dusty, tired and sweat stained from their efforts it would not be surprising. The people who populate the country now are just as fiercely independent as the settlers, nesters, ranchers, cowboys and pioneers that L’Amour writes of in his stories. All that is missing, when one goes to town, is the sound of spurs jangling on a boarded sidewalk.

deserted house in the desert

Rather interestingly, out of all the films in my collection, Westerns have not been viewed very often. Possibly because most of the ones on hand were filmed in either Mexico (Durango) or some other “standard” setting favored by the studios, like Death Valley et al. Although that may not be the case at all.

It could well be that this part of the “old West” is new to me. From Hi Jolly’s grave to the infamous Yuma state (territorial) prison miles down the road, all the local history, from Tyson Wells stage stop to the army presence here in this part of the desert, is waiting patiently for me to discover it. It is all, except for Hi Jolly, new to me.

Once the dust has settled from my move, a lot of research into the area will be done. I have already read about the camel experiment and a short book about Arizona Rangers has provided a wealth of information about the times and, rather interestingly, about news coverage of events back then.

The small stage stop museum is only open part time and once my injuries clear up completely, I will be seeking information on the old way of living in the real desert. A lifestyle that is only remembered, it seems, in western books and movies.

14 April 2015

Life in the Real Desert: Flowers and Recovery

Flowers in the Desert
Whilst recovering from my altercation with a dark blue sedan and the curbside of Love’s Truck Stop, the real desert has been full of life and a profusion of flowers have surrounded me. Just on the property alone a wealth of pink and white flowers are sprinkled along the edges of the hardpan plot.

Blooms are sprouting from cactuses or cacti, along with the more traditional plant type bushes. The mesquite trees, which protect their yellow drooping flowers with thorny guardians, are filled with the sound of bees. These little pollinators are of such a number that their businesslike drone is almost deafening. Amazingly, despite the impressive decibel level that they emit, it is difficult to spy one.

The temperature in the local area has dipped, it initially became cooler around Easter and has not risen too much since. Handy if one is biking to and from town, but a bit chilly at night. Of course, as I am still recuperating from my accident, I’m not doing a lot of biking and most certainly not taking the 12 mile plus round trip to town and back.

Riding around the neighborhood and averaging about three miles per trip, I am pleased to note that in terms of control and exertion, my recovery is going very well. Unfortunately, the right leg still has a knot the size of Texas on the shin and at night, after a day of “limited” activity, both legs are painful enough that sleep becomes impossible despite pain pills.

Regardless of the amount of time spent getting better, and the lack of Internet access, life is limping along. Meeting lovely people who populate neighborhood, even as the general number of residents is in decline as it’s time for the snowbirds to migrate back home, and discovering that people can be kind and thoughtful and generous.

Tyson Wells Visitor Office winding down
Tyson Wells Visitor Office, winding down and soon out?

It has been an interesting time. Returning to the land of my birth has been…different. Moving from Las Vegas to Arizona has been almost foreboding. In terms of losing bits of myself, it has been frustrating and not a little annoying.

One week after arriving I lost my late father-in-law’s sweater. A favorite “in-between” garment that was a comfortable as an old glove. Taking a tumble, my first in the real desert, down a small wash, the thing went awol and I’ve never found it. Despite backtracking on the day it happened and searching the area repeatedly, the sweater has apparently departed to parts unknown and by now has most likely fallen to pieces.

Thus far, in a short three month time period, I’ve lost: A favorite sweater, hat, pocket knife, my prescription glasses, and my “cheap” reading glasses. Twice, not counting being forced off the car park surface by a car which would make it three times, I have fallen over while traversing the hardpan desert floor. Each time personal injuries were increased exponentially.

In terms of loss, television has become another missing component along with proper Internet. As someone who has spent a lot of time and effort increasing their profile on the net as a writer, both personally and professionally, this loss is the most devastating. Due to sporadic web access regular contact with my daughter has also been, temporarily, lost.

Entering the world of the self employed while relocating to a remote area of the Southwest has been an interesting move. Picking a part of the desert where there are no cinemas locally or nearby was not planned for and having no vehicle to attend screenings has been another “setback.” Rather annoyingly, most, if not all, the screenings from one studio rep are all over two hours away via car.

These “setbacks” are a bother but not overly so. Obstacles are made to be overcome. Time spent watching and writing about films and television is now spent writing the book I’ve promised myself for years. There are other books impatiently queuing up for their turn so I am still working. The biggest difference in this change of circumstance is the change in financial status.

Flowers in the desert, taken outside Quartzsite, AZ
Cactus flowers, which make me think of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and John Wayne’s character.

This too shall pass and until then I will keep plodding along, writing, doing chores and healing and I will stop and enjoy the real desert flowers, while they last, on my road to recovery.

9 April 2015