I grew up in the desert and thought it was the most beautiful place on earth. My best friend in high school and I would ditch our afternoon classes senior year to drive to sandstone cliffs, where we’d climb and tan and talk as lizards scuttled near. We’d kick up red dust in dry stream beds as we hiked, mindful of scorpions and rattlesnakes. It seemed perilous and that was part of the attraction.
It was quiet. There was always something soaring. I can’t speak for her, but I was aware how unique it was to grow up in such a place. I felt blessed to be a desert-dweller.
At night, we’d drive up twisty roads to the top of formations hand-hewn by New Deal workers to sit cliffside. Heat lightning flashed in the distance. Had we been able to transport across the valley below, underneath the flashing clouds, we’d find no rain falling. It is common for thunderstorms to roll through dropping no rain. Just angry, gorgeous zings tapping out a code with the light they exhale.
When the Bible talked about deserts, I always thought about how I lived in one and thrived. Of course, we had water drawn from a famous river, filtered well, and put in swimming pools and drinking fountains. I knew nothing of true thirst or hunger as we’d walk along talking boys and curfews, college and boys. We’d note Mormon tea, Indian paintbrush, cedars, junipers, scrub oak, yucca, prickly pear, having learned the names on hikes we took as Brownies as little girls. While our counterparts in big cities visited museums and sleepaway camps hours away, we simply climbed in a station wagon, sang a few songs, and by the time we got to “one is silver and the other’s gold” we were on a landscape most people would compare to Mars.
Over the years, I’ve sometimes wondered if desert dwellers were more or less anxious for God’s abundant floods of relief? There is the tendency to look around and realize you’re surviving the scorpions pretty well on your own. You’re finding water because you know where to look and you know the signs of flash flooding and rattlesnake tracks. You have it under control when you wake, eat, walk, and sleep a certain kind of life year after year. Like us. When you read about flooding waters leaving behind lush cool gardens brimming with juicy olives, you think: If I wanted that? I’d live somewhere else.
“This would be good country,” a tourist says to me, “if only you had some water.”
He’s from Cleveland, Ohio.
“If we had water here,” I reply, “this country would not be what it is. It would be like Ohio, wet and humid and hydrological, all covered with cabbage farms and golf courses. Instead of this lovely barren desert we would have only another blooming garden state, like New Jersey. You see what I mean?”
“If you had more water more people could live here.”
“Yes sir. And where then would people go when they wanted to see something besides people?”
*excerpt from Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
There is a difference between choosing the desert and waking up in one believing it has to be a nightmare.
But it’s all a metaphor. I know that. Spirits can be deserts. Circumstances can be wildernesses. I’ve walked around dazed and parched. My canteen dumps sand in my mouth like I’m some kind of Three Amigo. Not Lucky Day, though, who had the chapstick and plenty to drink. Call me Little Neddy.
“The poor and needy search for water,
but there is none;
their tongues are parched with thirst.
But I the Lord will answer them;
I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.
I will make rivers flow on barren heights,
and springs within the valleys.
I will turn the desert into pools of water,
and the parched ground into springs.
I will put in the desert
the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive.
I will set junipers in the wasteland,
the fir and the cypress together,
so that people may see and know,
may consider and understand,
that the hand of the Lord has done this,
that the Holy One of Israel has created it.” Isaiah 41:17-20
The desert was something fearful. It ate fertile valleys with a growl. It was death.
I knew a boy who drove his car over one of the red cliffs. It was an accident. He died. Witnesses said he glanced down to get something off the car floor and it was enough.
Roadside memorials grew at the very spot he went over. Years later, I still remember where it happened. Occasionally, I’ll drive there to take photos and when I pass the spot I am carried back to that day when so many hearts broke and none of us understood why. We were so young. He was so young. It marked the moment when I began to think about death on a new level. It wasn’t something limited to great-grandmothers or Civil War soldiers.
I used to think about him—poor him!—but now I think about his mother. She was a desert woman plunged into a new desert. I hope she felt relief. I hope she was able to shout again for joy.
“Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.” Isaiah 35:5-7
“Above me the clouds roll in, unfurling and smoking billows in malignant violet, dense as wool. Most of the sky is lidded over but the sun remains clear halfway down the west, shining in under the storm. Overhead the clouds thicken, then crack and split with a roar like that of cannonballs tumbling down a marble staircase; their bellies open—too late to run now—and the rain comes down…
…For five minutes the deluge continues under the barrage of thunder and lightning, then trails off quickly, diminishing to a shower, to a sprinkling, to nothing at all…
…The afternoon sun falls lower; above the mountains and the ragged black clouds hangs the new moon, pale fragment of what is to come; in another hour, at sundown, Venus will be there too, planet of love, to glow bright as chromium down on the western sky. The desert storm is over and through the pure sweet pellucid air the cliff swallows and the nighthawks plunge and swerve, making cries of hunger and warning and—who knows?—maybe of exultation.”
** Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey.
One of my favorite books in college was Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. The edition I excerpted is called Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, Ballantine Books, New York, 1971. It’s gorgeously written. It’s a poem and love song for the desert, then veers off into political junk, but overall it’s engrossing.