Chapter 6 – Mojave Morning

The Mojave doesn’t care to keep its heat after the sun sets. As darkness wore on, the desert’s frigid grip tightened. I found some flat ground hidden from the road and kicked aside fractured shale to smooth a small plot. Without any grasses or moss, I laid my cloth sleeping bag on the cold rocks that pressed bone-on-bone against my hips and shoulders. Shivering turned me into a curled stiff ball, a prisoner of the unyielding night. Since I’d been drinking, I knew the alcohol would cause my body heat to dissipate even faster from my core to my skin, where it would traipse away in a pointless dance. I did take some comfort knowing my chattering teeth and shaking frame generated heat, and that the morning would offer light and warmth. But until then, time moved like a knotted snake.

In time, I don’t know how long, I couldn’t squeeze my thumb and pinky finger together to touch. I knew this signaled an early warning of hypothermia. Alone as space dust, I had to keep shaking. Don’t fall asleep.

Without any distractions, it became too easy to focus on the pain in my cramped muscles. I made a conscious decision to think about something pleasant, something warming, and Mary Sue walked into my thoughts. I remembered us meeting at the main entrance of Nathan Hale High School. We both held campaign posters for our respective runs at senior class president and we both wanted to hang them in the same place, centered over the entryway. My first reaction jerked to tell her I’d designed this sign specifically for this space, and that it should rightfully go there. Before opening my mouth, I looked into her eyes. Mistake. She glowed, and she stood glowing at me. Not a random glow: not a, “I want my way” glow, but a kindred spirit glow. My head spun.

“So… we’re running against each other,” bumbled from my mouth.

She smiled. “Kind of looks that way, unless you’re hanging that sign for another guy named Steve Theme.”

“Yeah, there’s a bunch of us.” We both stepped closer. “What do we do now?”

She came closer still, so that I could hear her hushed words. “I could hang my poster and you could tell me if it’s level.”

I slid forward more, so that our faces, our lips, were only a hand-width apart. “You’re picking up on this whole politics thing pretty quickly.”

We agreed neither of us would hang our posters there. I didn’t make it through the primaries. The field winnowed to two candidates—Mary Sue became class president.

For the following several months after school we’d end up at her house, nuzzling on the couch. Even though I’d lost the election, badly, with each passing day I grew more glad that I’d run. Sitting in each other’s arms, we’d talk about our world that seemed drowning in problems: pollution, overpopulation, crooked politicians—Nixon had resigned because of the Watergate break-in, and the year before his VP, Spiro Agnew, resigned under charges of extortion, tax fraud, bribery and conspiracy; that left Gerry Ford at the helm, the only US president no one ever voted for and who seemed an ineffective klutz: conflict in the middle east, starving African children, gas crisis, the lingering sting of Vietnam…. Talking with me about these miseries grew old for her, but I could relax, and her arms provided a warm haven where I could retreat from the belittling and drunken proclamations of home.

After those few months she decided to attend a clown school at night, so she could perform for kids in hospitals. She became interested in a guy she’d met there and started dating him. I got replaced by a clown.

Taller, darker, and older—of course he had to own a cool clown van painted with graphics of circus scenes and balloons—he drove her around in what I assumed functioned as a four-wheeled bed.

But even with that clown, she and I continued seeing each other as friends, remaining closer than I expected, considering she was dating. She still wanted to see me, and all I wanted was to see her.

My rattling face mashed into the crook of one of my elbows, trying to hold heat.

While waiting for the sun to trek around the earth I fell into hallucinations of standing next to a crackling campfire that sounded like a theater filled with clapping; its warmth loosened my fingers and blanketed my face. I turned and stuck out my butt, happily standing as close to the fire as the heat allowed.

From that haze the shivering faded, even thought it never left. Silence, dark, my throbbing shoulder remained pressed against rock; I was too cold to roll over. Lost between two realities.

Many trips to the campfires and rigid shiverings later, I saw light on distant mountains; mountains that had hidden in the black expanse. I became a cheerleader for a snail race while watching the sun line creep down the slopes. Eventually the bright line graced me. I pulled the bag even tighter.

As warmth fought through the sleeping bag my tight spring uncurled, and after an hour I lay on my back, breathing deeply, smiling. Soaking in my warm friend, and no longer fearing the air, I stood up to get a look around—and became engulfed in spring.

Full bloom bragging rights seemed to be at stake. Plants with wiry green shoots, about a foot high, supported bright yellow flowers with orange centers. They grew everywhere. Large tufts of bluish grass, a couple feet high and wide, were interspersed throughout the flowers.

