David packed his bags with camera paraphernalia, past-life notes and maps, not forgetting a pair of panties, and left his house key with Gene Gatzo before catching an Amtrak train in Oakland.
As David reclined in his train seat, looking at flatlands and occasional cattle whiz by, he recalled hiding his women’s things, negative files and diaries deep in his apartment closet. If he finds the stuff, he’s in for a shock.
David had detected a certain dependence on him by Gene in recent weeks. Gene was still having no success with women. He’d go on one, maybe two, dates before getting the heave-ho. He’d tried ads in the local singles newspaper, advertising himself as “a good-looking professional” and had received a few replies. Another thing was that Gene only wanted the best-looking women. When David advised him to lower his standards, Gene was offended. Ah, that impossible Gene. David wonder what kind of team the two of them made, what kind of Laurel and Hardy or Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
Only a block from the train station in Gallup, New Mexico, David checked into the worn-down Arlington Hotel. He walked to his room and immediately masturbated. With too much on his mind the orgasm was unrewarding.
The next morning he boarded a passenger and mail bus and went via a meandering route out into the hot and dusty Indian reservation. He’d read up on the once-warlike Navajo, a tribe that had settled down to become sheepherders and weavers.
After many tops at tiny post offices, David left the bus at Window Rock. He was frightened, sure that the search wouldn’t pan out and that Pem-on-quin was a trick of his imagination. Yet, what if she wasn’t? He walked aimlessly by the earth-colored buildings of the tribal-owned town before he saw a library. Inside, he finally worked up the nerve to ask a young Indian librarian if there was “a name like Pem-on-quin in the Navajo language.”
She replied seriously that she didn’t think so, but that he might go see “Roger, in the museum. He does research on the Navajo.”
This is it, David told himself as he cautiously walked into the building, which resembled a conventional white man’s museum. In fact, almost everything at Window Rock said “white man,” especially the vast and well-stocked supermarket.
An attendant pointed David toward a rear room where Roger worked. Walking down a hall past mounted animals and Indian art, he entered a pine-paneled room with a long meeting table formally surrounded by padded chairs. David’s body was trembling, he hoped imperceptibly, as he approached two Indians — a mid-sized, bulky man and an older, leaner fellow. Roger turned out to be the former, a gentle, reserved person who spoke slowly, quite the opposite of the inebriated Indians David had seen in Gallup. David and Roger shook hands.
David was sure that he was going to ask the strangest question ever asked in Window Rock as he introduced himself and said he was from San Francisco, which he hoped would impress them. He tried to leapfrog his nervousness by launching directly into his mission.
“What I’m going to tell you probably sounds far-fetched, but — have you ever heard about past lives?”
The Indians shook their heads no. They weren’t smiling, laughing, or showing any emotion beyond polite curiosity.
“It’s the idea that people were someone else before they were born into this life. Like if I died now, I might be reborn later as another person.”
Roger and the other man looked at him intently, not fully comprehending.
“Well, I was hypnotized and came up with the memory that I was an Indian woman living in this area in the 1800s, in a past life.”
After some thought, Roger made a motion with his head to indicate he understood. David, relieved that he was taking this seriously, continued. “What I came for was to ask about her name, to see if it’s a Navajo name. The closest I can come is … Pem-on-quin.” He wrote it on a memo pad.
Roger furrowed his brow and looked at his taller friend. “It doesn’t sound like Navajo.”
David wondered if they were telling the truth. What would they think? Would they want the Navajo image tarnished by a brash white man who claimed he’d been a Navajo woman? The two Indians discussed the name. No, definitely not Navajo. Perhaps it was from the Pima language in southern Arizona — there were many different languages among different tribes.
Before he left, David felt lighter. He knew he wouldn’t pursue the thing further. He’d dared himself and had done what he’d come to do. So he went out on the warm and dusty streets after dark and treated himself to a tasty dinner and an action movie. The next day he took a tour of the cliff ruins at Canyon de Chelly and came back tired to the still-hot hotel. The day after that was spent taking pictures of rusted car hulks, tattered sofas and eviscerated TV sets out in the desert.
Gradually a great emptiness filled him. He returned to lie on his bed in the heat of the afternoon and napped naked under a ceiling fan with the shades pulled, burying his face in a pillow. In a stupor of sorts, he went out for a meal and came back too depressed even to masturbate. He slept fitfully that evening, wallowing helplessly. In his light sleep he woke up after each of his dreams, thinking about each one.
