Giving It All Away

Zeke stops by. “Hey, I’m cleaning out my rig. Could you use some leveling blocks?”

I hope my dismay doesn’t show. Those things are huge. They can’t be tucked into odd corners like the 2×4’s I use now. “Thanks, but I’m set.”

“Greg doesn’t want them, either,” Zeke mourns, and wanders back to his van.

We are camped in the Sonoran Desert, where Arizona, California, and Mexico meet, and even the landscape doesn’t want extra baggage. Volcanoes shaped this land, spewing shrapnel across hundreds of square miles. Bare, mineral-rich crags surround broad, flat stretches of crushed-stone “desert pavement.”

Image shows a backdrop of rusty, rocky hills with white patches where rockslides have exposed fresh earth. In the foreground a ribbon of greenery shows the darker green of ironwood and mesquite trees, the rusty green-brown of creosote bushes, and the pale spring-green of palo verdes. American Girl Mine Road near Winterhaven, CA, January, 2023

Threaded through this moonscape are sandy washes, or bajadas. They channel rain from higher, harder ground, and they sing with greenery—palo verde and ironwood trees draped with mistletoe, creosote bushes, brittlebush waving with cheery yellow flowers, the ivy-like desert star vine. On their verges, cholla and saguaros grow. Lairs large and small line their banks.

If you were to ask me whether the land were hospitable or barren, I would not give you the same answer two days running.

Rocks. So many rocks. Little rubbly heaps of them, big towering hills of them. They’re mostly dark gray. Very rocky. American Girl Mine, January, 2023

Meanwhile, I’m in a honey drama. Don, the most community-minded man I’ve ever met, likes to buy things in bulk to give away. He picked up six 1-gallon jugs of honey from a beekeeper in Montana, with a long story to boot, and he’s unloaded one of them on me.

“You can give it to people in the caravans,” he says before high-tailing it away. “You’ll meet people that way.”

Sure, I’ve met people. But they’re all nomads living in tiny spaces, and none of them keeps spare containers around just for fun. Eventually I buy some jars, divvy up the honey, and crank up the sales pitch, part forlorn waif, part carnival barker. After a couple of months, it’s all gone except one jar. Tess refuses it—again—and rolls her eyes.

“I’m just selfishly trying to give it away,” I confess.

“I know you are,” she says with a knowing grin. “And I’m not having it.”

A year later, Evan and Zeke still have their jars, completely full. What did I give them, really? This small thing required that they give up a greater resource—space. My gift to them really gave a resource I wanted back to me.

Bright, bare, spring-green palo verde branches against a blue sky with puffy clouds. These trees practically glow from within.

I’ve wondered since then about what gift-giving means. The desert has been a good companion, because plants here don’t want unnecessary things. Not even leaves. Leaves need too much water and offer too much surface area to sun and wind. They are luxuries that cost more than most desert plants have to give.

Many plants here are drought deciduous, dropping leaves during dry spells and photosynthesizing in other ways. The palo verde (or “green stick”) tree, for example, keeps chlorophyll in its branches. Leaves are just a nice perk after rain. The branches grow thickly. Those, too, can be discarded during drought, and the ground beneath an older tree is often littered with deadwood.

Palo verde branches provide a backdrop for one prodigal poof of leaflets at the very tip of one tiny twig in front.

Those dense branches, that deadwood—they matter. Palo verdes are nurse plants for saguaros. Only one in a thousand saguaro seeds will find the right conditions to sprout, and a seedling needs eight years to grow an inch tall. The first blossoms appear at age 35, the first arms at 50 or older. These are slow-growing giants, and to mature they need the water that lingers in shade, and shelter both from winter cold and summer sun. Palo verdes give them that.

Nurse trees die younger than their more “selfish” peers, as the growing saguaros develop a grown-up thirst and drink water the trees need. What did the palo verdes’ gift cost them?

And why, if sheltering a saguaro will kill them, do palo verdes do it? Trees have ingenious ways of defending themselves. They can produce repellant chemicals, drop leaves that smother rather than nurture, use the vast network of underground fungi to share nutrients only among their own kind. The palo verde protects its tender bark with thorns. Why not protect its most precious resource—water?

A dreary photo of a sickly palo verde and a sad saguaro. Dead branches lie thick on the ground, and from the browning limbs on the tree, more will follow soon. The saguaro is about 3 feet tall, but the bottom third has no flesh around it. (I don’t know why.) Apparently, even a nurse tree isn’t always enough. Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, AZ, February, 2023

Since Darwin, we assume all species compete. I wonder if that assumption says more about humans. Our perspective on ecosystems and how they thrive is perhaps too modeled on our economies. We have no way of knowing what a tree “knows,” or what decisions it makes. What if a palo verde likes to cooperate?

