Cover Photo: Tallulah Pomeroy
Tallulah Pomeroy

15 Minutes with Petrus

“The desert is an environment that is conducive to the inward journey.”

The maroon 1968 Volkswagen bus stood in the desert behind the Valero gas station in Lost Hills, California. The silver peace sign on the passenger door matched the spotless silver trim. On the engine panel below the rear window were the words of twelfth-century Sufi mystic Omar Khayyám:

One moment in Annihilation’s waste
One moment of the Well of Life to taste
The stars are setting and the Caravan
Starts for the Dawn of Nothing. Oh, make haste!

The van’s owner had painted the quote. Tall and lean with a thick white beard and lustrous blond hair, he crouched behind the rear tail light and cleaned the oil filter. His name was Petrus. He was seventy years old and lived in Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco. He was headed to Tecopa Hot Springs in Death Valley to camp by himself for two weeks.

“They have mountains and hot springs there,” Petrus said, “and old mines. I kind of like exploring old mines and, you know, clambering up a mountainside. There aren’t many people. You’re just on your own perch. It’s quiet. Then you go down and go to the hot springs there, wash the dust off. So everything is available.”

Everything and nothing. Tecopa wasn’t a town. It was a loose collection of lizards and houses in a low sandy spot between scrub-covered hills. Most people went to Tecopa for the emptiness, and not the “everything.”

Petrus was a desert rat. Out west, a desert rat is slang for a person who lives or spends a lot of time in the desert, either to prospect for gold and minerals, or as a lifestyle. Desert rats often live in trailers or vans, camping for long stretches of time and moving seasonally when the weather gets too hot.

There are actual rats who inhabit deserts. North America has Kangaroo rats, of the Dipodomys species; instead of drinking surface water, they get all their water from the plants they eat. North Africa and Asia have jerboas, hopping rodents from which commercial pet gerbils descend. But the term ‘desert rat’ originated in World War II. It referred to British soldiers in the 7th Armored Division who fought the Germans and Italians in Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia between 1940 and 1943. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, they landed in Normandy and fought across Europe. Jerboas appeared on their insignia, and the slang stuck.

“Being a desert rat kind of depends on who you are inwardly,” he said. “It’s very much self-exploratory, these trips out in the vastness of these outer surroundings and the inner aloneness. When they meet, it’s sort of a magical place. The saints all went out to the desert for their meditations. It’s an environment that is conducive to the inward journey.” He looked up at me and nodded, his hazel eyes reflecting the morning sun.

Born in Finland in 1944, Petrus moved to California in 1963. Even after fifty-one years away, his Finnish accent came out on certain phrases. As he talked, his Torin Jacks lug wrench cranked, and cars made a soft whoosh as they passed. “Plus,” he said, “I have this donkey!” He laughed and turned back to his work. His eyes had a joyful lunacy. His stare might have unnerved me had it not been for the flowers and photos of his spiritual guru decorating the van’s interior. “This old VW van that’s often been my only companion.”

A friend in Sebastopol gave him the van in the early 1970s after her husband died. “I’ve been evolving it ever since,” Petrus said. “It’s modified to the max.”

He installed the filter, since these old VWs didn’t come with filtration systems. He equipped it for rough terrain, adding thick tires and higher clearance. He taught himself to do it. Inside he kept gas, food and flashlights. Up front: a winch. He said, “I’ve never seen a Volkswagen van with a winch. The irony is that, more often than not, I end up helping other people out of their jams. They get stuck in the sand or some place. I’ve used it maybe a couple of times to help myself, but it’s usually for somebody else.”

While we talked, he replaced the panel, tightened four butterfly screws and peeled off the gloves. When he stood back up, he gripped the van and leaned out at an angle, putting all his weight on one hand like a model in a photo shoot. He had the vigor of a thirty-year-old. The reason: yoga. He’d been practicing Kriya for over thirty years.

“You probably see how old people can get very opinionated,” he said. “They are ossified. Part of a yogic practice helps you stay flexible because you release that. You see you know nothing! When you see that, you see that all thought is dreaming. Youth is staying flexible inside. The body starts to fail. We can’t deny that. But staying young is an internal state we must reach ourselves. That is the focus of yoga.

Kriya focuses on the spine, he explained, where the karma is stored. It magnetized something else in your body, something involving a tube in the spine where the energy flows between chakras. It also had to do with how the nervous system is an upside down tree, with the roots at the top in the brain, tapering down. I listened but couldn’t follow. Non-yogic living might have slowed my mind. I trusted he was on to something, though. Back in Arizona, my seventy-five-year-old father was sitting at home taking insulin shots and walking with a cane. And here was Petrus, out tasting the Well of Life, as the Omar Khayyám quote said.

