TWELVE years ago I was broke, broken and on drugs in Mexico City, one of the most densely populated places on earth, and I dragged myself to the Mojave in California, one of the loneliest. I was following a deep tradition of healing journeys to the desert. The consumptives of the 19th century came to soothe their lungs in the dry, clean air; the Christian mystics of the fourth century retreated far from the Nile River Valley into their desert cells, seeking spiritual transformation. In recent years, the desert West has seized the imagination of a new generation of Americans from both coasts with the means to buy a vacation house in Sedona, Ariz., Joshua Tree, Calif., or Marfa, Tex.
At the same time, the desert has received new denizens from other social stations — working-class refugees from gentrified cities, immigrants from Asia and Latin America. I was among the cohort who went because it was cheap. I started to put my life back together, aided by the relative quiet that characterizes a landscape that is simultaneously considered so utterly alien and so iconically American. But I eventually realized that the place I’d come to to purify body and spirit was anything but pure. Nearly everywhere I encountered precisely what I’d been running away from: poverty, racial tensions, drugs, addiction, smuggling-related violence.
After a few years, because of my family and career, I had to leave the desert and move to Los Angeles. Then, last summer, more than a decade after I left Mexico City, my nephew Noah made a healing journey whose itinerary was the opposite of mine. He abandoned my wife’s and his hometown, Albuquerque, to take refuge with us, fleeing the desert that I fled to.
He is a smart, earnest kid who is every inch his 21 years, with progressively large black “gauges” expanding the already gaping holes in his earlobes and a prominent piercing across the bridge of his nose. He’d gotten himself into trouble in Albuquerque. Noah and his mother, my sister-in-law, struggled for years in the desert of drugs, and he knew he had to leave.