by Patrick Roesle.
In many ways Amar’s case was familiar, if not typical. When he was eighteen years old he left his father’s home in Flagstaff, Arizona to study at a small, well-regarded liberal arts college in the Midwest. He graduated with honors and returned to Flagstaff when he was twenty-two.
At eighteen, Amar had been inattentive and indifferent, more concerned about beating his friends at Super Smash Brothers than anything else. At twenty-two, he viewed all things in terms of how they stood with regard to his personal politics. He was curt and argumentative, possessed of the distracted moodiness characteristic to a young man in the throngs of an intellectual metamorphosis.
At college he had converted to vegetarianism, and then to veganism. He became a conscientious recycler, and later tried to stop using disposable items altogether. Only a few months after becoming a vocal advocate for public transportation, he bought a secondhand bicycle and objected to using any other vehicle to travel a distance less than twenty miles. After returning to Flagstaff he converted to freeganism. Paying for anything was too much, especially when shops routinely tossed perfectly usable merchandise and edible food into the trash to make room for other superfluous things that were just as likely to be passed over and pitched away, availing nothing but a lengthening trail of carbon footprints.
While his old friends around town busied themselves with résumés and video games, Amar gave his days to the forests and hills at the city’s outskirts, hiking and camping, losing himself in thoughts about the wilderness and the city, man and nature, the individual and society.
His hot, nebulous leadings began condensing to articulate principles about one year after his return to Flagstaff. One afternoon, during a meditative hike through the ponderosa forests to the north of town, he found an empty water bottle lying on the trail. The bleached label identified Poland Spring as the manufacturer. Amar picked it up and carried it with him, intending to drop it in a recycling bin when he could. Less than a mile ahead he found another one (Evian), which he likewise took along.
By and by, he came upon a third. A fourth. A fifth.
He stopped picking up new ones after the sixth and stopped counting after the twelfth.
He turned it over in his thoughts for a long time afterwards, and his annoyance turned to anger. All those mounds of discarded plastic bottles in the world, millions of them, littering the landscape and collecting in the rivers and oceans to leach toxins into the soil and water—and who was culpable? Everybody and nobody, went the glum consensus; it was just an accepted and sighed about fact of society, an unavoidable collateral product of the way in which modern Homo sapiens lived within the mechanisms it had devised.
This thought was at one end of a thread. Amar seized and followed it along, and a few months afterward arrived at its conclusion: that civilization in its present form was a blight on the planet and a self-imposed death sentence for humanity.
It was a question of tenability and responsibility. Over the centuries, the unprecedented adaptations called technology and civilization that had allowed Homo sapiens to flourish were gradually refurbished as a life-support apparatus fueled on a solution of borrowed time and the slurried pulp of the biosphere’s other constituents. This mechanism was as alive a thing as Gaia, and endowed with similar sort of transcendent intelligence. It was a parasite, a teratoma that siphoned the planet’s vital currents toward itself, swallowed them, and belched out greenhouse gasses, excreted radioactive waste and plastics, and pissed poisons over everything it had not yet come around to devouring.
Its existence was an affront to all that was good and true in the world––and goodness and truth were nothing if not the vitality of the biosphere, the richness and variety of its forms, and the grand systems of mutual sustenance by which it preserved and transformed itself. Meanwhile, humanity was growing fatter, dumber, and ever more subordinate to the monstrous Mechanism that cannibalized and deformed the planet for the benefit of a pathogenic organism proving itself increasingly unworthy of its ascendency.
How could one live responsibly while his species and society were blithely metastasizing the planet? What benefits could the knowledgeable, principled individual accept from civilization when acceptance amounted to a sanctioning of its destructive, systemic stupidity?
None, Amar concluded. None at all.
Now it was not enough that he fish new clothes out of dumpsters rather than directly subsidize the global production system. His conscience would not even permit him to implicitly endorse the Mechanism by investing his body in the garments it produced.
So he made his own clothes. There were plenty of deer on the outskirts of town; Amar persuaded a hunter with whom he was acquainted to teach him how to ensnare and kill them, to skin the carcasses and tan the hides. From the Internet he learned how to cut and stitch them into raiments.
