As a Black Woman, I Discovered Life-Changing Lessons in the Desert
It took moving out of New York City to help me learn about myself.
I grew up in New York City and always loved it. For years, I reveled in the intensity, diversity, and extreme nature of my hometown with its 9 million residents — one hot subway car might contain a texting hedge fund manager, a ballerina practicing her pliés, and a couple arguing in any one of the more than 200 languages spoken in the city. But that changed during the pandemic when I suddenly felt suffocated in the density of the city and frustrated with obnoxious people who weren’t abiding by the CDC’s recommendations. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and made the drastic decision to find a place far, far away with more space and fewer people and buildings.
After only seeing a couple of National Geographic documentaries and some gorgeous photos online, I started researching Moab, Utah. As luck would have it, I had a friend working there who offered to hook me up with a four-month seasonal job at a resort that included housing. I was all in!
The move concerned many of my friends and family. I was bombarded with questions. Were there a lot of wild animals? How long would I be gone? How hot was it?
Finally, I was asked the biggest question on my mind as a Black woman: Do they even have any Black people out there? As it turns out, Moab, Utah, has a Black population of 0.0 percent, according to the U.S. census. I started mentally preparing myself to be a circle of one.
Still, I wasn’t too trepidatious. Years ago, I watched a post-Hurricane Katrina documentary about a family that relocated to Utah after they lost their house in a flood. They said that they loved Utah because the people there were very friendly. They also explained they didn’t feel disliked because of their race; they felt unknown because of their race. I thought I could handle that. We’ve all felt unknown before, regardless of race.
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So, I packed up my belongings in four suitcases, hopped on an Amtrak train, and made the 52-hour trip across the county to the Mountain West. I was nervous and exhausted when I finally arrived in Utah. It wasn’t totally unwarranted. From my arrival in Moab, I got a lot of peculiar attention as a Black girl with New York City swag. But as I settled into life there, my perspective started to slowly shift. Here’s what the desert taught me.
1. Stay open
I came to Utah feeling very closed off from other people. I think it had a lot to do with the pandemic and the state of race relations exacerbated in the media. When I first arrived there, I fielded lots of queries like: Can I touch your hair? Are you from Africa? The list went on. Initially, I was pissed off about people asking innocent but annoying questions. I caught an attitude and labeled them as ignorant instead of finding out where they were coming from.
Eventually, I decided to move my focus from people to my new surroundings, which included beautiful red rocks during the day and a sky full of stars at night. The desert is wide open, and you can see things clearly there. I was always baffled when looking at the horizon in the desert. Why couldn’t I be like that mentally?
I learned that to stay open-minded, I needed to ask questions, instead of making assumptions. When I asked a woman why she asked if I was African, her response felt sincere and made sense to me. She explained that she had been in the Peace Corps stationed in Senegal. The day she saw me, I happened to have on a traditional dashiki shirt from this region.
In the past, I might have misinterpreted this question and lashed out reactively. Being in the desert taught me to judge less, and smile and laugh more. I felt a serene inner peace that I vowed to maintain.
2. Seek adventure
When I was in Utah, I did a lot of things that could have killed me, but they were all fun. I did UTV riding and horseback rides daily with strangers. Since these are not activities you do in an urban environment, my exposure to people that typically enjoy them was limited, to say the least. These unique adventures allowed me to meet people I would have never met in my life in New York City. At the beginning of the day, I didn’t have anything in common with these people. But by the end, we bonded over many moments. Now that I’m back from Utah, I continually seek small new adventures with strangers. I joined a writing club, a hiking group meetup, and a watercolor class. Even a simple conversation with a stranger in a coffee shop is a new adventure.
3. Move like a snake
Thriving in the desert is no joke! The lack of water makes it one of the harshest environments on earth. Species there, such as snakes, need very little water to survive. I still drink water, of course, but I have learned more about what other things are actually key to my survival. In the past, approval was like my water. I came to Utah with a serious identity crisis that I’d been battling for years. I had been struggling with how I identify my nationality when speaking about my race to white people. I experienced this a lot in Utah.
As a minority in America, you are raised to seek approval from the majority, and I found myself feeling like I had to go along to get along. Why do I feel the need to have to say African American to one group constantly, but I always say Black in my own circles? Don’t get me wrong; “African American” is not an incorrect term. I understand why it’s used in classrooms and more formal settings, but interestingly, socially speaking, Black people don’t refer to themselves as African Americans unless they speak to other nationalities.
Moving forward, just like a snake that leaves its old skin behind to grow, I shed the need to switch back and forth between how I identify myself. It’s funny that I went all the way out to the desert to figure out how to feel comfortable with myself. Something about the intense sun in the desert reminded me of my true essence and internal glow. My first name Karim means “to honor” and my last name is Orange, which is one of the brightest colors in the rainbow. After four months in Moab, I feel like: I’m Karim Orange, and it’s time to honor this bright Black woman.