“A work can be as powerful as it can be thought to be. Actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface. ”
My notions about the desert seem a distant and beguiling set of imaginary scenes: as a woman-child of swamp and humid coast, enclosed by longleaf pines and surrounded by ocean on (almost) all sides, the desert seems a fairytale topography created by the mythos of the American West – a gunslinger’s paradise, a no-man’s land, a red-rocked canyon of impenetrable access. Perhaps the desert came before me, but only just slightly. The landscape of familiarity to me was one of green, moist terrain that barely spoke a word of its past except to whisper every now and again in small, chalky rocks of its ancient seas. On occasional walls in bright, sun-drenched rooms hung pictures of faraway places, cacti and high rock walls that I had never imagined. These places surely must be the archaic leftovers of my grandparents’ time – ephemera of nation-building and ranching that only exists in stories. A desert, to my own senses, was a place residing only in the collective past of textbooks and black-and-white television shows. What follows is my report as an investigator of this mythic place.
My current home is in the city of San Antonio. A place nestled geographically and geologically at the center of Texas, riding just under the hill country and atop the Balcones Escarpment, it seems a perfect place to begin an adventure. About one hour in any direction and the topography changes enough to be dramatic. My husband and best friend are my compatriots in this journey, heading west on highway 90. Out in D’Hanis, all the buildings are made of brick and, rightly so. The exterior walls of my apartment and the gallery I used to work in in San Antonio are built with D’Hanis stamped rich red bricks – a testament to the history of kilns originally built in the town I am now driving through. Like vast swaths of sedimentation across a landscape, a source can eventually be located for the small outcrops of clues that bear this interesting feature.
In another few hours we cross the Pecos River, where it has cut so deep down into the lower Cretaceous limestone here that the canyons are concave and bellowing with resilient whites and creams. In some places, the dreary shale gray has stained the limestone over ages, a palimpsest of story upon story. The Pecos itself seems still and chillingly cerulean. To stand and ponder how it could have ever worked at the task of carving stone seems one I can understand logically but still never grasp on a human scale. This canyon took time – time that I can’t fathom in my excitement. It’s not even a very big canyon in the scheme of things geological.
West of the Pecos, the roadcuts get a bit more interesting, as every few miles a new rise has been blasted to make way for the road we travel, and within those slices of high hillside, strata that make up the earth are revealed. Some strata are nice and even, with beautiful separations, and some show great interfingering and mixing up of their constituent parts. It’s a mystery book teasing me from the shelf as I drive past. I want to, in every sense of the word, read it – to find out what happened and in doing so, gain a greater understanding of the land I’m traversing. But we keep pressing on to our destination.
What can the desert offer me? I have a desire to go – to see. The author Rebecca Solnit frequently writes about place and its importance to us spiritually, asthetically, and even within a greater social construct. “The very word desert refers to desertedness, to lack, and the desert is defined by what it is missing,” (Solnit, 65). I think about the times that I have been defined by what I am quite literally “missing,” or what terrible inadequacies I seem to present based solely on patriarchal structures in my life. I can see that the desert is being unfairly compared to ecosystems that it is not and never will be. Much like a desert, a woman has to hold her own in a world defined by male domination, expansion, and desire. In this case, the desert is a place without sufficient water supply to support large human populations, their agriculture, and livestock. The roads and towns are increasingly less populated, with fewer familiar comforts and more trucks. You wouldn’t need a Starbucks to live out here but you would definitely need four-wheel drive. I ponder these ideas as I become acquainted with a place that’s been obscured from me. In the metaphorical tales that I spin while watching wild birds fly up from the roadside brush, I think the desert must be a woman.
Camping in Big Bend Ranch State Park is very remote. We spend about an hour and a half just getting off the main road and driving to the ranger station. There are no paved roads, and our campsite can be located with GPS coordinates. Wind blows around and through you, and you can hear it coming. It rustles the dry brush and sweeps through the openness, warning you of its presence. All you can do out there is knuckle down.
Is it possible to overuse the term majestic? It seems that every view is deserved of the word, the crest of every hill a new splendor. Something about the setting sun and the large expanse of open space sets the stage for the feeling of true sublimity. Counting posts in the road (one of the only signs of humanness out here) and adding them up to see how far we’ve come, my friend and I decide that, should the Jeep break down, we don’t want to trek 9 miles in the desert sun back to safety. These aren’t city miles near other people, or the possibility of finding gas or shade; these are wide open, scorching miles.
“To be deserted is not to be alone but to be alone with the thought that it could be otherwise,” (Broglio, 34). Reading this essay by Broglio sets the feeling of being alone like a puzzle piece into a greater picture. In the desert I feel small, detached, and even somewhat awestruck, but by being so far away from lots of people, I am open to the possibility that there are other voices to be heard, including my own. “Voice is the attempt to communicate, the desire to be other than abandoned,” (Broglio, 37). Imagine the braying of a wild donkey as it runs past your tent in the middle of the night, its own agenda afoot, with little regard for your temporary dwelling amidst its home. Your heart beats wildly as you wake up, identifying the voice you just heard, listening for danger and finding none. You coo yourself back to sleep with the sound of your own small voice.
I listened to myself in the desert.
There is more color here than I every imagined. My previous sketches of “what the desert looks like” might have included raw sienna and burnt umber. Of course I’d imagined the crisp, green cacti, but never did I grasp the varying greens of the scrub in the arroyos, including cottonwoods. Rich purple cacti grow up near small, red and yellow flowering bushes. Rocks of all colors seem to tumble out of the ground, as if their volcanic past is waiting to be told in mafic blacks and greys, punctured by ochre to red iron-stained gravels. Fold in the blue sky upon this picture and the whites of the sunbaked gravels and this is what I saw for two days outside my tent – a place where every color was an inspiration.
A fine layer of dust still covers my Jeep after returning from Big Bend a few days later. In the cracks and corners of doors and seams, it collects like silt. Though I washed my hands after breaking camp, every time I touched my jeans or jacket, my fingertips were loaded with the smell of dust again, as though I were still there, my teeth still gritty with sand and my eyes still watering with the irritation of working at survival.
I was hours away from the campsite now, driving east toward home, a clean stretch of lonesome highway in front of me, and my hands were coated anew in rich desert dust. My senses are alive with the smell of something so new and yet so ancient.