The saguaro is a “keystone” species of the Sonoran Desert—a plant that carries the health of the entire desert on its shoulders. Between its fruit, flowers, and spines, it provides water, food, shelter, and nesting sites for a disproportionate number of species. The bees and bats that pollinate its flowers also pollinate the palo verde’s. Maybe the palo verde perceives and values the desert as a whole more than we humans perceive and value even our own kind. Maybe it is willing to share a truly precious resource for the greater good—even to the point of death. Is that a selfless gift? Enlightened self-interest?

A happier ménage. A gnarled, twisty palo verde cuddles a 7 foot tall saguaro that has two heads. The desert is nothing if not creative. (The photo angle isn’t great, alas, but a cactus stood in the way, and I’m not a dedicated photographer.) Kofa NWR, March, 2023

Dee got the wrong water. Instead of the filtered, salt-free water we all buy for drinking, she tried the free well water. It’s potable, but acrid with minerals. “It tastes so bad even the dog won’t drink it,” she says in disgust.

My eyes light up. “I planned too much water when I built my rig and was thinking of getting rid of a jug. Do you want it?”


I return gleefully with a 2 1/2-gallon container. Dee takes it with pleasure. “Let me empty this into my own jug, and I’ll give yours back.”

“No need,” I say, backing away. “Just keep it.”

Later, I’m ashamed. Dee lives in a minivan, for crying out loud. The next time I see her, I apologize. “What did you ever do to me, to deserve me foisting that container on you?”

She laughs. “It actually fits better in the space I have. I’ll take my old one to Goodwill. Hey, you couldn’t use some towels, could you? I have too many.”

“No! Thanks, though!” I back away again. Fast.

If you ever want to see selfish gift-giving in action, hang out with a nomad who’s cleaning house. In other ways we give freely—dog-sitting, watching over a campsite, picking up a few groceries in town. But you can tell where we consider ourselves rich and poor, because we do not give things from full and generous hearts, wanting nothing in return. Noooo. We give in desperation. We want to free up a scarce resource. If we help someone in the meantime, well, isn’t that a nice win-win?

Saguaros and palo verdes all hanging out happily together in a wash at the base of a hill. Also: rocks. Near Quartzsite, AZ, February 2022.

So I wonder more largely, in this landscape of dearth and plenty, where do we consider ourselves rich or poor? When are our gifts gifts—true hospitality of the heart, from a place of plenty? When are they selfish gifts of dearth—the need to receive something in return, whether a resource or a pat on the back, the feeling of being a good person, of being needed or thanked?

To me, the palo verde symbolizes gift-giving as pure celebration of life: The desert is good, so let’s keep it going. The gain to the desert—and all palo verdes—is worth the loss of one life, because Life is good.

I don’t know that such drastic measures are called for from us. But I don’t know that they’re not. Where are we willing to give beyond our resources of time, energy, capacity—from dearth and generosity? What will we let giving cost us?

When, in the ecosystems of our lives, is that cost worthwhile?

A forest of magnificent, many-armed saguaros towering maybe 40 feet above the desert floor in late evening light. Near Marano, AZ, November, 2021


Greg is singing the praises of a beach-side campsite in northern California.

“Ooh, I have to add that to my bucket list,” says Mary Rose, getting out her phone.

(Mary Rose’s bucket list includes the whole world, as far as I can tell. She is spiritedly racing the clock of debility, before spinal stenosis limits her further. She loves every campsite our caravan chooses. All she asks is that we park close enough that she can socialize without having to walk long distances. Even we introverts willingly scoot together.)

When I don’t reach for my phone to make note of this Edenic campsite, Greg cocks a quizzical brow. I explain that I don’t even have a bucket list; I assumed I’d never be able to do anything on it. A realization is slowly dawning.

“I wonder if I’m limiting myself unnecessarily.”

Greg and Mary Rose both smile.

“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Mary Rose says. “I don’t think you’ve fully absorbed the freedom your van can give you.”

Image shows a wintery desert scene in evening light. Tufts of brown growth soften an expanse of gravel. In the background rise two low mountain ranges, the nearer one coppery brown, the farther one more grayish. Near Earp, CA. (The sky is 100% blue in all photos unless otherwise noted.)

“We’re having a campfire tonight. Gwen’s bringing her guitar, and I’ll have mine. Bring your ukulele and play a song for us,” Zeke suggests—again.

“I’m not very good yet.”

Zeke isn’t impressed.

Eventually I gather my courage to play and sing “When You’re Smiling.” Cheers follow.

