Westward, Onward


The sunset seems to linger for hours, a band of orange stubbornly refusing to fade into the blue black of night. But finally, the strange silhouettes of the Joshua trees become indistinguishable in the dark, and then I am alone in the Mojave Desert.

Not quite alone—I can’t forget the coyotes and tortoises and horned lizards that call this place home. There’s a campground somewhere, no doubt filled with the evening sounds of cooking and low chatter. These sounds carry easily across the land. But I’ve staked my little green tent above this dry wash so that tonight, my wish is granted: there’s not another human being in sight.

Earlier, I’d stopped by the visitor center for a map and suggestions for a camping spot. The place I’d had in mind at the foot of two red volcanoes has been a favorite in the past. Today, it’s been claimed by the owners of a truck topped with a camper.

I realize I’m giving myself an internal pep talk as I approach the glass counter to speak to the park ranger. He’s a young guy who manages to sneak the word “heuristic” into our five-minute conversation.

One part of me is nervous because I don’t camp alone very often. I hope I haven’t forgotten something crucial like my stove or headlamp. But the core of my anxiety is more prickly, more uncomfortable to confront. It comes down to this: I feel the need to prove I belong here. I’ve seen the ways that the eyes of park rangers have darted over me to land on the camping companions of my past—mostly white men—addressing them in response to questions I’ve asked. I’ve tried to prove to myself that I belong, but this doesn’t matter. What matters is that I prove myself to them. How can I, when I have such doubts myself?

Once, fresh out of college, I spent several months roaming New Zealand. I picked grapes and cleaned at a beach hostel and sometimes—because it was the cheapest way to get around the rural South Island—hitchhiked my way from town to town. I traveled alone, buoyed by strangers.

In Arthur’s Pass National Park, my new Japanese friend, Ayako, and I decided to climb one of New Zealand’s iconic mountains, Avalanche Peak. We pushed our bodies through the grueling climb, enduring high winds and thick fog to make it to the top. Below us, between wisps of fog, the land unfurled in steep peaks of green. By the end, our legs were jelly and we were laughing, high on endorphins. At the visitor center, I wanted to buy a souvenir to commemorate our accomplishment. An older white man rang up my purchase: a patch embroidered with the mountain.

“Do you even plan to hike there?” he muttered, looking me up and down. The sweat dried on me in a cold glaze.

Hiking, camping—are our people allowed to do these things in foreign lands? Was it our fitness or our ability to appreciate the land that he found more obviously doubtful? “We just did, actually.”

I try to close the door on this memory, on his obvious disbelief, but it finds its way squirming to the front of my mind.

In the seconds before I step up to the glass counter in the Mojave, a double vision takes hold. I see me as the park ranger might see me. A foreigner. Someone incapable of knowing the ways and customs of the land.

“Why don’t you try the campgrounds?” he asks me. “Plenty of spots available.”

“Actually, I’m looking for a dispersed spot,” I tell him.

“You want to camp alone?”

He looks so skeptical that for a moment, I wonder if maybe there are other activities that would be more of a natural fit for me on a Saturday morning.

But the images that haunt me are of the desert. How the rising sun can build the sky into a quiet, pink dome stretching over miles of cholla and ocotillo; how the land can reveal itself in a thousand shades of gold and red and green. The vast silence of the American Southwest strikes at something inside of me and won’t let go.


Sitting snowbound and cold in my apartment one winter, I signed up for a class that sounded like it might offer some relief: “The Making of the American West.” I’d moved from California to Chicago to attend university two years earlier, leaving behind my childhood in the West—a personal history in denial of manifest destiny. Like many, I found it impossible to see where I came from until I was displaced to a new, colder, flatter place. I never quite thought of myself as a child of the West until I went east.

Our class traced a history that was based on mythology. The West was wild, savage, unknown. It was gold you could pluck from a stream, bison you could shoot from a train. Vast lands that encompassed everything from prairie grasslands to alpine plateaus to desert washes. These were siren songs in the ears of the white man. They heeded the call and charged fearlessly into the unknown. They took land from the Native Americans and remade a world in their own image.

The class is filled with men with names like Hunter and Peter. In class, as in life, they display an easy ownership. Lewis and Clark could be their forefathers. “Our country,” they say as they describe western conquests. Our land.

In some ways, I don’t begrudge them this possession. To have pride in this land, with its sweeping vistas and dense forests, is easy. To desire it is all too easy. Am I complicit, then, in the forced removal of the Natives from their land? Living here and wanting to feel ownership is an exercise in contradictions. This land has given my family a wealth of opportunities, but those opportunities were built on the forced removal of entire cultures. While we share a kindred sense of alienation from the stories and language and culture that make up an ancestral inheritance, there is still a path I can trace back to my homeland, ancient and beating and very much alive. Maybe I am greedy here, with my desire to claim another homeland as my own.

In the late spring, as the snow finally melted, I wrote a final paper. I argued with an undergrad’s shaky late-night conviction that each successive wave of immigrants to the West has always crafted its own narrative of the land. I used words like “epoch” and “ahistorical”—I wanted to convince the professor and myself of this: no one group owns the history of the West. That the “making of the West” is in fact a constant remaking of the West. It is both true and untrue that there is space for each of us to carve out a home.

