Zones of Avoidance
By Maggie DownsApril 25, 2021
It makes sense. That’s where the drama is.
I like the other kind. The empty ones. The craters. A volcano open as a throat.
That’s why I traveled 100 miles from where I live to hike into an extinct volcano. I needed to go somewhere, and I chose a place that felt both resilient and vulnerable. I needed to go somewhere, and nowhere was the loneliest place I could find.
California was under strict lockdown due to the pandemic. I was working from home in a too-small condo with an energetic child. I was also close to launching my first book, a memoir of backpacking around the world, and I had intended to fly all over the country to promote it. Instead I was grounded.
Even worse, I live in the desert. Summer heat barrels into our lives with such swiftness and force, it’s like being chased by the boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spring’s temperate days are crushed by fierce heat, with temperatures soaring over 110 degrees. My family would soon be cooped up inside for many months ahead, the air conditioning panting to keep up.
A lot of travelers describe themselves as having “itchy feet,” but I had reached a point where everything itched. My skin felt too tight, and if I could have torn it off, I would have. I needed to push beyond my own walls. But I was frightened to travel, afraid of contracting the virus or spreading it to others.
To escape, I selected the only place that made sense, where I wouldn’t see people and people wouldn’t see me. Where social distancing wouldn’t be an issue because there wouldn’t be anyone to socialize with.
Amboy, California. Population: Five.
It’s a blip of a town, 10 buildings in all, home to the same narrative as the Pixar film Cars — Amboy was once a vibrant stop on historic Route 66, but ever since Interstate 40 was constructed to the north, it hardly sees any traffic.
What’s striking about the town now is how random it seems, like someone was playing jacks with small structures and tossed them into the middle of the Mojave. It’s about 60 miles from the Marine base at Twentynine Palms, and it’s 80 miles west of Needles. The closest place is Kelso, home to a train depot and 45 square miles of sand dunes known to “sing” in a rumbly, baritone sound, reminiscent of a didgeridoo. It is a forlorn song.
Amboy’s roadside motel is empty. The church is boarded, and the steeple leans. There was a shoe tree where passersby hung old sneakers and boots; in 2010, it succumbed to the weight of discarded footwear and fell over. People continue to add shoes to the pile.
Years ago, I met every resident of Amboy. All five of them. I was writing an article about how the town had been listed on eBay. (Nobody bid.) The residents were gathered inside the diner at Roy’s Motel and Café, which sounds like something intentional or scheduled, but it wasn’t. Roy’s was — and still is — the only operational business.
Some people refer to it as a ghost town, but I don’t think of it that way. You won’t find any lost souls here. They came deliberately.
The route I took to Amboy passed Bristol Lake, a dry lake mined for salt. After a rare rain, the surface reflects the sky in such a way that it looks captured, trapped on the ground. This particular day, however, it was dry, the lake bed crackled like a shattered terra-cotta pot.
From here, you can start to see the volcano, which is just outside of the town on BLM land. It’s a dark blemish on the flat horizon, a desert hallucination. Driving 75 miles an hour down a stick-straight road, the hill hardly seems to get bigger at all, just a small lump with the top lopped off. Then suddenly I was in the parking lot. Here the volcano looked deceptively close, even though it was still a mile away.
Before I moved to the desert, I assumed it was a monotone place, beige upon beige upon beige. I know better now, having witnessed the many shades of mountain, dirt, plants, and sand. There is brilliance, but there is also nuance. The desert never looks the same way twice, not in the morning when the light is diffused, clouds dappling the mountains, and definitely not at sunset when cacti ripen in the golden light.
The hues of the Amboy volcano are different from other parts of the desert, on account of the lava, particularly the cinder cone itself. The black of it is stunning, deepest toward the top, then an ombré of burnt umber and ochre where it meets the desert floor. The terrain appears flat but is hummocky, and wildflowers run through the ripples of lava rock in waves of yellow, and purple. The trail is pale. It slices across the ground like a scar.
I brought my five-year-old son along. His body doesn’t hold any of the fears that mine does. He skips around bushes and hops over rocks, never looking for rattlesnakes. He teeters and sometimes topples, but he never worries about breaking a bone. He doesn’t stoop under the crushing dread that accompanies a vast global pandemic. I hold those fears for him.