“Charlie Chaplin wrote that,” says Zeke.

Gwen smiles warmly and talks about how playing in supportive groups encouraged her when she started, too. She launches into a Mazzy Star tune, and the songs keep flowing.

Image shows an ocotillo stem from below, the tiny leaves and not-so-tiny thorns on its twisting branches shining against extraordinarily deep, dark blue sky. At American Girl Mine Road in southern CA.

Evan glances away, his voice gentle. “I know you’re not able to hike, but you miss exploring. Is there a reason you don’t break camp to explore by van?”

Oh. There isn’t. I realize that I’ve been conditioned by camping alone in Colorado over the summer not to leave a campsite lest I lose it. Now I have fellow campers who are glad to save my place.

Image shows a dust storm beginning at American Girl Mine. In the background, layers of charcoal and gray mountains shimmer through a fine layer of blowing sand. In the foreground, creosote bush shows bright green against a ground of gray gravel.

“I’m stuck in deep sand. Can you pull me out?”

“On my way,” Zeke texts back. While I wait, I make a cup of tea and relax in desert sunshine with my ukulele. Soon Zeke shows up and unearths a snatch strap from his arsenal of recovery gear. He’s perfectly cheerful about having to break camp and wallow in sand under my van to attach the strap to the front axle. In moments I’m mobile again.

Image shows evening sun bringing warmth to a giant mountain shaped like an iceberg. At Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, AZ.

“I may have to leave,” I tell Tess. I’m not used to socializing. I haven’t conversed with five people at once in years. I struggle to process all the information in a conversation. And people keep dropping by my van to chat, as if they want my company. My brain is fried, and I’m exhausted, unable to recover after a flare-up without full rest.

“No, don’t leave!” she replies in dismay. “We’ll find a way to make it work. You can put up a flag or something when you’re up for company. Just please stay.”

Image shows fog, of all things, on a dramatic, cloudy morning amid the mountains and spires of Oatman, AZ. The foreground is dotted with white “jumping” cholla—extra-spiny cacti that pounce on the wary and unwary alike.

Just please stay.

Except among my inner circle of family and friends I have never encountered people who accepted my disability so readily, with so little judgment; who encouraged me to stretch my limits without denying them; who accommodated them with so little resentment. Not once in the 4 1/2 months I camped with this shifting constellation of people did I feel pressured to “pass” for able-bodied.

My experience in 26 years of illness, including six of disability, is that most people are willing to accommodate limits—right up until the moment those limits affect them. That’s when you become a whiner, an oddball, a wuss; someone without the gumption or will or character to keep up. The disabled, neuro-atypical, ill, or elderly who want full access to a world built for others are not always considered fully fellow humans, but rather an irritating, “less-than” minority making inconvenient demands of the “real” people. We may be accommodated out of pity or under duress, but seldom because we’re desired. Because people want our company.

I have often found it easier to harm myself by trying to “pass” in public for abled or to withdraw from the world of the (temporarily) able-bodied than to be thus diminished. The fight for self-hood can feel like the ultimate exercise in futility, because people who don’t see you as “real”…don’t see you.

Image shows the sunset over Lake Mead. A lenticular (“spaceship”) cloud dominates the upper right sky; to the left are streaks of more ordinary, sorbet-colored clouds. In the foreground, the mountains are layered in midnight and paler blue, with the lake lapping at their feet.

“Just please stay.”

One member of our caravan has hiked the Appalachian Trail; one was a wildland firefighter. One ran ultra-marathons, another served in the Navy for twenty years. One walked across America and rode the rails as a hobo for fun. One raised a child at 16. These are not people who twiddle their thumbs.

What grace made them open to limitations, taught them to understand human value as separate from ability? To care more about the “content of someone’s character” than their capacity to perform up to standard?

Why did they value me enough to accommodate my disability when others have not, even though I have been the same person to them all? Are nomads—people for whom “So, do you have a sink?” is a genuine, curious question—just predisposed to see a broader range of normal?

I don’t know. We certainly had our share of -isms, judgments, and divisions. I just know that in this caravan, ableism wasn’t one of them.

It matters, more than I can tell you, to belong.

Image shows a dramatic sunset at American Girl Mine. A single cloud, shaded from neon orange below to almost black at the top, angles upward across the whole photo. The sky at the flat, black horizon glows hot.


I encountered my caravan through the Homes on Wheels Alliance. HOWA is a not-for-profit that prevents unsheltered homelessness and supports nomadic communities. Every winter they organize caravans in the desert southwest. I joined one simply hoping for a sense of safety. I certainly found a great deal more than that.