I left out early from Mom and Dad’s house. At some point in the night Dad got up from his recliner and went to sleep in his office. Mom wasn’t awake yet, though I knew she would be awake soon enough. It was just after 5:00, and Mom would be getting her coffee ready and to have what she called her quiet time. I slipped out the door with my duffel bag. I kept my shoes off. I didn’t want the sound of putting on shoes to wake anyone. It’s not that I’m loud about putting on my shoes or that my shoes are weird, but a familiar noise at an unfamiliar hour can awaken most anything.
I filled up Dad’s truck on the edge of town.
“You’re up early.”
“Yes ma’am. So are you.”
“Not for long though.”
“Nope. I get off in another hour. Then it’s good night for me.”
“Have a good night this morning.”
She smiled. “I will.”
I wasn’t 15 miles out of town before I felt like I was on the road and alone and wondering what I might see.
Places sometimes return to us like postcards. Out here I can picture a highway cutting its way through a long flat of sage brush. To the north, a grand mesa reaches into the next state. To the south, a pale line of tamarisks grow beside the river. I think about those mornings when I was a teenager, just learning to drive but with permission from my parents to explore. I was obsessed with fly fishing. Many days began with me leaving home early to fish, even on mornings before school. I recall the sun rising over farmlands like a promise of God. I remember stopping to watch sunlight retreat from the bottom of river canyons and how the light climbed the canyon walls, turning the walls the same alpine glow you see in the mountains. Back then, I scavenged abandoned barns and walked fields in search of ruins. I broke into vacant houses where all that was left were curtains sheared to ribbons by the wind. Sometimes driving back home I would slow down for a complete view of the town where I grew up. There were then and there are still tacky motel signs, tacky signs selling tours. I slowed down for the view anyway. I was home from fishing, home from adventure in those days. Those days. It is curious how soon our stories come from a place called Those Days.
Except for a half-dozen big rigs, the highway is deserted. The sky blushes in the east.
I see the sign for the river put-in. In my late teens, I drove to this put-in once or twice a month, starting from early April until the end of September. I was boating the river then, both privately and as a commercial river guide. Despite years of drifting the river, I never learned very much about the river, at least not in terms of the remarkable ecosystem I recognized, even then I recognized the river to be. This, too, after spending years among people who were deeply educated in river ecology. Most of those people were more than willing to educate me or attempt to educate me. I don’t know if I was disinterested or simply refused their instruction. Probably I didn’t want to use time on the river for educational purposes. That would have been too much like school. Since my toddler years, I have maintained a steady resentment towards education, notably education disguised as something other than education. As a child, sick and in the hospital for weeks at a time, I watched television nearly as often as I could hold my eyes open. I did not like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, though I never held anything against Fred. I outright hated Sesame Street. Don’t pretend to share cookies with me when you’re teaching me how to count, Cookie Monster. Any child too stupid to realize your manipulations deserves you, you Polyfoam glutton. I was like that as a child. I wasn’t much better in high school. We were playing baseball, and some coach tells us that baseball is a lot like life. And I knew, knew coaches loved to credit those sorts of phrases, but that was enough for me. You, Coach, are a man teaching boys how to play baseball. You are telling us that this game, a game played in pajamas and tightly-fitted caps, is a lot like life. In earnest he goes on to say we’ll learn lessons that will stay with us for the rest of lives. Really? Here is lesson number one: do not let a grown man tell you that a sport is about life. A week or so after the coach’s talk I stopped playing sports altogether. Then I left high school.
But I was in love with the country then. I was in love with remote canyons. I was in love with the high desert and how hot the country could be in the day and how it cooled at night. I was in love with the rawness of the landscape, with the fierceness of it. I loved how we needed to find shade. How we needed to carry water. How easily sandstone broke away when we tried to climb it. Remarkable teachers, men and women both, taught me how to row rafts and how to read rivers. The idea was to use the current and the wind to position a raft. Of course, you had to row the raft, you had to steer it, but when you could use the current and the wind, the work was lighter. There was more to learn besides how to get downriver. I learned how to make shelters with a tarp, how to tie knots, how to make a pully system to haul rafts out of the river. I learned these skills practically, and I learned them with my heart. I was in love with the river and broken ground. I was in love with how after a rain the country smelled like spices and exotic rooms I had not yet experienced but would enter in short years ahead. And because I was a fisherman, I explored the country that bordered the deserts. Farmlands. Alpine regions. Canyons without names. While I could point to the Kayenta Formation, Wingate, and Navajo sandstone layers, I could say nothing about how they were formed. I could not speak about the millions of years of erosion and faults and the evidence of ancient seas. I could not speak about the properties of cryptogamic soil or the fragility of potholes. Why did I not learn more? Did I not want to know more about the world? Perhaps not. What I wanted was to be moved by the world, to be touched by it. I wanted to explore canyons. I wanted to walk along the rivers and to sleep in ruins. It is true I was not always happy. I was not always in awe. I was not always content. But I was in love with the country of my youth.
I exit the highway onto a dirt track that will bounce Dad’s truck and me for the next 10 miles. The track will steer me further into the desert and closer to the river. I have not driven this route in twenty years. I am anxious, naturally, about what has changed. I roll down the window. The radio scatters between static and a country music station that some nameless announcer or maybe a computer calls “Classic Country.” George Strait. Willie Nelson. Roger Miller. Dolly. This is something I miss about not living in the United States. Country music and dirt roads. I pull the truck over. I need to pee.