In one, he was in a penitentiary cell full of gray, four-drawer files. One of the file drawers held his secret cache of lingerie and was kept closed, but some telltale bit of silken material always seemed to hang out.
Later in the dream, energy was building among the prison inmates for a breakout. During a mass escape David went with the inmates so they wouldn’t think he was against them, but once they breached the walls there was no place to go, just endlessly-flat, arid landscape. David stood and watched as the other men kept fanning out into the sparse, dry brush.
David woke at four a.m. and couldn’t sleep. So he turned the lights on and took photos of the worn room with its old chairs, quaint pictures and rusty sink. Then he set his camera on self-timer and took nude pictures of himself in frowning poses using a wall mirror set up behind the tripod. He looked gaunt and stiff. Finally, photo-tranquilized, he was able to sleep another hour. When the day’s new light began to creep in under the drawn window shade he had a desperate need to go out again photographing. This time he decided he’d head out in a new direction toward some low hills.
He walked down Gallup’s main street with a canteen and wide-brimmed hat, feeling conspicuous next to auto traffic and early-rising Indians. The sun was high enough so that it warmed him. Transparent cotton puff clouds spread themselves uniformly over the sky.
He began walking along railroad tracks. A distant dirt road appealed to him, but a long, wide ditch of stagnant water fouled with oil and other refuse stopped his progress. Along its sides were tall stands of dry brush that seemed impenetrable. As David wondered how he would cross it, a cloud passing over the sun made him look up. The clouds had dramatically increased in size.
He had been standing still for a few minutes when a splat of water his his back. After more splats, minor sprinkles gradually became a heavy downpour. David retreated under the eaves of a nearby corrugated-metal railroad shed. Sheets of rain beat into the dry ground with a vengeance. He looked around him next to the shed and saw old torn clothing, spread-out cardboard and empty cans and bottles. I guess hobos still ride the rails.
Just as he began to allow himself to enjoy the rain he detected the pervasive odor of shit. Yes, definitely shit. They must take their shits here. While idly thinking about hitching rides on freight trains, he brought a boot up so he could scratch his ankle. Attached to the sole was a clump of almost-fresh brown stuff. I’m standing in shit. Dear God, the climax of my trip. He began laughing and stomping his feet. Mysticism. I’m standing it it!
At that moment a switch engine went by on one of the many tracks. The engineer had been watching the presumed hobo with some amusement until David returned his stare. Then they both looked away.
David returned home on the next Amtrak. He had discarded his toothbrush after using it to clean his boots.
The Bay Area was its old workaday self as he got off the train in Oakland and boarded a bus. While crossing the Bay Bridge he was uninspired by the hazy high-rises of San Francisco. Even the suspension portion of the bridge with its graceful cables failed to bring out the usual spark in him.
He’d had plenty of time to rethink the trip. Now it seemed a travesty. The poetic idea of Pem-on-quin had been replaced by the idea of Natalie as a whore. He only wanted to go home to rest.
As he climbed the carpeted stairs to his apartment he remembered with a start that he was returning early and that Gene might still be staying there. Maybe when he walked in Gene would be beating off! No, it was a weekday and Gene would be at work. Good old reliable Gene who never called in sick. David opened the apartment door, smelled the stuffy air, set his bags down in the foyer and went to the refrigerator to get a beer. In his discontent he wanted to stop thinking and watch TV.
Prominently taped to the side of the refrigerator was a sheet of yellow paper with a PLEASE READ printed in large, felt-tip pen letters at the top. David’s heart skipped a beat. He knew instantly what the message was. Taking it like a letter from his parents, he sat on his bed with his back against the wall, swished some beer around his mouth, girded himself, and read –
David, I stayed here 3 days while you were away. Thanks for letting me stay.
David, I found all of your women’s clothes and put them in a duffel bag. I think that you should destroy them or give them to Goodwill. I don’t know what you think you’re doing, dressing like a woman like the perverts downtown.
I looked up to you for a long time. I thought you were a great guy for a friend. I accidentally picked up a photo album from your bookcase that you probably didn’t want me to see. At first I thought the pictures were of one of your girlfriends.
