“Good morning moon,” I said as I opened my front door and looked outside. I walked into the brisk morning air and looked at a rose-colored moon softly glowing on the horizon in the shadow of our world. It took my breath away. A sliver of bright light could be seen outlining the northern top edge of the ring as the sun peaked around us and kissed the moon’s cheek. As each person in the house walked outside to take a look, a whispered, “Wow” or “Oh” could be heard escaping their lips as they groggily stood in the doorway, wiping cobwebs from their eyes and trying to wake up.
Like most celestial activity, the cloaking and un-cloaking of the moon happened without pomp or circumstance while many were still slumbering peacefully in their beds; her undressing only being witnessed by those interested enough to set an alarm for the quiet event. Perhaps some got up for the entirety starting sometime around 4am, ever so sleepily scooping sugar into their coffee cups before getting into their cars to drive out to the desert for an unspoiled, front row view.
Though it was an enticing idea, I wasn’t feeling so motivated and instead made my coffee and stood on the stoop of my house with a warm gullet and cold toes. As I watched the rosy orb hang in the sky, gradually slipping out from behind the shadow, I thought how perfect a beginning it was for what the rest of the day and weekend had in store.
We drove out of town, dust billowing up as the concrete ended and our tires hit the dirt road; Main Street all the way to Toroweap Overlook. In the 90 miles it took to get there, we saw maybe a dozen other vehicles or off highway motorists. The car was quiet as everyone took in the view.
There are places so big that sound gets absorbed in their vastness. It is the lack of noise that most demonstrates how much we hide in it, dulling our senses with noise like it’s an intoxicant – blocking out unwanted emotions, nudges, or soft whispering in our hearts. When we visit a place of solitude where silence is allowed, our other senses come alive in a cacophony of vibrancy as the ears no longer funnel sound like a wind tunnel to drown them out. And we feel it.
Our minds awaken, released from a trance of monotony. It is that acute alertness that shocks us the most because like a wire tightly strung, every nuance, every breath sends a vibration to the core of who we are and heightens our sense of intuition and instinct. We see with different eyes, catch what we would normally miss, smell the hint different things on the air, and feel things we normally block out.
It can produce an unsettling acuity. It can also produce the ultimate experience of medidation. The absence of activity offers us no distractions from ourselves or our inner world – or the outer world. It envelopes us, settles on us, folds us up. The only escape being noise or departure.
Often when we visit big, open places, it takes a minute to get our bearings and figure out what it is we are supposed to do, as if there must be some activity attached to a place or it loses its value. Backcounty, out of the way places are often dismissed for that reason. But there is value in visiting a place just to experience it; to soak it in, inhale it into our lungs, let the colors fill our eyes and nourish our imaginations, and discover the beauty in silence. Modern nomads, as all nomads throughout the ages, know this.
Upon approaching the edge of the Grand Canyon at Toroweap, hushed voices can be heard but nothing divined from them, tones picked up by the wind and whisked away before you can discover what was said. Knowing looks pass between strangers as if in acknowledgement of being in a sacred place. Slight smiles and nods are passed as the smattering of visitors walk in reverence and awe, mere ghosts in a geologic footprint.
Basking in a great landscape softens the hubris of having “conquered” the earth and causes the heart to reach out to others. Rather than causing people to seek refuse from the world in their own homes, being in the midst of an untamed landscape causes people to come out of their shells for human connection. Complete strangers reach out to each other – as if sharing the experience is what makes it real. Riding on the waves of the wind, voices come into focus and can be heard sharing stories of faraway homes, of distances traveled and more yet to come, and then the scrambled search for words to describe what they are seeing. For a moment, the civilized world of categories, separation, and isolation are forgotten and a microcosm of community is established. A nomad’s community, a wilderness community, a spontaneous community.
And then dusk settles. The walls light up like flames in reds, oranges, and deep purples. And it grows quiet again. Everyone left on the lonely canyon edge either head back to civilization or slowly make their way to camp sites, and the voices fade away. Even the wind dies down as the stillness takes over. We are swimming in it. The moon pokes her head above the land in a sun burnt orange, huge on the horizon. Little groups of people sit in their camp chairs and watch the lunar ascent as night falls.
And then I am alone. With stars twinkling overhead and the occasional satellite careening through the sky I crawl into my sleeping bag. A slight tremor of fear shoots through me as I wonder what critters will come out. As I lay drifting to sleep, something starts playing with my hair. I instinctively duck under my sleeping bag and peek out. Under my chair, not five inches from my face is a little mouse (Kangaroo rat according to the Park Ranger) back-lit from the moon behind it. Like Meryl Streep in “Out of Africa,” I wave my hand at it and say, “Shoo!”
It scurries into a nearby bush, but not for long. I pull my sleeping bag down tight over my head like a clam.
“If you get into my sleeping bag buddy,” I say at it through a small opening, “You, me, and everyone in this campground are going to have a bad night.” But he didn’t listen.
All night my little friend and the moon played with my hair and my mind. The world slowly spun by in squeaks, sand, and stars. I heard him climbing in and out of my shoes, scratching at my sleeping bag, and occasionally playing with my hair when it escaped the sleeping bag. Each time I opened my eyes and looked around the moon would wink at me in a bright blast of light. I didn’t sleep a wink.
The desert night was alive, breathing in and out, and I was sucked into it. The next morning brought goosebumps and laughter as I recounted my tale of the moon and mouse that wouldn’t leave me alone. With one last chance to capture the canyon before leaving, we head back out to the rim. But this time, talking ensues – we had earned it. We had conversations, listened to different languages and laughter, and drank in the morning and our instant coffee with temporary friends. And then, with our photos and memories in tow, we drifted back to our lives, becoming a memory on the wind. We went home a little lighter because our brief stay felt like a lifetime; and our return, the end of a journey.