If you have a mind to go someplace where you can think without distraction, pray without a preacher, sin without a society to judge, see the night sky in its true black star-filled glory, see a snake, an ant, a spider or a bird…then come to The Big Empty. One thing you may not see, is another human, perhaps for days at a time…unless that person is seeking what you are seeking.
I’m on a road trip. I’m only passing through this odd and bewildering moonscape of the desert Southwest. We were driving from Tucson to Yuma along I-8. I had a vague idea about the land we were traveling through. That’s unusual for me, normally I like to prepare my self…immerse myself in the country I will be sleeping and walking in. I had finally obtained a copy of American Nomads by Richard Grant. This amazing book is a history, as the cover states, of travels with mountain men, cowboys, Indians, hoboes and truckers. I was learning as I went, a page ahead or a page or two too late.
We stopped at one of the few gas stations on this section of I-8. I looked around. I saw the closest thing to nothing I had seen in my two cross-country road trips. I wandered a few hundred yards through the sage and sand and scrub brush. It was early February, so I had little chance of dropping from dehydration and heat stroke. I’m Irish. I’m prone to heat strokes when the mercury climbs above 81 F. I drink plenty of water as a rule of life. When I was a teacher, I constantly sipped from my Poland Springs bottle to keep my throat wet and prevent that Bill Clinton raspiness.
I stood and looked at the blue and gray mountains in the distance. I turned a full circle. In nearly all directions, there were mountains. Before I left the car, I had seen that I was on the edge of the Barry Goldwater Air Force Range. The town we had just passed was Gila Bend. The last sign I saw was Dateland. (It sounded like the name of a 1962 Roller Rink). But, here I was alone.
Truly alone. I thought about whether or not I could live in an RV out here. Bottled water. An outdoor privy. The constant awareness of snakes (I don’t do snakes, if I haven’t mentioned that before).
Mariam was back in a cool diner, sipping coffee and checking her email. Oddly, the WiFi signal was strong out here…out here in The Big Empty. (It must be because of all the military installations in this part of the country. Why else erect towers to serve the twenty-seven people who made their homes out here?
I closed my eyes and tried to feel the emptiness of this Great Void. I heard the distant trucks on the highway. But, filtering that out, there was…nothing.
It was almost like being lost at sea. A survivor sits in a life boat and floats, thinking they can be seen, visible and blatant, like a circus balloon, from a rescue plane flying 1,000 feet above the water. But, in reality, they are a mere ripple, a white cap, a dark splotch in a vast expanse of blue.
I tried to imagine myself lost out here in The Big Empty…I tried to see myself from above. High above, where the planes and helicopters flew, and I realized I would be mistaken for a dead cactus or a thick sage brush. No, I was only visible to the Ancient Gods of the Desert, the spirits of the Hopi, the Comanche, the Apache…the Mother Goddess of the Earth. I was nothing to any human…out there. To paraphrase Dylan, I could die out there and be just another accident statistic.
What I felt was humbling without being degrading. It was similar to the feelings I get when I stand in the nave of a Gothic cathedral, like Salisbury or Winchester.
Out in The Big Empty you’re nothing and you’re everything. In those few minutes I was alone, I understood more clearly the Native Americans relationship with Nature and the totems, spirit guides and memories of the Ancients. You mean little to the land itself, but your respect and reverence to the sand and burnt rocks, means a great deal to the gods that oversee the wanderings of a mere mortal.
It is a land that doesn’t allow for ego. Ego can kill you in a place like Yuma, where the average yearly rainfall is 3.36″. Ego can kill you when the average temperature in July is 107 F.
If, when you read these words, you find that I have not described the land in proper clarity, then do yourself a favor. Don’t go to a prayer-book and read about the Sinai Desert. Open an atlas of the United States and find the pages that cover west Arizona and Southern California. Run you fingers along the blue line of the Colorado River. Trace the Smoke Tree Wash. Locate the Mohawk Valley, the Castle Dome Plain, the Chocolate Mountains, the Kofa Mountains, the Gila Mountains, the Yuma Desert and the Picacho Peak Wilderness. Say these names out loud, like chanting a prayer or reading a poem.
Something evocative will happen. You don’t have to be standing in the sand to feel this ancient earth and hear the ghosts ride behind you. Another amazing thought: All of you who read this, at one time sat in a classroom that was covered by a map of the United States, all 48 of them (back in the 1950’s). I confess that I would let the nun’s lesson on the past participles fade away while I roamed the map…I knew the coasts, the odd finger of Florida, the large blue oddly shaped Great Lakes, the Great Divider of the Mississippi River…but I never paid a lot of attention to that lower left corner of the map. I did read the names of Arizona, Texas and New Mexico but they were simply “out west” somewhere. In that land of the cactus and Indians. My greatest possession as a child was a rotating night-light. It had a western scene of Saguaro and cowboys chasing Indians. Skulls of Long-Horned steer. Coiled snakes. The heat of the light bulb would pass through a louvered top and the convection would make the illustrated plastic scenery spin slowly around my room. I fell asleep every night of my childhood to that scene…the specters circling my room like a dervish. These lamps are very hard to find these days. Couple that drama played out on my bedroom wall, with the night train passing through Owego, NY on its way to Chicago or New York City, the clicking and clacking of the steel wheels on the seams of the rails…is it a wonder that right now I feel like I’m living in a childhood dream?
It’s a land of contradictions. It’s imaginary and dreamy, but it’s as real as a sunburn or a grain of wind-blown dust in your eye.