Now I can see how some of your talk about queens, etc. was just playing with me. You must have thought I was pretty funny. I don’t plan on talking to you again and I’d appreciate it if you’d stay away from me. I’m going to stay in a hotel until I find a new place.
You’re basically a nice guy and have no trouble attracting the girls. So why do you want to drag your name through the mud by being a pervert? This really makes me sick.
David let out an exasperated sign and a grin briefly appeared on his lips to accompany the tear that burned its way down his cheek. He had to admit he was blown away. He always knew that someone would hit him in the soft underbelly of his guilt. Of course he’d set it up. He knew that Gene looked up to him and would try to find out more about him — like guests who peek into their hosts’ medicine cabinet.
Well, now Gene knew. Cheese is too rich for mice but many have sampled it in a mousetrap. David chuckled derisively. Obviously, Gene needed to learn more about the ways of the world. Still, Gene wasn’t a very resilient guy. Maybe he, David, was Gene’s only real friend. He hoped that Gene would bounce back. He knew that working in the same office with him would be tense for awhile, especially if Gene told anyone.
Had touching the lingerie aroused Gene? Conversely, David checked to see if his buddy had gone berserk and thrown away anything. He hadn’t. Then David remembered that he’d written some things about Gene in his diary, such as wondering if Gene was gay. He looked at his stash of diaries in the closet. The diary binders were out of order. So, Gene had probably read the lengthy descriptions of masturbations and related fantasies. David began to wonder if he, David, was the victim.
How stupid not to have hidden the diaries better.
He remembered suddenly that Gene had shown him a pistol he’d bought for protection. With a guy like this running around San Francisco with such missionary ideas of right and wrong, who knew what he was capable of? David wondered if Gene might want to shoot him. Who’s healthier, Gene or me?
David looked at his calendar. He still had two weeks of vacation left. He surely wasn’t going to spend it in stale old San Francisco sleeping in his stale old bed every night, mourning Pem-on-quin and Gene Gatzo. He found his atlas and looked at some of the wide open spaces of California. Once with a friend he’d driven into Baja California and around some of the interesting desert areas of Southern California. He checked the map and noticed that between San Diego and the Salton Sea was a shaded area called Anza-Borrego State Park. It seemed attractive — actual desert, probably without garbage, and not too remote. There were even a few towns in it.
David stood along Highway 86 in Indio, California in warm sunlight, hitchhiking. The air smelled of diesel exhaust. His backpack sat on the candy-wrapper-strewn ground, its zipped-up innards containing his camera, lenses, film and the essentials — including a pair of panties, not the same ones he took to Gallup.
He remembered the first time he came to California, thumbing all the way from St. Louis, following a vision that he could dress as a woman all the time and live alone in an ocean beach house. As on that trip, the romance of being on the road was quickly fading. Many of those who had picked him up were scruffy and needed gas money. Also, it wasn’t easy to walk up to gas station attendants, asking to use rest rooms. Nonetheless, being on his own opened him up and gave him new blood.
When he got out of a salesman’s car in Salton City he was close to real desert. The Salton Sea shimmered off in the distance and solitary street signs marked sand-blown, scrubby expanses without homes. David looked at his map and started walking along Highway S-22 into the desert toward the town of Borrego Springs, 30 miles away. He passed a golf course, a splotch of green with surreal old men piloting carts around.
There was plenty of traffic on S-22, mostly old people in big cars not about to pick up a young hitchhiker with beard growth and a backpack. After several hours of walking, his hopes for a ride had turned to sweat in the end-of-the-summer sun and he disgustedly gave up thumbing. Hell, if I have to walk it, I’ll walk it. At one point he stepped out on an overlook to take a picture of some distant purple-tinted mountains and a black van with dark-tinted bubble windows drove by headed back to the highway. David looked pleadingly toward it but made no attempt to thumb. When the van never slowed down he picked up a pebble and threw it toward its dust cloud.
At mid-afternoon, clouds moved across the sun and things cooled down. David’s feet had become intimately acquainted with the irregularities on the bottoms of his boots. Later, at twilight, with little idea of how far he’d come, he was still thumping along on the hard pavement snaking through the desert. He watched the sun retire in a symphony of reds and pinks. In the gathering dusk, David headed down the road toward the light of a distant beacon that pulsed on and off like a friendly firefly. Later, closer, there was barely enough daylight to see that the beacon was at the top of a microwave relay tower several miles away, next to the road. An occasional car still passed, headlights stabbing him briefly.
