The clock said 6 a.m. The house was dark and quiet. I slipped out of bed to the smell of freshly brewed coffee coming from the kitchen. I looked out the window. No rain. A cool breeze blew in, a remnant of the passing storm. I sipped my coffee. It was a good day to break in my boots. I laced them up and headed out the door.
It’s not often that the desert is humid, so the air was uncharacteristically thick and heavy; permeated with the pungent smell of earth and vegetation. The sun struggled to break through the clouds, but break through it did, leaving warm kisses across the land. With views like this, I could have hiked in ski boots and would still have enjoyed it.
It’s not about how long you live, but how well you live.
In the desert, Christmas comes in July. It is the time when the normally blue slate of sky darkens with heavy clouds that move in over the motionless desert and explode with sound, light, and water, waking life in a celebratory and dramatic manner.
The great thirst ends for a period when the desert’s longing finds satisfaction. But it is not just the desert that comes to life; people do as well.
In a somewhat synonymous awakening, the emotional response to the weather seems to match the physical transformation taking place outside, hinting at a difference between living and being alive. It is when one feels alive that the difference between the two is realized. One is passive, while the other is active; one suggests acquiescence, the other a willful choice. But not during the monsoons; the monsoons seem to instinctually bring it out.
For her, feeling alive was having something turned on inside, and like the desert, it seemed to happen easily during the monsoon season, but it always had to happen out there.
Never was the sensation of feeling alive more real than when exposed to the elements, or further heightened in the presence of danger. Because for her the sense of feeling alive came between the thrill of exposure and the tranquility of sanctuary, the storms offered a rare gift, acting as a catalyst that spontaneously increased and enhanced that sensation.
The life to be lived was not in her books or her work or in town, but in contrast to them out there in the dramatic theater of nature in what can be seen, felt, and touched. In those moments, like the palate perceiving hidden flavors in a robust wine following a soft, rich cheese, her senses came together in an intoxicating symphonic crescendo.
While not constant, the intermittent notes kept her energized during the lulls. But the monsoons were different. During the monsoons the lulls all but disappeared amidst a cacophony of notes coming together in a prolonged climactic chorus of palpable pleasure, and the monsoons were coming soon.
She lives on the edge of wilderness, acre upon hundreds of acres of it right out her door. She can walk outside and within steps be on that worn, dusty path that leads up into public land lying underneath the shadow of the mountain. It is where, on most days, she is able to feel alive if but for a moment in the busy yet monotonous rhythm of life. She never tires of following it; in fact, something lures her out – sometimes daily, often multiple times a day. It is not the mountain’s call that she hears, but rather a wild call from within which seeks expression through something equally wild. That road, like a musical climb, is the path of promise where she consistently finds her notes.
Most days she is filled with anticipation at finding sanctuary there. Today is not much different than all the other days except that it is July. As she ascends into the sage and juniper landscape and the houses slowly fade from view, she breathes it in and her body, aroused, awakens and responds. Her skin warms in the sun and tingles in the intermittent breeze. She wants to run, go faster, feel her heart pound, push her body hard, sweat, exhaust her muscles, and beat herself against the solid earth. All of her senses alert and attuned to her surroundings.
As the road turns steeper and rockier and bends up into the foothills, she finds her rhythm and feels like she is floating over the land. Exhilarated she watches the skirt of the mountain unfold in front of her, enticing her into hidden valleys and rolling hills obscured from below.
As she pushes her way further into the secret places of the mountain, she enters a spiritual place inhabited by ravaging wind and water, where signs of predators and prey hint of life unseen, but present. The landscape reveals a savage struggle for life that she becomes a part of when she joins it – open and exposed, it is ruggedly alluring. She presses deeper with a burning fervor and pursues the ravishing beauty that stands before her, waiting, beckoning, and available for the taking. It is her siren, as dangerous as it is seductive. All alone she savors the intimacy. She stops and catches her breath.
She picks some creosoteleaves and a scoop of dirt and rubs them between her hands, inhaling the faint scent of arid land and summer rain. She relishes the storm in her hands a moment before taking a clue from the sky that the real thing might be coming soon and lets the earth blow through her fingers in the quickening and frenzied wind and heads back down.
When returning home from town, exhilaration fills her again. The mountain, like Colossus that we petty men walk under and peep about, stands towering majestically against the gathering clouds bubbling and growing into gargantuan formations that cast eerie shadows on the landscape below.
Like a fertility God, the undulating cloud formation looms over the mountain as if competing for worship. The spectacle is blushingly pornographic in its vertical rise up out of the flat desert floor. She half expects to see rice cakes fall from the sky and people wishing for babies frantically scrambling about to catch them. Tearing her eyes away from the climax building in front of her and scanning the horizon, she sees that clouds are moving in from all directions, slowly drowning out the sky. She wishes for rain, the first rain that will mark the beginning of the monsoon season and a break from the monotonous summer heat.
