I was crouched at the base of a basalt cliff on the edge of the Turtle Mountain Wilderness, studying a delicate braid of tracks in the sand at the bottom of the wash below. I knew I would never make it into the heart of the Turtles on that road-trip. I was fifty-eight, a big woman and one of my lumbar spinal discs was on its way to being a pancake — too many canyon switch-backs and too much midnight city concrete, too many rapids run, too much, and never enough, boulder hopping. I knew what to do. I took my notebook out of my pack and wrote:
The truck is parked where the roads end. If I stand up, I’ll see the windshield catch last Mojave light. Lace agate glitters and glows on the pale earth, white chalcedony roses, puddles of mineral cream. To the east, just beyond a portal that opens like a deep breath in the black rock, lies the uni-sex bathroom of a gang of coyotes. At the edge of a tidy deposit of scat is one scarlet flower, blossoms like bells, bells holding light. I imagine how the flower seems to burn, as I imagine what lies west, downstream, in a stream-bed through which water must pour — I see the pebble curves that tell me eddies have swirled here — twice a year, once, seen only by what lives here. I would love to see that, flash floods no wider than my arm, thunder chaos of brittle-brush, chalcedony and scat.
And, I am grateful to see what lies around me. Now. Here. A half-mile from the truck, a half-mile that took me an hour to cross, down into little arroyos, picking my way between fire-rock boulders, stopping to pick up a shard of crystal, an agate rose. I knew better than to bend over and I did it anyway. I’ll pay for it later with pain in my back. How could I not touch this lover, this fierce Mojave earth softened by winter light? How could I not, as I once lay in the perfect arms of the perfect lover who perfectly would leave, breathe in the miracle of being here, being here, only now.
The Buddhists tell us joy lies in limitation. We Americans are taught the opposite. More is better. Go for it all. I move away from the cliff and look up at the ragged cobalt mountains. I want to go up, into the high saddle, into what leads into mystery, up where I can look out and see forever. I want more. I want it all.
My back holds me here. Some roads are closed to me forever. I consider that I have become the person the road-greedy claim to fight for. But what about the handicapped? What about the elderly?
On my slow way to this cliff, this wash, where light seems to catch on every facet of twig and stone, and shadows pour like blue lava, I walked across roads that went back to earth beneath my boots. Road Closed. Road Closed. I touched the signs. I whispered, “Yes.”
I made my slow way back to the truck. My road-buddy who loves road and roadless equally, emerged from the shadows. He was grinning. I looked at his face and knew that I looked in a mirror.
“How was it?” he said.
“Very very good.”
We walked back to our camp in silence. Later he would tell me how he traversed rock he might more prudently have avoided, and how that led him, heart in his throat, to a hidden arch in a saddle and the sight of the southern Mojave rolling in waves of mountains and desert, sunset and blue mist to the far curve of the earth. I would tell him about coyote house-keeping and bells of light and how enough is enough — and never enough. But, heading back to camp, our silence was sweet earth without roads.
We had camped in an abandoned mining claim. There were the requisite rusting bed spring, coils of wire and shattered Colt 45 bottles glittering like fool’s agate. My friend cooks edinguine with olive oil, garlic and capers. I spread out my sleeping bag and stretched. My back throbbed. A lightning bolt shot down one leg.
“Trying to sleep is going to be lovely,” I said.
He laughed. “Would you have it any other way?”
I turned on my back and pulled my legs up to my chest. Nothing released. I looked up into moonless night, Orion striding eternally young and strong across the eastern sky.
“You mean?” I asked.
“Doing it the easy way,” he said. “I don’t know, maybe driving up to the arch. A road.”
I slowly twisted left, right. I kept my eyes open. The mountain-tops I suspected I would never see up close lay like sumi brush-strokes against the stars. I didn’t answer my friend. I didn’t have to. The way into the answer was perfectly clear.