The Desert

I came down through Splendor, passing the inviting breakfast shops and tourist traps, chasing the white stripes that would not let me stop, would not let me rest. Winding down through canyons of forgotten beauty I descended into saguaro country and further down onto the hard-baked bedpan of the desert floor. The sun directly overhead pounded the landscape into pure bleak flatness, robbing the land even of its shadows. The shimmering heat over the road reflected the bottomless cobalt sky, making it appear that the shoulders of the road were hanging in the air.

The white stripes paused; the road had been resurfaced here but not repainted. There was room to pull off to the side, with a rusted trash barrel standing with its plastic liner next to a picnic table sitting naked in the blasting sun. This is it. The gravel scrabbled beneath my tires as I pulled over to the side of the road. I sat for a moment, idling quietly, before I turned off the engine and felt the true silence of the desert crashing over me.

I opened the door and lifted myself up out of the low vehicle into the crackling air. I stood, listening for the whispered sigh that would announce the approach of another car, but there was nothing. There would be no one, I suspected. Not even the lizards would be coming out today.

I listened to the soft crunching sound beneath my feet as I walked around the convertible and hoisted out the nearly-exhausted jug of gatorade. I drained the last of the salty liquid and tossed the empty into the trash can. It wasn’t heavy enough to push its way down into the flimsy trash bag; it just sat at the top, peering out of the can as if rejected, hovering between the worlds of litter and trash, but unable to join either. Heaven or Hell. Just different kinds of dead. The bottle pointed North.

I adjusted my hat and turned, facing North, away from the road. The fence was down; the century-old wooden posts staggered drunkenly or lay in their final resting place as the wind slowly buried them under pale dust. Where barbed wire still clung to the posts tumbleweeds had collected, skeletons of Russian emmigrants who had done well in the new world, taming the west so thoroughly they had become icons. They watched me now with futile hostility. Their battle line broken by time and neglect, the sentries could do nothing to prevent me passing into their conquered land beyond the fence.

I turned back to the car and lifted the army-surplus duffel out of the passenger seat and hung its strap over my shoulder. It felt heavier than it should have, as if the Earth was impatient to recieve its contents. Careful not to dent the metal of the car, I pulled out the shovel. Using its long handle as a walking stick I set out into the desert. Moses beginning his exile must have felt this way.

I glanced back at the car, shimmering and ticking. Someone would be coming back for it, but I didn’t think it would be me.

6 thoughts on “The Desert

  1. OK, I posted that, and I know that I will probably do no more on that story ever. I just had a stupid idea and I’m not letting thought forestall action. I’m plunking down a challenge for all of you out there. You write the story.

    Now, I know that probably no one will take me up on the challenge, since any who are inclined to write will probably have their own stories stacked up in the hopper waiting for release, but really, this is a pretty good first chapter. There’s a lot to work with. The demanding call of the white stripe, the contents of the duffel, the death of so many Ramones in such a short time, it’s all food for a modern mystical thriller.

    I did it in first person out of habit; certainly you get more flexibility by making it third person.

    So since no one would take up the ball, what about all of you? You have a point near the end of the story to shoot for; do you think you could get there as a team? I can set up a thread for the story over at the hut. Talk among yourselves.

  2. Actually, as I was reading this, I was thinking …. would you lend me this as a starting point for NaNoWriMo … but I like it better as a community project anyway. Let me see what I can do to nudge the ball along a bit ….

  3. The Journada del Muerto, the Spanish colonists had named this barren stretch of desert — the Journey of Death. Up to this point, they had followed the Rio Bravo del Norte, the Rio Grande, but then they encountered an impassable canyon and had to travel away from the life-giving liquid.

    So now I had my own Journada del Muerto to make. I shifted the duffel to my other shoulder — it seemed to be getting heavier with every step I took. I wished I’d put on my work gloves; the handle of the shovel was splintery, and my palms were getting raw, stung by their own sweat. As I stepped upon the gypsum-crusted sand, my boots made a crackling sound. Funny how loud it seemed. the insects’ buzzing seemed to be growing fainter.

    I wondered what end my journey would have. For the Spanish, it was a return to the river at Socorro — “help.” For me, there would be no Socorro. I was on my own and I knew it.

  4. It is odd how history shifts the importance of places. Where I was now, had been an important stretch of the Camino Real, the Royal Highway that connected the capitals of Nuevo Espana. But now it was an empty, deserted place. When the railroad first came here, it followed the Camino Real, but when the highway builders came, they built their road on the other side of the river. There was an east-west highway through here, but the Army cut that off to build a missile range. So now there was nothing, nothing but a single railroad track and some decaying buildings that had once been a bustling depot.

    Enough of the past, I thought. Don’t think of the future either. The present is all there is, all that was, and all that will be. I turned to look up at the sun. Mid-morning. I had a long way to go. I turned back to my journada, and trudged on my way, looking up once in a while to be sure I was still headed north, but mostly just watching my feet move, left, right, left, right, with a little puff of white dust rising under the toe of my ancient Army boot with each step.

  5. If people really do embrace this as a group project (and don’t underestimate how tricky this can be) I can set up a place to do it over at the hut.

    Carol Anne, you are welcome to use this as a starting point, but you’ve already written some before November! I suppose it would be all right if you rewrote it then, perhaps switching it from first person to third or something like that.

    I’m regretting putting Feeding The Eels in New York – it’s too far from the desert. There may be a train ride before the story ends.

  6. Actually, I have a different idea for NaNoWriMo, so this can certainly become a group project. Interesting thought about the train ride — think your main character gets dumped from a freight at Engle?

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