A Desert Primer
Shade and water. Those two comforts are mighty scarce along this wrinkled landscape. The shade is ground level and ideal for lizards and snakes. The water is thick as bean soup. To hike this Rio Grande corridor I must abandon preconceived ideas of comfort and ease. Isolation. Heat. Cold. Rattlesnakes. Plants, animals, reptiles, and insects that scratch, poke, sting, or bite live here. The temperature varies as much as 50 degrees from noon to midnight.
On any given day, my walk starts in an early morning chill. I shrug on a jacket or fleece vest pulled close to keep in body heat. The negligible dew drifts up from the river bottom only to evaporate rapidly when the sun slides above the rind of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The rising sun blows a warm wind that ruffles my hair like an affectionate wake up from my father. By 9:00 AM, the sand beneath my feet is pleasantly warm. That affection turns harsh as the sun rolls into its apex and hammers the crown of my head. My vulnerable flesh is sapped of moisture by the ever-increasing heat. I tilt my big brimmed hat to shade my eyes. Next to water, the hat is my best friend even when the interior head band crusts with salt. I take every opportunity to douse my hat and bandanna in the river. That is, if I’m able to scramble down the descent without snapping an ankle in the sharp cluttered volcanic rock escarpment.
No matter how hot the long sleeve shirt seems, I leave it on; otherwise, the sun will broil me scarlet. The shirt soaks up the trickle of sweat under my arms and down my back, but I’m glad I wore it in spite of the heat. The dampness cools me briefly then vanishes leaving behind a fine grain of human salt caked in the fibers that scratch like too much starch. Drink more water.
My socks are soaked. My leather boots are comfortable, but cook my feet in this desert heat. But I have learned not to wear sandals or thin canvas type shoes out here. The sand heats up under the unfiltered sun so that it blisters the soles of my feet when I remove my boots and attempt to walk to the canyon rim. I try to change my thinking to a “fire-walker” stepping into a bed of coals. But, I leap into a wild saint vitus dance routine back to the rock where I took off my boots. “Stupid! Goathead stickers, razor grass, wasps, cactus and burning sand. What was I thinking? My feet are what got me out here and will have to get me home. Better take care.” Those sandals are terrific once I settle in for the night, but I must remain wary of cactus or scorpions hiding in wind blown mounds of sand.
There is not a scrap of shade in sight and the heat chases me to the river’s lip. The deer carved a winding pathway through the willows, chamisa and rabbitbrush and rock. I step through the oven of basalt boulders, slap the brambles away and make my way to the sound of water. I avoid touching the shaded clandestine ledges where sleeping snakes wait out the sun’s assault. I feel dizzy and faint. A cry drums in my head. “Go to the river. Remove your boots. Peel off your socks. Squish your feet in the mud. Knead the cool ooze between your toes. Feel the gooey sensation wrap your feet.” I follow my desires. The river song soothes my thoughts and cools my body. Sinking my bare feet into a small pool, I moan aloud, “Ahh, like a mud bath at the Santa Fe spa.” The tingle rises from the soles of my feet, up my tight calves, relaxes tired thigh muscles and permeates to the core of my body.
I dip my hat into the slow, opaque water and spill the contents over my head. No need to look fashionable, or even good. There is nobody watching, except the Peregrine Falcon sailing on the breeze hunting rodents.
I lay back; breathe in the perfume of wet dirt, baked sagebrush and my own desert essence. I pull that soggy hat over my face and take a long pull from the nearly empty bottle of tepid water. A gentle breeze taps my shoulder. I close my eyes.
The air comes alive with green-backed swallows, desert wrens and a family of ducks quacking jubilantly around the bend. In the most distant wisp of atmosphere, I listen for the aerial conversations of Sandhill Cranes forming and reforming on their communal flight north.
Refreshed by a cold river bath, I feel the tightening of my stomach and am reminded that food is the next step toward maintaining energy and a healthy attitude.
Choosing the right food for desert travel is simple since heat spoils anything not jerked in chili peppers and salt. Beef Jerky, wedge of Parmesan cheese, salted nuts, dried fruit and hardtack crackers are in my daypack. Dinners consist of instant soups and other quick, easily prepared foods from a box. Tea, hard oatmeal cookies, instant milk hard candies. Small flask of tequila.
Nights in the desert are downright cold. Pleiades’ icy stare announces the time hour by hour. The constellation wakes me like a silent alarm clock as it creeps across the sky. The wheel of stars lulls me to sleep, but I open my eyes at the perfect moment when a bright flash bursts blue and streaks across the moonless black canopy. The brilliance of night marinates my soul and impales an obsession for starlight, unhampered by man. I fall into the dizzying space around me and give myself to the sanctuary of high desert and the delirium of empty wild space. I share infrequent shade with native creatures and venerate our bond here. I am nudged by some unnamed source that whispers to dance with the unknown. The desert exposes my vulnerability and this is good.
I am deeply aware of the freedom and peace surrounding me here in contrast to civilization with its inundation of commerce. What to buy, what to sell, where to go, not go, whom to be, not be, etc. Without refuge, silence, wild places and befriending the unknown, one is condemned to fret about security, loneliness, disease, jobs, money, and specific to the desert, air conditioning or something cold to drink.
Patsy Kate Booth is a lifelong adventurer, poet and writer. Her work has been published in several anthologies, including Lummox Press, The Sandhill Review, Willow Creek Journal, A Walk Along the River, and recently prose in Why We Boat, a compilation of river stories. She is currently working on poetry and stories of her life in the upper Rio Grande of Colorado. You can visit her new blog at patsykate.wordpress.com.