Under swollen moon, muted light contours leaf blades at ends of jerking, gnarled limbs still reaching out for the creature they had long outlived; no longer a purpose for their distance from one another — unlike the crowding trees of a forest revitalized. They bear a curious name unknown to them and inconsequential.
Angry, barking chirps of a kangaroo rat from beneath a Joshua tree breaks the night’s stillness. The source of its annoyance is unknown, and it hops away before the coyote or the owl make their way over to stalk it down. The moonlight makes treks dangerous, but also makes dangers’ job difficult to skulk about.
There is one skulking about, moving through landscape and the thirsty, tired flora. Even with full moon — close and bright and white tonight — the desert dark inks it all, visible the barely murky washes of greys. For a person, it’s moving through grainy, underexposed film. This is not the time for people yet they still intrude: tromping past with bright beams of light sending the photosensitive things scurrying away. A pause to their nightly prowls and hunts and foraging.
With careful step under celestial guidance, there is a way to visit.
Two weeks and Kira still needed to finish throwing out her last of her ratty clothes and load the final boxes into her aging car with its finish peeling and rusting undercarriage. The northern winters led to harsh conditions, requiring the salt which rusted and corroded. It did not help she would drive on beaches — ill advised and often foolish.
But Kira was as foolish a person as she was serious.
She paused as she found a forgotten notebook. Her heart took a pause. It wasn’t hers. Gingerly, she placed it into the little travel backpack which held her toiletries and medications, her own notebook and a small camera. She stepped out her room to survey the apartment. There were still garbage bags of unneeded, unsalvageable items she was too tired to haul down and too pressed for time to waste on. Looking out the window to check on her car in its spot on the cracking, neglected lot, she suddenly felt just how big a change she was making and how she couldn’t go back on it now.
This was all too overwhelming.
Walking to the kitchen for her water bottle, she determined she wouldn’t get back her deposit regardless and would have her lazy landlord be forced to do some work for once.
On passing the fridge, a pale yellow square stuck to it caused her to backtrack.
‘You’re a bad bitch!’
Kira smiled, remembering her friend had placed it there. During a drunken night of her crying over her job, her failed relationship, and her feeling of stagnation. She peeled the note off carefully and went to stick it inside of her notebook.
She was ready to leave.
The embers hiss and pop as water pellets down on it. Carefully, Kira pokes and moves the ashes about to root out any red glows to hit with the water. The desire to walk from her campsite — flanked by tall yuccas, protecting her little tent from view — by moonlight and lamplight through the desert continues to nag her so hard she cannot ignore. Sleep is not yet an option. First, the fire must be put out.
After finally settling into this new land and new air, she set to exploring the curious nature comprising of textures, sounds, scents she is still learning and adjusting to new habits.
Before she sets off, she flashes about the little blacklight near the tent’s entrance. She won’t allow it to be seen the startle which jolts her but is betrayed by heartbeat and chemicals: a scorpion glows eerie and bright. Its tail hooks over its back as it shuffles off, moving away from the spot devoid of nutrition.
Blacklight off, headlamp on, she fetches the little notebook and stout pen before wandering off to start the night hike. She still hasn’t felt the movement of the desert as she had of the shore, but still she will keep trying. Night time is a calm time, though the nocturnal animals run plentiful here.
With a frown she realizes the headlamp sends the small things running from her sooner. Off the red light goes. She stands still in wait of some clarity of that which surrounds her. There is no sharpness in the image, no clear coloring, but she can pick out a path all the same with some patience and time.
Shadows of the near-trees play mean tricks. Joshua trees morph in briefest moment to near-human. She shakes her head in attempt to push aside paranoia as if they are cobwebs to bat away. This is not at all like the forests she knew. In place of coniferous and deciduous trees, yuccas reign — tall, short, the aged, the short-lived. She passes a yucca low to the ground with flower stalk high, clustering white flowers climbing upwards visible in soft contrast. The plant is reaching the end of its life.
‘Flowers signal death.’ She wrote quickly in her notebook. Many more flowering yuccas were waiting for her to pass.
