Desert Walk by Addison


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									L. Addison Diehl
                                           Desert Walk

       The sound of the alarm clock infiltrates my dream. The steady beeping integrates itself

with some part of the story for a moment, but my split-second fantasy moves on; the sound, now

out of synch, yanks me harshly from my sleep. I wake up to darkness. I grope for the clock,

searching blindly for a button. It is 6:00 a.m. I pull quickly back under the covers and let my

eyes close. It is cold in the house this winter morning, and I relish the weight of the blankets on

my body and the cold I encounter when I stretch, touching parts of the sheets not warmed by my

body. I lie snugly for a few moments, resting, letting the feelings from the night’s dreams wash

over me. It is too soon for worries and anxieties to intrude. My only awareness is of the

moment. Thoughts about yesterday and today are in hibernation. This is a moment of perfect


       I sit up, forcing myself to some awareness of what needs to get done. I slip my feet out

from under the warm covers and plant them on the cold tile. Jolted, I scurry across the floor to

the bathroom and then back to my room where I dress quickly, having laid out my clothes the

night before. I move with an automatic speed that tells of many such mornings. I have an almost

instinctive familiarity with this routine carried out in semi consciousness. Someone not used to

this would stumble about, too groggy to move with sharp coordination.

       I grope my way through the dark house to the kitchen and turn on a single bright light. I

prepare a bowl of cereal for breakfast. Later, when the rest of the household wakes, the family

maid will fix a hot meal, but I am up too early to enjoy this luxury. I munch on the cereal, letting

my eyes adjust to the light. I pack a lunch in a brown sack: sandwich, potato chips, and cookies.

At 6:30 a.m. I am ready to begin my day. I am twelve years old, and this morning, as I have done

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every morning for the last few years, I am walking to school early for music rehearsal. I set out

from my house down the street at dawn.

          I have two routes from which to choose when I walk to school. I can walk along

neighborhood streets and down a busy thoroughfare, as many kids do, hoping to catch a ride with

a friend being driven to school early for the same reason; or I can choose the other way. I slip

between two houses and stand looking out over the desert path I will take to school. The way

winds through some of the last undeveloped foothills in my home of El Paso, Texas. Houses,

apartment buildings, schools, community centers, and a freeway mark the border of the desert on

all sides. I stand looking out from a row of houses that forms part of this border. For the

families that live here, the desert at their back door is merely a convenient dump. Across the

desert, I can see the freeway lined with lights, the sounds of cars and trucks traveling clearly

across the hills in this stillness.

          It rained earlier this morning, and the sky is still overcast. The sun is rising on the other

side of the mountains just east of me, and a pale, gray light is reflected off the ceiling of clouds.

The dark storm is moving west, and low-lying clouds caught by the mountaintop are swelling

into a voluminous mass that billows over the ridge. The mountain, cast in a deep blue in this

early light, and the frothy clouds impress upon me the vision of an awesome wave, poised just

before crashing down over the city. I breathe deeply, smelling the air, cold and fresh just after a

rain. The land before me is blanketed in stillness and moisture.

          I pick my way down the steep slope along a path cut through the junk burying the ground.

Some days I come here scavenging materials for the desert fort I am building with the two British

boys who live up the street, but, since I am on my way to school this morning, I do not stop.

Halfway down the slope, the path meets a hill halfway up its side, turning and following its
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contours before dropping to the desert floor. Below me, on my left as I walk along the hillside, is

a small mesquite grove. The trees, thirsty for water that does not sink far into the ground, have

sucked up what little moisture they can, leaving salt deposits on the surface. The soil might be

bad for growing, but these plants are survivors. They are protected from the midday sun,

growing at the base of the north side of the hill along which I walk. The runoff from the hill and

that of the slope, which forms the border of the desert, provides just enough water so that these

are some of the only trees in this dry area. Above me, on my right, is a patch of hillside that is

only rubble. No plant life takes root there, as though all life were banished from that one area. It

is the sight at which, some years ago, one of my older brother’s friends was buried alive in the

collapse of a tunnel he, his brother, and my brother dug deep into the hill. The cave-in and

excavation all but decimated the small area of land as well as lives. Each walk past the sight is a

reminder, at once immediate and abstract, of the power of the desert over not only plant life but

also humans. I slide down the rocky path as it descends, landing on the desert floor.

