The sun glides behind a sawtooth ridge four miles distant and a shadow falls over the sea of cacti spread below. Their shapes lose definition like statuary in a museum closed for the night. My skin senses the sheerest shift toward chill. Somewhere southward, close by, a coyote speaks up – more a chant than a howl; almost human. Two ravens bank and twist across a single lavender brushstroke of sky low in the west.
The coyote stops chanting and a silence as utter as outer space fills the void. If water vapor can’t survive in this lean atmosphere, maybe neither can sound waves. The temptation is to not breathe. But I’m not in outer space; I’m in inner space.
My thoughts turn to another desert creature, Edward Abbey, whose “Desert Solitaire” is the nearest thing to the direct experience of these landscapes. Abbey worked as a seasonal park ranger in the canyon country at Arches National Monument in southeast Utah. From April through September in the mid ’60s he lived in a housetrailer, a one-man station 20 miles deep in the park’s interior. He’d patrol the roads and trails, supply the campers with firewood and information – be a human presence in that remote and alien world.
The isolation was no problem. “At what distance,” Abbey asked, “should good neighbors build their houses? Let it be determined by the community’s mode of travel: if by foot, four miles; if by horseback, eight miles; if by motorcar, twenty-four miles; if by airplane, ninety-six miles.” In Abbey’s estimation, “a man can never find or need better companionship than that of himself.”
The high desert provided Abbey the ideal environment for solitude and the insights it affords. As the transparent desert air heightens visual acuity, so the sparse desert landscape frees up room for operations of the mind: “Life is not crowded upon life as in other places but scattered abroad in spareness and simplicity, with a generous gift of space for each herb and bush and tree, each stem of grass, so that the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock. … Love flowers best in openness and freedom.”
Although Abbey’s passion for desert life was deep, his portrayal of it was unromantic, even unmetaphorical; as unmystical as the owl snatching the jackrabbit from the scrub. “Each stone, each plant, each grain of sand exists in and for itself with a clarity that is undimmed by any suggestion of a different realm. … the desert reveals itself nakedly and cruelly, with no meaning but its own existence.” After contemplating his favorite juniper tree, he admitted that its essence eluded him “unless, as I presently suspect, its surface is also its essence.”
The season passed and Abbey returned to civilization, “weary of nobody’s company but my own.” What he left behind was a world of beauty and mystery, but a world profoundly indifferent to his comings or goings.
It’s getting late. The Joshua trees dissolve into the ambiguous texture of the desert floor below, as perfect as a rattler’s camouflage. The sky above the sawtooth ridge is grey-violet now, its former red-orange siphoned by a point of light materializing low in the south – Antares, the heart of the Scorpion. Whatever scorpions and rattlers roam these rocks will soon be hard to spot. Darkness will embolden the coyotes. I begin the descent while I can still see what I’m doing, where I’m stepping.
Back on the desert floor I’m among the Joshua trees again, now only silhouettes against a horizon clinging to the residue of darkest blue, silhouettes inert and contorted as the victims of Pompeii. My motion puts the Joshua trees in motion: the nearer, taller silhouettes slide across those low and distant. I try not to watch them.
I return to the car, rotate a key and my engine erupts in the vacant air. I wonder how many miles the sound carried, how many creatures’ heads snapped up. The desert stars, white pepper scattered across black velvet, provide almost enough illumination for driving, but I flip on the headlamps and head out.
Lit by my halogens, careless kangaroo mice streak across the road like meteors. I try not to be indifferent to their comings and goings.