It takes some time for the traces and stink of civilization to fade, and with it the frenetic feel and busyness of a productive life. There is no productivity here, at least in a traditional sense. Unless breathing is considered productive. Unless studying the shapes and shadows of saguaro and ocotillo is worth something. Unless sampling endless beauty and soft desert sunsets can be considered a vocation, or learning the nuanced intricacies of sparrow chip and cactus wren whirrings.
By the second day in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, I can feel it slipping away. Gone is the need to schedule my time, or to have a watch, for that matter. Slowly the scent of a flat-screen TV, of piped in heat and water, of a carpet is supplanted by the rain-scent of creosote, the dry must of sand, and the powder-blue whiff of an endless desert sky. Glancing at my truck, I can almost see the shadow of the city spilling out of the back and diffusing in the dry breeze. Gone is the moisture ofVermont; gone is the rusting salt of the winter roads. The desert seeps in.
I am no longer a teacher at a private boarding school inVermont. Those responsibilities fall away, too. I am back to being a student, and there is much to learn from the desert. Lessons in solitude, lessons in stillness, lessons in possibility abound. And lessons to be learned, too, from the bounce of the rock wren that lingers near my tailgate, or the manic wailings of the coyotes, or the way that the ravens dance and play in the wind, barrel-rolling just for the pleasure in it. One could spend a lifetime studying these things, and still have much to learn. For now I am content in this.
The cacophony of shapes and textures here is amazing. Escarpments of bare rock rising like battered battleships overhead, the snake-like profile of ocotillos against the fading light of day, the hiss of wind through the spines of saguaro and organ pipe, the way that the chortle of a raven or the questioning calls of flicker and Gila woodpecker can be swallowed, absolutely, by the stillness of the landscape.
Alamo Canyon. Four “primitive” campsites tucked at the end of a dusty, rocky track. Eight dollars buys you admission to the show, paid at the visitor’s center to a volunteer that seems happy to see you, and excited to tell you about the places in the park you can go that aren’t listed as trails on the map. Grassy Canyon.AjoPeak. Perhaps it is because I am different from most of the usual clientele. Organ Pipe in January seems to be a destination for retirees seeking a warm place to park their RVs and trailers, hoping to catch all of the ranger talks at the main campground. Good people. Students, too. And it occurs to me that if I am lingering somewhere surrounded by those that have retired from their busyness and business, then maybe I am doing something right with my life. Who wouldn’t want to lead the life of one retired. Perhaps I am a student of avoiding work, too.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is not a place that you stop on your way to somewhere else… unless you are headed toMexico. The border stands mute only miles to the south, and the roads are trafficked by green-striped Border Patrol trucks driven by professionals in dark sunglasses. Checkpoints abound, with serious, uniformed employees who ask questions and wait for you to stumble. “Did you, perhaps, pick up a hitchhiker by accident?” one of them asks me. But mostly they wave me through. Vermont plates, a weathered old Toyota stacked full of my worldly possessions … hiking boots with a stink to them, layers of bedding, packaged dinners, a soccer ball. This place is out of the way. You end up here by trying to end up here.
This monument is a place I’ve always wanted to visit. It is a true and empty desert, but actually quite alive. Don’t tell anyone. There are two short seasons of rain each year in the Sonoran desert, and this abundance of moisture lends itself to abundant and varied life. Lots of birds, lots of flowers (at the right time), lots of mammals, and always the lizards. Were one to sit still for a little while, say on a tailgate in a primitive camp site, you would be visited by antelope squirrels and canyon towhees and cactus wrens and ravens and side-blotched lizards. Gila woodpeckers, gilded flickers, and curve-billed thrashers would perch on nearby cacti. After sunset, the gentle chirring of crickets would ease you to sleep while a distant great-horned owl issued its hollow call. A screech owl might move through in silence. With luck, you might catch a glimpse of a kangaroo rat. But don’t tell anyone. Follow Edward Abbey’s advice and only tell of the dangers of rattlesnakes, of sunburn and dehydration, of scorpions and kissing bugs. When they ask what is out there, simply reply “nothing.” And it is true in a way, a beautiful, empty nothingness.
But each morning, as I climb out of my bed in the back of the truck, I find myself spreading my arms to the world around me and celebrating the fact that I am alive and surrounded by beauty. I find myself grinning at random moments, astounded by my luck at being here to see all of this, at the gift of being alive and healthy. I find myself talking to the critters as if they are friends, to the cacti, even. Even the rocks sometimes. Thanking them frequently.
And all of the time, this body of mine is breathing it in, eating it, reforming it into living cells. The scratches crisscrossing my shins are healing with bits of the desert. My hair and fingernails are growing from the desert. As the traces ofVermontand a third-floor apartment leave me, as the stink of it all seeps out of my clothes and possessions to be replaced by something cleaner, I am slowly becoming a part of this place. With every breath and sip of water, my body builds with the essence of this place.
As the blush of sunset paints the western sky and silhouettes hundreds of cactus sentinels, I can feel it happening. The slow recovery. The coming back into being. The pulse of my body tuning. And in the morning, when I crawl out of bed in the half-light, ready to greet the sun and thank it for another day, I will spread my arms in amazement at being alive to see another day.