By the time he got to learning the particulars of hunting and skinning animals, Amar had been out of school and unemployed for over a year. Watching his son strut down the sidewalk in deerskin leather clothes and moccasins convinced Amar’s father that the boy would likely remain jobless for some time yet, and made him grateful that Amar’s long, unwashed hair and beard had effectively obscured him from the neighbors’ recognition. But he nevertheless abided his son, certain that Amar was just going through a phase that had to be waited out. (He himself, after all, had once picketed in front of a nuclear power plant and voted for Walter Mondale.) Still, he felt that the sooner Amar grew up, the better for them both.
Amar, however, had trouble mustering the same patience for his father––or for his likeminded peers in the city.
It had not been difficult to meet others around Flagstaff who shared his beliefs, but Amar could not find even one who upheld them with any appreciable degree of seriousness. He met homesteaders who relied on petrol-powered generators and owned Apple devices. Communists who wore Converse sneakers and sipped McCafé lattes. Activists who railed against the evils of consumerism and the throwaway culture before driving to their day jobs at Best Buy and Starbucks. Self-identified environmentalists who ran their air conditioners when they were away from home, drove their cars half a mile to the supermarket rather than bike or walk, and tossed their cigarette butts into the grass and storm drains. Of what value were their “principles,” Amar demanded, if they had not been purified of inconsistency and consummated by a life of action?
His intransigence and abrasiveness soon made him a pariah among Flagstaff’s radical cliques. It was just as well: Amar had no use for people who vociferated about What Must Be Done while willingly suffering the problem to be hoisted on their very backs. He concluded that he must restrict his company to those who shared not only his beliefs, but also his ardency. Any compliance with the problem was an abetment of civilization’s sins, and to tolerate the complicit was to share in their guilt.
But Amar reserved his most acerbic criticisms for himself. Who was he to preach to others when he lived under his father’s roof, in a house that was heated, cooled, and lit by electricity generated at a coal-burning power station? When the water he drew from the faucet contributed to the depletion of an overexerted aquifer? When the fruit and nuts he took from the pantry were grown with petrochemical fertilizers, kept whole by petrochemical pesticides, carted across the continent by petrol-powered engines, and carried home from the supermarket in petrochemical packaging? One who would call himself righteous could not accept gifts of things unscrupulously gained, and the Mechanism produced nothing scrupulously.
In January, Amar heard about a self-sustaining, petroleum-free intentional community that had been recently established in Duchesne, Utah. The place and people sounded legitimate by any standard, including his own. He resolved to go and live there, to learn what he didn’t know and teach what he did. His first thought was to bike the highways or hitch rides––but either would be to acknowledge the Mechanism, to benefit from one or more of its pernicious gifts. It seemed more acceptable and straightforward to simply walk there, hiking in a fairly straight path the 500 miles between Flagstaff and Duchesne.
It was to be a grand experiment in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau and Everett Ruess; the ultimate test of his mettle, the placing of his principles to the proof. To sever himself from the Mechanism and live as a human being, a complete man, instead of another domesticated whelp. At the end of his journey he would find––or hoped to find––a community of likeminded people living off the grid and off the teat. And if, after braving the desert, he found the village or its people wanting, he would know that he could always keep walking.
Honing his wilderness survival skills and gathering supplies took nearly five months. Amar had no intention of taking off into the desert unprepared; the last thing he wanted was to end up like that poor son of a bitch Chris McCandless.
To begin, he had his jacket, trousers, and moccasins. To this he added a backpack sewn together from deerskin and cowhide leather, and a deerskin blanket. He planned to forage and hunt as he went, but several pounds of deer jerky would sustain him in the interim and during emergencies. Water would be an obvious necessity, and for this he had a pair of canteens fashioned from dried gourds. From a homesteader in Mountainaire he acquired a wool hat, a wool blanket, and five pounds of dried corn. From a local tai-chi instructor who occasionally moonlighted as a mineralogist and renaissance faire blacksmith, he procured a hunting knife, whetstone, and flint. From other local artisans he took a fifty-foot hemp rope, a pocket diary with pages made of pulp from local ponderosa and bound in leather from a local steer, a pen carved from pinyon pine, and a vial of black walnut ink.