One day my son was in school, practicing songs for kindergarten graduation, and then he wasn’t. He understood the basic facts of the pandemic — there is a virus, and it has killed people — he hadn’t yet learned what it meant to lose someone. I promised him we would be fine, and occasionally I believed it myself. It was the most elaborate game of pretend I’d ever played.
Reptiles scattered as we walked. Slender lizards and tubby chuckwallas skittered from one squatty creosote to another. A desert iguana the size of a baguette sunned itself on a black rock. I saw no birds.
The trail wound around the back of the volcano to a depression, where 10,000 years ago lava burst through the cone. From this point it is a moderate climb to gain access to the interior of the crater, which looks like a mountain that has been emptied with an ice cream scoop.
I wished I knew more about geology and could read these rocks like a book, unraveling the story of how this happened, absorbing the crater’s narrative. All I know for certain is that volcanic eruptions are driven by pressure, and so am I.
In the Jules Verne classic Journey to the Center of the Earth, the Icelandic volcano Snæfellsjökull contains a channel that leads to the earth’s core, but first the explorers must contend with extreme challenges, otherworldly phenomena, and danger.
The Amboy journey, on the other hand, was not that dramatic.
We descended into the crater, quickly reaching the bottom, which was pockmarked with mud puddles and zig-zagged with skinny trails. My son played hide and seek with nobody, crouching behind shrubbery and popping out with a “Boo!” before tearing down another trail. His voice reverberated around the crater and came right back.
I squatted on a rock and ate an apple. I realized I had been holding my breath up somewhere around my shoulders, and finally I exhaled.
Cradled in the husk a volcano, this was the safest I’d felt in months. Even before California went into lockdown, I had been on high alert. My husband read the news every day and watched the surge of COVID-19 numbers. Alarmed, he stocked up on toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and Clorox wipes, long before that became a thing. He talked about the virus so often, I was sick of it.
Then I watched as friends in Italy and France went into lockdown. One of them was admitted to the hospital and came close to drowning in her own lung fluid. A few cases appeared in the United States, then a few more. I traveled to San Francisco for work in February the same weekend the city declared a state of emergency for rising rates of coronavirus. I asked my friends, all frequent travelers, if I should be concerned.
“This isn’t a big deal,” they assured me. “Just wash your hands.”
But anxiety was my stowaway, accompanying me the whole trip. I haven’t been able to shake the feeling since.
I don’t like carrying this weight around. I have jumped out of airplanes and whitewater rafted down the Nile and trekked to find endangered mountain gorillas, but this is the fear that flattens me. I am afraid of getting sick. I’m afraid of losing my ability to breathe. I have lost my own mother to disease, and I’m afraid of my son growing up with an empty space where a mom should be.
So I have wormed myself into this place, this crater. Maybe not the center of the earth, but close enough.
I read an article in The New York Times about astronomers who have been studying thousands of galaxies along the southern border of our own cosmos — “beehives of trillions of stars and dark worlds.” Knowledge about these other galaxies is essential to help map where we exist in the universe, to determine our place in the endless void.
The thing is, the scientists can’t see any of these other galaxies, because they are hiding behind our own. They are completely obscured by the Milky Way. They exist in what astronomers call the “zone of avoidance.”
What struck me was how quickly I slipped into my own zone of avoidance. How I determined that survival depended on disappearing. I only wanted to be where the people weren’t.
In a way, I’ve prepared for this moment. I’m fascinated by niche communities, particularly those who live off-grid and find some semblance of solitude together, and I’ve done my best to tell their stories. I’ve talked to stoners and artists and survivalists and homesteaders, all of whom left old lives behind, searching for a new kind of future. I’ve interviewed rock-climbing dirtbags who live in vans and poop in kitty litter; they also summit great heights and experience the earth with their hands. Is it bravery or desperation that makes them hold fast to a crumbling world?
There’s a murky space between running away from everything and running toward something, and that’s the place that lights me up. That’s why I follow roads that might not go anywhere. I’ve found that nothing often leads to something. The zone of avoidance might actually be my comfort zone.
We climbed up the other side of the crater, this time on a slightly steeper trail where the sand was fine and the gravel loose.
At the top, the ragged path was thin and ran along a knife’s edge. Whenever our footsteps became too heavy, rocks plunged over the side. Here my son was scared. He stuck out a hand for me to hold.
“Look straight ahead,” I told him. “There’s nothing for you on the ground.”
The lip at the top of the crater eventually widened, making way for surer footing, then opened up into large space. Here we stopped, sat cross-legged, and I pulled peanut butter sandwiches out of my backpack. For a moment, we didn’t utter a word.
