WRITING CONTEST HONORABLE MENTION

Desert Sage

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Sitting at the red light by Albertsons in Las Cruces, NM, I have my windows rolled down like my neighbors. Everyone plays their version of good music—thinking that we can influence our surroundings, bend them to our will. This traffic light doesn’t seem to be the place for an epiphany: Women walk their children into the store, metal shopping carts rattle on the pavement, the Alberstons’ employees roast green chile outside in the last licks of sun, and one bum in ripped flannel searches the ground for pennies and still-burning cigarette butts.

Yet in front of my car, the Organ Mountains beckon—their stone changes with the sunset, it ripples into purple, pink—all warm hues until it will eventually settle back into cold stone. What happens when I no longer see this landscape? I stick my tongue to the roof of my mouth, “You live here; you are here looking at the Organ Mountain,” I say, “It is sunset; you are here now.” But five minutes later, my mind is racing into the past, the future, and the steady stream of worries, of not fulfilling obligations, of being lost without a purpose, of feeling regret, hope, and hopelessness at lightning speed intervals.

*

As a child with confused spirituality, I would sit in the back of my babysitter and neighbor’s car, “If there is a god, if I am meant to be special, make my hand start to fist again,” I would say in my head to my outstretched hand, palm up, and then my hand (without intention) started to fist.

From this, I believed that I would do something important as an adult, that I was meant to help others, that I was meant for something beyond the room I shared with my brothers, beyond my friends who didn’t always include me, beyond my shyness that made me blush when I was around crowds and dip my voice so low that I could pretend it didn’t hurt when people spoke over me.

*

When I arrived in this town, Las Cruces, for my graduate program visit, I came in a Greyhound from Albuquerque. I had flown from Chicago to Albuquerque earlier in the week to spend a couple days with my brother and his family, whom I rarely saw. My brother drove me to the station, packed a small bag of food for me (which touched me), and I waited for the bus. After a delay that felt longer than it was in that brightly-lit station, my bus pulled up, and I picked a seat close but not too close to the front.

I had planned to zero everyone out, headphones in my ears, music on repeat, to stare outside the window until feigned sleep transitioned to real sleep, but I remember talking to someone. I remember being alarmed by the complete darkness outside and worried that the bus driver wouldn’t be able to navigate, that we could end up on the side of the road—broken down. But the bus driver was obviously confident in his bus driving skills even when we passed a city called Truth or Consequences. The stars I could see outside of the window were something amazing, something worth writing home about, something worthy of a postcard. I turned on my overhead light, and despite the certainty of motion sickness, I started to write.

*

There were stories of murdered priests, pioneer men, Native Americans. If you walked through the Organ Mountain trails without a bottle of water on a hot, summer day, you could understand the threat—how your skin could become like leather, how the desert could literally soak up the moisture in your body like it was just as thirsty as you were and spit you out—your body as dry as a seed before it develops roots. There were messages in those strangely formed Organ Peaks, in the desert that was beautiful and fierce, in the night sky that reminded me that I was an ant rather than a monster or a god.

*

The first birthday I had in this new place, I went by myself to Dripping Springs, seeking answers. I told my roommates that I wanted to go by myself; I wanted a vision; I wanted to know my purpose in life. This was going to be the moment, walking in those Organ Mountains to Dripping Springs, where I would find an answer; it would lie down in my lap easily and say—look no further, take me home, I am yours. One of my roommates wished me a good walk, and I expected to come home—transformed.

My car creaked up to the mountains; stray rocks tried to smash stars in its wind shield. When I pulled in the parking lot, there were already a few cars there. Were their owners also seeking enlightenment? I had hoped to be alone. I stretched my body, grabbed my water, and put my hat on to start.

An old man from El Paso walked the trail with a cane, making it seem an easier trail than I expected. He said that he walked the Franklin Mountains, too, but now he was walking this one with his friends. The land seemed washed out like 1980s jeans—the sun fierce and dominant and hungry, making us acid-washed versions of ourselves. And as I walked and as I expected enlightenment to come bounding towards me like a lost puppy, I started to get bored. Why hadn’t I brought music with me or a notebook or a camera? Maybe I should have brought a friend? Finally I arrived at the manmade waterfall called Dripping Springs where you could see pieces of green vegetation poking their heads from the rocks. The water was low though I still stepped across the stones cautiously, fearing that I would fall in.

