• Lucia Joyce

Desert Days//New Me

Two weekends ago I was tucked between small desert mountains near Warner Springs, in a clay box cabin, overlooking straw-colored fields, prickly pear cacti, mystic yucca flowers and crispy wild buckwheat.

Trust The Unfolding

Though friends had been showing off their weekends in pristine bungalows and yurts in Joshua Tree, I chose a different type of get-away altogether: a simple cabin with thick clay walls that I found on Hip Camp, a 2 minute uphill trek from a sanctuary and retreat house for zen buddhist, plant medicine types. The lodgings looked cozy in a minimal way, emphasizing the landscape more than anything. I couldn't tell you why it had to be that cabin back when I booked it. I just knew.


I wasn't sure what I expected. I knew I needed time alone to fuel my writer's brain, away from Hollywood-demands and the thick quilt of wildfire smoke above my house. The rest of the details on what I was looking for would fill themselves in. They almost always do.


"They almost always do." Learning to say the words and actually trust such intuitions has been a slow, winding journey since I first found myself in adulthood. I spent 18-26 faking that trust instead of just listening to my deeper self.


I arrived on a Saturday afternoon, still in 'LA-mode', having mostly talked on the phone for my 3 hour drive. The quiet and stillness was almost unnerving, as if every creature could be heard separately. There was no white noise. Only thick silence and the intentional sounds of shoes on dusty gravel, buzzing insects and darting lizards. The desert color pattern struck me: deep clay reds, golden yellows, and frostier shades of green, unobstructed by city street signs and billboards, amplified by wood tones and warmer paint choices.

Desert flowers, which often housed rabbits and busy bees
The Hermitage Cabin
View at sunset through the cacti from the front of my cabin

Kitchen Love

My camp correspondent and fast friend, Caitriona, a tall, 70ish trans woman with white hair, kind blue eyes, and a dry British accent, showed me around the communal kitchen, which she helped to build a quarter century ago and, with her lovely partner Michele (my half-Japanese Doppelgänger), keeps beautifully maintained. Industrial-sized, with a sturdy 6-burner gas stove, 3 steel sinks, and counter space for days, the kitchen is made to cook for good size vegetarian groups. Stacks of dish ware, rows of hanging cast iron pans, and an inviting corner pantry stocked with buckets of grains and bulk spices became a sort of playground for me. The tiles on the walls and floor brought the desert color-scape inside: muddy reds with accents of royal blue and pale mustard. I could live in that kitchen. I enjoyed manually turning on the gas and lighting all six pilots, handling old but well-kept knives, composting in the sealed countertop tin, and scrubbing each dish by hand. I poked around the more unique ingredients, sniffing cumin seeds and dotting my finger with pomegranate molasses or coconut sugar. I ate simple things, seasoned with Tamari and garlic powder. I had never really taken a break from hot sauce, which seemed like a good enough excuse to try. I was looking for calm inner answers on this trip, not acidic tang and heartburn (although they say there's a psychedelic element to the spicier peppers).

The water at Manzanita Village comes from a private well, and I drank it greedily, like I'd been thirsty for years. The eating and communing area is outdoors on a tiled, covered deck with clean, sturdy wooden tables and benches. Insulated by its grassy rooftop, the deck is a cool respite from the midday heat, and a place to hear occasional scampering creatures in every direction. I often looked up from my meal or my book to a darting chipmunk, a curious lizard, a cautious bunny, or birds playing in the gravel. At night, giant string lights cased the perimeter, and I plucked my ukulele in the immense quiet.


Truth In Darkness

I spent my first night adjusting to my tiny aloneness under a swath of stars. I watched the sunset from my cabin-front clay bench, playing my Tibetan sound bowl and carefully burning a stick of amber incense. The twirl of fragrant smoke and deep ring of the sound bowl comforted me even as coyotes began to yip and the blazing desert colors turned to pitch-black and ghost-white. A little breath work on my corner bunk helped me surrender to the creepy night sounds and the protective watch of more visible spiders than I normally care to sleep under. Saturn, bright and faintly yellow, passed slowly from one side of my open front window to the other as the night wore on. Dreamy half-thoughts about life's meanings popped up between sleep cycles, as did the inconvenient need to pee. Twice on that first night I laced up my boots and hiked down to the retreat restroom with my iPhone flashlight, pausing in awe of the stars but never for too long. Over the course of my days and nights there, I would grow fearless, appreciative even, of the twilit air. I would also say 'F*ck it' and just pee in the bushes, under curious watch of night crawlers and impartial ghosts. "You're safe here," I began to tell myself, realizing my fear-brain had been trained to distrust quiet, middle of nowhere places by formulaic horror films. "Your thoughts are the only real source of fear," I mused.