Darkness had enveloped the area when David’s tired legs reached the chain-link fence surrounding the tower. It seemed safe to park his body next to something man-made for the night. He looked up one of the four metal legs of the tower and couldn’t see the top because the superstructure receded into the stars of the sky. Only the on-off beacon at the top was visible, merging with the faint lights of high-altitude jets. He shivered and looked anxiously around in the dark. His tired body demanded rest.
He’d been in his sleeping bag next to brush along the fence for only a few minutes when a droplet of moisture his his cheek. He cussed, then felt several more drops. He hadn’t brought a tent or rope, only a flimsy ground cloth. A wind rose, but the rain turned into a fine mist and gradually diminished. David tried to curl into his bag so as to fall asleep but heard an ominous clanking in the tower as though someone was randomly hitting it with a wrench. Finally the reassuring light atop the tower lulled him into a deep sleep.
Sometime later in the bowels of the night he awakened, thinking at first that it was due to the hardness of the ground and that shifting his position would return him to sleep. The tower was still clanking, though not as loudly. As he looked up at it again, the structure seemed weakly illuminated. Then he heard a man’s voice. And, in the wind, the sound of an engine idling.
He speculated that some drinking buddies had stopped to consecrate this electronic totem pole and that the light was from their car’s headlights. He cautiously listened and waited in his bag to see if the voices would go away. Indeed, the sounds did seem to merge with the night and disappear. Soon the records clerk couldn’t be sure if the light still fell on the tower or not.
Then he heard footsteps and voices, much closer. A light beam methodically began to probe the tower and then the fence. Had he violated the security of this place? When he touched the fence upon arriving had he set off a warning light on someone’s cozy control panel hundreds of miles away? He lay still, fantasizing about what would happen if they found him. They’d probably humiliate him and shine lights in his face and tell him to “Get the hell out of here, shithead.” He pictured himself refusing to move. Then they would carry him in his sleeping bag and dump him a hundred yards out in the desert. Maybe they’d find his panties and commit unspeakable sexual crimes.
No, he decided, it would be better if he cooperated and pleaded ignorance.
He never really heard anyone drive away. The threatening sounds seemed to merge again with the random noises of the night and he gradually allowed his body to relax. He wasn’t about to get up and look around.
The next day, David walked miles more under a cloudy sky. Two miles from Borrego Springs, he finally got a lift into town.
The Old Hacienda Motel In Borrego had a nice soft bed which held David as he ate from a grocery bag. For starters, there was pound cake dipped in milk. He lay back and watched TV. At midday there wasn’t much on besides an old western with cowboys wearing absurdly-large hats. Maybe they really did hold ten gallons.
It was nice to have time to play. He took a dab of hand lotion and smoothed it around his penis, then looked around the motel room. His boots and socks lay strewn around the floor and his clothing was thrown over chairs. He’d have to go to a laundromat to clean up the soiled mess. Rather than dwell on that, he looked at his nude body, so pure-looking after a shower. Hair bushed up from his center like plants growing above a hidden spring.
He stroked his penis, which was growing warm and big. As pleasure built he stretched out his long body and briefly felt the residual aches of the long walk.
There was considerable wind outside. He heard something blow against his window — raindrops? Then the front door closed in the adjacent room and through an open vent above his door he heard a feminine voice say, “It’s raining!” Two car doors slammed and an engine started. David imagined that the woman had come into his room naked, because the voice was naked. He could see her public hair and the well-formed little cunt and he could imagine his hands grabbing handfuls of ass. He pictured himself lying on his back and her ramming her pussy into his mouth. The tastes would be so repugnant and exciting.
Then the image of Diane took over. He knew he could reach orgasm on that fantasy but put if off. On the TV, which had been distracting to this point, was a department store commercial. A man’s voice was saying, “Now you can be whoever you want to be,” and on the screen a man quickly changed from cowboy to skier to playboy to motorcycle rider to businessman — by instantly changing clothes.
Really. It’s so easy! Almost everyone does drag of some sort. Such great energy!
This was the last place he’d expect to receive a revelation about dressing.