Our voices trailed off and we stared into space. Wind blew through the spiny brush, and the sun warmed my skin. On the road leading from Interstate 5, a red eighteen-wheeler’s brakes hissed as it eased to a stop on the shoulder, and two impatient sedans raced around it.

On this day, the air was clear. That was unusual. Pollution usually obscured the horizon and erased the topography of the San Joaquin Valley to the point that it resembled the Great Plains. Today, though, a cool wind parted the haze and revealed the blue silhouette of the Sierra Nevada mountains seventy miles away, making the Valley look like what it was, which is a valley ringed by mountains.

Back in the days of bandit Joaquin Murrieta, the Lost Hills might have attracted people who needed to disappear, but travelers now stop here for food and gas, or to spend the night en route to LA or San Francisco. Like me, Petrus was just passing through.

He’d been working as a psychiatric technician at a developmental center before he retired. That had lasted fourteen years. He’d had many careers before then. “I drove for a courier service—packages, paychecks, stuff like that. I was also a Volkswagen mechanic. And I was an artist. A student.” At that, he laughed. “Oh man, there was a lot jammed into one lifetime.”

He painted for ten years.“Painting came out of nowhere,” he said. “I never had any inclination towards art before. It was a sort of cleansing of subconscious, through this picture-painting. It was part of the inner journey, and it was really initiated by my meeting with a sacred person.” Here he paused and laughed. “He put a paintbrush on the floor in front of me, out of nowhere. The meaning, you know, it was obvious . . . and the next day when I went home, all this psychic explosion started occurring, and transformed themselves into movies for paintings. Just like that. Overnight.” He mostly sold his art to friends and friends of friends. Selling wasn’t the point. It was learning. “Then it sort of dried up,” he said, “and I was done.”

In the late 1960s, he started taking desert trips with a friend. For twenty years, they camped, meditated and explored. They traveled for a week at a time. Now he travels alone. “When you’re with somebody,” he explained, “it’s always sort of figuring out, ‘What do you want to do?’ This way, there’s nothing to plan, according to somebody else’s wishes and capabilities, and so forth. So when I’m done with you, nothing remains. I’m free. We’re exchanging energy here, but when it’s done, it’s done. We don’t have to, ‘Hey, what do you want to do next?’ It’s done. It’s sort of a clean break. There’s a wonderful sense of freedom in that. And plus, when you’re alone, you’re more open to meeting the greater self, the greater life, rather than being tied up to somebody. It’s sort of limiting. Having a friend has its place. But—I’m done with that now.” He packed his tools then turned to face me, leaning in so close I smelled coffee on his breath. “But it’s a kind of aloneness that I’m not really alone. I’m here. I’m not alone. You’re there. There’s everything else that’s going around me. So I’m alone, but I’m not really alone.” He moved his hand between our chests, pointing out our respective locations. When he stopped talking, he stared into my eyes.

“Another way of putting it is: God is here as you and me, we just forgot who he was. There’s the ‘me self,’ the mentally created ego, rather than the ‘greater self,’ the creator itself, that’s right within you. So that’s the journey, changing the direction of the life energy, rather than shooting it all outward to the outer life, reversing the direction of that energy a hundred and eighty degrees. That’s the journey, in a nutshell. And, you know, it ain’t easy. Across the ocean of the mind.”

All around us, birds chirped and cars passed, howling when wind hit their chassis, and offering a reminder that, temporarily, we were planted in the physical realm.

Petrus laughed and started putting away his tools. “All right.” He seemed anxious to resume his trip.

From Lost Hills, he would drive east across the Valley to the tiny prison town of Wasco, then cross the Sierras northeast of Bakersfield through Walker Pass. He usually crossed at Tahoe, but snow could fall in those northern passes at any time.

Before departing, he told me how he had once done a sweat lodge with Native Americans in a park in the Sierras. “I didn’t know what they were chanting of course, but I could connect with it on a vibrational level.” One Native American man gave every participant names. He named Petrus One Who Travels for No Reason. “It fit,” Petrus said with a smile. “It fit for then.”

Aaron Gilbreath is a nonfiction writer and editor at  Longreads. His essays and articles have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Paris Review, Tin House, Lucky Peach,  Kenyon Review, The Threepenny Review, Saveur, and The Morning News. Curbside Splendor is publishing his essay collection, Everything We Don't Know, in fall. He's working on a book called Tenoshii: Travels in Japan.