The smallest plants put on the biggest shows: fire-red petals honed to sword points, yellow stems with hot pink veins strung through them, blue buds and round soft purple leaves. Lowering to my knees gave me a chance to touch them. Some petals felt dark velvet delicate, others seemed forged from orange rusted iron. Colors surrounded me as if a shattered rainbow had fallen to the ground.

Spiny plants assumed shapes and sizes I had never seen. Some offered long gently bending limbs covered by grey fuzz; thin old women waving. Others bore single straight stalks with long pipe-cleaner bristles. Several looked like white fan coral I’d seen on TV, their branches densely packed together and each bifurcated many times.

After a breakfast of peanut butter with thick slabs of cheese on a hoagie roll, and some of the trooper’s water, I looked deep across the hills. Not a single path, no foot trails or wagon ruts had ever cut this expanse. I probably wasn’t the first person on my patch of earth, but wasn’t far from it. I commanded the horizons and their immense freedom unburdened me of my clothes. This kingdom needed exploration, and I decided to venture, wearing only hiking boots.

By now the sun stood fully up, but the temperature didn’t register on my skin. The air and my body had struck a perfect balance, incorporating me into the atmosphere. I walked a mile from the road, where round brown hills led into steep barren gulches. The possibility of snakes or Gila monsters kept me clear of rock outcroppings.

At my farthest point out, before turning back to my sleeping bag and rucksack, I stood still, struck by how rarely we have the opportunity to be only ourselves, and through complete lack of structure, build who we are.

I sang, flapped my eagle arms, yodeled, even thought about giving thanks.

Not a soul on earth knew where I stood, but I felt surrounded by a band of friends. As I walked it seemed I was sharing the experience, and that realization made me want to reach out. When looking around though, I might as well have been the last person on the planet. In the desolation, a question rose. I looked to the sky and focused hard on the empty blue, but couldn’t tell if what I stood looking for remained invisible, or perfectly camouflaged.

“Why was I so calm last night when that guy held the gun to my head? That’s not me.”

As I recalled that feeling of unfounded assurance from the night before, it reminded me of a hummingbird—that I’d caught using only my hands. I hadn’t thought about the bird in years, but when I was eleven, and stood alone on the deck of my cousin’s beach house, I noticed a humming bird land on a low windowsill. As I stared at the tiny ball of color, a thought sprung up, for no reason, and it seemed crazy—that I could walk over and catch the bird. At first the idea struck me as ridiculous, pathetic to even attempt, but a feeling of gentle assurance that I could hold the bird overpowered my doubt; even with no reason that I should succeed, I felt no doubt that I would. Confidence from a deep vague mist seemed to emanate from behind me, nudging, so I stood and started silently crossing the deck. While slipping toward the bird I couldn’t believe it remained on the sill. Up to that point I’d never seen humming birds do anything but hum. As I approached the last few steps, I gently extended my hands, operating them in smooth unison. Concentrating on the bird, I watched as my hands moved closer, seeing them as if they weren’t mine, until they reached striking distance.

I knew humming birds didn’t simply sit while people approached them. How is this happening? It’s looking right at me. This definitely isn’t going to work. Nevertheless, the assurance that I would hold the bird kept me flowing forward at a gentle pace, no lunging, no snap-trap moves, when surrounding the bird my hands closed around it like flower pedals.

Holding the ball of fluff, its metallic blue head turned to gaze at me; no attempt to flutter its wings, no kicking of its tiny legs. Two questions filled my head: Why did I try to do that, and how did I know I could?

From my speck on the infinite desert, I again looked up to the sky. “If you’re there, uh… thanks for the confidence last night, I’m still here… and good job on the flowers.” What the hell am I doing? Who the hell am I talking to? Oh shit, I’ve gone crazy.

I kept walking.

Beauty sang from every view and I didn’t wish to share the morning with anybody. This huge expanse held my soul, and only mine. From the valleys to the mountains I felt myself expanding, rolling across the terrain. With no judgments or prying eyes I stood naked to the world, and reveled in my solitude. For several more hours I soaked in that vast kingdom.

Once my clothes made their way back on me I walked to the desolate tarred line of road. While waiting for a ride, I thought how even with a gun to my head a quiet guarantee of safety gave me the confidence to remain still; the frigid desert night; the morning of explosive splendor; the parade of strangers that marched through me; my talk with no one; now lingering nowhere—nothing made sense. My only understanding, the only thing that seemed undeniable, indisputable, remained the hazy assurance that I could hold the hummingbird. Placing my scientific mind aside, I realized that maybe the bird had been a test, teaching me to recognize that assurance—before my life depended on it.

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