Joshua Tree, Day 2: Ryan Mountain

Distance: 2.9 Miles
Elevation Gained: 1,070′
Difficulty: Moderate
Critters: None

Get here like this.


While I was sitting atop Ryan Mountain and enjoying a panoramic view of two deserts, a man came huffing and puffing up to the summit. He looked left. He looked right. He then stood there for a couple of minutes, turned around, and left.

I struggled to understand why a guy would just gain 1,000′ in under 1.5 miles, only to turn around and walk away without seeming to soak in the accomplishment and the reward. Looking west, one could see mountains, Queen Valley and the Wonderland of Rocks, and most of the towns in Yucca Valley. Looking south and north were desert peaks for days. Looking east was the vast desert wasteland known as Pinto Basin. Sure, it’s a pretty beige view, but the vastness of it all seems as if it would command more attention.

It almost seemed like this guy’s heart shrugged with indifference. I’m aware of the danger of making suppositions based on only what is directly observable, and yet the guy felt palpably underwhelmed. His slog up a hill only to turn back suggested something about the disconnect between man and nature that is an inevitable bi-product of civilization.

I sometimes forget how remarkable it is that I even get to do this at all. The means by which I found myself standing atop a mountain in the middle of a desert wasteland are completely unnatural and totally unprecedented in all but the most recent history. By all rights, the huge numbers of human beings that visit the desert every year should not have the opportunity to do so. Civilization, and the technology that supports it, enable us to do so.

If history was any indication, humans should be struggling to gain food and safety. However, many people -myself included – have the luxury of not having to struggle anymore. The new struggle comes from having everything, but not always being able to enjoy or utilize the freedom that comes with it.

I get to stand on top of mountains because I am free, and that’s ultimately what civilization is about. I get to experience the security of having, which frees me from basic everyday struggles, intellectual boundaries, emotional distress, and insecurity of survival. This is true of me and many other people in the United States, although many are acutely aware at how uneven these luxuries are spread throughout the country and the world.

The challenge becomes something different entirely. Defining meaning becomes a challenge in a world that is bent on getting you to spend the money you work so hard to make (and to borrow). We constantly feel that we should be getting something for our efforts, since we’ve been trained to think that effort should lead to some tangible reward. It does, yes, but what does it mean when it’s often a process of being led around by a carrot on a stick?

Meaning still comes from our relationships to humans, to our society, and to nature. Too much time in a world dominated by images, brands, memes, stories, and networking can make us take what we have, which is everything, for granted.

Hence, a man walks to the top of a mountains, looks around, and walks away. It’s difficult to tell what he feels about the experience. Is it just another thing to do in an endless stream of things to do? Is it life altering? Is he bored? Does he gain perspective? Or does he just turn around, walk away, and forget it ever happened?

Of course, I can’t know what this guy experienced. For all I know, he was moved. Yet, the lack of meaning and resulting boredom, anxiety, and depression are pervasive problems in modern civilization that Viktor Frankl termed “the existential vacuum.” Without a deep sense of meaning, we tend to fall apart.

The trick, I suppose, is to feel united with everything. I am not something distinct from the environment. That’s just an illusion caused by consciousness. I am just as much a part of the environment as the rocks, shrubs, breeze, and clouds. I am made of the same basic molecular stuff. In other words, I am that.

When I am free to make those associations, meaning will always be present and life will always be rich and full. Under those circumstances, I am allowed to make the most of the bargain that I, along with the rest of the developed world, have made in trading our time for money. By maintaining a connection to the world underneath what we call the “Real World,” I can pledge to be as good as that world allows me to be.

And enables me to be.

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