IT WAS FREE. I WAS POOR. I knew it was time to take a break from main-lining my favorite drug. The clinic was famous. It was the favorite place for more than a few You Know Whos to dry out. I was one of the Who the Fuck Are Yous.
I drove south from Flagstaff on a brilliant June day. My drug-of-the-season had written from Algiers to say that It wasn’t working. Though our age difference wasn’t a problem, the generational difference was. “You’re horrified by political and cultural crap I just take for granted,” he wrote. “Hey, I grew up with it.”
My heart went hollow. Nothing new. That organ should have been not much more than a cicada shell. So, when the invitation came for a week of free shrinkage, food and shelter in a desert town, I thought Why not? It was hardly the thought of a woman who had reached, as they say, bottom.
It occurred to me that being addicted to the millisecond when the guy I wanted bent in to kiss me for the first time, was a luxurious misery. I looked at the other drawn faces, the earnest eyes of the therapist and wanted only a window through which I could see the desert in which ocatillo were blooming like slender torches.
After we had all cried and raged and earned a little temporary peace (call me a cheap date), I left before the free and intolerably fat-free dinner. The temperature had dropped to ninety-five. I walked out a paved road till it became dirt. A dry riverbed lay to the southeast. I dropped down into it and stopped. Shadows had begun to ease in. A boulder that might have been a two-ton garnet lay ahead of me in the shade. I sat down.
The river curved to the east. I lasted a few minutes on the boulder before the mystery beyond the curve, as always, drew me forward. There was the root-lace of a young cottonwood, snake tracks, a shredded 4-inch-high heel gold-lame sandal. A few hundred feet downriver, there was another curve in the bank. I went.
And went. Around curves into the fading light, into gray-blue shadows pouring across me like mercy, into forgetting why I had come there. It was growing dark and yet there was always another curve.
I moved forward. There was a patch of damp sand. The scent of monsoons under a dry sky. A tiny pool reflected what was left of the light. I stood over and next to the Hassayampa River.
The Hassayampa River runs above and below the Arizona desert. You could take that as a metaphor. I almost did. Then in that instant of seeing the sky shining in the sand, I understood that metaphor was drier than the boot-tracks I’d left behind me. I bent to the tiny pool, traced its edges and ran my wet fingers over the stream of loneliness that ran from my throat to belly. An arc of silver rose just above the eastern mountains. I stepped into my footprints and walked back to my motel.
MY ROAD PAL Everett and I sat in my beater truck in the parking lot of a Salt Lake City Circle K at 6 on Easter morning. Rain sluiced down. I’d picked Ev up in the SLC bus station twenty minutes earlier. We were fueling up before we took off on a six day casino and desert roads trip.
He turned on the radio and handed me two donuts and a big cup of near-useless coffee. “Hard to believe the Mormons made it out here without drinking decent coffee,” he said. “They must be…” The mellow sound of NPR cut him off. “Here goes,” he said. Bob Edwards’ brown-sugar voice said, “And, here is Susan Stamberg with NPR commentator Mary Sojourner.”
Instantly I knew I was hunkered down in an intersection of heaven on earth. I listened to Stamberg interview me about my short story collection Delicate, and I figured I was one of the luckiest women in the world. I’d self-published the book. Her interview guaranteed I’d sell a few. And kick some corporate butt, since I’d vowed to sell the book only in independent bookstores. How much more could a carbed-out and caffeined woman want?
The radio voices faded. I started the engine. “Forward,” Ev said, “into the glorious unknown.” A few hours later we touched down in the Rainbow casino in Wendover. By the time we’d gambled until our eyeballs spun, snarfed down three plates of the all-you-can-eat Spaghetti Special @$3.99 and listened to Damien and Natalie Lowe tear up the lounge with old Jackie Wilson tunes, I figured I’d landed in the second intersection of the divine and the corporeal. And, knowing there would be more seemed almost more than I could bear. Almost.
Three hundred bucks and a scant night’s sleep in our hypothetically free room later, we headed west and north on the second most lonesome highway in America. Ev drove. I rode shotgun, which meant hunching over the topo map, tracing lines we knew were dirt roads and saying gleefully, “Turn here. Turn here.”
There was the abandoned double-wide near Montella and a battered kitchen table full of Polaroids of dark-haired people with Basque names. There were mountains named Ruby. There was the joy of mutual nickel dalliance in Jackpot and the misery of three riddled Blue Grouse carcasses at the end of a dusty road. And then, we were headed west to the north portal to the Black Rock Desert.
We spent two days in the Black Rock. We saw two other trucks and almost no planes or contrails. We wondered if we had fallen into a crack in the world. Then we knew we had.
We’d been checking out the dark seams in the eastern mountains. We had long ago learned that in a landscape that seemed too dry for life, what seemed to be shadows on a mountain’s flank were often the entrances to water and lush green and tiny pale blossoms that seemed more light than flowers.
The dirt road faded into a two-track and was gone. We parked, hoisted our day packs and headed toward what we could now see was a hidden canyon in the low range. “Check this out,” Ev said. He pointed just ahead at what might have been a shadow in the sand. “Water.” Not quite water, but a patch of damp sand. And trickling into it from the mouth of the canyon, a tiny stream.
