DESERT DIARY was edited by Emily Cronin and published in Twin Magazine Vol. VIII, 2013.
Early morning flights and middle seats. Chris is six rows ahead of me, probably sitting stoically, happy to be seated alone without obligation to entertain me, the constant child in the rapidly aging body. Restless, seated sleep, then waking up to pink rocks and mountaintops, black roads like forest snakes cutting through the desert. Reminders, we are in America. No beauty is untouched.
Chris doesn't need a map; the whole of America is etched into his mind, back roads, diners, coffee shops and all, a result of his powerful spatial understanding and a number of years spent living out of a van. We bullshit about life and art and promise and disappointment as the radio fades to pops and fuzz and the mountains loom around us, shadowy giants in the washed moonlight. It's still early when we pull into China Ranch. Owner Cynthia shows us the tipis we'll be sleeping in, glorious canvas cones filled with mesquite-burning fire pits and king-size beds. And then the sky, the sky. Jason says he has never seen so many stars.
In the mid-morning light we make our way to the hot springs. Perfect, magical, primordial pleasure in the midst of the barren mud hills and the desert rats and their shining trailers. Slinking around like alligators, we are purified in the sulfuric water, slimy with rotten-egg mud and full of innocent delight at the bathtub temperatures and soft grass. Photos. Jason is smart and skilled and Chris is the same and they are kind and creative and we slide easily into the work when the work's not work. When we're playing, when we're making and being and doing.
We drive around for hours letting the mountains and salt flats drill into us, Chris guiding us on our pilgrimage, the winter sun beating on our necks and faces. Devil's Golf Course, Devil's Cornfield, Devil's Racetrack; Lucifer has really made his mark here. You can see it in the dry, cracked playas and the faces of the locals. The landscape, otherworldly, corrodes our conscious thought until we are just vessels, floating, moving through space. Time slows. Maybe it stops.
There is a certain type of crazy only cultivated in the desert. It makes you want to grow a beard. It makes you want to make and to not make, to accomplish everything by doing nothing. By sitting outside your Airstream in the sun. By smoking meth in the slot canyon. By painting your patio chairs Pepto-Bismol pink and collecting rock chunks to display on decorative plates. Suspended reality is what we're dealing with here. Everything is yours, park it where you like.
We see a lot. Old mines and plates of runny eggs and coyote packs meeting us on the road. Smoke and mirrors. Rocks. More rocks. Only a few cacti but lots of sagebrush and some tumbleweed. Chris almost blows his hand off with fireworks and I almost burn a hole through my leg and we are overtaken by swarms of cyclists and Asian tourists and retirees on their great exploration of life before death. But we have surpassed death. When you're in the desert you can live forever.
I put on my white dress and walk barefoot through salt flats. In these moments that your mind turns to clarity, when you release yourself from the pain that clouds your everyday thoughts and focus on that which is greater, focus on nothing, the ultimate and infinite. A mile, a bit more, and I'm on the dunes and with each step my foot sinks deep into the cold, soft sand. Ecstasy. Transparency. The pleasures of life we can achieve only through the initial deprivation. Up and down and over and the same, again, through these mountains of time, until I find a peak. And then I am digging and digging and sinking and rising and with each shovel the walls cave a bit more and the futility of life is before me, in my hands. Working and working and getting nowhere until, lungs tight, back aching, there you are. And then I am climbing inside and then I am underneath.
It is cold below the sand and my muscles are tight and the weight locks my fingers into claws, my head twisting, eyes squinting, the world in perfect silence before me. Past and present blend in lucid perspicuity, the trivial nature of seeking one grand lesson becomes clear, the conglomeration of learning and experience float to the surface. I find in this moment not the tranquil solace I had imagined, but a rush of thoughts that come like the tide after a period of focus on pain and perseverance. If death were what the world imagines, frigid, empty, I am feeling as close to that now as I have ever been and yet have never been more sure that this is not our ending. It is too simple an explanation for something so complicated.
And so, after time, I emerge, slowly, the sand weighing my dress down, trapping me in, pulling me back until I have ripped free, cutting braids off my wrists and the white horse hair tassels off my hips. Washing in crystal waters and pricking my fingers and oiling my skin and scrubbing it clean, scrubbing it all off, until I am rough and raw and pure again.
And then I'm back and we're back and I'm tumbling naked down the hills and Chris is tossing shovels of sand on my head and trying to save the cameras from my dirty hair, whipping clean in the wind. More whiskey. More beers. Talk of life and childhoods and our fucked-up ways and what brought us back down and what keeps us straight. When Jason talks about his wife you can see their love like a tangible object, so clear and solid and crystalline. It burns deeply, radiates warmly. It is a pure, forgiving, focused love, at once realistic and idealistic, full of charm and hilarity and admirable to anyone who believes in any kind of happily ever after. Chris and I joke about getting hitched in Vegas. Jason says he'll take our wedding photos. And then. And then.
Vegas is an unnatural spectacle. A manmade island of delusion and excess in an otherwise serene environment. We eat expensive sushi and shotgun beers in the bathroom, trapped in the complicated maze of the MGM Grand, bearing witness to the rise and fall of middle-aged Midwestern mothers and drunk, kitten-heeled redemption. We get lost a hundred times over, chasing fading light, wandering aimlessly, oceans of neon washing over us. Purposeless. Men in transformer suits with glowing eyes buzz through the streets. More beers and escalators and people are yelling and all I can think about is grabbing as many call girl catalogues as I can carry. The morning comes quickly. We chase light again, rush to the airport. Jason has a callous on his trigger finger. A souvenir of time spent on Mars.