Growing up in southern California I spent many weekends in the desert. I was disappointed the first time I was there. Where were the sand and dunes from picture books and stories. The California desert is flat with small distant hills. It is dotted evenly with black brush and occasional cactus. There is a dry wash here and an ancient volcano cone with even fewer plants on it over there, but otherwise, it looks pretty much the same in all directions.
When I hike in the Colorado mountains, I often become fixated on the destination. I must make it to the top of the mountain! In the desert one just wanders. There isn’t really much point. At first I was rather frustrated by the pointless desert. “What” I thought “is there to do in this nearly empty space?”
The desert is large and changes slowly as you wander. It is open and there is space to breath and to think. There are few distractions. It is intense in its heat and cold, but also its expanse and loneliness. Often, after the hard labor of rock-hounding trips and shivering under the stars at night, I would return home mentally refreshed in a way that few other places have offered since. Instead of resisting the pointlessness of the desert and its lack of hiking paths and destinations, I finally grew to appreciate it.
The Sahara is the kind of desert we imagine when we think of desert. Unlike California, the Sahara has sand and dunes! Like the Mojave it is a big place where nearly featureless landscape stretches from one horizon to the other.
I saw the Sahara from the windows of a small tourist bus I boarded in Tel Aviv, headed for Cairo. We passed over the fortified border between Israel and Egypt where there is a mile wide chalk line that enables border guards to catch illegal entries and where armed military are stationed, each within eyesight of one another. We crossed the Suez canal where giant ships look as if they’re sailing through the sand because only the upper decks and superstructures are visible above the hidden shore.
In Egypt the dunes stretch out in all directions. Sometimes sand covers the highway on which our bus bumps along. Inside the bus, tinny speakers distort middle eastern pop music incessantly. Outside the windows the dunes roll passed and there is no way to tell how far we’ve come. No landmarks to drive to; no cities to pass through. Just sand, and very occasional trees. We passed few other cars and saw even fewer people.
And then the bus driver stopped the bus. He just got up and left the bus and started walking toward one of the dunes on the side of the road. My fellow tourists and I looked at him and at each other and back again. Where the hell was he going? Toilet break? Should we follow him? Does anyone know how to get this bus from here to Cairo? The driver hadn’t said anything when the bus stopped. He’d simply walked away, leaving us with our middle eastern cassette tape still squeezing sound out of the tiny speakers and heat starting to pour in from the open door.
And then, from out of the dunes, the driver met a woman. They spoke briefly and she followed him back to the bus. She and her two chickens boarded and we continued on our way. She sat, looking forward, expressionless, and we looked around, at her, the driver and each other but said nothing. The loud music discouraged any conversation and we didn’t know what language the others spoke. Some time later, without a word from her or any obvious change in the appearance of the dunes outside, the driver stopped the bus and she and her chickens exited and disappeared into the dunes from which she had come.
The driver repeated this process a couple more times on the way to Cairo. He’d stop at some completely nondescript break in the sand and meet a small group of men or an old shepherd and a goat. Sometimes he’d stop and speak with someone riding a camel. New passengers would board and he’d drive on to an equally nondescript dune which could have been exactly where we started except that the sun remained on the south side of the bus the whole time so I can only assume we were continuing in one general direction. The people must have materialized from the sand. We didn’t find them, waiting, at bus stops. We didn’t let them off at cities or villages. This wasn’t even a public bus!
The Sahara, like the Mojave in California, doesn’t seem to have a point. People live here, perhaps in a state of constant meditation, nearly alone among the unchanging scenery. Who knows if they’re actually going anywhere. There doesn’t have to be a point to this nearly empty space. And I will never know how the driver found his passengers, or knew when to let them off. But, now, I can appreciate the space that the empty, unchanging desert creates without needing to have a destination.