David continued to massage himself slowly. Then a woman appeared on TV advertising a floor mop. She turned to demonstrate, exhibiting her firm derriere in tight slacks. So perfect. He reached orgasm almost against his will, like a fire hydrant bursting open.
While walking back from a sumptuous dinner at a restaurant that evening he noticed that the wind had risen. He looked toward the west and saw a burgeoning black cloud over nearby mountains. Sand was blowing across the road and sidewalks. Back in his motel room he sat and listened to the howling of the wind, glad like a little boy that he was safe and protected. He excitedly speculated on just how threatening the winds might become.
Turning the TV on seemed sacrilegious at such a moment, so he opened a high-up window through which no one could see him. He undressed completely. Cool air swirled in and around his goose-pimpled body, just as when his father had him naked in the cold basement. His ass clinched tight. The only illumination came from outside the room. He imagined that he was standing with his hands tied behind his back, paying obedience to the goddess of the storm.
His thoughts returned to Diane. He imagined her circling him like a raven, with black, frayed hair and a tattered black dress, her whip stinging his virginal skin in the frigid air.
David opened his eyes, not wanting to pursue that fantasy further. He spit in his hand and began to masturbate wildly and fast, standing in the cold. Rubbing his legs tightly together, he imagined them tied with cord. The air seemed to mellow as his juices congregated. The nondescript room took on a pastel hue and the few grains of sand and dust blowing around the room seemed to become grains of sugar. He fixated on the black cloud he’d seen earlier and imagined it to be swirling with faint suggestions of sheer dresses, made-up eyes and jeweled bracelets, and an exotically-costumed belly dancer with an ample, half-erect cock.
He came with sperm melting in his hand.
The next morning he had a dream to record after a night of being safely protected from the wind.
I was in the house where I grew up, kind of prowling around. Half of it seemed under construction, with exposed wooden beams at one end. Sunlight shone through the construction, giving the new wood a golden hue. I made my way through crossmembers and support boards into the old part of the house and found the entrance to a secret room I’d always suspected was there. The entrance was dark and I wasn’t able to enter.
My father, who evidently had been building the new part of the house, came to where I was. He was very proud of his work and contrary to the way I know him, was young, handsome, vibrant and open. He wanted me to take his picture but when I tried, there wasn’t enough light and I couldn’t.
He asked me why I was in this part of the house and I had to make up an excuse because I was aware that inside the secret room were powerful sexual pleasures. I just said I was looking for some books.
On the outskirts of Borrego Springs, an area of squat houses and crushed-rock yards, a white pickup stopped for David’s thumb and took him on a narrow, winding blacktop road up into the rounded mountains where the cloud had been. He got off at a primitive campground whose only amenity was a spring and whose only occupants were two unshaven men sitting next to their camper. Fresh stocked with groceries from town, he struck out into the mountains. He went far enough to get away from the eyes of the men.
He found the terrain a drastic change from the forested Sierra Nevada range to the north. Here was gritty soil, tough thorny bushes, and flaky rock. He noted what life there was –tough, colored lichen attached to boulders, stands of bladed plants that pricked the air, and infrequent dragonflies. Mostly there was stillness. Dead wood lay on the ground. There were no mammals or birds to be seen, only an occasional jet flying speck-high overhead.
David put down his pack and stretched out on a large, flat rock in the warm sun. He wished he could be all alone in the world to do whatever he wanted — to dress as a woman, or masturbate, or worship the sun — but mainly to experience things purely, without interference.
He stripped down to his stylish and scanty male briefs. Lying in the sun with his hat ever his eyes, he imagined that someone looking at him through binoculars would think his body beautiful, maybe arousing. He tried to relax and nap but couldn’t because of pesky flies landing on his legs. He idly wondered how long he’d want to stay.
By evening he’d traveled farther from the campground and had located a small space between two huge boulders. He gathered some wood and made a fire at dusk, down in the hollow so that no one could see the flame. Finally he let the fire die, crawled into his sleeping bag and watched the sky for shooting stars before falling asleep. The air had turned cold.
He woke the next morning with relief that he was intact. A distant animal yowled once. The purity of the cool air carrying the sound promised the most intense adventures. He got up quickly and photographed, using the rosy early morning light and color film. At first it seemed there was nothing that personified his feelings — then he became attuned to a huge century plant that had flowered and withered. Candelabra-like pods and tiny crosses adorned its bleached-white stalk. Halfway up the stalk a small bird had hollowed out a nest hole. Changing to black and white film, David painstakingly photographed these details. As long as he was photographing he was wonderfully at ease. Then he began to photograph the nearby small mountains as a rising sun illuminated them section by section. They seemed to come to life with distinct personalities.