A couple of years ago, I moved back to Los Angeles. I say “back to” for the sake of convenience, a kind of geographic truth-bending, but in my childhood, Los Angeles was fifteen miles away and an entirely different world. It was the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles that I was lucky to call my home. Lucky because it was and still is one of the country’s largest ethnic enclaves of Chinese Americans. I was surrounded by friends who looked like me and had parents who had immigrated to the United States in the 1980s and 1990s under similar circumstances. We dominated all of the land lying in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains.

When I visit my hometown, it’s all too easy to believe my undergrad claims. There are streets lined exclusively with Chinese dentists, and others with Chinese bridal shops. Red gowns hang in the windows, not white. This is the little bubble of land we have carved out for ourselves: a space to preserve our culture, far from home.

In some ways, it’s not unlike a reservation. In my hometown, the boundaries of our space are obvious to me. Inside is safety, familiarity, a connection to the past, but outside is whiter, disorienting, and filled with those who might see me as an invader, or at least as the “other.” But unlike Natives, Chinese immigrants had access to the tools most respected in America—entrepreneurship, home ownership, the dollar bill—and with each year, our bubble is allowed to expand.


Two hours east of the San Gabriel Valley, the Mojave Desert flourishes. The indigenous Mojave hold a long memory of the springs that bring forth water in the desert, sustaining all life. I called my mom to tell her I was heading off for the weekend.

“Again? Why so much camping?” she asked. I could picture her sitting at home, glasses sliding down her nose as she eyed the Sudoku on her iPad.

Why so much camping, why the obsession with this alien landscape? For generations, my family has traced its history to the heavily wooded coastal Chinese province of Fujian. An ancient stone wall encircles the fishing village my father grew up in. A book records the names of each (male) family member who has lived in the village dating back seventeen generations.

My mother is from a small city in the mountainous area of the province, not a big or prominent place at all. Once, on the inside flap of a best-selling novel, I read the short bio of a writer I admire, and was startled to learn that she was born in the same city as my mother. In a short story, she describes Fujian as the New Jersey of China. These are not places one leaves easily.

To my parents, the West was education, opportunity, the unknown. It was vegetables eaten raw, mixed together in what white people called a salad. It was choosing a way of life not dictated by the Communist Party.

Far from their homelands, they built a new life. Each armed with a doctoral degree—their tickets to the new land—they acquire a house, two daughters, one small white dog. We were a young American family, making forays out onto the land and into the gems of the national park system. Watching hundreds of bison roam the grasslands of Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley. Standing in awe under an impossibly tall canopy of giants in Sequoia. The sheer majesty of Yosemite’s El Capitan, the valley spooling out before us.

Some of my best childhood memories are from these trips. These were not lands natural to us, but we chased the dream gamely. It was easy, then, to feel the primal wonder, unsullied by the weight of all that the land represented to others. As an adult, it’s harder to see these places without confronting the many layers of human conflict and desire.

Besides the stark beauty of the desert, perhaps it’s this alienness, this foreignness, that draws me in. Life in America as the child of immigrants has a peculiar problem: you feel at ease in your country until you don’t. Someone at a concert takes it upon themselves to tell you to go back to where you’re from. Someone corners you at a party until you cough up an ethnicity. Sometimes it feels like a little kernel—the distance you are right now from the birthplace of your mother and your mother’s mother—is always lodged somewhere under your skin.

My parents carved out a nice life for themselves, but as someone born on this land, in this country, I test and retest my place here. I feel an astonishing entitlement. I am greedy for more.


When can I call this place my home? Once, in an unfamiliar national park, a ranger sized me up and asked, “Where’re you from? You been here before?” I hurried to explain no, but that I’d been to many parks like this. I wondered which set of words would tell him I was no dilettante who would traipse through the wilderness with nothing more than the flimsy cotton clothes on my back. That I had a headlamp, topographical map, and hydration bladder with a hose running straight to my mouth. That he should not have been alarmed by my presence here. What is the West anyway but the natural conclusion of a long journey east?

In the Mojave, darkness washes over the land, beginning a vast and unhurried night. I explain myself to no one.

I gather the limbs of dead Joshua trees and broken cholla cactus to start a fire. I connect my stove to gas and boil water for dinner. Enough, too, for a cup of green tea. The moon rises, a half slab. A waxing gibbous on its way to fullness. The heart knows what it wants. For now, I rest quietly on the land. The desert is a place of natural contradictions—the hottest and the coldest, the highest and the lowest. In its vast, quiet way, it asks me to heed its lessons. I’ll try my best to hang somewhere in the balance, and just for tonight, I’ll call this little patch of dirt my own.


Rumpus original art by Susan Ito

Willa Zhang is a writer who lives in Los Angeles. Her short story “Shenzhen” was a finalist in The Masters Review’s 2019 Fall Fiction Contest and her fiction is forthcoming in The Sun Magazine. More from this author →