“It’s under us somewhere,” Ev said. “Let’s go see where it starts.”
We followed the stream up into the little canyon. There was a big cottonwood, rusted-out bedsprings of an old camp and the stream racing wild as any bigger river over cobbles and twigs. Ev went ahead. I crouched by the water and remembered an old lover, Dead Bill, teaching me to read rivers, not on the water, but by watching barrow ditches after a hard desert monsoon. “Look, there’s an eddy, there’s a rapid, there’s the smooth stretch.” We had tossed leaves into the brown water and watched some of them make it, some of them sucked to their end in a killer hole.
Ev called back to me. “You won’t believe this.” I came around a curve in the canyon and found him pressed against a water-fall no wider than his out-stretched hand. “This is it, this is where it all begins.”
“Yeah,” I said, “the Beginning.” He laughed. “Grooooovy.”
“No,” he said, “I’m wrong. It all begins up there. That’s an easy climb. I’ll let you know what I find.”
He spidered up the canyon wall and over the edge. I heard his delighted laughter. He looked down at me. “Who knows where it all begins,” he said. “The stream runs across a bare stretch where it shouldn’t be possible for water not to dry up. There are little flowers. You’d love it. Too bad your back is fucked. I’d spot you but there are a couple tricky moves.”
“Thanks,” I said, “for the pep talk.”
He grinned and backed away. I took off my shorts and shirt and sat in the damp sand beneath the waterfall. I don’t know how long Ev was gone. I don’t know if I drifted into a small dream or not. There was a hawks’ cry. There was something scratching in the rocks behind me and I was completely without fear or longing.
What I remember most is that when Ev returned we walked back down the canyon and followed the stream till it was gone. And that whole time, we were quiet. What was between us didn’t need words, only shadows and shifting light, only watching the color of the sand go from umber to pale gold.
NOW, FOURTEEN YEARS LATER, I knew more about how a dry streambed might be in the aftermath of a flash flood. I knew there was a way a woman can be stripped down to bare grit. I knew that she could survive, could pick through the debris left by the flood and keep what didn’t kill her.
I lived in a cabin on a mesa in the western Mojave. It was early March and seventy degrees. An old Joshua Tree stood behind the back of my cabin. I had moved there in June. My first act on coming to the cabin was to free the Joshua trunk from a snare of rusted barbed wire and brads left by a previous ingrate. My second act was to stash groceries in the fridge. My third was to head out into BLM land five minutes from my front door.
Mountains rose in all directions. The sand was red-beige. I moved through clusters of Joshua Trees and skirted the openings to burrows. There were plastic bags waving from the creosote, moony pebbles and luminous desert lilies against the pale sand. There were rusted-out truck chassis and kids’ school papers dated 2005 and, though it took me a while to catch on, there were watercourses lacing through all of it. And no water.
For three years it had seemed there was no moisture left in me. I’d been abandoned by every drug I’d ever loved and some I hadn’t. There was to be no more gambling, no ghost of a lover, no shelter in work, no shelter in my illusions that I was an honorable woman, no shelter in my own body—I had been driven frantic by unpredictable and frequent migraines. All my fixes had stopped working, a more absolute dead end than if I’d been simply soldiering through not using them.
Ev and I had parted. I couldn’t blame him. A consuming affair and binge gambling had toppled the living architecture of my brain as though it was a row of dominoes. What had been left behind was a mean and boring woman. Nothing inside. Almost nothing outside.
I walked the desert every late afternoon and evening for 245 days. For months I carried a brain I wanted to tuck into the hollow in a Joshua stump and leave behind. There were no mirages. Just sand and rock, sky and wind. I’d run clean out of metaphors. I kept walking. Slowly, slowly, I began to see more and more. Rain fell four times. There was a blizzard and eighteen inches of snow. I kept walking.
By the third rain, a gentle rain, the delicate silver the Navajo call female rain, I could smell wet desert. After the snowstorm, I found shining puddles and new channels in the dark sand. A stream of pure color ran down the north side of the highway–opal and rose sky running into the wash below. A boulder held a pothole. I touched its surface and traced the lines of my face with wet fingertips.
One night I walked out to an old dead Joshua. I visited the tree most every evening. As you step off a dirt road and head southeast, you see what appears to be the gray shape of a hooded monk. I stopped and spoke. “I’m back, I’m glad you’re still there.” I moved forward. The Joshua Buddha did not move. Powerful concentration can be like that. Stillness. Only a soft breeze moving across your face.
Sometimes the transformation would occur within a hundred feet of the monk, sometimes sooner, sometimes later. That night I was within thirty feet of the quiet figure when it became a bare stump jutting up from the downed trunk of the Joshua.
The western light had gone saffron, the eastern mountains were pure dark. I bent to the stump and pressed my face to its rough surface. “Thank you,” I said. “You know.” I sat on the big fallen trunk. There was a deep crack in the bark. In it lay a tiny spine, the white bones perfectly articulated. I touched the spine, no more than a whisper of my fingers. “Glad you’re still here,” I said. “Ev will be here in a week. He’ll see you.”
I drank water. The light cooled. When it was time to find my way back, I walked toward a sliver of waxing moon. There was just enough light to see dry watercourses and the lace-work of my own tracks. I saw the traces every time. No matter what new unmarked path I believed I was following.