The sun crept overhead and he became bored again as temperatures and dryness increased — bored with taking pictures, bored with the landscape, bored with himself. He moved on again and found another spot to set up camp. He worried about getting too far from the road — what if anything happened to him? By late afternoon the wind had risen and turned cold again. He sat in the lee of some bushes with his equipment. Thinking that the ultimate reality was himself, he set his camera on a small rock and set the timer to take a self-portrait. The camera slipped off just before the shutter snapped. Cursing, David went over and set it up again. The same thing happened, with more bitter cursing. He assumed his pose one more time, next to his backpack, and the camera finally behaved.
He wondered whether anyone looking at the photo would know he was sucking on three prunes in his mouth. Maybe this photo will be the last evidence of me. Maybe I’ll die and animals will eat me. The only things left would be my bones, my pictures and my diary.
He doubted that anyone would even go to the bother of getting the pictures developed. Or if they did, they’d take them to a drug store and get small, grayish prints back. He realized, sitting there grim and stone-still in the breeze, that he had a powerful desire to be remembered.
He realized that if he died in this desolate, moonlike landscape no one in California would miss him at all. If he didn’t show up for work he’d make the AWOL list and bureaucratic wheels would only slowly begin to turn. No one who knew him knew where he was. Only the people he’d hitchhiked with and the two guys in the campground had had any contact with him. Well, he had registered in the motel down in Borrego Springs.
Gene Gatzo probably didn’t care any more. There was just family, mostly in Ohio — those distant brothers and sisters and parents who sent birthday and Christmas presents every year out of habit. They might care if he died. They might make some ceremony for him and remember him if he died. Of course he would still be a mystery to them, having flown the roost to go to California.
He chuckled. Why all this stuff about death? I’m out here by my own choice. I’m grown up and free, and I’ve taken the paths that seemed right for me. David began to blame himself for not having become the photographer he wanted to be. If only he’d exerted himself and taken himself seriously. That was it — he’d never taken himself seriously. He played at things like he played with himself.
He looked at his nearly-empty canteens and knew that in the morning he’d have to return to the campground to get water. It wasn’t dark yet but the air was getting frigid, so he slid into his sleeping bag and found a comfortable spot. He fell asleep briefly, and when he woke, stars were beginning to come out, bright and crisp in the deepening blue-black sky. He looked at familiar constellations. The sky turned black.
David felt himself lying at the bottom of an immense stellar pool. He was part of a vast space, yet the stars seemed close enough to touch. As he gave himself over to euphoria and lost track of time, he began to float somewhere up above his body. The feeling, as his kernel of consciousness seemed to grow and expand without limit, suddenly made him stop short and grab for something to hold on to — his body. Oh my God, I was on the verge of something.
Back on earth again, he was aware of lying on rocky, uneven ground with cold night air on his face. He reached out to his pack, found water to drink, and opened a package of cookies. The voraciousness with which he gulped one down surprised him. The cookie was cold and stiff, yet David had eaten it as though it was his last meal, like a baby noisily sucking at its mother’s breast.
Two salty tears rolled down his cheeks and wet the cool nylon of his sleeping bag. His stomach seemed to drop out of him. The thought that he was crying made him cry more. The whole stupid thrust of the last year became apparent — the crime of half-ass relationships and wasting his life in a job he didn’t like.
David threw the package of cookies out into the night. To think that he’d started crying because of the way he’d eaten a goddamned cookie! Everything seemed wrong. He wanted to go back home. The dark night frightened him. It was as though he’d offended some huge giant who would come along and stomp on him.
Before returning to sleep he pulled the pair of panties from his knapsack, slipped them on inside the sleeping bag and slept with his hand between his legs.
At two o’clock the next afternoon he was on the road hitchhiking. He got a far as Long Beach before dark. After the purity of the mountains, the complexity and savageness of the city shocked him. He looked at the first newspaper in a week and saw stories of California murders and body counts in Viet Nam.
Still, he had warm feelings about the pictures he’d taken in the desert.