As the sun went down, I pulled the sleeping bag around me and felt a feeling of weeping gratitude rise in me. “What is it?” My friend looked at me sideways. “I just…I just had a moment of knowing that this is something that at the end of my life I will have been glad to have experienced, that I will look back on and be happy to have lived.”
In the Bisti/De Na Zin wilderness I found an old juniper on top of a high point and crawled beneath its branches on the sandy ash ground, gathering the hardened drops of tree-bled sap because they were beautiful and golden and I wanted to have a way to remember the smell. phone rang. It was the coordinator for the county grant and we talked a little about schedules and my idea for a workgroup listening session, about the process and people’s experiences. We talked about my trip, being away. As she spoke, I could picture her face and her spectator pumps, her hair straightened and held in a professional twist, how she always looks a little like a kid playing dress up in the meeting room.
“I was talking to my friend this weekend, and saying how we just can’t really be ourselves, how we can’t be who are in the positions we’re in, we can’t really say what we think or what we see.” I was surprised to hear her say this, echoing these things I have been thinking about. Our voices dropped and I caught the edge of something like sadness in her tone as she spoke about how hard it is to not being able to be who she is, to have to show up, to have to perform.
“I want people to be able to be who they are,” I said. “I want all the people to be able to be who they are. There are obvious ways that people are oppressed, in institutions and brutalities, and then there are softer oppressions, the more quiet oppression of not being able to say what you see, what you think, who you are.”
When we got off the phone, I sent her a picture of the tree, told her that this was where we had talked and where I had prayed that somehow our conversation was heard by the wind.
We pulled off Highway 64 to make sure we had the directions right. Midday sun blasted the parking lot, and I stepped out onto the pavement intending to call home just to say hi, let folks know that I was alright. My friend sat in the car, trying to download maps for the Butler Wash, Comb Ridge. The old man was walking toward me like a friend, like we’d planned to meet. I’d seen him in the scrub trees behind the oil change place by the side of the road, orange and black baha hoodie, cowboy hat. Dressed warm despite the heat of the afternoon. and now he was walking toward me like he’d been waiting for me to get there, to pull into the lot. I approached him and we shook hands, began the halting conversation of strangers who want to talk to one another, but aren’t sure why. He told me about his daughter in Afghanistan. “She calls sometimes, but they won’t give me any information if I call. The government, very hush hush.” He held his finger to his lips to indicate secrets, silence.
“It’s so strange to think that she is there,” I said, “while we are standing here. What direction is she is in? Where are we facing?” The sun beat on our backs, edging toward noon. “She is behind us, way over there.” I looked back.
He told me about his lady with long braids that was murdered by a jealous lover. “At night, I feel it. This pain. I miss her so bad.” He put his hand on his heart and tears came into his eyes. “At night, sometimes I sing in my language, the language of my people.” The words that were not words to my ears came from him low and lilting, out into the sunny day. “What do I those words mean?” I didn’t want a translation, I wanted to know the spirit of them.
“When we walk, we are on the earth, and we aren’t flying like birds, but the song, it lifts us, brings the earth up into us and lifts us.”
This is what he told me. My American mind does not remember any of the tune, any of the sounds of the song that calls the spirit of the earth up into us.
As we spoke, all the ravens in town seemed to be gathering in the sky to the west, swirling and swooping, a light feathered bird up there with them, wings catching like silver.
He spoke about the people he had lost, about jumping into the dark night from a plane over Vietnam. “You have to carry a knife with you, to cut the parachute away from the trees.”
“You had to jump out into the dark like that?”
“Yes,” he looked down, “you just jump. At night, sometimes there is a noise, a loud noise and it scares me so bad I can’t go back to sleep.”
I don’t know if I could jump into the dark like that, knowing that I would fall.
I asked him if I could hold his hand, because I like to hold people’s hands. We stood there, him speaking and me listening, our hands clasped. A young brown man, slow-walking drunk in the midday walked slow toward us but didn’t approach. He passed and then turned, walked back. “That is beautiful,” he called low across the pavement between where he stood and we stood, and put his hand to his chest, then held his fingers in a sign, cast it up toward the sky.
The old man said my friend was tough for walking as far as he had, for being out in the wild for so long. “His feet,” he said, “he has tough feet.” He wanted to meet my friend, and he went over to the car to say hello, I filmed the birds that had gathered in the sky, and wondered about how it was that they might have felt our hearts as we stood there and he cried a little over all the sadness that kept him up at night and I held his hand.
I stepped out of the life I knew, the routine and schedule, the open docs and deadlines. Drove across a good portion of this country, noting how the borders between places were really only signs by the side of the road.
Right now, it is 5:42 am and I am sitting on a slickrock ridge looking over the dark high desert in southeastern Utah. The stars are tremendously bright and the sky has not yet begun to lighten. Today, we will see ruins of dwellings down in a wash canyon and the day will be bright and hot. Right now, it is cold and I am sitting up here alone, taking notes before the dawn.
It is difficult to take notes when walking over miles of slickrock and down through desert dry washes.
I look around and notice how surprising the color green is, small glades of cottonwood tucked near springs that aren’t running, tapping into water underground. I try to remember the things I think about, the long stretches where I don’t think about much of anything at all, the feeling of just walking and looking around, moving through places that seem almost untouched by people but that are – like most places – very much touched by people, impacted in the roads we take to get there, the footsteps we leave, the ruins and etchings of ancient ones, the land grazed down by cattle a few generations back, the small cairns left here and there.
The earth here is tremendous, rising up from the flat, an old fault line thrusting tons and tons of toothy stone up toward the sky, millions of years of water flow and old fire sculpting impossibly graceful curves into rock.
As I walk, carrying a pack heavy with water because there is no water out there this time of year, I think about my life back in the mountains – my job, the old house I live in, my family – and it all seems very far away. Yet, when I see something beautiful, I want to show the people I love, and when I feel free, I want all people to be free.
I think about my coworkers and how they do not travel, and I think about the people I know that never leave town, that barely go outside of their neighborhoods.
I wonder if they’d like to walk in the desert, or if it would be too quiet, too hot, too full of thorns and rocks, no screens and no sirens.
We talk, my friend and I, about the people we are, the lives we are transitioning toward, renegotiating our dependence on the marketplace and our participation in lifestyles of consumption and labor to support consumption.
It is good to know, to deeply know, that I could be happy with very little.