Amar obtained the supplies he could not make himself by bartering his labor and implements he had crafted from deer hide or bone. He was adamant in his insistence that his suppliers use local recourses; departing with a sack of supplies bought from Walmart would be absolutely antithetical to the journey’s purpose. He meant to survive the wilderness using tools that could ideally be taken from the wilderness, keeping to a minimum the intermediation of the Mechanism. And so the iron ore used to make the hunting knife came from the nearby San Francisco Peaks, and the ink vial’s glass had been refined from the Navajo sands to the east.
The only exception he made was for a stack of topographical maps bought from a retired ranger holding a garage sale. Yes, they were products of mass production, capitalism, and all the other interconnected evils of the Mechanism, but he could not do without them. Food and water would be scarce; it was of paramount importance that he know his route in advance and chart it with respect to expediency and dependable water sources. But even this much compromise pricked his conscience, so Amar meticulously copied each of the maps, down to the smallest detail, onto sheets of his ethically-sourced ponderosa paper. Carrying out this effort delayed his departure for nearly two weeks.
One night in late May, Amar left a farewell note for his father and embarked. The first fifty miles through the forested foothills of the San Francisco Peaks were easy going; there was plenty of food to be foraged, running water to refill his canteens, and dry wood for campfires.
Amar’s journal entries from these first few days were brief and subdued. But during the week after he crossed over into the Painted Desert, his writing flared with fecundity and frantic enthusiasm. The trek had become difficult, and would not likely get any easier for weeks, for hundreds of miles. The blasting heat and inescapable sun slowed his movements across the rocks and ridges. Food and water had to be rationed with an ascetic’s discipline. But as his body suffered, Amar’s mind sharpened and his spirit billowed. He wrote of feeling more human than ever before; it was as though he had worn blinders and leg braces all his life and had broken free to truly see the Earth and stride across creation as a man restored to what he was meant to be. Sometimes he waxed Biblical: not until Adam was cast out of Eden and forced to eke his sustenance from the land and subject his body to the elements could the cogs of his redemption groan into motion. Everything in sight––the pinkish dust, the Mesozoic stone, the skittering lizards and parsimonious weeds––suggested themes of staggering significance. He read syllogisms in the brush and cliffs, forgotten knowledge in the immense shadows cast by the sun as it set behind the ridges, the folded histories of megamillennia carved into the blazing hills.
The longest entries from this period were each composed beside a campfire and run several pages long. Between these, and occasionally in their margins, Amar composed dozens of brief notes during his diurnal travels in a hasty shorthand. All in all, they amount to some fifty pages of meditations, ecstatic observations and reflections, and the disjointed germs of a philosophical treatise, all feverishly striving to communicate the order shown their author by the wilderness.
But even out here, Amar saw the remote probes of the Mechanism marring the land like eczema. He glimpsed power lines in the far distance, beginning at one horizon and shrinking unto termination beyond its opposite, and sun-bleached Frito-Lay bags, Pepsi cans, and shattered beer bottles half-buried in the sand. These sights were few and far between, but nevertheless present. The pathology of Babylon bleeding into Canaan, Amar lamented in his journal, noting that no land, however holy, could ever completely regain its innocence after the Mechanism made contact. The plastic in the strata would mark it for eons.
Amar’s survival skills were more than adequate for a weekend or even a weeklong sojourn in the desert. A five hundred-mile expedition was something else entirely. Though the journal never alludes to it, Amar had occasion to admit that he might have overestimated his knowledge. He knew what plants and animals could be easily and safely eaten, but was not as proficient in discerning, from a far distance, the places they might most likely be found. He knew how to make a solar still, but had not understood how little water one would actually yield. Even though he could navigate by the sun and stars, he was prone to misreading his topographical maps––especially when the overwhelming heat all but blasted his capacity for concentration. Moreover, he had gravely underestimated the breadth of the desert, its barrenness, and its hostility toward organisms it had not reared. The sweltering days sapped his reserves; the difficulty of sleeping through the frigid, murmuring nights kept him from replenishing them. Into the second week, Amar’s journal entries become shorter, their excitement less effusive.