This became one of the overall themes of my retreat.


Hard Labor

On Sunday, in the warm buzz of a lazy morning, I was recruited and put to work. Caitriona offered me an extra night at her sanctuary in exchange for a little physical labor. Her and Michele needed help setting up a massive open air tent in one of the property corners, adjacent to sea-green patches of wild squash and pastures dotted with grazing bulls. We slotted PVC columns between the roof of an 18X30X10 tent and its metal feet. We pulled a 50 foot tarp over the structure and secured it with ropes and pegs in the dry ground. We stood on ladders and tractor seats and clamped pocket support poles together with bolts and nuts. We broke for watermelon and eggplant pasta with fresh tomatoes, whipped up by Michele and served in the dry leaves of their front yard. We solved little puzzles in the midday heat--my dancer grace and analytic brain proved helpful in multiple ways--and when the pink-red sun began to sink behind the ocean-colored hills, we all felt like we'd known each other for years. Trusting each other with heavy tent poles and rickety ladder steps seemed to have fast-tracked our fateful friendships, and exposed our shared trust in fate itself. Weeks later, Caitriona called it "meeting old friends for the first time."


It was a fulfilling day. My new cohorts thanked me for my skill and willingness with a sparkly, floral kombucha at the patio table in their front yard. Hummingbirds whizzed about as we chatted about performance art and films we love. It was an unexpected day of sweat and service to people who had been strangers to me that very sunrise. I felt deeply aligned, though I didn't really understand why until a few days later.

When I stood up to head back to my isolated cabin in the evening half-light, I actually felt a bit irked. I had come on this trip to stop giving my hours away to everyone around me and to dedicate some real uninterrupted time to myself, but I had given my entire first day to a group of charismatic strangers outside my usual circle. I wonder if there is a version of me on an alternate timeline who completely trusted the simple exchange: a day of work at the beginning for an extra day of rest at the end. A nice workout on a hot day in a beautiful nature scape with new friends-- it's not a bad form of initial resistance. But I still let out some embarrassed tears on the phone with Shane that night. "What's wrong with me?" I couldn't help but whine, a confused teenage girl in a 30-something body.


Tears tend to speed my process to clarity, and Shane tends to speed my acceptance of tears. He smiled through the rectangular frame of my iPhone and pointed out that I'd been gifted an extra day in this quiet place and a safe, peaceful lens through which to view the parts of me I plan to upgrade, namely the part that can confidently and kindly say 'no' without inner turmoil and guilt (and the part that can accept an adventurous day of thwarted expectations).


Neighbors & Friends

A lot of creatures and mystical flora greeted me over the days and nights. Lizards of different sizes rushed about along trails and wooden walls. Cotton tail bunnies played hide and seek with me all over the grounds. One such bunny listened to me play ukulele in front of my cabin for 10 minutes, before bounding into the brush as I attempted to photograph him. In the bathroom one evening, I had a staring contest with a wide eyed field mouse on the floor shower ledge. We were equally surprised and at a loss about what to do next. I opened the swinging door for her and awkwardly asked her if she'd like to leave. She bolted faster than my eyes could follow, and without a sound... a little giant-eared Houdini. On one of my night-trips up the trail to the cabin, a flying squirrel bounced in and out of my flashlight view: a furry, round ball with a scruffy tail. "Hi," was all I could think to say. I suspected that cheeky flying squirrel of following me around at night, and I didn't get a full look, but I think he came to the door of my cabin and wobbled my sound bowl around midnight, more than once. Redshanks, trees with smooth, blood-colored bark, and Chaparral Yucca, spiny bushes that flower into king-like statuettes taller than me, seemed like quiet, knowing wizards on my path. In the dead of night, the "Roman Candle" Yuccas clustered and haunted my flashlight gaze like watchful phantoms, but I grew to see them more as angels--they dotted the entire hillside and made excellent trail markers. The Redshanks were creepier during the day, twisty, red ancient fire-witches, bursting with tiny green leaves, but also dripping with peeling bark. On one particularly ambling walk through the hillside brush, I came across a Redshank that curved over into a kind of elvish doorway--a perfect spiny arch that might have led to an adventure down another timeline. I started to crouch under it, then backed out and went another way. Call me superstitious, but I wasn't trying to get twisted up in the funhouse of tree magic just then, even if it only existed in my mind.


