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  • I got out of my car and stood in the middle of the road. The sign read, “Dip, Next 35 Miles.” My mouth moved from its standard stance to a smile. A sign like this could only exist one place on earth, the desert.

    I had been on the road for a little over 2 hours, heading due east from San Diego. As it always happens when I travel to less-traveled places, trepidation filled my belly, for traveling in this form is not comfortable. Comfort is discarded for a glimpse of the unknown, a chance to return with a different view of the world and, hopefully, myself.

    As I stood there in the middle of the road, in the middle of the Anza-Borrego desert, staring at that sign, I realized I had made a choice. I was alone.

    Naturally, the human in me searched for something animate, a companion. The sunset color stack – blue then gold then orange then crimson – formed a beautiful block in the sky, but it was on its way to Asia. The Joshua Tree, clinging to its cheerleader-esque pose, seemed only to cheer me onward, not inward. Even the sand hustled away to the east, leaving only a sterile scent in its dust.

    The sense of scale overwhelmed – odd to realize the horizon was exactly the same as what I stood on; that if I traveled for hours, everything would be exactly the same. In the woods or in the mountains, there’s always a tree, or valley, or ridge providing the next checkpoint, hiding the terrain’s true vastness. The desert harbors no such illusions. It spreads itself out for full view and is proud of it. The desert is also proud that it’s cold, not in its temperature, but cold in its ability to hold anything. Even on the warmest day – well into the hundreds – it returns the sun’s warmth by night, like an unwanted gift.

    I felt the desert's desire to return me – or maybe I desired to return myself – to a place of comfort. To a city and its warmth in people – its hustling bodies, hum of rubber on concrete, smell of half-cooked meals. Even when alone in a city there is a certain presence, a commitment, to exist with and around other humans. Every action seems to carry significance. Every look, every word, every appearance. Every choice feels like it affects you or someone else.

    I go to the desert to forget that feeling, if only for a moment. There are no details to think about, no one to impress, nothing to do… except to just be. The desert bathes me in my own insignificance and reminds me the world is moving on without me… it isn’t counting on me. But if I stay and hold that uncomfortable thought fully, the desert returns me with a gift. The desert returns me with the gift of inspiration. For by seeing our true insignificance, we can be inspired to focus on the truly significant.

    [If you'd like to view 12 more images from this piece: http://mattsmcdonald.com/the_desert]
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