Around the same time, Amar began noticing small discrepancies between the crags and canyons he saw around him and the terrain that the map indicated he should have been seeing. He was not worried––not enough to mention so in his journal. The disagreements between the maps and the landscape were relatively minor. Though he had copied them as perfectly as human eyes and hands were capable, there were bound to be some inaccuracies, very small ones.
He first wrote about these discrepancies at the beginning of the third week, and a tone of apprehension crept into his journal entries. According to the maps, after another day or two of travel the rugged terrain would level out for several miles, and he would find a river bisecting the flatlands. His route had been formulated with respect to this river. Its path was fairly unconvoluted, and it ran through accessible terrain for a stretch of about twelve miles. If he had strayed only a little way off course, as he suspected might be the case, he would still come across it.
Two nights later he wrote that he had not found the flatlands, and there was no river.
After this update, Amar returned to his journal only sporadically. Posterity and introspection were of no concern to him anymore. He was lost in the desert, miles from civilization. It had been days since he last saw any wind-tossed litter on the ground or pylons in the distance. His attempts at guessing his location by checking the geological features in the vicinity against those on the maps only cost him time—a resource for which his supply of food and water now served as a grim yardstick.
The days were long and miserable. There was virtually nothing but stone underfoot, precious little sand or soil in which plants could take root. No water on the ground, no moisture in the air, no clouds in the sky. The terrain kept level for only a few hundred paces at most. Navigating such a landscape in the piercing heat while suffering from dehydration and a nearly empty stomach was torturous, and worsened by the sudden uselessness of the maps. More than once Amar exerted himself to the threshold of unconsciousness scrambling up or down a talus-strewn slope or negotiating a barely-manageable crag, only to find himself at an immitigable precipice or obstruction from which he could only backtrack.
Food was not an immediate problem. A few days earlier he had pegged a hare with a rock and jerked its meat. If he limited himself to only two strips of dried rabbit flesh a day––supplemented by his last bits deer jerky and whatever edible plants he might happen upon––he had enough food in his pack for six days of near-starvation fare.
What he needed was water. During the day it got to be over 100°F. The heat seemed to smother him, and the insatiable dryness of the air tore away what was wet in him. His tongue swelled and throbbed in his leathery mouth. Keeping it still was uncomfortable; rolling it around was painful. And he never stopped sweating, his stomach kept twisting and knotting, and hour by hour he drew closer and closer to his canteen gourd’s last drops.
It was a hunger and thirst unrestricted to his belly. His limbs were hungry; their joints grew teeth and gnawed on his muscles when called on to exert themselves. He stumbled through the rocks and ravines, trying to think of encouraging words from Thoreau, Ruess, and Antisthenes, but his recitations trailed off into meaningless singsongs of sand and sun and thirst and sun and sun and god so much sun, sunshine in the happy cruel and cloudless sky…
Traveling after sunset was impossible: the terrain was harsh during the day, but treacherous in the dark. Amar had no flashlight and the moon was waning close to new. At nightfall he would set up camp and sit shivering over his feeble campfire, whispering petitions and prayers to the inaudient canyon walls. After an hour or two his feelings would freeze over and his soul would go still, and he would find himself marveling at the frigidity of distance and total indifference of the glorious summer stars, and at the irony that they would only reveal the grander portion of their splendor to him here, in this excruciating land he loved even as it wrung the life out of him. He recognized a sacrosanct principle at work between the desert and himself, and knew the only appropriate attitude was thus one of genuflection. Each night his thoughts eventually carried him here, where he could be at just enough peace with himself to doze off.
Against despair, Amar clove to his vision and principles. Better to die with uncompromised scruples than to live beholden to the diseased pap of the stepmother Mechanism.
The final entry in his journal was written at high noon during the second day of the fourth week. He had gone one day without water and doubted he could survive a second.
In the morning he had clambered down into a ravine and discovered an arroyo––a stream that only flowed when it rained, and was otherwise dry as everything else in the desert. From the accumulations of sediment against the stones, he determined the floodwaters would flow east. So Amar went east. He was too exhausted for hope or despair, so thirsty he could hardly think straight, let alone walk straight. It was the only plan he could capably concoct: to follow the river to either his salvation or death.
