I began to see that, when it comes right down to it, we are nothing until that nothing becomes so dedicated that it is like a vessel through which good things can move, an instrument for receiving knowledge and sharing it with others who might be in need.
—Bear Heart, with Molly Larkin
EIGHTEEN YEARS AGO, three trucks drove up the dirt snake of the Moki Dugway. The road rises 1100 feet on a 10% grade. The ascent can take your breath.
The first time I had driven it alone. It was 1982, I was forty-two and it was the first time I had spent longer than three days alone. A new friend had given me directions. You approach from the south and drive across flat desert toward what seems to be an impenetrable cliff face. Keep going. I followed his instructions. Suddenly the road curved east and I had no choice but to go up hair-pin turns, cliff-face on one side, drop-offs on the other. I remember keeping my foot steady on the accelerator of the rental car and thinking, “If I can do this, I can learn to do anything.”
Eight years later I was passenger in the lead truck. I was not alone. We were perhaps a dozen women and men and we were friends, lovers and strangers. Our trucks were loaded with river gear. We were headed for a trip on the San Juan River.
We topped out and headed West. As abruptly as any human change of heart, thunderheads moved in. There was no rain. The man I now think of as Dead Bill—no longer with rancor, but with affection—drove. I sat in the passenger seat and opened his beers for him.
Lightning slammed down into the pinon-juniper a few miles ahead of us. A thread of smoke rose. By the time we came to the strike, there were no flames, only that smoke rising. We jumped out of our trucks, walked to the juniper and began to pile sand around its charred base. We waited till there seemed to be no more smoke. A soft rain – the Dine call it Female Rain began to fall. We climbed back in the trucks and went on.
It would be years before I would learn that sometimes a lightning strike in the desert makes glass. By the time I looked into a desert museum display case, saw a non-descript chunk of jagged glass labeled fulgurite and found it far more beautiful than the slab of emerald and cream malachite to its right and the wine-red chunk of garnet to its left, I was no longer the woman who had piled sand around the base of a smoking juniper. Had that woman known there might be lightning glass, she would not have asked the group to wait while she searched the ground for a glittering shard. She would have deferred instead to her lover, to his need to get back on the road and to his beer.
He is gone. The group is gone, not so much blasted apart, but drifted away on currents of alcohol, pot, betrayal and lies. The woman would herself disappear for five years, carried deep into loneliness by her own obsessions and lies.
She would once have said that the disappearances of man, group and self were nothing but loss, and that our behaviors were cruel and tragic. I’ve come to a deeper understanding of the nature of juniper, lightning, smoke and glass. I see that addiction, lies and betrayal may be no less alchemical than the action of unearthly heat and sand. Now, my favorite chain of words has become: I don’t know.
I don’t know has transformed me from a woman who once would have Googled lightning glass and ordered a piece from an on-line store, to a woman who walks the abundant Mojave, under skies from which lightning rarely descends, her eyes often on the ground, hunting for a glint of nondescript glass, knowing she may never find it.
I don’t know moves these words out of what sometimes feels like nothing, a nothing that is both frightening and welcome, through a vessel formed by dedication, a vessel made from lightning glass.