Breath Realizations

The highlight of Monday was my midday breath work. Shaded from the searing desert sun by clay walls and bamboo blinds, I did 10 slower rounds of Wim Hof (1 round = 1 cycle of 30 deep breaths, a 1-2 minute meditative hold, and a 10 second hold on a massive inhale that sends oxygen primarily to the brain). I've never done more than 7 rounds. It was just what I came on this trip to feel: empowered, unfettered, self-realized, healed by my better intentions, and happy from a core, unconditional place. In this year of traumas and troubles surfacing to haunt the world, I intentionally grounded in and tapped an unshakeable faith in myself and humanity. I let go of the fear, the second-guessing that muddies my clearer paths, the exhaustion and disenchantment with things outside of my control. I saw myself as strong (not just strong for a skinny mixed girl with a below-average income and a mediocre resume), capable as f*ck, and perfectly good as is. I accepted every possible branch of my future on the tree of my own existence. Present, alive, and grateful, tears of relief tickling my face, I emerged with beautiful, ineffable, untouchable love in my heart.


I realized the perfect chain of events that had led me to that point, booking a trip and not knowing why, but insisting anyway that I go alone. All the little intuitions and observations, forgivenesses and acts of brave acceptance leading up to that Monday breath work in the wilderness had brought me back to my own worth and eclipsed my former self with bliss. Bliss beyond chance. Beyond doubt. The kind of non-addictive bliss I don't need to feel every day, or every six months, at that. The kind that you don't have withdrawals from, but instead float out of, lighter and with more trust of whatever manifests next.


I am the keeper of my own power. I am the foremost creator and collaborator of my life, and what I've already created/experienced... is good, even when judged otherwise by close-minded passersby.

I am made of love, and that tends to be what I make more of in the world.


New Me, Who Dis?

I spent the rest of my desert vacation basking in my own freedom, alignment, and answers. I climbed to the top of the nearest mountain and shimmied down through the brush just as the sun was setting. I caught up with Shane on my final evening there, over heirloom veggie plates and long looks through the endless stars above, and in the morning we walked the stone labyrinth as the sun broke over the hills. I brought Lucia 2.0 (or whatever version of me this is-- 29th? 4 millionth?) back to my charmed life in LA, and I forged a long term connection with my cabin hosts, who have endless free lodging, food, and deep wisdom to exchange with trusted folks for outdoor work around their 20 acre property.


I already went back last Saturday, for bonding time with my new roommate, Vicki, and to help Caitriona and Michele move straw bales around and plan their December garden build. Our short trip was bursting with unexpected joys: Michele's fall soup and Persian rice, Tulsi tea and good conversation with other kind property guests, and a tour of Michele's personal art studio that fueled my spirit.


'Thankful' is really just a starter word for how I feel about this place and my ongoing experiences there. I feel rejuvenated in delicate ways. I feel lovingly pushed to do more purposeful work, have deeper conversations, and make endless art. I feel the deep, humbling power of the desert wilderness and the cozy zen of kindness and community. I feel appreciated, unpressured, and unjudged. I feel renewed, grateful with little effort, and freshly equipped for whatever the year holds.

Or whatever the life holds...

Thanks for waiting on this one! Remember to subscribe to the blog or hit me up through my website or personal texts if you need to get a hold of me. I'm downloading my Facebook info and deleting my account by the end of the week! My social media-less existence has already changed the space in my days and through-lines in my brain.



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