Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Can't I find an oracle in my coffee cup? Why I'll never wander in the desert


In Orion's "Oracle in the Desert," Craig Childs describes how friend and fellow desert-wanderer Dirk decides there is a route in the midst of wilderness:

"Around us, pale, bare cliffs tower one above the next. Canyons plunge into inescapable, winter-cold depths. Dirk and I have been walking for several days through this land, an untrailed, remote quarter of the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona. This mode of travel has been our mutual pastime, wandering for weeks or months on end into the wilderness, seeing what might become of us.

"We’re balanced on a platform of rock, geologic scaffolding, not a single living thing visible around us, no shrub or sprig of grass. The land looks elemental, the very bones of the Earth.

"Dirk pushes his fingertips into parched blowsand and unearths a bighorn sheep dropping. The small, oval scat is exactly what he was looking for. It means there is a passage, a way through.

“Somebody’s been here,” Dirk says. Bighorn sheep navigate this territory, traveling finger-width ledges, leaping chasms. Their habitat, known as escape terrain, is convoluted country where predators cannot reach. The only hitch is you have to learn to move like an acrobat, every sense elevated at every step."

Somebody has NOT been there. Bighorn sheep have been there. Perhaps just the one, who literally pooped out before falling off the rock. The mindset that the feces of an animal that has evolved to gracefully leap over chasms is a sign to "go on" is not one that reassures me to strap on a pack and head to the uninhabited desert.

Yet a part of me has always been drawn to the desert, to the austerity, to seeing who I might be, stripped of all that comforts me (green hills, running water, Kings Road coffee).

"...traveling without maps or compasses, traversing nameless mazes to see what we can do with our bare hands and some rope. We sleep among red stone monoliths, hemmed in by a sky full of winter stars. Morning comes slowly, constellations fading into the blue." ...

"...Most people think you go to the wilderness to flee something. But in the desert there is nowhere to hide. Your body stands on smooth, naked domes of rock. Even in the deepest shadows of canyons you are exposed, every move a question and an answer." (Craig Childs)

In Desert Solataire, one of my favorite books, Edward Abbey writes, "Like certain aspects of this music, the desert is also a-tonal, cruel, clear, inhuman, neither romantic nor classical, motionless and emotionless, at one and the same time - another paradox - both agonized and deeply still.

"Like death? Perhaps. And perhaps that is why life nowhere appears so brave, so bright, so full of oracle and miracle as in the desert."

Until I can trust the oracle of sheep poo, I'll have to wander vicariously through Orion, Abbey and other desert writers.

(Photo by Craig Childs)

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