Pinyon air.

No journey has affected me more than my recent trip to Death Valley National Park. This, especially since a vast amount of the park was just hit by flash flooding, mudslides and washouts punishing and barricading several, now-closed, major access roads.

The area I visited in the southwest quadrant, itself already inhibited by a 54-mile detour around the sinkhole-pockmarked direct route, contains the park’s two highest mountain peaks and the one I went to hike: Wildrose.

Death Valley From Above, elevation about 8000 ft, quite hazy. Copyright Chris Rusak 2015
Death Valley, Furnace Creek area at sea level, from above
On the Wildrose Peak Trail, elevation around 8000′
Thick, temporal morning haze

Several callings led me there, the usuals, the things I find myself needing, craving, needing more and more. Desert silence, astonishing, even and especially for those who have already heard it. Over the everpresent freeway din surrounding my life each day, that undertone of desert silence, only several hours away, has bobby-pinned my presence to the present many a fretted night.

And the desert night, the galaxies it holds for us cupped in her canyons, rushing with stars shot around the azimuth. Heavens! Everyone should see the Milky Way in situ.

And the morning. Solely nature. Unfurling. A real warming-up. Slower than any nagging urban pestilence gnawing at our time.

But, I truly needed to get out of Los Angeles and into a desert forest to breathe. I just wanted to breathe, deeply.

Surrounded by pinyon pines, the air is an exhaust of sun-struck sap and sagebrush particulate freshly crushed underfoot, redoubled with every motion through this mist. I could not stop breathing. I could not hold my breathing, though I pained to hold each lump of savory breath.

The morning I left Wildrose Canyon I knew that in a few hours I’d be back in the world of auto exhaust, of silicone gaskets, traffic and needless standstills. And decisions.

I’ve been in Los Angeles just over two years now. I worked hard to get here. I accomplished my initial goals, having graduated from the University of California, beyond honorably. These days now were to be peppered with excited executions of other goals, the ones I set up long before I recently discovered pockmarked routes in those dreams that led me here.

I’ve been in Los Angeles just over two years now, and I don’t think it’s for me. I don’t think I want to stay here, in its recognition frenzy, its faux glitters, its exhaustion of incessant climbing, its climbing rents and frenzied brown/green/orange/steel/glass gentrification. Its scorching white and purple and pink LED façades, stripping itself like Vegas week by week. Its incredibly volatile egos hinged to self with trends, and cocaine, and reliable cycles of rejection. I feel like I moved to the San Francisco I just left, to a place becoming inexplicably expensive for its proximity to high-contrasty, graphically designed cookie-cutter dens of reclaimed wooden commercial districts. And its increasingly wooden people starstruck on the dramas of building handheld digital worlds. Invasive silicon beaches overtaking neighborhoods. And an incredibly steep social curve, toward which everyone resignedly seems to point as they excitedly suggest getting together again moments before they get themselves together in their car, then delete your texts and number. Or so it seems.

And, honestly, it’s not just Los Angeles — it’s California, and cities in general. Or so it seems.

And I hate to even say that — to even encompass that whole thought “I want to move out to the country” — but it’s been frustratingly true.

Death Valley was a good place to go and face these thoughts, notions nicking at my mind while I was wrapping up UCLA. It was a good place to go and imagine my dreams dying, of letting go of long-held long-term goals like gallery representation, critical importance, recognition, authorship, relevance. Making a difference and paying my bills. Of somehow trying to figure out how to sustain an intense artistic life in an increasingly oppressive capital world, without giving up more things to get there. Like steady money. Security, but not the oppressive faux flagship-city kind. It was a good place to go and imagine leaving urbanity and its toxicities, replaced with quieter nights away from police spotlights helicoptering the azimuth of my neighborhood. Of not following so much of what comes through the tubes. Of a different morning-kind-of illumination ritual. Of letting every expectation and hope thus far burn down and flood, and hiking a different path around the wreck, one on which I never imagined heading.

But what will you do?

Does it matter?

Eye-level with the clouds, Wildrose Peak, Death Valley. Copyright Chris Rusak 2015
Eye-level with the clouds
Wildrose Peak, Death Valley National Park
September 2015

The morning I hiked to Wildrose Peak, 9064′ above sea level with pause-inducing gain, the most fantastic thing happened: A virga, at that altitude seemingly right beside me. That weekend the park was under every conceivable atmospheric warning to which Southern Californians are now accustomed, but the threat of rain was real, and it had briefly thunderstormed the night before. But here I was almost two miles skyhigh with a 360º view of serious geologies on an otherwise astoundingly clear day, now, suddenly, pockmarked with greyish dense shoals. And it started to rain, except it didn’t, because though I could feel the faintest sensations of moisture against my face, this rain didn’t hit the ground. It wasn’t suspended; I could hear it, like those initial moments of a weeping San Francisco fog coming through air, but it was gone as soon as it had materialized. In those few feet between my eyes and my toes, the lightest rain sublimated. So strange. Real? I laid down on the ground and watched rain melt away no sooner than it precipitated. To think, sitting over the driest valley in the land, a rainstorm in a truncated near-body-length of space.

Anyhow, convinced I was suffering from altitude hallucinations, I shoved some protein and fruit in my gullet and started my descent, just in case this phenomena was a harbinger of something to come. It wasn’t until a few days later, home, after doing some research, that I even learned what virga was, that a virga was real, and that I had experienced a small one at an absurdly perfect moment in time on just the right point in space.

Perhaps this is Los Angeles’s time, and perhaps for artists this will be its space. And there lies one of my hot current conflicts. Environmentally and emotionally, I feel like I’m living in a city where I’m sublimating, in a battle between my bleeding sinuses and the brake dust, and a turf war between sirens and almost non-existent moments of silence. Industrially — and there’s more to be said, elsewhere, about this — but pursuing art, in our time, seems to be the most batshit crazy thing anyone can do. (Chew on that pitch with me until later.)

The funny thing is that every morning I wake up, now, I feel like I’m having a psychotic break. The daily news, the coming ecological apocalypse, my checking account, why is it that I’m drawn to apartments with horrific neighbors, another Twitter redesign. But sitting on a mountaintop surrounded by airborne water re-disappearing back into air I really thought I was nuts. Yet gleefully. I had one of the most ridiculous, rare natural occurrences happening right about my head and I nevertheless doubted it. Necessarily? And lately, I just can’t help but wonder if Los Angeles is a virga, too.

¶ 2015·10·22