Flipped on the television to watch live reports from sites of pandemic anxiety: confused scenes from airports, schools, and hospitals. A fashion magazine ran a story called How to Style an Epidemic with color-coordinated surgical masks and gloves. Meanwhile, news of a sham impeachment trial while the Democrats tear each other apart before the Iowa caucuses. There’s a jittery energy circulating through our screens these days, an atmosphere that reminded me of a man I once met at a gas station in Bakersfield. 

He had long gray hair and a tight leather jacket and he warned me about the desert. “When you get out there, don’t listen to anybody who dares you to walk,” he said, sending his half-smoked cigarette skittering across the parking lot where it sparked against a pick-up truck. He clamped my shoulder, fingertips digging into my bones. “I’m serious, brother. People get in trouble like you wouldn’t believe. They’ll challenge each other to walk ten miles into Death Valley without any supplies and then walk ten miles back. They wager money on it.” I tell him I’ve never heard of such a thing and he stares beyond me, watching the late-night traffic. “Yeah, you can make good money on a bet like that,” he said, “but I lost some good friends that way.” I watched the tension in his jaw, the cords pulsing in his neck. God knew what he was remembering. I turned to go. “Don’t forget,” he called, “if you’re out there and you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated!”

No wonder so many religions began in the desert. The raptures and visions of the ancients were the most rational response to so much sky. And the higher the waters rise, the faster the fires burn, and the quicker we lose faith in our institutions, perhaps we will return to otherworldly thinking. We might find ourselves grasping at dogma, ritual, and rites. New prophets and cults will appear, promising salvation or at least an explanation. A future of old men in the desert, throwing fistfuls of salt and daring people to do dangerous things.

Enchanted Desert

American Decay, 2015 | More info

A track I built from a blurry loop of ‘Enchanted Sea’ by The Counts (Sea Crest Records, 1964). From American Decay, a collection of loops and reverberations recorded between 2009 and 2014.