Letters from the Desert
As I start hiking, I think of how to tell you about the desert. You won’t be interested in miles covered and elevation gained, in the names of canyons and mountains; I won’t bore you with those. I want to sketch the essence of the backcountry for you, to see it as if you were here with me. This landscape calls for a painter. I just have words.
Slickrock from here to the horizon. Miles of buttes, slopes, plateaus; sandstone painted yellow, pink, and orange by minerals and light. In places, the sedimentary nature is evident, the layers clearly visible, and the ripples of a prehistoric ocean frozen as stripes and swirls into the formations. In the low light of the evening, the patterns appear three dimensional. In the harsh glare, everything will look flat.
The loneliness of the desert feels wholesome, not desperate like our loneliness among people. Here, you are small and insignificant, but you belong, as part of the mystery. The desert neither loves nor hates you; she simply accepts you, on her own terms. She is not kind and not cruel, just indifferent. You choose to live or die. She does not make you sign a liability waiver.
Odd-shaped black shards litter the plateau of white Navajo sandstone, as if an alien spaceship has crashed and shattered into fragments. They bulge with strange bumps and make a hollow metallic sound when dropped. The spaceship has disgorged a peculiar cargo: black, iron mantled, moqui marbles, some pea sized, some as big as walnuts. The marbles nestle in shallow depressions, line up along ledges, always in a single layer. Shaman stones, some say, supposed to bring harmony and balance. I would like to take some home for you, but collecting is prohibited.
The desert is the great equalizer. She makes you leave your privilege at the trailhead. Her thorns shred the garments of your identities, one by one, until you are stripped to your bare humanity and the need for water. Water! Food you can carry, water you must find. Must with a capital M. All wants, expectations, and shoulds pale before this first commandment. The desert cuts life down to the essentials.
We enter a valley and find a pool, an emerald set into sandstone, rimmed with bulrushes and reeds. Further down, we discover a series of potholes, strung like beads, sunlight shimmering on the wind rippled water. We camp on a sandy spot, away from the water holes, not to disturb the animals who come to drink. The evening wakes the wind and the frogs, who serenade us through the night. Through the gauze of the tent, I see hundreds of stars and watch how the Earth’s rotation inches the Big Dipper behind the cliffs.
On a plateau high above the valley, far from any water, I come across pebbles in many colors, shiny, striped, tumbled smooth and round by a long forgotten river. Fossilized geology: here, an ancient river once flowed into the ancient ocean that deposited the sand from which these rocks formed. The pebbles are baked into the sandstone which slowly withers away.
The heat radiates off the cliffs, sucks moisture from the breath, the skin, the body. The desert beings know this. Except for the lizards, they are inactive at . Beetles and mice burrow in the sand; the birds are silent. Plants close the pores of their leaves. Only we humans are foolish and fight the heat. Instead of giving in to the rhythm of the desert, we push ourselves through the hot hours, when we should be resting under a cottonwood by a stream and wait for the evening cool.
Trust your brain and feet to read, instinctively, the interplay of gravity and friction. Do not second-guess whether you will be able to walk on the steep slickrock; commit to your step, without hesitation. Put your full weight on your feet, walk erect, with determination. It’s the only way. When you start crouching in fear, that’s when you slide.
Footprints in the sand a greeting from a fellow pilgrim. How reassuring that we are not the only humans in this wilderness. The tracks appear fresh; somebody walked here not long ago. With renewed confidence, I follow. I notice the small size of the boot prints, compare them to mine: same shoe size. Even a similar sole. Only when we look up and find ourselves at the cliff above the creek do we realize: these are my own prints; we have gone in a circle.
Time and water can turn even a tree into stone. When the wood is buried and cut off from air, water seeps into the pores, deposits minerals in the cells, replacing organic tissue. The tree does not notice how it is gradually petrified until it cracks under its own weight.
You are teaching me to see with new eyes. As I walk, my heart sings your name. Every step becomes a word in a letter I will not send, every mile a poem you will not read.
Bio: Agnes Vojta grew up in
Germany and now lives in where she teaches physics at Missouri S&T. She is the author of Rolla, Missouri (Spartan Press, 2019). Her poems recently appeared in Nixes Mate Review, The Blue Nib, As It Ought To Be Magazine, Former People, Thimble Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. Her website is agnesvojta.com. Porous Land