How to explain a day 'desert sitting': Social distancing as endurance sport

In situ: The author, fortified with provisions and sun protection, as his day of sitting in the Mojave Desert enters its final few hours.
In situ: The author, fortified with provisions and sun protection, as his day of sitting in the Mojave Desert enters its final few hours. Photo Credit: Peter Wick, Azzurri Productions

Editor's note: With the leisure travel industry's inventory of escapism -- cruise ships, resorts, attractions, restaurants and theaters -- fully or partially closed, travelers are finding more personal ways to spend time off this summer. Travel Weekly's aviation editor, Robert Silk, saw in one of the longest days of the year an opportunity to focus on a very personal project he had put off for more than two decades. Langston Hughes once asked whether a dream deferred dries up like a raisin in the sun. Silk discovered what happens when a dream deferred is finally realized, emphatically, in the sun.

JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. -- The sun had just set over the Mojave Desert here, and for the first time in 14 hours and 26 minutes I was up and moving freely about, having just spent the entire day within the same 8 square yards, unshaded under the summer sun.

"How do you feel?" said my friend, the filmmaker Peter Wick, who was there to document this wanton exercise in self-flagellation.

"Renewed," I responded. And I meant it.

I've been talking for 25 years of undertaking what I've dubbed a desert sit -- just sitting all day, disconnected, in the desert, watching the arc of the sun as it makes its full trip from east to west. It was an idea borne from a scene in the Leon Uris novel "The Haj," in which a Bedouin Arab is waiting in the desert for a friend, unsure whether the friend would arrive that day, or even that week.

"Do you mean he just sits, day after day, not knowing?" one character asks in the passage.

"He knows his friend will come," the second character responds. "When his friend comes is not important. He has nothing else to do."

That simple scene resonated with me. This was a world unlike our own, where time is of little consequence.

The author looks spry and fresh, but that's because it's only dawn. 14 hours and 27 minutes await.
The author looks spry and fresh, but that's because it's only dawn. 14 hours and 27 minutes await. Photo Credit: Peter Wick, Azzurri Productions

A few years later, in the summer of 2000, I selected Sedona, Ariz., for my first attempt at a desert sit. But I gave in before noon, undone by poor planning, and by my stomach conspiring against me in retaliation for my decision to take breakfast that early June morning at Denny's.

Live and learn.

Having stewed over that calamity for 20 years, I didn't intend a repeat this June 21 as I made my way to Joshua Tree.

At this point you might still be asking, "why?" Why sit in the desert from sunup to sundown, and why do it while days are their longest of the year? (June 20, this year's summer solstice, actually had precisely one second more of daylight than June 21 this year at Joshua Tree, a major planning faux pas on my part.)

My reasons are an unusual amalgamation of philosophical and comedic.

On the philosophical front, a day of self-enforced sitting in nature is meant to represent a clean break from our spiritually destructive daily existence -- tethered as it is to constant motion, and worse, to a never-ending connectivity that makes us available to be interrupted at any time, as if the present moment can never quite be enough.

Choosing the desert as the venue for this exercise brings another philosophical component for me, as well. Sure, I could choose a more pleasant outdoor environment, just as many have taken to the therapeutic Japanese practice of forest bathing. But I prefer deserts precisely because they are equal parts beautiful and stark, much like life itself.

Sitting in the desert summer, when the quiet of the day is overlaid by a burning sun that is unlikely to be blocked by even a single cloud, enhances the ascetic value to the endeavor. Much like a meditation session seated in lotus, completing a full day's sitting requires the acceptance, and even the embrace, of physical discomfort.

As for the comedic, I know that the image of a grown man just sitting alone in a camping chair, in intense heat, for a full June day is sure to garner its share of snickers. I embrace that. It's ridiculous by intent.

Silk is hot but composed against the afternoon sun.
Silk is hot but composed against the afternoon sun. Photo Credit: Peter Wick, Azzurri Productions

In the days leading up to my recent sit, I labeled desert sitting the perfect outdoor endurance sport for the Covid-19 era. Forget about cycling or running, I told people. Nothing is more socially distant than going off-trail for a full day in a 100-degree desert. Six feet? Please. I scoff at 6 feet.

I even developed a list of rules for my new sport. Rule 6, for example, reads, "Locations with lots of shadowing are to be avoided."

Rule 9 reads, "Timepieces of any sort aren't allowed. Time can be estimated by the arc of the sun. This is the essence of desert sitting."

I stuck to these guidelines myself last Sunday as I sat ... and sat ... and sat in the Mojave.

For the sit, I selected a location in the northwest section of Joshua Tree National Park, which I accessed via a several-minute walk through the scrub from a pullout along a dirt road. The spot wasn't especially hard to get to, but other than Wick, who dropped by periodically to film, I didn't see or hear another person all day.

The site was framed by an impressive rock outcropping, perhaps 75 feet high, immediately to the north. Visible to the southwest were the Little San Bernardino Mountains. And to the east was a flatter expanse of desert. All around me stood the park's namesake Joshua trees, made famous in popular culture by the 1987 U2 album. It was a beautiful location. Perfect for a day of nothingness.

The air was cool, about 70 degrees, when sunrise came at 5:34, lighting the mountains in a golden glow. But the temperature didn't stay that way for long. Within an hour or so, the sun was warm enough that I had to turn away from it, a posture that I would maintain for 13 more hours, until shortly before dusk. The temperature would eventually reach 102.

I spent some of my time reading (allowed under Desert Sit Rule 8), lightly snacking (Rule 5) and dozing in my chair (Rule 7). Once every couple hours, I got up for a stretch or to expel some of the water I had been steadily drinking (Rule 2). But more than anything, I just sat, meditating, contemplating, observing wildlife and listening to the desert's strange sounds.

Among my favorite sightings were desert iguana, which poked around in the brush, their speckled, sand-colored skin an outstanding camouflage. My favorite bird sighting was what I believe was a Scott's oriole, its yellow belly topped by black wings.

As the day passed, I became aware of just how little I knew about this place I was occupying. On several occasions, a shrill call emanated from nearby shrubbery. I wanted to be able to identify what type of insect was making that sound, but I couldn't.

What I could do, though, was tell the time reasonably accurately merely by looking to the sun. As the day passed, it truly was the case that I never found myself itching for connectivity. Just as I had hoped, the decision I made not to even have a phone with me had not only freed me of choice, but of that all-too-common need for constant digital validation. Meanwhile, the certainty that I would be going nowhere until the sun dipped below the western horizon made any other timepiece irrelevant.

A brilliant sunset is reward for the author after 14 hours and 27 minutes in the June 21 Mojave Desert sun.
A brilliant sunset is reward for the author after 14 hours and 27 minutes in the June 21 Mojave Desert sun. Photo Credit: TW photo by Robert Silk

Speaking of the sun, it felt scalding in the late afternoon, despite a hat, copious sunblock and a sun-protective shirt. But sometime about 6:30 p.m., the earth began to cool. As the sun disappeared behind a low series of hills shortly before the official 8 p.m. sunset, the sky began transforming into a brilliant shade of fire orange. Sitting for a few more moments in my trusty camping chair, I thought about the fact that more than any day in my life, I had tied my existence to the cycle of that sun. It was an empowering realization.

Then I hopped to my feet and began thinking about where to do my next desert sit. Maybe a December solstice in the Chilean desert. Or perhaps Death Valley next year, for a tougher degree of difficulty. The options, I happily realized, are endless. 

Video by Peter Wick, Azzurri Productions.

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