Passing cornfields, trees scraggling, highways broad slabs of grey through rain, beneath bright sun, with stars above — hours on hours punctuated by roadside sleeps under 5 minutes, monotonous rest stop bathrooms, gas station on gas station. Exhausting yet familiar, lost in thoughts of the people who were and the people who are; taking in the replenishing numbers of ospreys, hawks, and falcons.
Unsteady on her feet, Kira slumped against her car as she refueled her car after 18 hours of driving. It was barely past dawn and she hadn’t yet slept having not been able to find a place to sleep that didn’t set off her creeping paranoia — which wouldn’t have crept so far had she slept. Nevada was still so far away.
The jolt and loud clack of the pump finishing snapped her back to her present state. With a small shake to get the last droplets of the expensive gasoline, she hung it up and then sighed as the screen informed her that the cashier had her receipt. She didn’t know why she still held onto receipts knowing she wouldn’t ever do anything with them.
With heavy feet, she stumbled into the gas station. In the dimly lit bathroom with a strange, green tint, she brushed her teeth. The dark smears beneath her eyes had grown darkened and more defined. Hair dull, skin dry, face softened with puffiness — a mess. It was a wonder the cashier hadn’t eyed her with suspicion. But this was also next to the interstate, so he probably saw worse each shift.
After walking through the aisles of colorful, plastic packaging and picking out her favorite road trip snacks which would leave her bloated and uncomfortable, she was ready to leave again.
Wearily, slowly, she drove to a shopping supercenter’s parking lot to take a fitful nap. She still had so many miles to go and first needed to sleep.
The Northern Saw-whet Owl’s keening cuts through the dark — in frustration or loneliness, she does not know. A startling sound for it should not be in this part of the desert, but anything can lose their way. It changes to a rasping screech, no less startling and no more pleasant. It is conversing, whether with itself or with another which does not pay it mind. The disgruntled kangaroo rat crosses Kira’s mind. She hopes it’s already back to its burrow out of claws’ reach.
She cannot help but feel she is also only just out of claws’ reach.
She knows of the coyotes which tread the deserts, compact and shy unlike the growing hybrids she is used to.
But not shy enough.
With a breath so deep, she slowly begins again on her path which she uncovers step by step.
She must pay attention to the cacti standing closer than she would like, strange limbs reaching out and over. She tries to focus on the needle-like spines but in the night they remain out of sight. The spines drag and prick now and then, glochids attach to clothes and shoes. The yuccas’ shadows drape across chollas, keeping many hidden from her as if playing a mean prank. She resists the urge to reach out into the dark with her hands to avoid spines needling into her skin.
The harsh environment houses harsh flora. The harsh environment entices and drives away people who don’t yet know what they want but will find out soon. Kira keeps on, in the middle of staying and going, not quite homesick but not quite welcome here.
Past midnight and past patience, Kira pulled up to the sign declaring the campground full. After a frustrating many hours on Colorado highways with no indications of hotels and the few towns visible below as grids of white lights as if the stars had been pulled down to be rearranged; a human’s facsimile of the night sky they were choking out with light pollution.
With no gate in her way, she continued on the mountain desert’s darkness, still only seeing as far and wide as her headlights could manage. She prayed for an abandoned site to park and sleep after two days of staying awake and struggling to stay alert; poor decision making on her part but it was done.
How cold it was tonight, so much colder than the states she put behind her. The wind pressed up against her car, roar reduced to a quiet whistle as it tried to push through the seams. All she could see was the silhouette of trees only just darker than the sky, the mountain in darker still relief. The stars were many, near overwhelming.
The milky way was the clearest it had ever been. She wondered if she could have found a spot with such clarity back on the east coast, but she hadn’t sought it out and couldn’t figure out why she hadn’t made the effort when she was now driving the furthest she ever did. Maybe one day she will have the chance.
She remained in her car, under a large down parka, legs unhappy and dizzy from the exhaustion of her own doing. In the last of her energy, she tapped out on her phone:
‘I saw the milky way, and felt peace.’
With one last look at the sky, sleep finally found her.
