To begin a day's walk in California's Mojave Desert is like stepping into a child's drawing: Odd, Dr. Seuss-style cacti interrupt a dot pattern of endlessly repeating gray bushes; the sky is crayoned a solid, royal blue with a brilliant sun; layers of purple hills extend in endless vistas to the next valley and next again. There are no sounds but the mesquite-scented breezes whishing lightly across the brittlebush and the occasional flinch of some tiny, prehistoric creature under dry sticks a few paces ahead.
After I had walked a hundred miles of the Mojave through pleasant days and bitter cold nights, the winds began to rise. Dust blew across the highway and whipped around, more than once sending me staggering. It grabbed my straw hat repeatedly and sent it wheeling across the highway. It was my late friend Elizabeth's poor old garden hat, and it was not to last much longer--nor were my old bones, I thought.
Even at its harshest, the desert is a meditation, where the mechanisms of politics and oppression seem distant and otherworldly. One can consider things more creatively at such a distance. And old age is no shame in the desert: Save for my walking companion, I saw no creature less wrinkled than myself.
I am here: That is the sole fact from which, in the desert, all distractions fall away. The desert teases with the idea that spiritual enlightenment, elsewhere requiring a lifetime of discipline, might happen almost effortlessly here. This tease is not malicious, I think, but the natural warp of things in the neighborhood of great truths. Indeed, most of our great spiritual stories begin in the desert, where there is less to misdirect our attention from the fact of our mortality and our immortality.
I begin my story in the desert not to mimic the great stories of our culture, but because it is where my adventure began. I pray that I may be able to describe, in ways that will be useful or interesting to you, what I learned along my way. If you are not much interested in campaign finance reform-the reason for my protest walk-do not worry: I will not pester you too much about it as we journey together between these covers. You will not need imaginary earplugs I hope, just a good imaginary hat.
I was still something of a desperado in those first months of the walk-roaming over the dry and blank space remaining at the end of a life. Or was it the lull between acts? Who can ever know at such times? There is an urge to just walk into the desert, away from the road, and be done with it. There is also an urge to have some ice cream with chocolate sauce. Life is what we patch together between those competing desires.
So I walked and remembered my late husband, Jim, who had died six years earlier, though the open place that he left in my heart was still fresh. And I walked and remembered my best friend, Elizabeth, who had died just the year before after a long and difficult illness--as had Jim. I replayed over and over our times together as I trudged along. If my eyes were moist when I thought about the long days and nights of their deaths, the desert wind would dry them. I had been quite depressed since their deaths, and this was finally my chance to walk out my memories and my grief. The landscape was right for it. The deteriorations of a lifetime are shown in fast motion in the desert: The Mojave wind and cacti and my sweat were making a mess of Elizabeth's old hat now, and the desert sun had faded its band before my eyes.
My thin and otherwise quiet walking companion, thirty-two-year-old Doug Vance, was clanging sharply in the wind--his dangling canteens and belt-loop supplies spinning like mad wind bells. He took hold of my arm at times to steady me, though he was no Plymouth Rock himself. The gusts slapped around the campaign finance reform sign on his backpack and sent his bamboo Chinese hat flying back to choke him with its chin string. Passing trucks added to the hot whirlwinds of grit and roadside litter. We had been lucky with the wind and temperature through most of the Mojave, but the final miles approaching the Colorado River and Arizona were very difficult. I had the presence of mind to realize, Dear God, I'm indeed out here doing this!
Excerpted from Granny D by Doris Haddock with Dennis Burke Copyright 2001 by Doris Haddock with Dennis Burke. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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