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Creek Running North

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October 24, 2005

Catching the rabbit

Barrel cactus, grass and lava I seek the desert for the metaphor, deserted roads so arrow-straight for so many miles that they become The Road rather than merely the road. The Horizon beckons, The Destination often hard to fathom. Earth is bare and elemental, Water scarce. Life is pared down to its essentials, even for the dilettante visitor.

I flatter myself that I am better than the developers, the nuclear waste dumpers, the off-road vehicle promoters and alfalfa farmers irrigating with Pliocene groundwater, and yet I am more like them than I care to admit. I wander down to the desert with the intent of taking something home with me. I mine stories. I am as extractive a son of a bitch as the guy that runs the cyanide heap leach pools. If my works are not exactly lined with the corpses of poisoned coyotes lured by the promise of cool blue water, it is not for lack of trying on my part.

Given time enough, and mind enough, a soul could write a deep history of this wash. Every flake of rock, every particle of sand came from somewhere. Every raindrop moved something. Every wave of floodwater was recorded in the contours of the walls, in the rippling patterns of sand and gravel. The wash is pocked with prints, prints of antelope ground squirrel and cottontail, coyote and bombardier beetle and, now, prints of hard-rock story miner. Ants cover every square inch of the sand; desert willow leaves pool in the lees of creosote stems. A hundred square feet of wash could make a life's work.

It would be a life well-spent.

All mines go bust sooner or later. Today was one big dry hole. I don’t write down everything I take away from the desert. Nuggets reveal themselves: I heft them, assay them, touch them briefly to my forehead and put them back where they lay. The importance is in the revelation. All I ask is to understand everything. A modest assignment, and yet today the desert stayed aloof. None of its usual tendrils have wrapped around the base of my skull. Most days here, I slow and the desert seeps into me. Today the desert was a blur behind the windshield. I had no wish, today, to revisit the burn, nor to head to my old haunts on Cima Dome – too much the sense of foreboding sat on my brow, the notion that fire will soon take that landscape from me. I had no wish to see everything there as though it were in hospice.

And so I drove, the remote and forbidding shapes of Joshua trees taunting me from roadside.

Toward the end of day I pulled off the road into a small slot canyon, a fork in a big lava flow. Brilliant yellow grass was lit by slantwise sun against angular, black boulders. I picked my way through the clinkers. No boots for me. Mere hiking sandals, my toes vulnerable to sharp aa edge and thorn of cactus, scorpion and rattler and the outraged defensive teeth of antelope ground squirrels, whose burrows I kept collapsing. Barrel cactus spines glowed brilliant red as the sun arced down toward Soda Lake. A mile from the truck I climbed unsteadily, camera in hand, to the top of the lava flow twenty feet up.

I gained the top, and turned to look down onto the wash. An Audubon’s cottontail burst from its hiding place at my feet, leapt down into the wash and zig-zagged past a quarter-mile of creosote and sand to the far bank.

I would not be surprised, listening to an imagined recording of that encounter with the rabbit, to hear my heart make an audible click. The whole day had brought me to that spot, that moment. I spent the next hour walking joyously, finding treasure after treasure.

I suppose a person coming upon me here, finding me weeping in the shade of this creosote bush, would think me injured or lost or – at minimum – seeking solace and perspective from some urban grief. How much less complex that sadness would be. How simpler than this fierce, overwhelming joy at just belonging.

And then, an hour afterwards, the road again. The Joshua trees seemed welcoming, offering the promise of new things seen.

At a certain time of day in the desert detail fades from the distance. Park yourself in a spot of some altitude in the desert as the sun angles toward the horizon, and you will see in the distance range behind jagged range, each farther profile successively paler, until you are not sure if the farthest range is merely a momentary darkening of your eyes, a false image on your retinas made by staring too long into the distance.

And though it may seem that you see an end to the cordillera, you do not. There is always another chain of mountains, another steep descent and difficult pass, another elevation to purchase with sweat and blister so that you can finally, gaining the summit, see the endless prospect of range after range beyond.

Posted by Chris Clarke at October 24, 2005 08:53 AM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Lovely. I'm glad the desert is bringing you joy.

Posted by: nina at October 24, 2005 10:10 AM
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Posted by: beth at October 24, 2005 01:00 PM
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You are definitely much better than the developers, the nuclear waste dumpers, the off-road vehicle promoters and alfalfa farmers.

Another gorgeous tribute.

Posted by: SneakySnu at October 24, 2005 01:32 PM
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Oh, you are just so damn good at this! Every word is perfect, there are none superfluous, and each one of them is aimed exactly at the same point. How do you do it?

Posted by: Stephanie at October 24, 2005 03:49 PM
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What a great post! And it came at just the right moment, as a growing sense of ennui (or possibly angst - I can never tell them apart) was making me think I ought to stop blog-reading for the night.

Posted by: Dave at October 24, 2005 04:51 PM
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Beautiful writing.

Posted by: Rita Xavier at October 24, 2005 05:29 PM
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Thanks, Chris. The beautiful desert of the Texas Big Bend area makes me feel just the same.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie at October 24, 2005 07:07 PM
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simply gorgeous.

Posted by: Anne at October 25, 2005 08:35 AM
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...oh, and going to the land for peace honors the land. it does not take anything away from it.

Posted by: Anne at October 25, 2005 08:37 AM
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