It wasn’t a long sleep and upon waking she had to quickly make her food and move on from the site. The morning air was unforgivingly cold, a shocking change to the warm nights she had gone through just prior.
But the views. Oh, the views.
The desert darkness was truly nothing she had experienced before, having cloaked so thoroughly the mountains and stretches of scrublands settled on the packed sand and dirt. It was a land of yellows, muted greens, and lovely browns. Car parked in front of the beautiful peaks, she slowly scrawled in her notebook of the happenings and her observations.
In need of fuel, she stopped at the first gas station. Anachronistic to the tourists decked out either in the tourist uniform or in the trendiest of outfits, the fueling station and building behind it looking to be from Kerouac’s time in ‘On the Road,’ and likely as old. It brought a smile to her face to see something to have survived into the 21st century, lashed by sadness of its proof of Manifest Destiny’s legacy, and standing before her now to keep her going onto her new home.
Just as the past squatted here, her own remained with her; specters both.
The gas station remained in her rearview mirror for a time, diminishing and losing details until it disappeared. It would meet that fate one day. For now, it stood as functional relic — the last of its kind.
Looking down at her worn boots, cholla spines pricking and sticking dusty leather, she questions why she is walking through here at night shivering and wired. She cannot see the owls. She cannot see the scuttling, skittering things whose bellies lie low to the ground. She cannot see that which can trot up until they stand too close. She cannot understand desiring the tension in her legs, inviting the clench in her jaw. She does not understand this place.
How very still it is. How vulnerable she stands. How she invites danger as she slowly moves along.
A thought crawls across her mind: I am on my own.
A loud groan nearby; pitch moving between low to high, low to high.
Stopped, breath caught mid-journey, cold fear slices into her chest cavity. It sounds a man who is to close. Moving her head as an owl does, the sound is as turned around as she felt to be.
She cannot locate the man; focusing on listening to find a clue, a hint, a something. It’s not a human sound, though close. Dread lifts to cautious confusion.
Suppressing laughter at the absurdity of it all, she at last recognizes the sound and the fear becomes clear: a Mojave desert tortoise, sounding not unlike a man when both aim to propagate the species.
The laughter escapes, near as loud as the tortoise, with realization she is on intruding on a shared home not used to humans plodding through in the day or the night. She is as much surprise as they are to her.
Now only three hours from her new home, she stopped at the service station, large and packed with cars formed in lines for the stations and taking up the parking spots. She pulled into the last spot vacated just seconds before she rolled up. Thankful, she sprinted to the bathroom before purchasing a sandwich and a bottle of sugary juice. The cold lights inside were a sad contrast to the hot and warm-toned sun outside.
Waiting in line for gas, the oversized truck before her was finally able to take its turn. But the men who clambered out looked at her and one smiled with clear ill intent. The other uncomfortably followed the driver inside, leaving the vehicle parked and her stuck between it and the Jeep behind her.
After 5 minutes passed and then 10 minutes passed, her anger and impatience growing, she carefully maneuvered between the offending truck and the sports car parallel to it to get to the empty station in front of it before someone could pull off the highway and right into it. The truck would soon be boxed in by her, the Jeep, and the lifted truck which had taken the little sports car’s place.
By the time she had placed the nozzle into her car, the two men had returned. They were clearly surprised to see she had escaped. But what made her feel a shard of fear was the anger on the driver’s face. The tank was near empty and the pump slower than expected. She swore internally and prayed it would hurry up.
Luck was not on her side. The driver had finished fueling up before her and couldn’t move because the other truck’s owner had had the same idea to park and go inside.
She needed to leave fast.
“Hey!” the driver barked.
She couldn’t get the door open before he had crossed the space to get in her face.
“What?” she replied, voice level and face expressionless.
“Get the fuck out of my way!”
Unable to control the impulse, she rolled her eyes which she knew would further escalate the situation. “Well I can’t do that if you keep talking to me.”
Yanking at the handle he continued to yell at her before slamming the door shut and shoving her.
