My Extreme Sleep Story: In the Middle of the Desert

Growing up in Michigan, it was beyond my very active imagination that at 20, I would find myself halfway across the world, sleeping out in the open in the Rub’ al-Khali desert.

My freshman year of college led me down a different path than I had envisioned after I found myself in an honors seminar course on the Islamic Middle East. It wasn’t my first choice-that was a seminar on national security-and little did I know at the time, but the experience would steer me toward a deep love affair with the Gulf region, leading me in subsequent years to Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, on an adventure that has carried me to this day.

During the summer of 2015, I embarked from the small airport in Grand Rapids, Mich., with a group of students and professors to study Arabic and business in Oman and the U.A.E. Our weeks were dedicated to learning Arabic, and our weekends were spent out on adventures: hiking, jumping off cliffs into wadis (valleys), and sharing meals in warm and welcoming homes.

The entire trip was memorable, but the weekend adventure that stands out to me the most was the one I spent in the Rub’ al-Khali desert, sleeping outdoors while listening to wild animals snarl and fight all night long. Rub’ al-Khali, which means “empty quarter” in Arabic, is, according to Britannica, “the largest area of continuous sand in the world” and the most expansive portion of the Arabian Desert at 250,000 square miles. Located mostly in Saudi Arabia, parts of it also stretch into Oman, Yemen, and the U.A.E.

Related: My extreme sleep story: On a floating island in the sky

image of author in desert

The author in the Rub’ al-Khali desert

My night in the desert

When we drove up to our camp we were escorted to the small huts where we would be staying. Each hut was fenced in; ours also had a giant metal platform outside the door.

After an evening spent recklessly “dune driving” (a story for another time), smoking hookah, and eating, we all went our separate ways, off to bed. The little huts were dark and unappealing, so my hut-mates and I decided to drag our mattresses outdoors. We placed them on the raised platform to avoid being bitten by snakes and bugs in the night. The air, at 70 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit, felt relatively cool. We lay on our backs and looked at the constellations. I am a devoted stomach sleeper, but I couldn’t risk missing out on the night sky. Somewhere in the desert, we could hear feral dogs and cats fighting.

“The entire trip was memorable, but the weekend adventure that stands out to me the most was the one I spent in the Rub’ al-Khali desert, sleeping outdoors while listening to wild animals snarl and fight all night long.”

I remember every sensory detail, from the temperature to the smell to the clearness of the sky and had one of the best nights of sleep of my entire life. A line from my favorite book floated back to me: “I’ve learned things from the sheep, and I’ve learned things from crystal…I can learn something from the desert, too. It seems old and wise.” In Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist, the protagonist, Santiago, journeys across the desert in search of treasure. I confirmed the authenticity of his reflections on its vastness and beauty that night.

For me, sleeping in the desert was a life-changing, almost spiritual experience. Deserts offer you no real concept of location; the immensity leaves you totally exposed. As someone who has suffered from insomnia for years, this exposure was initially intimidating, because just trying to fall asleep every night is a struggle to let go and give way. What I found so extraordinary about my night in the desert is how freeing it was, allowing every part of me to fully relax and embrace sleep.

Sleeping in the desert was humbling. It reminded me in a healthy way of my humanity, and how small we are in comparison to the great wonders of the earth. I love my comfy, warm bed at home, but I’d trade it any day for another night out on a raised metal platform, feral cats and dogs in the background, and that completely blissful sleep.

Next, learn what it’s like to sleep on the ice in Antarctica.

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