November 21, 2010

Raider of a Not So Lost Cause


The landscape is as violent as it is raw, wind howling at the moon reflected in the window, the glass shuddering in response. Clouds fly past as if released from the inexorability of past restraint. Only a few cacti stroll the landscape, their arms appearing to beckon, until you realize they are spiked and unforgiving, rigid with the empty and formal gesture of broken promise. But it's also a land of raw beauty, tiny wildflowers where you thought no life could be, rising up from rock like small candles. Hot wind and hot sun, blowing through your hair, your soul, communicating that passionate dark depth with the heart that beats with the exertion of breathing, damned forever of all inhibition.

Welcome to the desert, the current temperature is 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

I'm on a motorcycle chasing some of the same clouds, holding on to the waist of a colleague who offered me a lift to the site I was going to, while the rest of the equipment arrived in the safety of the jeep. It's nothing like an Indiana Jones movie. No one is chasing us and my favorite hat is in my backpack or I am going to lose it. The roads were barren. One thing about temperatures in the hundred and twenty's. It sure keeps the tourists inside.

I love the desert and relished the chance to get back out in its openness, for whatever the reason. But I'd lived there a year post grad school. Long enough to know how quickly you can become lost in it. The desert doesn't suffer fools for long. I'd heard of more than one foreign sightseer who'd left their car with an 8 once bottle of water and decided to walk a few miles out in the desert for photos. They usually didn't make it back. The land holds no prisoners, and being a type A sort of landscape, it will quickly cover your bones up with a rug of fine sand, so you don't tarnish the pristine lines of its housekeeping.

Out here, if you're not grown up yet. You will be shortly, for this land has no yardstick; its measure is as shifting as sand. There's nothing to gauge yourself against but what you've been raised with and taught, what you've known all along that you have become but feared the test of it. You think you're all grown up because you've got education and money in your pocket but you must stick to reason and principle in the face of blood and wind and sky, for things will appear without warning, like a highwayman. It's moments like that, when faced with the highwayman's scythe, that you realize that cowardice is not the measure of quicker death, but simply death without meaning.

You can't open a newspaper and not notice how few in power learn those lessons, how often the desert gives up its dead. Some are there as trespassers, others just taken as they wandered their dreams.

Indians had made their homes in these lands for years, but what drew the first settlers? Was it the miles of open land, was it freedom? Was it something else, something deeper and more resolute within the souls of some individuals. The first attempts at living here may not have gone well, fair skinned transients of these parts leaving us in anonymous deaths, a blink in the ocean of time that these lands had seen.


Settlers are anything, if not stubborn, and soon small towns built up. Cowboys passed through, some long enough to note the beauty of the place, the stark rugged hills standing out in majestic relief against tones of sepia and earth. Others simply drove through, eyes tended to the ground, hoping to get further West, to a land of milk and honey, not scorpions and rattlesnakes. Some just ended here, the land neither appealing to them or disappointing. It was simply fate, an empty pocket or a broken wagon ending their journey and there they sat under bars of sunlight, the sky empty of sense, too tired to go farther. Yet ultimately, they often found that what they were looking for, what was in them all along.

I found when I lived there that I acclimated quicker than I would have thought. Sunscreen and hats. But not one befitting an action movie, but more suited to gardening or driving a buggy. I'd not get any attention dressed like that but I didn't care. I'd seen the wives of the wealthy here, sunning themselves on slabs until their hides were as rough as their voices, mouths that had seen too many cigarettes and too many men. I didn't not care to end up like that, a caricature of beauty covered in paint and gold, trolling the high end malls in the city, digging for their lost youth there in hard ground.

It's not a place that all can live in. Some people go crazy surrounded by the expanse of miles where the sun illuminates everything. The silence leaves much space open for the truth, and that is something some people can't handle. Others are refined by its landscape, land that smells of whetted stone, whittling away all that is unnecessarily, leaving just the bones of brilliance found in some individuals. They are not enamored of the landscape so much as the sharp contrasts within it. They are drawn by clear open sky more uplifting than any church, the smell of sap risen in cottonwood serving as sacrament to all they hold dear, and the small streams of water flowing down from the mountains, a baptism of renewal.

I found it both uplifting and settling, but could have done without some of the other residents of the areas, the spiders, one the size of a small hairy Volkswagen I found in the middle of my blanket one night. There were other animals here, sly furtive creatures that hid from man, and others more bold, the coyote, the bobcat. They caused me no harm, though I made sure to wear stout boots and carry a pistol.

