And so, inevitably, the withdrawal symptoms begin. Deserts are terribly difficult places to mentally leave behind; it has always been this way for me. Towards the end, I tried to hang on to every image of the Atacama for as long as possible – I watched as the airport shuttle kicked up a trail of dust as it trundled down the rocky roads of San Pedro, leaned over the plane seat for one more glimpse of the rusty red dunes as the plane headed higher into the blue.
Yet long after the dusty roads of the desert had faded from the rear view mirror, long after the winding canyons had fallen from the airplane window, the memories of the Atacama are still burnished into the mind, as vivid as if it were yesterday.
My very first desert was Antarctica – I’d gone there with the hope of discovering nature. Instead, on the last unconquered continent, I discovered humanity. Today, seven years on, the friendships and the stories that transpired from that trip remain a major influence on my life.
And already I know the Atacama will be the same.
It is a frustrating paradox of human nature that we always want what we can’t have. In the desert, I craved for hot showers and the simple sound of a flushing toilet. Now that I’m back in the midst of all these modern conveniences, all I really want is to be back in a sleeping bag in a tent laid out over a blasted terrain of uneven rocks, tossing and turning through the slow, frigid hours between dusk and dawn.
It all sounds ridiculous until you’ve been there yourself.
I miss the stunning vistas of the Atacama – so rugged and alien we could’ve been on Mars or the moon. I even miss the sandstorms, which got so blustery they were tearing our checkpoint tents apart. But above all, I miss the people; I miss that incredible camaraderie we forged amongst ourselves – it was perhaps the one thing that tethered us to reality when things got a little loopy. In the end, perhaps the post-desert blues are less about the scenery and more about the people, our stories, and the fleeting life we carved out together in that arid, unforgiving land.