The Painted Desert

Love and Deep Time

My father died in the summer of 1995 two days after his birthday. In the time that we’d both been alive I had never once managed to remember his birthday. But the 20 years since, I have never forgotten it, and I doubt I ever will. Besides his birthday, I remember snatches and moments of my life with my father, with a savoring like a last sip of water from a dusty canteen. But then there are times when I’m not entirely sure what he looked like. I can remember him so distinctly, this essence of him that permeated the room he was in and permeated me. A certain growl of a voice, his shortened breath climbing up a hill with me, how enormous he seemed to be when I was a little girl. Then there’s moments when I can’t quite picture him, I can’t remember what his hands look like, or some bits of his face. It was all so long ago. Details slip away, or perhaps they were the generalities of our lives; time makes it hard to distinguish which counts as which.

He died in Arizona, living in the back of a video shop, trying to make ends meet selling polished bits of petrified wood to tourists and tourist shops. His life’s work, his photography, was in disheveled and broken bits around him, his camera in pawn. In his last days he created a space of neglect, filled with disappointments. His heart simply gave up.

I flew out to clean up and arrange to bury him. I had not seen him for two years, I had been busy first with school and then my job. It all seemed so important. There was simply never enough time or reason to see my father; I was caught up in the pace of my city and never seemed to be able to break away. I came too late, and there was nothing for it but to go to the desert my father had spent his final days in and look for some kind of answer.

When I first came to sit on the dunes that my father had scoured for rocks to sell, I came looking for comfort, for something that would ease the pain and alleviate the guilt. Instead the Painted Desert made my wounds deeper, make me rock with a pain that cut through me completely. But it also made me understand something, something that didn’t fit in words. I returned 2 years later with a more lucid respect for the desert itself. I came back to try to understand its mysteries and the mysteries that my father’s death had created in me.

The sky along the old and disused Route 66 in Arizona is bigger than it is here. At the edge it is abruptly cut by the ground, which is also bigger. The ground is so flat that you can almost feel the curvature of the planet when looking out to the horizon. There is a sense in that horizon line of infinity hidden in plain view, simply too much for the human eye. As the ground curves away it seems that perhaps you could see forever if your eye could take it in, and if your mind were willing to assist it. At points, this horizon is interrupted by broad mesas that stand as abstract monuments to times and events of such scale and distant history that they confound anything beyond a statistical grasp. On the morning I arrived the cut between earth and sky was cushioned by rolling storm clouds and lightning. Where rain fell in the distance, grays blended into one another, and the two impossibly big immediacies of ground and sky merged. The colors are naturally subtle, but on this morning they were subtler still; muddled by the presence of weather.

Even from the road and behind the vague blue of safety glass something tells you this land is aloof, that it does not give up its mysteries without cost. The experience of it is somewhere beyond any single person’s grasp. It is a place only touched upon in the collective portrait of natural history and, perhaps, human art.

The Painted Desert’s tourist information center is small and includes a single room museum that gives the geological history of the area, the fauna and flora of the time of the dinosaurs (because they are still here), and features huge multihued pieces of petrified forest. It is uncrowded and obviously bitterly underfunded. This is because the painted desert is not much of a tourist attraction. It is excessively hot or cold, there is nothing to do but look and think. Very little wildlife makes its home here anymore and you rarely see what does — everything hides from the heat and wind. There are no family activities and the locals are at best distant and disinterested in outsiders. Water is scarce as a general concept, and the plants that do make their living in this environment do so by staying scrawny. For the most part living things in recent history have given the place something of a pass. I only know of it because my grandparents, in what most would consider a land sale scam, bought 40 acres on the edge of the painted desert something like 60 years ago. I say it would make a scam because the land is useless to man. Most days it’s hard to spend very much time out there, it is hot and dry and there is no protection from the sun. Unimproved, and possibly unimprovable.

My family’s land lies about five miles outside Joseph City (pop. 1300), past an asbestos waste dump on a road that dead-ends at the Navajo reservation. It is the very edge of the Painted Desert, where it meets the chaparral Arizona plains. The dunes and ground are sculpted out of a sort of shifting sand that has gotten wet and bleached in the sun over and over. It is cracked and clumpy. It moves constantly, in the wind and under your feet. Picked over bits of petrified wood stand as miniature pillars everywhere. The sand still clings to these pieces tenuously and presents each one on its own tiny pedestal an inch or so above the surrounding ground. They are poised to be washed away and blown down. The dunes and the ground are carved with washes, and glass and tin and abandoned car parts rest at the foot of the desert itself. The trash, however, doesn’t seem to provide the evidence of human life the way it should. It doesn’t even look out of place. Nothing here can, for long. This land swallows everything it touches.