I get out of the truck and close the door behind me. It feels good to be in the cool of the morning. There is another quiet out here. Somewhere a coyote watches me. A semi-truck passes on the highway. I wait for it to pass. The scrape of my boots, the sound of my zipper. I fumble with my parts and then empty my bladder, muddying the cracked earth. I wish a raven would fly by. The sun is not yet over the mesa but close. If I could float then I would see the highway and the way back to Mom and Dad’s house, where my mother has made her coffee and sits in the sunroom, reading a devotional. Dad, after a late night and His Girl Friday, sleeps in his office. But I am here. I am stopping on this road that runs through the desert. The same road could take me to the river. Fifty miles from here, the town and the few people I know any more in that town are waking-up, starting their day. Some are looking over a job site. Some are running payroll. I am here in the desert and in this quiet, on this road I once knew so well.
I get back in the truck. Classic Country is full static. I click the radio off rather than look for another station and drive on.
Coming here changed my life. How many tens of thousands of people could tell a similar story of moving from one landscape and culture into another to have their lives irreversibly changed? I fell in love with a landscape I thought would never change. Then I fell in love with a girl. I was 19. She was 18. When I fell in love with her, I was moving to another part of the Southwest to work as a fly fishing guide. I lived in the mountains three hours from our hometown. The girl would not leave. She has not left. She, too, has become a postcard, a mote of light.
I fell blindly in love. Then I was shattered by what love could not accommodate. We fall in love and are overwhelmed by its saturation. Lovers remind each other of the impossibility of their having met at all. They speak of their different circumstances, of their different backgrounds, of their different religion or no religion. They speak of chance as though it were divine. They are surprised by what one or the other likes. Coincidence does not exist for lovers. Only chance, fate or God will do. They are destined. They see the world differently. Then they go forward together. A glance. A touch of hands. A kiss. An embrace. And when they cannot be together, they cannot sleep. They cannot squeeze the hours soon enough into the next moment when they might consume each other. There is more of your lover than you can possibly know, and you are amazed at this. There is an otherness to what lovers believe themselves to have become together. They believe themselves to be the fulfillment of what only they had dreamt of.
Me and this girl, we stayed out all night sometimes, at least when we thought we could get away with it, which wasn’t often. We liked to walk in canyons where there was water. These were green places. They stayed extra cool at night. We loved the water together. We loved to see the waterfilled potholes brimming with stars. Every love carries a water—a creek, a place along a river, a stretch of beach beside an ocean, a waterfall.
“Do you like onions?”
“No, not really,” she said.
“How can anyone not like onions?”’
“I think it’s a texture thing.”
“Yeah, but you like pizza.”
“I do like pizza. I’m a teenager, which means I’m obligated to like pizza, but I don’t eat pizza with onions.”
We had gone for a hike beside a canyon creek where I liked to fish. The creek stayed cool year round. It was a good place to fish. No one else fished there. The girl had brought garden tomatoes and pita bread for lunch. She did not bring onions.
I do not say her name aloud except to myself. When I am in circumstances when I might need to say her name, such as when my oldest teenage son asks me about former girlfriends, I call her L. Otherwise, no one asks me about her. The truth is I don’t think much about L or those days anymore. I do now because I am driving this country again. Mom likes to talk about town. She likes to talk about how we grew up there, the people we met and who became our friends. She talks about what a special place and time it was for all of us. And it was that. She maintains friendships there. People call her weekly to update her about the church, about friends and neighbors, about grandchildren. Mom likes to talk about what’s happening in town. I remember when a university wanted to set up a branch campus. Mom was so excited to tell me the news. I didn’t want to know anything about it. A branch campus of a university is another sham to put over on people in a town like that. Besides, I left town decades ago.
My God the world comes alive in the morning. All this desert and the morning sun warming over the scarp of dry weeds and ground. It will be hot later. Back in my river running days, I set my tent close to the trees, knowing the cool would last longest near the trees. There is no better place to pitch a tent in the desert than in a grove of cottonwood trees. They hold the night time cool. Their leaves catch the morning sun and glow as they do. Their upper branches catch every breeze, while their trunks protect against the wind.
Out here, the river is south and east of me by a few miles. The river is waking to the sound of canyon wrens and warblers. Birds I have never heard, given my deafness. A few mule deer might be moving up from the water into the shady spots where they will bed down. Some of the deer will feed longer in the alfalfa fields where the river flows through farms. The wonky lines of irrigation pipes are static now, which somehow makes the river and this landscape more silent, the way ruins invite silence.
I am here to see this country again. I am here to see if there are places, bends in the road, land between the valleys, that have changed little in the past twenty years. Town will not be one of those places. Town is now a commodified nightmare. Every city and town in the American West has become a commodified nightmare in my lifetime. Yet I desire to feel these places again. I desire to feel this landscape again, to feel the trees that grow along the river and the river itself, a hard slice of light across the desert floor, the scent of shade. This is why I have come here again. Or maybe it is. It could be that I do not desire to feel these places as much as I need to know that I can feel them. There will be no revelations in town. Town will be town, and I will pass through. For years now I have been wondering if we lose our capacity to feel greatly. It is typically the case that we stack too much on ourselves or too much is stacked upon us, and as a result, we feel, with rare exception, only what has been stacked. That might be lucky, too. It could be our circumstances eventually numb us. We can no longer engage the world with an exuberance that leaves us wildly alive or wildly wounded. This is part of what our old people did not warn us about. What they knew and what we learn is that we do not need a capacity to feel or to have feelings, let alone to have passion to sputter along. We do not.
I scan around for another radio station. I like that there are places where there is no signal. I slow down and turn right off the dirt track onto a blacktop road. I could run the truck fast, but there is no hurry. The sun is over the canyon country to the east. I hold my arm out the window and swim my hand up and down in the wind. Then I catch a station. Country music again. George Strait. “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind?” No, George. It doesn’t. But I do like your song.