Falling off the Edge

A day’s walk into the Moroccan Desert, the author confronts a dizzying temptation.

  1. 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 ...

Originally published in Outside, August 2001