Without family, the only thing I can hold to on Christmas is the fact that there’s nothing to hold on to. Christmas is like the idea of finding our family waiting on the banister, caked with fresh snowflakes, declaring a love for all mankind while being embraced in kisses. It’s fantasy; the wonderful life.
My thoughts return to Christmas past, where I would spend time with my grandparents. One of the best possibilities of those trips was when I could sleep under the tree at night. Looking up through those faux branches into the sparkling glow made me feel at home, precisely because it mimicked the woods and the stars.
This Christmas, I had that opportunity, except here in my beloved home, the Sonoran Desert.
After doing some merrymaking over breakfast with friends, my friend Ellen and I packed off to the North Maricopa Mountains for some desert camping. We rambled through a short, sandy trail to Margie’s Cove, a primitive campground on BLM land, adjacent to protected wilderness and the Sonoran Desert National Monument.
This was an area severely grazed over the past few hundred years, but has been slowly returning to its former ecological glory through the efforts of closure and tightened recreational restrictions. The Monument itself contains the Maricopa Mountain ranges (north and south of the I-8), Table Top Mountains, Booth and White Hills, and the Sand Tanks.
Rife with historical and prehistoric trails and archaeological sites, there’s reason that these places, while quiet, contain thousands of years of stories. You can feel the words under the basalt and strewn across desert pavement, so much so that they sing to life any who care to listen.
Owls lift off from a place
I cannot see. Their long silence
is riddled with the same silence.
In the desert, listening is critical. The slightest wind contains more insight than your GPS. The faint trail of a forgotten sidewinder has more to show you than your cell.
As we set up camp, the clouds formed across the neighboring ridges, looking ominous. It is winter, after all, so we were prepared for both some rain and chilly nights, and the occasional snow (like we saw in 2015). When everything was secured, I set off cross country to look for bones. Like anything, looking intently for what you want results in no luck.
Giant chunks of quartz riddled the desert pavement, looking quite out of the ordinary against the patination. Wilderness boundary signs have been glazed over after a few Sonoran summers – its words barely visible. The quality of quiet shifts from a treacherous gasp of unrelentingly survival to a creosote cold, with humidity setting off any scent.
Later that evening, the campfire was welcome as we quickly ate dinner. Winter nights in the desert make me want to hibernate and wake to the stillness of the stars from under the confines of my sleeping bag and wool blankets.
Next morning, I set out on the trail with the moon to guide me. The air on my face was freezing to the touch, and my nose, permanently frosty. I had hoped to see an owl or maybe a grumpy coyote, or the mountain lion who comes down from his rocks to sip water at the wildlife cache. No sound. No movement. Just my walking motion and my short exhalations.
Walking is reverie, and I, a somnambulist walking in the desert, under moonlight, in winter.
Late morning, we set out on the sandy back roads looking for historic trails. The north country on the boundary of the Monument has rebounded and was especially lush. Sonoran Desert at its finest, said my friend, and she was right. Every few feet, we stopped to gaze at the beauty and the sun creeping over the horizon.
Another friend says, “Sit still and look. This is everything you need right here.” I believe him.
Water has quenched the desert, and everything seemed alive and happy to be so.
Impressions of place: potsherds, one busted, displaced river cobble, many hawks, rusted out windmill, Sheep Mountain (how I longed to see the bighorns), boulder climbing, desert pavement napping, scurries of owls, coyote misfits, deep wash after wash, bajada poetry, walking for miles.
If I could only stay another few nights here…But each night could easily blend into another. The desert is without time, and my time is unfortunate. I am the longing sleeper who must pack up and be fit for the other world I inhabit.
I chase it at night when others slumber.
That which saves dwells where death inhabits.
In the moments of childhood, I would stare out through the faux Christmas tree and wonder where I will end up, what life will become. I have the same childhood curiosity, and no more information as to what comes next as I did then. Here is now. Timeless.
Nothing speaks this truth more than the desert.