What it is like being shaped by extremes
In early 2006 the Army stationed me in the Mojave Desert. I worked at Fort Irwin and lived in Barstow(1), California. For those folks who never lived out west, you have to know that everything is bigger out there. I’m writing about the couple of years I spent there because I want to share what it felt like to drive through those big spaces, go rock climbing in the desert, and to share how those extremes shaped who I am.
During the 2 years I lived in the Mojave Desert it took me about 45 mins to drive to work on 3 super-long stretches of road. The first part is super curvy, the middle part is perfectly straight and the last part is curvy again(2). There is another part where you can put your car in neutral and coast down a hill for 5 miles. If your steering alignment is good you don’t have to touch the wheel either because that stretch is laser straight.
It takes about 2-hours of desert driving to get to civilized places like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, or San Diego. Living and working there is like being on the moon. Long story short… there is not much to do there. The effect of this isolation is a great appreciation for those nice cities I mentioned and the spectacular natural places in every direction.
It is rare that I could escape, drive 2-3 hours in both directions, and then pretend that I lived in these more cultured destinations. Often when I found a good local weekend spot it was time to return to the high desert. Writing this story now, I live only a short walk to a great coffee shop or a live music venue. But back then I had to plan a road trip do go to a yoga studio, park, or a decent restaurant.
Then, I found out that only 15 min south of my house there is a world-class rock climbing spot called New Jack City. This is the kind of destination that other people would drive hours to visit, and I had it right in my backyard. There were a couple of really good Army friends (call them A & J) I would go with. Very quickly, I was starting to appreciate the culture and camaraderie that comes along with climbing. Of course, there is the connection to nature, but I think my favorite part of learning to climb was the confidence it gave me. When you are trying harder and harder routes you quickly build technique and strength. Something that was scary or intimidating, can be overcome with practice and encouragement. I honestly think that, learning to climb during that year, made me less afraid of the significant emotional event that would become my first deployment to Iraq.
Climbing spots frequently have pop-culture names. New Jack City refers to a 1991 film about the crack epidemic in New York City.(3) As you might imagine, some of the routes have inventive names inspired by the movie.
New Jack City climbing route names:
- Little Red Book
- Change of Scene
- Gun For Hire
- Route 66
- Broken Left Ankle
- Room for Improvement
- Suddenly Susan
- Something About Mary
- Ride the Wild
See all the route names at The Mountain Project
Because any other point of interest is a vast distance away from Barstow, New Jack City was was an oasis for me. Being out in nature with my friends and getting in some great (world class) climbing is a really fond memory. It was also a time of extremes for me. I was extremely isolated, but it brought me closer to the people I cared about.
My friends and I were training for a deployment to Iraq. We would spend weeks doing maneuvers in the desert, making a certain choreography with tanks and armored personnel carriers. The military has a long history of training in the high desert. Temperatures could reach 120 degrees F in the summer and drop as much as 50 degrees at night.
This is a huge reservation of land far out from civilization. The terrain was first used for large scale simulations of battles, but in preparation for Iraqi Freedom we changed everything. We built cities out of Connexes. We role played cultural interactions, humanitarian aid missions, and elections. The training center had transitioned to counterinsurgency operations. This transition was challenging because of the hybrid scenarios that involved insurgent forces and civil military operations at the same time. We would be out there in the desert for 3-weeks straight and then be allowed to escape for long 3-day weekends. On those long weekends, we would drive down to the California coast. In a place like Santa Monica, the temperature would be 75 degrees. The lifestyle difference between the military training center and a Mecca like a Los Angeles beach town was astounding. My friends and I would tell you that we hated military life in the middle of training (in some ways the training is more difficult than the deployment itself), but we were immensely proud of our service during these weekend escapes.
The long weekends also allowed me the space and time to figure out what was important to me. Ultimately, I decided to serve three more years in the Army, and one more tour in Iraq because many of my friends had already done multiple tours and I felt it was my duty. Only then, would I feel justified to move to New York City and make it on my own.
The radio reception
There is only one radio station available (4) when you drive along interstate 15 between Barstow and Las Vegas. At the time it was a lot of classic rock and commercials for Las Vegas attractions like the Circus Circus Casino (they had really funny commercials and I would share a link if I had one). Driving the Mojave desert highway gets old really fast. I discovered that there are some spots where you can pick up more stations. On a long-weekend trip to Las Vegas, just as soon as it was about to clear up, I would tune into KNPR (5). I was aware of radio programs like The Moth, and I think that’s what it was, but at the time I had had no exposure to that type of live event and the stories people tell when they live in a metropolis like New York City. I’m quite sure that hearing those stories on the radio inspired me to move there so I could live stories of my own.
There is also strange phenomenon when I drove over a Ridgeline towards New Jack City, as the car picked up KCRW(6) out of Los Angles. On those broadcasts, I heard stories from Radiolab, All Things Considered, and This American Life. Those particular programs I would download as podcasts and take them with me to the Middle East. My deployment iPod was also filled with a lot of indie music that I heard on The Morning Becomes Eclectic.
I see now, how It was during this time and space, that I was able to form my future self.
(1) Barstow California is famous because it is exactly half way between Los Angeles and Vegas. It is the second most popular to stop for gas behind the worlds tallest thermometer in Baker, California. My other favorite fun fact about Barstow is a scene in the 2 Fast and 2 Furious movie where Roman Pearce (Actor Tyrese Gibson) delivers the memorable line “I’m not going back to Barstow.”
(2) One time I got my car up to 145 mph on that first curvy part of that road.