The dunes themselves are layered in muted pastels, hence the name “the Painted Desert”. They are perfectly curved by surrender to the forces of water and wind, and though they are shifting all the time they never move. The color runs off them in such a way that it seems a good storm would melt them, but they are still there year after year retaining their sense of inexplicable consistency. The wind that carves the dunes is an oppressive desert wind, hot and without moisture. The sun and the land and the wind conspire to drain you even as you walk from the edge of the plains into the true desert. Lying on the ground carved out of the sand you can see corroded bits of wood and branches, bones and shells from hundreds of millions of years ago. There is no sense that taking them desecrates the land, rather you get the sense that you are incapable of desecrating this place, you are too small and too brief.

The one sensation that stands out more than any other in this place is silence, which by virtue of its totality becomes noisy when you pause. The mind makes up white noise to fill in for the complete lack of sound. There is a moment of panic in the first encounter with the silence, nervous speech and laughter which enhances the silence by abrupt contrast. It is an act of courage to be quiet in this place, and wait for your body and mind to comply. The white noise of your mind fades, and you meet the slow, soundless hum of the desert itself, sitting still on a dune while the wind dies down. You can begin to hear your body. Your breath becomes the wind, your heartbeat becomes the only evidence of time. At that moment, keeping time for the desert and breathing it in and out, you will never leave.

This land is ancient and indifferent. It doesn’t renew or heal you, (as so many deserts are purported to do). If anything it wears you down and pulls you towards its own permanence. It doesn’t make you feel good or bad because it is older and bigger than those ideas. It has been here for a billion years, roughly. It has been a sea bed, a field, the most lush and dense of forests, and now it is a harsh desert where life hides. And it is all the same.

When my father died I sat up high where I could see to what seemed to be the edge of the world and watched the sunset. I felt the wind come up and looked over the sands and dunes, ancient creeks covered with bones and water tumbled rocks, and I thought: “these are my father’s bones.” I was comforted and confounded with grief, but more than anything I felt the immediacy of a truth that I had tapped; too big and too close to fit inside my understanding but lumbering behind me like a quiet behemoth. A concept like a creature, the sense of something that wished to speak to me but would wait in complete patience for me to begin the conversation.

This land is mutable and changeless. It shifts and flows constantly, physically and in memory. The details that captured your eye and imagination begin to blend and melt into each other when you start walking back to the car. The harder I tried to remember isolated colors, details, and sensations, the more they seems to slip through my mind and become quick strokes of impressionistic memory. But as an experience that moves through you with the slow and patient progress of billions of years, you will forget this place into yourself and the uncontainable spirit becomes part of your own.

I call this land holy; why is perfectly captured in a bit of ee cummings’s six non-lectures: “You’ve got to come out of the measurable doing universe into the immeasurable house of being.” This doesn’t make a person insignificant, I can’t stress that enough, but it does make everything you’ve ever done meaningless. The careers and schooling or whatever you did to fill the better part of everyday is finally obvious for what it is: white noise that fills the time between living and transmuting. Instead, existence itself is what the desert is, and being, in you or it, is the highest state of holiness.

My father’s life was a string of failures, money troubles, battles with addiction. His one triumph showed him nothing but scorn towards the end of his life. He went to this place and it took him into it. In this land my father was nothing but and nothing less than one of millions of creatures that took what it needed from the land and returned equal parts when it was finished. No more and not less than the sea shells, the ancient trees, the dinosaurs that are now bones. His life is part of its vast changelessness and before long his story will be as mute as the dunes themselves.

For now I am clinging to the discourse that involves me in the human story. I find comfort in the moments of compulsive doing when I don’t have to sit and regard the shadow that follows me after my father’s death and my visit to the desert. But in the moments between work and fun and everything else I fill space and time with, I can still see out of the corner of my eye the awful and wonderful thing my father has become. I can see a face in the dunes and hear my own body function. I know that the time I call life is simply a moment where the shadow waits for me, either to turn and speak or to simply stop moving.