She stared him down, rapidly advancing on him. He raised a fist but clearly was surprised and wavering in his anger. She shoved him hard and scrambled into her car, locking it.
Heart heavy and rate rapid, she shakily turned the ignition as he pounded on her window. Without a thought, she peeled out there. In the rearview she could see he was knocked on his ass.
“Good,” she said aloud, breathy and trembling. She needed to put miles between her and the crazy man.
Adrenaline was wearing off and the tears were coming fast and hard. She pulled off onto the sand with the cars’ passing softly shaking her car. She cried and cried, unable to stop. All the near misses on the road, all of the sad thoughts she had tried to suppress, all the frustrations and fears — it all caught up with her in that moment.
She was alone in the desert, so far from the places she knew, a strange place she had no experience with, skin rasping from dry air and her lips perpetually chapped. She was so tired. The grief of her mother’s passing that had followed her father’s only a few years later caught up with her. She couldn’t outrun the feelings she had been ignoring for six months. She couldn’t get away from bad people. And now here she was, alone, no support, and no distractions.
Slowly, she pulled out the other notebook. She gingerly flipped through it, taking in her mother’s handwriting. It still felt like an invasion of privacy to read, but she took comfort in the writing done in graphite of varying widths and inks of blue, black, and red. She smiled. Her mother never could keep track of her pencils and pens.
Kira turned off her hazard lights and, with pounding head but a clearer mind, she returned to driving.
She is far from home. Far from the spaces and places she lurks and haunts from forest to shore to marsh — all noisy in perpetuity even with most sleeping or gone, whether from wind, waves, or grasses’ murmurations. She has come out here to acquaint herself with a landscape a stranger to her. She stands a coward, having left behind all she knew to again outrun grief and failing again.
With straining frustration, she scrawls in her notebook: ‘All I accomplished was being scared by a tortoise and allowing myself to get cold.’
It feels as if she is being followed but she hears nothing, sees nothing, knows nothing.
The coyote’s bark is breaking glass. Too loud and, now, too close.
And now it crosses her path. The little western coyote stands diminutive to the eastern coyotes she left behind. She cannot see the face but knows its eyes are on her.
But the coyote is unimpressed with her stature or being and lopes off. Kira breathes finally, the ghost of trepidation’s tremor remains in her muscles and sinew.
This coyote is the only thing familiar, and it is different all the same.
Waning crescent moon’s light falteringly filtered through balcony doors, a sweep of light on the carpeted floor. Kira paused in the doorway, hand hovering at the light switch. Stepping into the apartment, shoes squeaking on linoleum sealed off from the carpet, she quietly closed the door behind her and slipped off her shoes before padding over to the balcony.
The door slid open with a little effort. In socks in need of washing, she stood on the concrete looking out at the series of buildings comprising the apartment complex. Beyond the buildings, beyond the plazas, sat the canyons and deserts hidden away from prying eyes for the night. She hadn’t seen any of it, so complete was the dark as she had driven. Her lights had sliced through the dark, barely revealing slabs of stone and only hints of the desert flanking the highways she took here.
A stranger in a strange place, in a city which shouldn’t exist; abomination and miracle.
No thoughts appeared that night, the stars having crowded them out and cool night air on her cheeks distracting from it all.
She continues on, continuing still through the dark without a light. She does not need more attention than already has been paid.
This place is foreign, and she is an alien to this land. Moving from the desert’s hypnopompic state of dusty blue and violets into dawn, quiet settles onto rocks and sand. The things in the night move on to rest; burrowed, hidden, still. Cactus spines slow down the easing, warming winds still brushing through; though it is no help to her. Quiet, she stands — quiet as this resting desert, after their long, dramatic night. It’s uncertain if she has found unnamed thing she seeks or ever will.
She is struck by how small and vulnerable she is. It brought a small smile to her face as it was the same feeling she had felt when standing before the ocean. It eases her worries of having lost this feeling. Clumsily, in the dark, without guarantee of legibility, she writes:
‘Engulfed in the desert’s parched silence, I was nothing but another grain of sand in the wind.’
Images of the plants and animals featured in the story, for the curious.