People say you either love or hate the desert. For me, it turns out to be both/and rather than either/or. When Ken and I first drove the many, many, many hours to Big Bend National Park for our honeymoon almost 30 years ago, my first response was crying, but not tears of joy. “We drove all that way for this?” I said. The despair that took over my stomach spread to the rest of me, including my eyes, which made it hard for me to see any value in being there, least of all for my honeymoon. Moreover, I had the very clear sense that this place with its heat, many plant beings made of thorns and needles, rattle snakes (especially the one I almost stepped on) and isolation from humans could kill me if I didn’t pay close attention.
Over our week camping in Big Bend, my hate softened. Maybe it was the wild horses, the eight-foot high bamboo forests we discovered in remote areas, riding a donkey while a little drunk in Mexico, sleeping under the stars, or lying on the ground while vultures wheeled over. By the time we left, I kind of liked the desert: the cooling air in the mornings and evenings, the radical sunshine, the blazing blue of the sky, and the flowering of the cacti. I would return, I decided.
Getting back to a remote place takes time, decades in this case. But the return was now love for the desert unfurling in stretches of wavering light and vertical rock. What was brown, gray, prickly, and otherwise not imbued with water didn’t push me away but drew me closer although I was careful where I stepped or what I leaned toward. It helped that, according to some of the locals, it was the best wildflower
season in 40 years, which meant we walked and drove through carpets of cacti and color, yellow, blue and white blossoms all directions with occasional Octotilla opening its high-off-the ground buds while the yucca went from pink to white to spent beige.
But it isn’t just the flowers. The desert is the desert, a place where you have to both give up control over the landscape and pay close attention to what actually is (rather than what you think is) according to the wonderful writer Gary Paul Nabhan,
who we had the pleasure to hearing twice during our trip. Ignore the reality of the desert at your own peril. Respect what’s here, and you arrive.
Yet recognizing that reality, which entails releasing agendas and clearing the mind of ideas about who or where I am, opens the door to the place without doors: the heart-breaking deep blue framing and infusing the mountain forged from sediment and volcano, balancing all manner of ochre and rust, bleached out or saturated with hue. The soft cold touch of the Rio Grande on the toes. The towering walls of time, rock and story
coming together in a narrow canyon that only allows the sharpest light through. The tumbling overhead of the stars and more stars even as the moon obscures some of them. The stillness punctuated by the mockingbird. The mule deer beneath the junipers. The fields peopled with forests of prickly pear, which can also grow just about upside down off the sides of rock walls. The preciousness of water and the ingenuity of what can live with so little.
As a 26-year-old touching the desert for the first time, I was afraid. It was a place I had no reference point for except in the yet-unexplored back fields of my psyche. As a 55-year-old returning, I was satisfied. Life has shown me as precisely as the needle tips of cactus how little control I have over anything, anyone, and even to a great extent over myself. It’s also shown me what magic might spring forward when I fall back into reality, with care of course when it’s in a desert. So we climbed and walked, drove and paused, drank outrageous amounts of water while stepping rock to rock to rock to where the desert led.
Maybe life itself, like the name “Big Bend,” is all about letting ourselves learn to bend, sometimes in a big way over a lot of time, to find our place in the wild and dangerous, the dry and distant, the stinging and blossoming turning of the light.