It’s the first time I’ve looked in a mirror in 8 days, and I look like a crazy desert witch. Hair matted to dreads, dirt and soot and sand smudged over every inch of exposed skin, fingernails black and crusted.
I’ll admit, before I left the desert, I was kind of reveling in it, sketching on myself with dead coals, lying on my back and letting my hair pick up whatever juniper twigs it would. Working in wilderness therapy, you live out in the desert for 8 days at a time. You get gross, smelly, grubby. It’s awesome. There’s not enough opportunity to get good and properly dirty these days.
Apart from the sheer freedom of not showering or caring how bad you smell, there’s a lot of benefits to getting dirty. Exposure to bacteria and even some types of parasites can help strengthen the immune system, preventing allergies and certain diseases. There’s also, according to some studies, a bacteria in soil called Mycobactrium vaccae, which, stimulates serotonin-producing neurons and can actually improve people’s ability to cope with anxiety and stress.
All health benefits aside, there’s something else there, too. It’s a reminder that there are other ways of existing, other dimensions to being human; that all of our flush toilets and daily showers and clean clothes cover up the fact that we come from something far more animal than we like to acknowledge. It feels good to live by a slightly more primal set of rules for a while.
I’ve been looking forward to showering, but now that I’m back at the field house and a shower is right in front of me, I feel weirdly reluctant. Eight days it’s taken me to build up this much grit and grime, this thick of a layer of dust and dirt, and it feels like a badge of honor. An accomplishment. The desert has tattooed itself on my skin, and I don’t know that I want to watch it all flow down the drain.
Washing the dirt off feels like a transformation. Goodbye to eating campfire food seasoned with coal and ash; to never having to worry about what I’m going to wear, because it’s the same set of clothes for 8 days straight; to digging a hole in the middle of the night and watching the stars while I poop; to sewing leather and busting a coal every day to eat hot; to a little tribe, filled with backstabbing and brotherhood, love and hurt, growth and fear, light and shadow, a group of people struggling to figure out who we are in the immense space of the wilderness.