"Grown men do not need leaders."
- Edward Abbey
I always recoiled at the mention of the word ‘community’. In my experience it seemed contrived, like a children’s TV presenter. It brought to mind a rictus smile of forced enthusiasm (mine), coupled with expectation from and obligation to the community in question. I never wanted to consciously align myself with any group or team or community. Group activities, no matter how small the group, literally made me run for the hills. Apart from an intense dislike for being herded, it didn’t sit well with me because I hadn’t encountered any that had at its core something other than a struggle for power and domination, no matter how noble its objective or cause. I was probably part of the problem. I don’t have a competitive bone in my body. I have no desire to lead others but I also have no desire to be led by anyone else. If someone has more experience or knowledge or common sense than me, I will defer to them and learn from them but the moment they start seeing themselves as leader rather than teacher, I lose interest.
Back in England, I had a supportive group of family and old friends whom I could rely on and who could rely on me but it wasn’t really a community, as such. They were my social network rather than a community with a common goal.
I hadn’t really thought about the nature of community much until I moved out here to this small desert town. For me, a true community needs no leaders. It doesn’t demand from or judge its members. It’s an organic coming-together of a group of people who can pool their resources, motivated by a genuine desire to help and the gratification that comes from being able to help. And that is exactly what we have experienced here. The first time we came here and pretty much decided to move here, we knew no-one. As seekers of solitude and freedom, we didn’t mind much. We went back and forth from England, fine-tuning our plans, looking for a place to live. Each time, we met new people and each time we were gobsmacked by their generosity with their time, their belongings. We were a couple of strangers from England with a hair-brained idea that we would move out here to the desert. Yet this investment in us by people who barely knew us was unconditional, and the belief that we would achieve what we had set out to do, unequivocal. We looked uncomfortably at each other when our new friends gave us stuff or helped us out without a second thought. We weren’t used to such unbridled generosity. Not that people in England aren’t generous. I think it’s more to do with having lived most of our lives in a big city where such behaviour would be deemed downright suspicious. I remember when I first moved to Bristol from London and being so happily surprised that people smiled instead of scowled at each other in the street.
But back to this little desert community. On our first few visits here, we stayed at the vacation rental belonging to Ray and Jeannie, who basically became our American adoptive parents. Once we moved out here, we literally arrived with a suitcase each of clothes. All our other belongings we had either sold or left behind in London. Ray and Jeannie brought us the essentials to start setting up life, extra stuff they had, and just gave to us. They drove us to thrift shops to buy furniture; while we were looking for a truck to buy, and so we wouldn’t have to pay to rent a car for ages, they lent us their truck for as long as we needed. It was above and beyond but that’s what people are like out here. We hadn’t the foggiest about fixing things up at our place and they came over and helped us, showing us how. And they introduced us to Billy and Cathy, who are also like family now and who gave us our sofa, along with a whole load of other stuff. Billy comes over and shows Doc how to fix leaks in pipes or patch up the roof and has repeatedly rescued us when our truck has got stuck in sand washes. When we had to return to England for three months to sort out our visas, Billy came over regularly and kept an eye on our place.
And then there’s John, our realtor and our friend. He set up all our utilities in his name as we were still in England with no American bank accounts when Doc bought our home here, so that when we moved in, we had running water and electricity; he's helped us with paperwork for our American visas, the list goes on. Without these people, such a big move would have been a lot more difficult to negotiate. And they’ve all done it without expecting anything in return.
Such generosity of spirit is the foundation of this desert community. People want to help each other out, they want to see ideas come to fruition and witness each other live out their dreams. The driving force is this desert, its irresistible creative energy and the desire to safeguard and nurture it. We have made so many new friends out here now and unintentionally but happily, we have become a part of this community. I have yet to encounter any power play. I think because people are so in awe of this landscape, it imbues them with a sense of gratitude that can only really be projected outwards, towards others, to help each other as a way of giving thanks. This place humbles you every single day. Demands and obligations are kept in check. There is a respect for each other’s independence and right to live as they choose. Community is fostered by the common goals of freedom, solitude, creativity and a deep love for this desertscape.
Whenever I object to Ray and Jeannie helping us out or giving us things, Jeannie always reminds me to pay it forward, to help others out when we’re in a position to do so. And that, I think is the lynchpin of a true community.