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Acquiring a taste for desert heat and visions


When I was 15, I traveled with my aunt, uncle and 10-year-old cousin from Denver to Santa Maria, Calif. We drove across the Continental Divide toward the neon entrails of Las Vegas, our overnight destination, my cousin and I little Jonahs swallowed up in the backseat belly of our two-door Dodge Duster as it swam through the vast desert-sea. We’d surface occasionally for gulps of hot highway breath from the wide-open windows -- this was before standard air-conditioning.

My aunt, who’d grown up in Western states, reveled in the Utah landscape, the purples, browns, sages and rusts of the rock formations and scrub vegetation. “Isn’t this beautiful,” she’d proclaim. To my city-bred Midwestern eyes, natural beauty meant green deciduous trees, a body of water somewhere in the vicinity, and, ideally, an orderly arrangement of blooming flowers. Like a good American, I preferred my nature tamed and controlled, thank you. This dry and foreign topography just didn’t do it for me at all: I found it relentless, barren, intimidating.

Fast-forward a few decades, to my family’s summer trip to Dinosaur National Monument, in northeastern Utah. Driving west on U.S. 40 from Steamboat Springs, Colo., hillside aspen and pine groves level into unbroken spaces of juniper and sage. The horizon is all.

Just when you think you’re really on the road to nowhere, you happen on the park entrance. Dinosaur National Monument is named for the treasure trove of well-preserved dinosaur skeletons found by a paleontologist commissioned by Andrew Carnegie. The Green and Yampa rivers run fast through the park, forming deep canyons and drawing white-water rafters. There is geology and human history here, boundless, understated grandeur. I grasp my aunt’s awe of the arid wilderness.

What’s best, though, is what’s not here: throngs of tourists. Some families seek out the dinosaur spectacle, thrill seekers come for the river’s challenge, but it’s not on the way to anywhere else, nowhere near an interstate. There isn’t a lodge or an Old Faithful, or much wildlife. Just a lot of space, clear fresh air, the river and the scent of sage.

I am surprised at how sensual the desert is here as we hike a trail called the Sounds of Silence. The light is clearer, the landscape’s earth tones more intense. The shapes of rocks and hills weathered by wind and ancient water draw the eye. The space void of the white noise of civilization heightens the scuttle of tiny lizards under the brush, as well as the rattler’s sidelong warning. My children with their sweet soft limbs are so close to its deadly venom, its puncturing fangs. Like paradise, the snake so close yet hidden, but we’re safe if we stay on the trail. We round past boulders the size of houses, oddly like the pebbles I collect from riverbed and lakeshore on other trips. I begin to better understand this place as a fitting backdrop for the inner drama of hermits, monks, prostitutes, not to mention whole tribes of Judah and Jesus himself wrestling with conscience and demons.

I find I don’t mind the heat. It’s not like late July in Minnesota where even at the beach, even inside four walls with all the shades down, doors open and fans moving, the heat fixes you. Here, in the desert, the heat draws you further. Sage invades my nostrils like the best wine, making me want more, feeding my imagination, stoking my daring, my wandering, my pleasure. Here I could sleep in the shadow of the boulder at midday. I could curl up and dream the desert scent, safe enough from blistering rays. How little we need here. But what we need, we need: shade and water. I am relieved after a day’s searing hike to return to our campground on the sandy riverbed to gaze at stars and to sleep as peacefully as I can ever remember.

Jesus’ famous desert retreat seems rather like a native American vision quest, his mission simmering during all those years of faithful small-town Jewish life, initiated by his dramatic baptism in the Jordan, now congealed in his 40-day sweat lodge of desert heat and solitude.

Then he could emerge to face the shuffle of hurting people in and out of his life. After shoring up a well of desert silence, he could face the crowd’s incessant shouts and pleas. I wonder if he dreamed of desert, longed for its scents, its cool, quiet nights. But neither his mission nor our redemption are found in the clarity of desert light, its cleansing heat, nor its sounds of silence. Rather they’re immersed in the din of human frailty, in the drowning and the saving of Jonahs in the sea of humanity, the vast pool from which our thirst is quenched.

My few days in the desert continue to feed my imagination on solitude, on space, on the hugeness of what is out there and the smallness of me, and finally on God who has a vision for each of us, if only we will take the time and space to listen to the sounds of silence.

Kris Berggren writes from Minneapolis. She can be reached by e-mail at bergolk@earthlink.net

National Catholic Reporter, April 13, 2001