Driving, I came to a rise on the escarpment above Mono Lake just shy of the Nevada line. It was hot and my air was off, the needle pushing well over half way. Climbing 3,000 feet in a short few miles in 112 heat will do that. My head spun, my stomach dropped. It was sweltering but cool beads of sweat gathered on my forehead. My breath struggling, it felt like the wind had been sucked out of me — that full soreness that comes from a bad flu was sweeping over — so I pulled over into the dust and shrubs off the side of the road.

The afternoon was pushing on, the sky a haze of bluish white, the crescent of the moon already appearing to the east. The mountains below the moon were sandstone brown, treeless and desolate, as if I was on Mars. I closed my eyes to steal myself, was it heat exhaustion? Almost 40 years before, climbing over 9,000 feet over Arapaho Pass in Colorado, way off path and uncertain of direction, I found out what high altitude sickness is all about: all you want to do is die.

My head was spinning and in my mind, eyes closed, beyond those stark barren mountains was a higher ridge, a tall peak rising. I could see a small tree line, tall pines above the pinions mid-range. A deep sea blue sky above the crest, a cut path of spoon cup into the side of the peak that was all rock, but glazed with a bowl of winter snow and a many-ages-old glacier path. Was that the cool breeze I was feeling, coming into my lungs, clearing my head and drying the sweat off the back of my neck? Is this a mirage?

My eyes open and all I saw was white heat, I could barely move, my breath was leaving, a very dull ache in my chest, as if a punch landed square in my sternum. Was this it? Dying off of Highway 120, miles from anyone, from anything and anywhere? Alone in my car, almost at the top of the world, a hot desert wind blowing sand and creosote and cottonwood ash from a scorched earth of August heat.

I laid back, thankfully had extra water in the trunk, knowing what to keep in reserve for my desert rides, lots of water and a blanket. I dampened my forehead, breathed deeply and thought again of that ridge line, far over the pass back behind, beyond my dreams even, dropping into the west side to redwoods, sequoias and water falls, racing, running, tumbling down into Eden, or so it seemed right now. Eden was far gone, had escaped me eons ago, didn’t it always?

Was the end to come, alone, withered and gasping in this empty wasteland of forsaken beauty and airless, scorched mesa over a long past inland sea left to salt and brine? Nothing but a blaze of white, the sun exploded into sky enveloping fire, taking all my breath into one last dying gasp. But no.

Not sure how long it was, but windows down, I felt just a tickle of warm breeze, but not the tongue of a flame from the afternoon inferno. The sun had passed down over the Sierras, the sky turning a deeper blue, the pale of Hades gone. My breaths were coming deep, I could almost sense that deep bowl of mountain snow melt and pine scent as fresh as Spring in one youth’s mind of dreams. Was this real or had I passed into something strange, freighting but wondrous? I wasn’t certain of anything, but I scrambled back on the road, flying down 120 to the Nevada line, that cool coming evening wind washing over me, death was not coming today. No, not today.

Michael Finch is the president of the David Horowitz Freedom Center in Los Angeles. He has been published widely in a number of journals and is a frequent speaker. He recently released his first book of poetry, Finding Home.