See You in Six Months: Falling off the Edge

A day's walk into the Moroccan Desert, Sebastian Junger confronts a dizzying temptation.

Aug 1, 2001
Outside Magazine
Remote File: Africa

Continent Size
12,026,000 square miles

Population Density
66 people per square mile

Claim to Fame
World's largest desert: the Sahara (5,400,000 square miles)

Most Remote Region
El Mreyyé, western Sahara

Required Reading
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
The Forest People, Colin M. Turnbull
The Shadow of Kilimanjaro, Rick Ridgeway
No Mercy Redmond O'Hanlon

Sticks and stones: an 11th-century mud-and-brick mosque in the Niger River trading port of Djénné, Mali.

WHEN I WAS 19 YEARS OLD, I saw a Royal Air Maroc travel poster of nomads on camelback. They were coming off the desert in a group, and there was something about the dust and the sunlight and the expressions on their faces that grabbed me. I put the poster on the wall of my college dorm and after a year of looking at it, I bought a plane ticket to Morocco with my oldest friend, a woman named Sarah. She was considering a job in the Peace Corps there. We flew to Casablanca and then worked our way over the Atlas Mountains by bus. The weather was bitterly cold, and after a couple of weeks we decided to go as far south as the roads would take us—to a garrison town called Goulimine. Not only did it look like the edge of the world, but it was the jumping-off point for Moroccan troops heading south to fight the Polisario guerrillas in the Sahara. It was as far as I could imagine ever getting from anything I knew.

We arrived at dawn after an all-night bus ride. There were a lot of soldiers in the streets, and they stared at us as we walked by. Goulimine was not a tourist town. We walked down the dirt main street until we came to a cheap rooming house, and we ducked into the doorway and asked the owner how much it cost for the night. It was something like a dollar. While Sarah negotiated with the owner, I looked around the dark room and realized it was filled with men sitting on the floor, drinking tea and studying us. Something about it didn't feel right. One of them caught my eye: a blond-haired kid in a djellaba who looked at me and slowly shook his head, a warning. He wasn't Moroccan; he looked like a European expat who had gone completely native. I looked around the room one more time, grabbed Sarah by the arm, and pulled her out.

We left our bags at another rooming house and immediately decided to walk out into the desert. I don't know why—the simple urge to keep going? The pull of 2,000 miles of emptiness to the south? We cleared the last mud houses and started out across the brush-covered hardpan that extended, almost featureless, to the horizon. We walked all afternoon like that, without talking, without direction. Nothing changed but the position of the sun, which slowly swung from east to west behind flat gray clouds. We were about to turn around, thinking we would get back to town just after dark, when we saw something in the distance: a tent, and camels. It took us a long time to reach it, and as we got close, two men stepped out and waved. We walked up cautiously and greeted them in the Islamic way, with our right hand at our chest. They had tea boiling over a twig fire and were talking in a language that was not Arabic. They wore blue cloth that stained their skin and wore knives on their belts and had a flintlock rifle leaning against the tent post. They were Tuareg. The only object of Western manufacture was a plastic jug used to carry water. They motioned for us to sit down, and Sarah and I glanced at each other and took a seat in the sand.

The tea was served with great ceremony, poured beautifully into cups out of a battered tin teapot. I spoke French and Sarah spoke a little Arabic, but our hosts didn't seem to understand much of either. I pointed to Sarah and myself and said, "America." They just shrugged, so I drew a map of North Africa in the sand and gestured where our country was. It meant nothing to them. One of them swept his hand to the south and clapped his chest. I nodded. They asked the word for Allah. "God," I said, and the younger one—a piercingly handsome guy of about 35&3151;tried out a few prayers, using the word God instead of Allah, collapsing in laughter at the end.

By now it was almost dark, and Sarah and I faced a long walk back to town. They gestured that we were invited to stay for dinner and the night. The older man—more reserved than the other, possibly his servant—cooked a bowl of stew in a clay pot banked with embers. They served us food on tin plates. After dinner I gave them my Swiss Army knife, and they gave Sarah some handmade jewelry. We were about to go to sleep when the younger man indicated that he had something important to say. He and his companion had come north to sell their camels, he explained; then they would go back into the desert. Six months from now they would be back in this same spot. If we wanted to join them, he promised he would return us safely to Goulimine in mid-July. It was their invitation. It was our choice.

It was a staggering idea—almost too staggering to contemplate. We would be completely dependent on these people for the next six months. We would be living with nomads somewhere in the largest desert on earth; there would be no way to get help, no way to leave, no way to communicate with home. We had to trust these two men utterly. It was something I'd never done before.

We went to sleep that night rolled up in goatskins. Maybe I'd already made my decision, I don't know, but the next morning I woke up before dawn and pulled on my boots and jacket and walked out onto the desert. I couldn't decide which was more upsetting—the idea of vanishing into the desert, or the idea that I wasn't the kind of person who could do that. Sarah had already told me that she wouldn't go, but that if I decided to, she would reassure my parents that I was safe. I stood there in the wind watching the sunrise, and when the lower rim had left the horizon and I felt the full warmth of the sun on my face, I walked back to camp. I simply had my limits, I realized.

Just contemplating that choice had altered me forever. I had stood on the threshold of a completely alien world, and even though I'd lacked the courage to cross over, at least I knew it existed. That knowledge was strangely humbling. It was also strangely reassuring. It seemed like maybe the one sure refuge we all had in the face of whomever it was we were taught to become.