As she gets closer to home she sees a vulture teeter-totter through the sky, a black gash against the iridescent clouds. As it probes the air for the scent of a carcass she finds herself craving banana cream pie. Maybe the weather brings it out, she thinks, watching the bird. She contemplates stopping by a café for an afternoon treat and wonders if she has always felt an urge to satisfy a physical desire in response to a natural, tempest-like drama. While she ponders this, the smell of rain rushes in through the car window. She inhales deeply, certain that the fertility God will shower rain down on the thirsty land; perhaps in response to her awe at his glorious display. She turns her music up and speeds into the threatening storm, letting her mind feast lustily on thoughts of pie and precipitation.
When she pulls into the driveway, her mouth salivating at the thought of tasting the sweet pie sitting next to her, she rethinks taking the pie in. Instead she gathers up her kids, some blankets and forks, and heads up the dirt road to the foothills beneath the pregnant clouds threatening to unload. Squeals of laughter erupt in the back seat of the car as the wind blows forcefully through the open windows.
Like a wolf knocking at the door, they instinctually quiet down in response to the forceful gale beating at the car, excitedly chattering in hushed undertones. She smiles at them through the mirror and continues the steady crawl up the rough road. After finding a good spot to view the storm from, she parks and opens the hatch and she and the gaggle of kids climb into the back. The wind blows briskly into the open car as they scramble under blankets and prepare for the show. She slyly opens the box and cuts her first bite of pie, savoring the sweet, creamy desert for a brief moment before the kids notice and mad rush her with their forks and plunge in to devour it. As they fill their bellies with pre-dinner desert, lightning begins to strike. Within seconds thunder pummels after it, chased by crashing waves of rain. The kids periodically duck and play under the blanket, their laughter and noise drowned out by the deafening roar of the rain.
Knowing how quickly the desert can turn into a violent and dangerous place, she decides to head back down before they have to bivouac on the mountain for the night. The soil is already saturated and water is running across its surface before she turns the car on. As she makes her way down she can feel the car slide and spin in the gooey mud. She watches small, rushing rivers appear out of nowhere, growing larger and fiercer as they cut through the soft earth. Large pools form in the uneven road, providing opportunities to make large, muddy waves for her delighted children as they splash through. The water is mesmerizing.
She wonders if the great flood started just like this and what this place would look like if it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. It wasn’t hard to imagine her mountain community getting washed into the ocean hundreds of miles away; gone. But there is no great flood today, just a typical desert thunderstorm.
After baths, stories, and the kids are in bed the dark house quietly protects against the thrashing storm outside. The sun has long since gone down and the lightning now rules the sky like a hostile popcorn popper; flash, snap, crack. The sight and sound of the desert thunderstorm breaks across the sky like gladiators wreaking havoc in a celestial coliseum for the mesmerized audience below. She sits by the window with a cup of tea and watches the violent upheaval taking place in those brief flashes of light. What produces such a physical manifestation of imbalance in the atmosphere, she wonders, air expansion, pressure, and temperature all duking it out causing the air to rip apart in light and sound.
Even the sky is fraught with violence, she muses, is it any wonder that humans are also violent? Were we not made from the same materials?
It is an intriguing thought, one that her mind wants to grab hold of and inspect, but it is fleeting. She mentally chases after it, trying to capture it again, but it is gone. She drifts off to sleep, cuddled up in her blanket on the couch, safe from the raging storm outside. Only hours later she is jolted awake by a thunderous crack above her house. A thrill runs through her as she rushes to her room and slides under the covers. Her mind plays with thoughts of desire as she nestles under the blankets: warm hands running up her legs, wet kisses brushing her neck. Her body responds momentarily as she entertains stormy night fantasies before falling back into a delicious sleep.
The morning opens like a soft and lovely melody. The cold winter air grazes her skin and the rose-colored sunlight dances behind her eyelids as she begins to wake. The taste of summer is still on her mind as she opens her eyes, remembering that yesterday was Christmas. The gifts were given, the food had been beautifully prepared, and the house had been filled with holy festivities, but it was summer that teased her mind with sweet memories.
The room was aglow with the rebirth of light and another day that in her imagination could be a summer day. In no rush to get up, she lies languidly in her warm bed staring lazily at the sunny ceiling until the smell of coffee floats in on the air, coaxing her to get up.
As she sips her coffee and looks out the window, all is calm and sweet and clear. She knows she will head up that road in the harsh winter light and feel the cold burn on her cheeks as she seeks her mountain sanctuary. She will feel winter’s rejuvenation when she is done, but it will pale in comparison to the monsoons that erupt in waves of spectacular release after the long and unrelenting tension of summer. But Christmas is over and the sun beckons, reminding her that summer is not far away. The thought is almost as good as the coffee. She unconsciously smiles in anticipation.