Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Absence of Water

At first glance, you might think the desert is dry and dusty, its most prominent feature the absence of water.

But if you search the barren-looking landscape, its bleak colors bleached by the sun, and let your eye trace the contours of its broad stretches of sand and dunes, you can detect signs of life.

Driving mile after mile with my family through the Southwest earlier this month--more than 1,200 miles from Las Vegas, NV to Albuquerque, NM--I was amazed at how the colors of the desert changed constantly, shifting from grays and whites and browns to subtle reds, soft oranges, blurry hues of silver, flaming tinges of gold, even shades of green.

Amazingly, the desert contained enough water--even if only a few drops of condensation from the morning dew--to sustain life: tumbleweed, pinyon pines, sage brush, cacti, and yucca plants.

It was astonishing, really, to find signs of water in such an arid landscape.

Wherever a creek ran through a gully, or where water seeped out of rocks or sand, there would be a flourish of colors and trees. Willows and cottonwoods, and, at higher elevations, juniper, aspen, and Ponderosa pines.

This was a landscape far different from the one that I'd left behind in Florida, with its swaying palm trees, turquoise bays, pale blue lagoons, and intense humidity.

The desert was so dry that it drained the moisture out of the back of my throat and nose in seconds, leaving me gasping for water after a hike of barely a quarter-mile. (That we were five thousand feet or more above sea level didn't help.)

And it was so vast...nothing had prepared me for the heart-stopping views, the sculpted spires and peaks billions of years old, the endlessly shifting patterns of colors and light on the towering cliffs and stone needles of ancient canyons.

Time seemed to stand still in the desert. Or, rather, time seemed to expand into billions and billions of years, so that it was impossible to truly comprehend.

Like the sea, the desert held a deep mystery.

Distant buttes and mesas lifted my heart with the same magic as ocean waves.

At dawn, standing on the rim of Utah's Bryce Canyon, I gazed out over stones carved by wind and rain into bizarre-looking pinnacles. In the dim light, the rock formations resembled the ghosts of an ancient people frozen in time.

If I listened closely, I could hear their words and stories, held fast for centuries in the silent stillness, flying toward me on the whisper of the wind.

And at the Grand Canyon--a place so mind-boggling and incomprehensible in its vastness and beauty--stories were waiting for us, too, if only we searched the ground closely enough beneath our feet.

Who would have thought that miles from the ocean, I would stand on a ledge overlooking the Grand Canyon and find fossils from a shallow sea that had once washed over the land billions of years ago?

Everywhere I went--whether driving past the twisted buttes of Monument Valley, the low-lying plains of the Navajo Nation, or the pine-clad peaks of Colorado--I found myself always heading away from water or towards it.

At Calf Creek Falls in Utah, it was the trickle of a stream leading to a waterfall at the end of a box canyon after a grueling two hour hike through the desert.

On Mesa Verde, it was the ancient ruins of a village of cliff-dwellers built on the side of a hilltop by a spring that had since dried up.

In Durango, where Louis L'Amour spent some time in Room 222 at the Strater Hotel writing his novels of the Old West, it was the wild and frigid Animus River.

In Santa Fe, where Georgia O'Keeffe captured the iridescent colors of sky and hills near her studio at Ghost Ranch north of Abiquiuo, it was the Santa Fe River, and further south, in Albuquerque, it was the Rio Grande.

But water was scarce, and its absence during most of our journey through the Southwest only made me more conscious of my need for it... just as the time away from my work made me more aware of how important writing and stories are to my life.

Sometimes it takes a journey away from one's source to help a writer understand what is at the heart of his or her work.

It's ironic, isn't it, that I'd feel parched in Florida's tropical climate, only to find my well filling with new words in the heart of a desert?

Whether a writer's source of inspiration is the desert or the ocean, mountains or valleys, it's helpful at times to shift perspective... and to see oneself and one's a new light.

If you do take time away from your work this summer, may you return to your desk refreshed, your spirit drenched in new sights and memories of your time away, your pen brimming with stories.


jo'r said...

Your descriptions of the southwest make me want to look up some Santa Fe writing retreat and see whether anyone is offering resident fellowships for a few months. Yet--I think of author Wally Lamb speaking in an interview of how in the dark, early morning hours he'd go to a small, windowless computer room in the university library where he taught, and pound out his daily allotment of words for his novel, "I know this much is true." Many other writers also have commented on their preferred austere surroundings while writing. So I can go along with such wisdom, but it would be nice to be able to walk outside after a daily immersion in words and see such spectacular sights, and recharge some internal batteries.

Barbara W. Klaser said...

Beautiful essay. I love the desert, although I don't want to live right in it. I've always lived near it, and been enamored by the special quality of light, the subtlety of color, and the way life holds on where you think it couldn't.