Finding my place amid a global pandemic
Sitting at the kitchen window, heavy March snow falling, my eyes fix on an invisible spot on the southwestern skyline. These vistas are expansive; horizons form straight lines interrupted only intermittently by mountain peaks shooting skyward from flat sage plains. My eye searches the horizon south of the Abajo Mountains, the Blues, as the Mormon settlers called them. There is a river canyon out there cutting through expanses of stone in the most barren and remote of landscapes – a river, in a desert, where my heart lives.
I welcome the precipitation, I pray “Please. Heal us.”
As I write this, my boyfriend, Jay and I have been “socially distanced” from our community for weeks because we may have been exposed to Covid-19. Colorado is under shelter-in-place orders. All are on edge, knowing that this beast is coming. It has been oozing from the big cities into our remote, rural communities. The first victim in my town is sick. People are alone, lonely, terrified.
I am by nature a loner. I prefer to do things without others. Chosen social distancing makes me feel whole, while forced isolation is terrifying.
I am grateful that Jay and I are together; that we are not quarantined apart from each other; that I still have human connection. There is a tenderness between us that helps quell the anxiety.
Although, in times like these, what I most need is chosen isolation, in the desert, by the river, listening to mating geese, watching as hints of green flourish into the myriad colors of a spring bloom in southeastern Utah.
The desert is closed. No one is allowed to visit. The empty spaces that I crave are inaccessible. The Corona Virus is consuming resources. We all have to make sacrifices.
I never imagined that this would be mine.
It feels suffocating. The one spot on the map that would allow me some solace during this crazy, upended time in history is off-limits.
I went to the desert the day before the closure, to a remote site by the river where my children grew up. It is my home away from home.
I stopped to open a gate. The West is the land of gates. Gates keep cattle in. They keep cattle out. If you are driving on a dirt road, you are going to deal with gates.
Drive up close, put truck in park, hop out, open gate, get back in truck, inch forward 10 feet, put truck back in park, hop out again, close the gate, latch the gate, run back to the running truck, hop in, drive 200 yards, repeat.
I latched the gates firmly behind me hoping to deter any additional visitors to my small and secluded destination. I was not prepared to share. Indeed, I was ready to pull the Corona Virus card if anyone tried to join me. How desperately I needed this time, in this place, to forget about what was happening, to breathe fresh air and feel normal, not toxic. To take solace in the first inklings of spring. To be in the most fragile of landscapes and know that it has endured so very much. It is resilient. I too can endure.
The desert is defined by water and yet, to the unseeing eye, there is very little of it. I marvel at the abundance of life existing with such limited sustenance. I delight in each pollywog, fiery bloom of paintbrush, and critter that skulks around my pillow at night as I slumber on the slickrock.
The desert is the epitome of strength, tenacity, and delicacy. Once totally submerged under an inland sea, layers of multi-hued sand came to rest on top of one another, forming horizontal stripes of earth that vary from sage green to brick red to the color of heavy whipping cream. After the seas retreated and the tectonic plates slammed into each other, a ridge of sandstone jutted up out of the earth forming an 80-foot long monocline that exposes the gorgeous underbelly of our planet. It is upside-down country. It is stark, windswept, and bold.
The San Juan River has eroded a channel through this uplift, dividing north and south, the United States and the Navajo Nation. From the river, this formation runs 28 miles due north to the Abajos. This is the landscape of my soul.
Many, my mother included, find this rockscape to be ugly, hostile, boring. I love barren, love dry, love prickly, thorny, scratchy, empty. When I gaze across these remote stretches of petrified sand, seemingly devoid of life, I see not only beauty but also determination and fortitude; the desert is for survivors – hearty, adaptable beings. This display of nature’s scrappiness creates space for me to find my footing when the world feels completely inhospitable.
Beneath the fragile life existing on this raw expanse of sunbaked land lies a rock-solid foundation. When I feel untethered, I need an anchor. I need reminders that I am stronger than I feel. The past 3 years of my life were brutal. Every single area of my life fell to pieces leaving me broken and bereft. I found comfort only in the silence and magnificence of a landscape carved in stone.
The desert, while appearing desolate and empty, is teeming with life. To one who finds miracles in the minutia, knowing that there are thriving, living beings here, where water is so scarce as to be considered non-existent by the unseeing, is miraculous.
The San Juan winds its way through layers of umber, ochre, bluff, and sienna. The corridors along this waterway house cottonwood trees of gargantuan proportions. Mormon tea. Silverleaf buffaloberry. Russian olives fill the air with their heavy sweetness. Prickly pear and primrose. Globemallow. Sego lilies. Within these oases live beaver, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, herons, egrets, razorback suckers, humpback chubs. Raven and canyon wren melodies echo through the labyrinthine folds of these cliff walls.
