Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Emptiness in the Desert

Our daughter-in-law and son who live in Santa Fe, New Mexico gave me a copy of Terry Tempest Williams’ collection of essays “Red – Passion And Patience In The Desert” for Christmas. The book argues for the spiritual effect of being in the desert, and for the need therefore to preserve that land in its pristine state. I agreed with most of what the author said – but then again, she was pretty much preaching to the choir. Mars and I are devotees of the desert.

In 1998 we went to the Big Bend part of Texas. It was our first time in that part of the world, but not our first trip to the dry, barren land of the southwest United States. Six years earlier we made the first of what was to become (at least) annual treks to the high desert of northern New Mexico and in 1997 we visited the Sonoran desert in southern Arizona. The barren land of Big Bend is the Chihuahuan – the largest of the North American deserts.

Clearly something about the wasteland was drawing us back. Actually it turned out to be nothing.

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
(T.S. Eliot “The Wasteland”)

It was about half way into our 1992 trip to Santa Fe and Taos that we realized that the dry brown dirt that covered our hiking boots was actually the substance of the desert. Having grown up on Lawrence of Arabia and other desert movies, we both had expected sand – which we now know is what makes up the wilderness of southern New Mexico (White Sands), but not the HIGH desert.
Our first desert hike was at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, NM. The paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe were what had spiked our interest in New Mexico, and Ghost Ranch was where she had lived and created most of those pieces of art. As we drove on to the property we could see a tall phallic sandstone pillar sticking up amidst the other red rocks that stood above the scrub brush desert floor.

“Wouldn’t it be cool it we could climb that!” I said, with no intention of actually doing it if it was even possible.

The omnipresent erosive winds reshape the soft stones into replicas of the objects of everyday human life. This one is called Chimney Rock. And we did go to its top – “simply cross the arroyo and follow the trail 1.5 miles up the ridge”, 6,500 feet to 7,100. It turns out things actually are that accessible in open land like this.

No one else was on the trail – although to this day I insist that I saw a woman in a diaphanous white dress dancing across the top. And there was nothing around us to keep us from making the climb – no over demanding workloads, no overbearing bosses, no over burdensome rules. There also were no guardrails on the footpath that snaked around the outer edge of the natural monument – nothing to hang on to but the panorama of the Piedra Lumbre basin, and the belief that if we both wanted to do something then it was the right thing to do.

“You learn sooner or later to find an equilibrium within yourself; otherwise you move…. Emptiness in the desert is the fullness of space….” (Red – Passion And Patience In The Desert)

Big Bend National Park is about the size of the state of Rhode Island – but with a handful of buildings one of which, the visitor center, which was a one-hour drive from the park entrance through which we drove. We’ve been there twice. The Park’s website has a section called “How NOT to die in the desert.” – the bottom line of which is “remember that YOU are responsible for your own safety. Plan ahead and stay alive!” We took our h2o, our snacks and our snakebite kit – plus our sense of excitement and awe.

There are “trails” in the preserve – Chimneys, Devil’s Den, Lower and Upper Burro Mesa Pour-off, Mule Ears, Panther Path, and others - but no clean, clear paths with blue paint on tree bark to guide a northeastern suburban hiker. The view from any spot on these hikes is one of being in the middle of 800,000 acres of remote desert, devoid of anything except ocotillo, mesquite, cacti, lizards, tarantulas and snakes with (in most places) no cell phone reception – and being able to see to all four borders and beyond. In all our individual hikes at Big Bend we never passed another trekker.
“They are short on water and, as a result, short on green. Green recalls pastoral comfort, provides a resting place for the eyes. It is a landscape of extremes.” (Red – Passion And Patience In The Desert)

In this land of unremitting khaki and brown Mars and I did find verdant things – two times. It wasn’t easy.

Once was along the banks of the Rio Grande River in Santa Elena Canyon and further up the river (via Canoe). In a small pond within the rocks was a stunningly large garden of deep green ferns - hanging down from the "ceiling", growing along the walls, and spreading out onto the ground for as far as the water could feed them.
The other patch of Eden was a small bamboo jungle next to an abandoned limestone trading post with a copse of trucked-in, totally out-of-place palm trees – the remains of an unsuccessful attempt in 1910 to establish a hot springs resort in the area.
On our first visit to Big Bend, as part of an Elderhostel educational vacation, we met a self-trained paleontologist named Ken. He was a surveyor by vocation who had come to the area about a decade before on a job assignment. It was his maiden voyage to this part of the world and he never left. He was, I believe, married at the time. He became obsessed with the paleontological possibilities of the area with “one of the most complete pictures of a prehistoric ecosystem known anywhere on earth.” – and the solitariness to pursue that fixation The deserts can do that to some of us.

We went on a “dig” with Ken who, somewhat like the avaricious gold seekers in the movie Treasure of Sierra Madre, was unwilling to allow us true amateurs to actually lay hands on any of the precious bones that we came across. (The desert can do that also.) The next day we visited the retired yellow school bus jam-packed with osteo-relics that was his museum. Google now shows that the collection has moved to a less mobile building.

In 2000, on our second trip to Big Bend, we were led on our Rio Grande canoe trip by Taz, a muscular woman of about thirty years who was river-guiding and living with her boyfriend in yet another abandoned school bus on a piece of available land without water or electricity. Taz had been traveling around the world, but the arid land of western Texas seemed to reel her in also.

But it didn’t have that effect on everyone. One morning while I was enjoying a private moment with pre-dawn cup of coffee outside our hotel in the town of Lajitas a tourist from Dallas who, it quickly became clear, had been dragged there by his wife interrupted me. It was as dark as I have ever experienced with the only light coming from the waning moon and the small light bulb over the front entrance to the guesthouse. He stood a few feet away but I really couldn’t see him that well in the murkiness.

“You know I just don’t get it. The appeal of this place. I mean there is NOTHING here! Not even a tree.” He told me as we waved his right arm into the blackness.

Either you got it or you didn’t. Ken and Taz got it. We did too.

However, not being given to extremism, Mars and I returned to our leafy, grassy homestead and resumed our New England centric lives with all of their real and imagined obligations – but we return to the southwest desert at least once a year, every year since.

At one time I assumed that the sense of peace and belonging that we experienced in the dry arid land was a direct function of its stark contrast with our workaday lives in the east. Now I realize that, like Ken and Taz but to a lesser degree, we were simply going home. We just didn’t live there yet.

“In sacred places, something gets done to you that you have been unable to do for yourself." ("Chasing Francis" by Ian Morgan Cron)

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