*

This area used to be a ranch then later a sanatorium for people with tuberculosis at the turn of the century. They believed that the dry area would cure the illness. Did they escape this disease that used to be a romantic illness when it was called consumption—being consumed from the inside-outside—Keats dying young from it, dots of blood on his white handkerchief?

 I came across the building that used to be one of the houses. It seemed an old ruin that should be hundreds of years old—only bones; people had stripped part of it away before it was protected, so that they could re-use its materials. I peered in the window, hoping for ghosts, and all I saw was dust and empty cobwebs—not even a black widow to write home about.

A woman with a dog asked me to take her picture, and somehow we ended up chatting the rest of the way together. She was trying and yet not trying to hide her dog since dogs weren’t allowed on this trail. I may have mentioned to her that it was my birthday, that I was seeking enlightenment, I don’t remember. When we said goodbye, she probably breathed a sigh of relief and then walked further for her own enlightenment. I got in my little Midwestern car and headed back home feeling like I missed something, that the mountains hadn’t brought me to the message I was eager to hear. I still didn’t have the clarity I craved, the purpose for my life that would direct me like a compass on the cloudiest of nights, when the North star might as well be fabrication.

*

My skin suffered from the sun and missed the Midwestern summer thunderstorms, but I also loved the Southwest, that bitter, dramatic love that makes you complain about small things to your friends, “He never changes his shoes; he arrives late (always), and there is not much to do but go out and drink late at night.”

“Is this a healthy relationship?” Your friends ask.

“No, but does it matter?”

But no matter how much I tried to grow my roots in this soil, the roots always stayed close to the surface. “It makes it easy to move,” I said, “to fit those roots into a pot and take to my next destination.”

*

My first year here, I called friends and family from the Midwest, “Tell me what I should do,” I’d say, “What should I do with my life” as if they had a secret knowledge of my life’s journey.

I yearned for a response that would make sense to me, that would make my anxiety and depression calm and lap gentle waves, that would make my lost self feel secure, ready, and whole. This quest seemed extra important since two years before I had had a bad bike accident in Peace Corps, semi-conscious and pulled off the Pan American Highway in Peru by villagers—my bike bent and broken; my glasses recovered whole. I had been incredibly lucky, and a teacher in one of the villages told me as much—telling me that, “God, isn’t done with you yet.”  So, while less spiritual than I was as a child, I still felt consumed by this quest for purpose. I would pace outside near our neighbors’ pomegranate tree where we had an endless supply of fruit and complain that I didn’t deserve to enjoy where I lived until I knew what my direction/purpose was.

Meanwhile, my indoor cat experimented with the outside landscape, running through neighbors’ lawns, catching lizards, and figuring out how he could angle his small body under the shed where there was an almost endless supply of baby rabbits. The pavement was warm, and my roommates talked in the kitchen; there were ducks in the backyard and an old clothesline strung between two trees. My cell phone would turn hot, pressed to my cheek, and after I hung up I’d notice that goat-head spurs attached themselves to the bottom of my thin shoes, making even our front yard feel inhospitable.

*

Tapping my tongue to the roof of my mouth, I put myself back at the stoplight at Albertsons where I see those Organ Mountains change into the sunset colors that can never be captured by the camera and can barely be captured by the human eye. I coast home with my tongue glued to the roof of my mouth, the night melting the Organ Mountains from my sight. They would be there in the morning, and the next, and the next, with me or without me, they would continue to be.

For so long, I have complained about this place, my legs constantly twitching for the next place. Now that I have less than a couple months left before I go to a next place, I want to absorb all the sunlight my body can contain—forging wrinkles like remembered trails. I still wish I had a clear answer for my purpose/direction in these constellation-heavy skies like a undiscovered constellation that tells my story. However, when I leave that book open, the sun eats the binding away, gifting me loose pages. The pages contain dirt, wind, and the dust that shut-downs highways; they contain the scent of mesquite and sage after a rain. I will never be able to put them in the same order again, but I am working at remaining present without bullying the desert to give me meaning; I am working at staying here under the skies so wide they could crush or consume me; I am working at letting all of me experience all of this before only a memory connects me to this landscape that I now love.