Gods in the Desert

I live on the eastern coast of the United States. It’s hilly land, rising into stunted mountains at the western edge of my state’s boundaries. But most of it slopes downward to meet the sea, and in between, there are miles and miles of trees. Here, you kind of take the trees for granted. In the wintertime, they hibernate, their gray skeletons a dark backdrop for the highway through which the gray sky shyly peeks. Then suddenly, on a random day in early spring, you realize the trees have reawakened, filling the void with endless green. The transformation takes place behind your back, right under your nose.

In the desert, there are no trees. At least, that’s what I told myself in the days leading up to my flight west. I had only walked a desert once before, in Las Vegas. The crowded boulevard was a neon wound in the Nevadan landscape, a wound overflowing with displaced palm trees, Elvis impersonators, and enough noise to wake the ancestors a thousand years dead.

There are trees in Arizona, though. At 5000 feet above sea level, I maneuvered winding mountain roads beneath the shade of oaks, elms, and ashes. Even as we flew across the desert floor, the mountains raced us along the horizon, their highest points snow-peaked and pine-laden. At the rim of the Grand Canyon, we huddled beneath twisted ironwood when the heat of the noontide sun became too great.

But fundamentally, Arizona is not the same land as my coastal home. On the first day, my car ascended mile-by-mile up the desert hills until, without warning, the rocks around us switched from the no-color of dust to the earthy, bold red of iron rust. Everything bled. We crested a ridge, and titanic monuments of stone rose like mythological giants waking from slumber. Every time we lifted our faces to the sky, they towered there, our guardians, behemoths in the sand. One time, my sibling and I drove past them in the growing night, and their silhouettes reminded me of gods coming to rest.

But the most mind-blowing feature of the land found me at the top of a hill choked with cacti and low-lying mesquite. I sat astride my borrowed horse, an old draft cross. The sun had started to meander down the sky, toward a distant point in the west. It was a holy moment for me, as all sunsets are, but this time it was not a slice between the trees through which the last rays peeked. This time it was not slipping behind a canopy before finally falling below an unseen horizon. This time, I gazed south by west at a desert that stretched out for incomprehensible miles. Three distinct mountain ranges rose and fell against the sky, each one a different shade of foggy blue and purple. Cities far to the south sparkled in their shadows, distinguishable only by the faintest of twinkling lights.

In my homeland, you cannot see the mountains from the coast. You cannot climb a little hill and look over every treetop at a city sleeping 100 miles due south. Sometimes, when you’re standing at the foot of the Appalachians or at the threshold of the Atlantic, you can feel dwarfed by the land. Among the trees, though, it’s easy to forget. Arizona reminded me. It reminded me of my smallness — and my humanness — in a viscerally unexpected way. Its mountains knocked the breath from my lungs, and I will dream of the distance from saddle to sunset for many nights to come.

For more photographs of my trip to Arizona, visit my album on Flickr.

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