Saturday, July 16, 2011

The dirt and the sky.

I've been trying to figure out what to write since I got here. I can feel another post coming, but until then, there's this: what I have learned so far, is that in Big Bend you can look up at the beauty of the sky, but you can never, ever take your eyes off the ground.

First off, opened-toed shoes here are a joke. I don't know how you could walk around in them without your feet becoming completely gray from dust. And oh! The dreaded goat head thorns! They are like beige Medieval mace hiding under rocks. Petey is still trying to dig one out of his paw. And today the plant that grows them was described to me. Holy cow! I've seen a couple! I thought they were vines growing melons*, they are so big. But they do look sinister. What's a lush, green sprawling plant doing way out here? It's up to no good, I tell you. Beware.

And then you must look down because the red ants, which are about the size of your knuckle, and they are everywhere. What might be mistaken for bike tracks in the dead grass in a city are actually trails made by these fuckers. THEY MAKE TRAILS. And they don't make mounds, oh no, not in West Texas. That would be too easy. They burrow deep into the earth and emerge from sinister looking holes that, dad says, go three and four feet down into the colony. It's like the fucking matrix underworld down there. He and I walked around with Amdro killer when he was here and sprinkled their nests with tiny yellow nuggets that they'll deliver to the queen to kill her.

And it makes me wonder, what on earth is down there, beneath my feet, beneath this dry dirt? Because all I can imagine are millions of long, red ants. But it doesn't seem to bother anyone else, it's just normal occurrence here. And, truth be told, I'm getting used to it. Plus I have my Amdro. "Now, your job isn't to kill every red ant in Alpine," dad said. (That's what he thinks.)

And of course there are snakes and scorpions and for all I know, chupacabras out there, so you must always be looking down as you walk. Always. I told my mom that the landscape is insane out here and it makes me wonder how humans ever were able to settle in this place at all.

Then you look at the sky.

When it rains, the storm rolls across the horizon like a wall cloud of dark smoke and, especially on the first rain, the wind kicks up more dust than water, so a giant ball of orange dirt forms in the atmosphere and slowly rolls across acres and acres with a definitive beginning and end. It's an awe-inspiring to see. And the rain here smells different, too. It's a mix of dirt and water that hangs in the air for hours, even if the rain is miles and miles away.

Then there's the night sky. Night here literally drapes down like a velvet curtain over everything. And it happens at such a pace, it's like a parent who has quietly shut the last bedtime book of the night, whispers goodnight, and exits the room of her dozing child. The blackness seeps in through a sieve at the tip top of the rounded globe straight up above your head and the inky darkness slides down the sides of your periphery vision very slowly, like a cracked egg. And as it drips down, it eats away at the dark navy hue that was the night sky (the color most of us city dwellers would consider midnight), and continues, engulfing the deep purples until it has spilled over the last of the light the sun left behind.

Maybe I can describe nightfall like a the puff of a picnic blanket as it's shaken out to its full size, then gently glides down to the grass below-- if that makes any sense. It's the most calming transition I've ever experienced and it's stupefying to think I've spent so much time on this planet without ever seeing the night fully make its entrance. That guy is a scene stealer. Not to be missed.

Which reminds me, in a way, of those ants. Because they also move down, down, down into their dirt labyrinth below us, filing in and spreading out below ground. Really, they're just a mirror image of what's happening overhead. In this landscape, it's all about the sky above and the ground below, and you best not forget either one.

I'm getting a great refresher course in Life 101: there can't be beauty without ugly, just like there can't be light without the dark. You cannot move forward without first figuring out where you stand. Apparently it's easier to grasp this out in the country because you see it on display everywhere. Remember, we're told that the devil fell from grace because he loved god so much he lost himself. This desert reminds me you cannot lose yourself for a moment if you want to survive. I think we forget this stuff in the city. We're too busy running around on concrete that we forget the basics of how the world works, the next thing you know, we've created Hummers and Affliction t-shirts. And didn't the Bible warn us of this too, my children?

Yes, beauty surrounds me, so much so that I haven't quite stopped gasping or saying "Wow" on my long drives to the center of nowhere. But danger is out there too, and the combo is making for a very powerful, present experience so far.

"Everything out here will either sting you, bite you or poke you, including the cowboys," said Ty. "So watch yourself."

Warning heeded. Now get rid of those sandals.

*later I learned I was looking at coyote melon, not the deceptive sweet fern-like plant that produces goat head evil.


  1. You should see the night sky 50 miles west of Alice Springs in the middle of nowhere outback Australia. The sky is so dark, and the star field so pronounced, that you can see low orbiting satellites as black blobs moving in front of the stars. The milky way is clear and obvious.

  2. Paige, you have a book here. I'm serious.

  3. Your description of nightfall reminds me of my time in the high desert north of LA. Ah, nostalgia... there's nothing more bittersweet.

    I'm new to the blog, but loving it!