The journey here was like all journeys to truth; a thin, wandering trail confounded with the imprecise, defunctive glare of blowing sand and hot air. But I was finally out in the open, with the sun soaking up the truth as I knew it. It was time to learn from the bones of things left out in the wild, seeking out the reality in all things, fate, death and mindless mistakes, there in the hot desert sun. The desert preserves as it destroys and in its layers, in those past years, I found out more of what I sought, and more of myself.

There, at the edge of my vision was a coyote, watching me from his domain. For it was his. I was the interloper here. Most people have only encountered animals as their dinner or their pet and to meet a predator face to face can be disconcerting. He looked at me, an outlaw of the West, measuring up another, bold, yet curious. I had a weapon nearby, but he acted with no threat. He simply paused and looked at me, with eyes flat and reflective, a look both woeful and wise.

In that moment I saw myself as he did, a strange creature that smelled of meat, bumbling around his home like a clumsy burglar. It's unsettling to really see yourself in the eyes of an animal. There is power in looking, as any voyeur can tell you. It tips the delicate balance between objects, the sense of superiority we humans feel so innately, especially as I note how much bigger his teeth are than mine. But we both are the same, wishing simply to make it home to our den, to sleep with a full belly.

He turns and moves away, a shadow forming where he stood, a shadow shaped with speed and claw, rushing down, and finding only empty air. I look up to the eagle, climbing up on soundless feathering of tight wing and fierce eye. In the sky is both predation and loss, and I turn back to my work, a trickle of sweat forming along my brow, shimmering like frost.

In the sifting of sand where my tools lay open, I find bones. Not human, an animal. Canus Latrans. Life reduced to sand and bones. I think of a hospital, as someone I loved laying dying, kept from the open land that they loved, their skin dry and leathery, painted with swabs and wearing shiny ornaments, that kept them alive with soft beeps. I remember their terror of all the movement and noise, the crowds, and the harsh artificial light. Their small, stark form fighting against a failing sky. The sorrow as they became more and more of their environment and less of what they were, until they were in fact gone, riding a thermal on to some better place, while their body was released to that cold room.

I don't want to end that way, in a cramped tight space that smells of creosote and ammonia. Give me the open sky, the warmth of the sun in my last days, a setting heat that burns down to the core of my thought, sparking what life is left in my body in my old age. Let me roam with the outlaws of the desert, keeping with my own kind, animals yes, but so much more than thought. God's creatures held close and watched from above.

I turn back to my task, broken fragments of humanity glinting in random flashes, my mind on happier thoughts, and the focus that drives me. I resume my work with that solitary eagerness of one that has just one pleasure and whom the world can only reach through their senses, sight, touch, smell, heightened here in the bright light of the desert. The others come by in the jeep and ask if I'm ready to leave, and I am not. The desert runs through me and I'm not sure why.
- Brigid

Posted by Brigid at November 21, 2010 06:55 PM

Prince Faisal asks the same question of Major Lawrence in the movie.

Quite the scene. But then, there are many memorable scenes in LOA.

Posted by: Tim at November 21, 2010 07:25 PM


"I am not sure why." Perhaps because the nature of your work involves picking bits of a life out of death. Trying to understand the life before the tragedy. Deal with that long enough and you realize how precious life is. And, you see how arbitrary and transitive it is, as well.

You didn't leave, because you care about what happened there. You didn't leave because you want to provide answers to those left behind.

Maybe this post is about the desert. But, I think it is more about you and what drives you.


Posted by: SWModel66 at November 22, 2010 08:26 AM

I was stationed in the Mojave Desert, near 29 Palms for a year, in 1971. You are correct, the desert is a wildly beautiful and stark landscape not for the weak of heart. If I could have earned enough to subsist, I would still be there.

Posted by: Lord Whorfin at November 22, 2010 11:31 AM

Thank you.

Posted by: styrgwillidar at November 22, 2010 01:57 PM

Brigid, congrats on your new writing gig! Excellent piece, as usual.

Posted by: Anthony G. Martin at November 22, 2010 02:29 PM

Great post; I've spent a lot of time in deserts. Where did you get the picture of my hat, by the way? ;)

Posted by: BobG at November 22, 2010 07:34 PM
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