Before we were here, the dinosaurs were. After them, people served up wooly mammoth for dinner. The next folks built their homes in remote alcoves in the canyons, made pottery, wrote on walls. These homes and rock art still exist all of these years later. I think about another woman, 1,000 years ago sitting in this exact spot also cooling her feet in the river savoring a respite from her husband, children, her daily life.
Herein lies a hidden wealth of life in a seemingly unlivable habitat.
The desert is a smorgasbord for the senses: the infinite vistas, the consuming silence, the pungent smells, vibrant colors, searing heat, the abrasive textures, the taste of salt that pervades everything. You can smell water long before you see it.
Sleeping on the riverbank soothes my addled brain. This desert waterway slowly, sinuously, winds its way through the cliffs, carrying close to 25 million tons of silt. In the quiet, I hear rocks gently shifting on the bottom and the sand sliding through the water: shhhhhh, shhhhhh, shhhhhhhhh.
Many years ago while asleep on this beach, I was awakened by a blood-curdling scream followed by an agonized moan.
My half-asleep brain told me “That was a mountain lion killing a cow. Not good.”
“Deep breath, Suzy-Q. It’s okay. It’s across the river.”
I then spent the rest of the night on high alert, my dog cowering inside my sleeping bag, wondering, “Can cats swim?”
I need experiences like this to maintain my sanity. Others may find that terrifyingly weird. Not everyone will understand why a potential mauling-by-lion would aid in chasing the squirrels out of the attic.
I can’t explain why this particular place has this particular effect on me. It permeates both my body and soul as if the muddy river runs in my veins, thick and red. My skin darkens to the deep walnut color of the Navajo Sandstone. When I am there, the lines blur between the earth and me. When I return, a piece of me remains in that bare-boned landscape.
Maybe it is the silence.
In my sleeping bag, on the slickrock, the sky is crammed full of stars whose light reflects off the cliff walls. I listen. For any sound. For some near or distant chirp, scratch, shuffle, but there is nothing. There is absolute emptiness. Silence so deep you can hear the pulse of the earth’s heartbeat.
For some, this amount of space and quiet is daunting. It calms me. This is a place big enough to cradle me in its curved mounds of dunestone. It is expansive enough to absorb all of my inner turmoil.
In the desert, life forms are so reliant on such a scarce amount of water, that when the water doesn’t come, creatures must adapt. Flower blooms are neither as vibrant nor as prolific. Collared lizards and coyotes hunker down, only moving around in the cool dark cover of night.
When the spring rains don’t fall, the spadefoot toad remains in hibernation underground, possibly for years at a time, patiently awaiting a rainfall grand enough to entice him out of isolation. When the clouds do burst open with moisture brought in from the distant seas, these little brown hoppers emerge from the mud, quench their thirst, have lots of sex, fill the potholes with pollywogs, and dive back underground until the next wet season.
Here, now, with this virus tearing around the globe, we have become spadefoot toads scurrying into hibernation until the world becomes more hospitable – until life is no longer threatened. We humans must do this to survive in these days of sickness and uncertainty.
So, as much as I feel the need to be there, in that landscape of strength and resiliency, as much as I feel as if I am suffocating, I understand that right now, I need to be a toad.
The isolation is lonely. This is unnerving. I cannot fathom how the world will have changed in the time between my writing this and you reading it. Being separated from my family rattles me to the core. My mother is alone, vulnerable, and mourning the recent death of my father. My children are a mere 30 miles away and yet I can’t hold them. I have to believe that we will all be okay.
Here in my bubble, with my dogs and this wonderful man, there is grace and quiet. I feel safe when our pack is together. Our relationship has shifted. Getting together for an evening feels less like a date and more like building a cocoon. We are spending more time in each other’s homes than we normally do. The physical contact is comforting; thighs touching on the couch as we read, his arms around me while I sleep, my face pressed into the dip between his shoulder blades where it fits so perfectly. I need these pauses. The serenity that envelops Jay and me as we watch two red-tailed hawks build a nest for their young, gives me a foundation when I feel as if mine is shaky.
I am momentarily managing without my desert refuge. I will be grateful for my views of the Abajos, my beacon on the horizon reminding me that my heartspace is nearby. I will be satisfied with the little trickles of red sand spilling out of my running shoes as I put them on to head out in the falling snow.
The water falling from the sky is sustaining, healing. It brings hope and affirmation that there is goodness all around us. It reminds me that we are fragile, yet so very strong.
There is life, thriving, in the most barren of worlds – in the desert and also in this time of sickness, fear, anxiety, death.
Like the landscape of my soul, we are resilient.
Of this, I have no doubt.
Suzanne Strazza is an award-winning writer who lives in Mancos, Colo.