The Prickly Heart Of The Desert

When Annette and I were first dating five years ago we parked a rental car one summer night on a hilltop in Nevada in a forest of Joshua trees. The day had been scorching, well into the triple digits, and huge thunderheads boiled up out of the desert across three states. That night they cast floods down onto the plateaus of Arizona. A massive wall of cloud a hundred miles east, dark-lit by the moon, flashed bright in county-sized patches a few times a second: silent lightning from the heart of the storm. We relished the cool night air, the temperature back down in the high 90s. Holding her, watching the remote storm carve new canyons in the Arizona desert, I felt my heart had cracked wide open.

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A lifetime ago I grabbed the truck keys, pulled out of my driveway in Oakland without knowing where I was heading. Do I head north or south? A raven sat atop the southbound onramp sign for the interstate. I took her advice. Another sent me eastward on Route 58, and then another north on the 395. I assume they were three different ravens. A fourth flew over my little fire in the Owens Valley that night, and I felt once again like my whole life since the last little fire had been a dream. There I sat watching the Pleiades rise over the White Mountains, shaking myself awake after seven or eight months of urban dreaming.

I walk out in the desert among family. The notion that all life is kin is no mere soft-headed homily: it is basic biological fact. My cousins the creosote and loggerhead shrike are the best company. I have walked the desert with other people and without other people, but I have never walked the desert by myself.

Love is the sudden visceral realization that you are not alone.

I asked a friend decades ago, as our love affair was ending, if she'd ever found herself surrounded by people and still felt utterly alone. She looked at me as if I'd just asked whether she was made of cornstarch. My question was clearly absurd on the face of it. I was packing at the time, making room in the house for the man she would marry. I looked across the room, avoiding eye contact. On the wall, as yet unpacked, was a relief map of the desert. It showed a thousand mountain ranges heading north, each one separated from its neighbors by a gulf of desert.

Maybe it's one of those introvert-extrovert things, she and I trying to communicate each from the crest of our own range. Maybe, as she suggested, I'm just broken. Ironically enough, I doubt I'm alone in that.

48,000 square miles in the Mojave, covered in creosote and Joshua tree, sometimes isn't room enough. 130,000 square miles of the Colorado Plateau. 185,000 square miles in the Great Basin. Not room enough. I want to know every square foot of it, or is it that I want to know one square foot of it all better than anything else? To find a spot to stand on like a juniper alone in an unroaded valley filled with sagebrush? The air filling with the sunlit sage's volatiles -- a most effective antidepressant and euphoriant.

Love is a chemical reaction, a witches' brew of oxytocin and sex hormones and adrenaline and eye of newt. Love is an artificial construct: a reification of base desire into something nobler. Love is what makes the world go 'round, along with gravity and angular momentum. Love is a gigantic pain in the ass.

And love will break your heart. I once imagined the desert and me growing old together. I would be that wizened man in his 80s with the utility-green work clothes and the cabover camper on his ancient pickup, charting the slow growth of Joshua trees over the decades and secretly glad for occasional company from nearby campers. I am in my 50s now. I think of what the desert will look like in thirty years, hemmed in by turbines and mirrors and suburbs, no place left to stand where you can't see some artifact, no place to close your eyes without hearing the roar of traffic.

If I sometimes seem too angry, too unwilling to concede that an opponent might have a set of valid points, if I sometimes seem too unwilling to admit that I might stray into the wrong from time to time, it is because of this: what I love is being killed.

According to Catholic hagiography, Saint Valentine was martyred for marrying Christian couples and then failing to defer to the Emperor Claudius. Buried under this holiday's effusion of red paper and chocolate is a story, true or not, about speaking truth to power in the service of love.

Time grows short. Each day passed is another few hundred acres bladed or burned. Each day passed is one day less to hold fast to the desert. I am lucky in love and in friendship, luckier perhaps than most. And yet my life still revolves around that one great unrequited love, my trying to take the desert's prickly heart into my own.

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