The journal’s last page is barely legible and largely incoherent. What hope for any of us? he wrote, extrapolating from his tribulations a dire omen for humanity. There was no hope. The Mechanism could not be escaped; humanity could not live apart from it, not as it stood now. Amar prophesied a mass exodus to the wilderness, and a culling of the herd from exposure and starvation before the proliferation of a new humanity, suckled and catechized in the desert, capable of living without the crutches required by this era’s domesticated breed. He declared himself the first to be tested; the martyred herald of humanity’s redemption. Others would have to submit to his example if the biosphere was to be preserved from implosion, if Homo sapiens was to survive itself.
At the time of Amar’s writing, disorientation was certain; delirium was likely. Throughout this final entry, Amar often writes as though he were addressing an audience. It would not be unfair to suggest that posterity had renewed itself as a concern.
He stopped writing after accidentally spilling the rest of his ink. The missive concludes with a defeated fuck this chiseled into the page with the dry pen.
Twenty-eight hours later, Amar was discovered by a trio of rock climbers. He was malnourished, weak, barely in command of his faculties, and in need of medical attention. But he was alive.
The incident received little press. The local television stations and newspapers ran a couple of reports; a journalist writing for the Arizona Daily Sun interviewed Amar over the phone, but the only direct quotes in her article came from a ranger who emphasized the danger of the desert and its unsuitability for amateur hikers. Outside of Arizona, a few blogs and news sites posted blurbs, and a CNN anchor spoke for fifty seconds about Amar’s disappearance and discovery before moving on to the latest about Donald Trump. With Amar alive and none the worse for wear, there was not much of a story to tell, and he remained largely anonymous.
Within a month after coming home to Flagstaff, a freshly-shaved Amar could be seen around town wearing new clothes and shoes. He bought his food from the supermarket, and occasionally got a Slurpee from 7-Eleven or a hamburger from McDonald’s. He sent out a batch of résumés and was hired by the sales department of a biodiesel firm in Tuscon, to which he relocated by way of a new Hyundai Elantra his father was glad to help subsidize, and Amar was glad to drive. He was quick to make friends in his new home, but he only ever told a select and very trusted few the story of his foolhardy flight to the desert.
He never told anyone the whole story, though.
After concluding his last journal entry, Amar followed the parched riverbed until reaching a mound of boulders and debris left over from a relatively recent rock fall. The floods would gradually wear down and clear most of it, but for the time the ravine was partially dammed.
The stones were large but not difficult to climb, even in Amar’s enervated state. Standing above the ravine, he found an unobstructed horizon and could see power lines several miles to the south. Amar sought them out. As he hoped, they had not been erected far from a highway, and from the highway came the rock climbers who found him, helped him to a ranger station, and sent for an ambulance.
Moreover, the general size and shape of the fallen rocks permitted fairly wide apertures between their surfaces. Water could force itself through, but much of the debris carried by the floods had been filtered out and trapped. There were clumps of sand and tangled branches. Plastic bags, rodent carcasses. Beer cans.
The arroyo trailed back westward for many miles, along highways and campsites, fed by dry wash tributaries in the vicinities of gas stations, picnic areas, and tourist centers. Scores of Dasani, Poland Spring, Evian, Aquafina, and Ethos bottles discarded by negligent travelers had found their way into the dry river and its supplementary rivulets, and were conveyed by the floods to the barrier formed by the toppled rocks where they waited for Amar. Before being tossed aside, many had been capped tightly by their carriers; and of these, many still contained the last gulps of water with which their owners had preferred not to burden themselves.
What could Amar do? He drank. He drank, and would bear forever afterward the memory and private humiliation of a martyrdom reneged. In his secret heart, the part of himself he discovered in desperate desert hallucinations, he knew his choice was tantamount to a capitulation, a confession that he would rather live beholden to the Mechanism than die free of it. But far more withering—the thing that ultimately defeated him—was knowing that the worth of all his pride and precious principles must have amounted to just a quart or two of hot backwash.