The landscape below looked like an illustration. Violet mountains to the north bled into the browns and greens of the land. Beige rivulets were etched into the ground from water, wind, and time. They appeared to be veins, pumping life into the earth. The sky was the bleached blue of almost-summer, bright and crispy from sunlight.
And the silence. It was the quietest quiet I had ever known.
Once the power went out at my house in the middle of the night. I awoke not from a noise but from the sudden absence of it. Without the hum of appliances and the steady swish of the ceiling fan, the night was very black and very still.
Standing atop an ancient volcano in a vast desert was even quieter than that. But while the blackout night was unsettling, this silence filled me. It was the difference between loneliness and solitude.
In the book Silence: In the Age of Noise, author Erling Kagge argued the world’s secrets are hidden inside silence. Trekking across Antarctica, he realized, “At home there’s always a car passing, a telephone ringing, pinging, or buzzing, someone talking, whispering, or yelling. There are so many noises that we barely hear them all. Here it was different. Nature spoke to me in a guise of silence. The quieter I became, the more I heard.”
In the volcano, I understood the off-grid survivalists in a way I didn’t before. My belief in people has faltered as I’ve witnessed the human response to a terrible crisis. I am no longer convinced that we can look out for each other, that we share common goals for humanity. But even as that belief eroded, my faith in nature has grown. It gives me hope to look to things that have endured. Stone, sky, water.
One time I had to pick up my friend Rob from his place in San Pedro, and my goal was to make it to Manhattan Beach in time for sunset. But Rob was running late, and then we got stuck in traffic. By the time we got to the beach, it was already dark.
“I’m sorry you missed the sunset,” he said.
“It’s okay,” I said. “There’ll be another one tomorrow.”
“Well, that’s optimistic,” he said.
But it isn’t. It’s the truth. There will be another sunset tomorrow. Just like on January 13, 2011, the day after my mom died, the sun still rose all stupid and yellow. I couldn’t get over the audacity. It is hard to reconcile the fact that the center of your universe does not affect the universe.
I know after I die, there will be sunsets. The desert air after a rain will still smell like creosote. Volcanoes will erupt and then stand, a monument to nature’s ambition and power, but also to transience.
“The paradox of volcanoes was that they were symbols of destruction but also life,” wrote Matt Haig in The Midnight Library.
Volcanoes make fertile ground, even in an adjacent manner. It was the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora in 1815 that dramatically changed the atmosphere. The dust and ash clogged the air and led to unseasonably cold and rainy conditions across Europe the following summer. This is what drove Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Shelley indoors during their vacation at Lake Geneva. When Lord Byron challenged his bored friends to write creepy ghost stories, Mary Shelley conceived Frankenstein, a tale of life after death.
A couple hours drifted by. We made our way down the volcano and across the desert. Then we drove home. Past Roy’s, which was having a busy afternoon — two cars were parked by the gas pump. Past the dry lake and the fields where Marines regularly blow up the land. Past Big Josh, the giant Paul Bunyan–esque statue of a man in Joshua Tree, these days wearing a giant mask and a pair of blue gloves.
The figure reminded me of a man I once met, someone else who seemed larger than life. He called himself The Wizard, and he showed me around an artists’ commune known as East Jesus, a colloquialism for a place beyond the edge of services. A former dump site in the California desert, East Jesus became an open-air museum full of experimental artwork and a haven for oddball creatives, kind of like a year-round Burning Man.
The Wizard of East Jesus led me to a sculpture made of stacked metal and scrap wood, topped off with a rusted convertible that looked as if it was about to take flight. He helped me climb a few rickety stairs up to the car and inside the driver’s seat. He continued to hold my hand as he leaned in close.
“Thelma and Louise, they had to make a choice — go back to their old lives or take a leap into the unknown,” the Wizard said. “Which one would you choose? Would you rather go back to the familiar? Or would you go into the void?”
I still don’t know the answer. I might be poised to explode, or maybe the destruction has already happened. It’s the feeling of waiting for the volcano and being the volcano at the same time.
The pressure thrums through me, reminding me that I’m here, I’m still here.
Maggie Downs is the author of the memoir Braver Than You Think: Around the World on the Trip of My (Mother's) Lifetime. She is at work on her next book.
Featured image: "Amboy1858" by Alienburrito is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. Color has been altered.
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