          The surface is soft today, wet with this morning’s rain. Finely sifted sand carried down

from various arroyos spreads itself evenly on the flat ground between hills. It is host to desert

grasses and brush, and a dry, shallow stream bed or two that carries water during heavy storms.

This morning’s rain has only wet the surface, and I cross the flat ground, my feet sinking only

partially into the sand.

          Climbing the next hill, I walk through tall bushes. I am amidst these bushes every day,

yet I do not know their name. They, along with a few species of cactus, cover the hills of the

desert. Thick, scaly branches—perhaps cracking and peeling from dry heat—tend to grow

upward from the base, bare until branching near the top. Thin stems support the growth of tiny,

coarse olive-green leaves growing in clusters. The leaves smell slightly sour, and they feel sticky
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if I pinch them. I might guess this was sage, for lack of a better answer, yet the odor is neither

pervasive (I must bend close to detect the smell) nor sharp. Later, I will learn about creosote.

My main concern now, though, is to follow the path through the bushes without being scratched.

          I push branches aside as I walk, and, nearing the top of the hill, between two bushes on

either side of the path, I spot a spider’s web glistening with moisture. The pale light reflects off

of long, wet strands stretched unevenly between the two bushes. The rain may have been strong

enough to destroy a delicate design, or perhaps the spider’s chief concern when spinning the web

was to see it reach from one bush to the other, without regard for uniformity. I am often caught

unawares by these webs, and I end up walking through them, the sticky strands clinging to my

bare arms, my clothes, and my face sometimes. Today, I am alerted to this trap in time and can

avoid it. I step off the path, around the bushes, and continue on my way.

          I rise to the top of the hill and drop quickly down the gravel slope of a dry wash that ends

sharply as the other side rises. Just before reaching the bottom, I leap over the narrow gap that

separates the two banks, scrambling to the top. I walk only a short distance along a flat, sandy

patch before I reach the steepest hill I have to climb. I call this Roller Coaster Hill, so named for

the thrill I get from running down it when I walk home from school. However, I am walking the

other direction this morning, and the climb is no thrill. My only consolation is that for every up

there is a down. Climbing, I try to spy the hidden lookout of my desert fort. It lies where the top

of the hill I am climbing meets another, higher hill to my left. From behind the low, rock wall

that conceals me when I am in the fort, I can look out over all of the land I have thus far crossed,

spotting anyone who may be following the path. I reach the top and the path begins to descend

gradually across a wide, gently sloping plain.
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          I am passing through a field of century plants. The century plant is said to grow a tall

stalk and then blossom only once in many years, though to the waiting person it might seem like

a hundred. With the exception of the flat, gray leaves at the base, which are alive all year, I have

never seen any stem growth. Along with the century plants, lechuguilla blanket the ground, with

tall, straight stems rising from their centers sometimes six or seven feet high. The stems and the

pods at their tops are dry and hollow season in and season out, and the only life springing forth

from them are bumblebees that inhabit the hollow cores. This group of century plants and

lechuguilla must have blossomed all at once many years before I walked here. I wonder if I will

ever see it happen. Each year more and more stems fall, rotted.

          The walk along the path is easy now and is interrupted only once by a wide, eroded ditch.

I always expect to see a snake at the bottom of it. I am not quite sure why, but the thought itself

is reason enough for me to hurry across. Just the other side of the ditch I run into barbed wire.

The presence of a fence seems senseless out here. There is no grazing, farming, or

homesteading—no real physical threat, nobody standing at the fence ready to dispute the property

line with the owner. It cuts across the desert, dividing it—an empty threat. I slip between two

strands that are stretched apart with wire tied to outer strands. I have just enough room to make

it through without being cut. The person who took the time to pull the strands apart must also

have realized the absurdity of this fence and, in defiance, made it possible for everyone who was

to come along later to pass safely. The path continues, undaunted by this obstacle.

          I am very near school now, another expanse of lechuguilla being all that is left of my

walk. The only unusual marks that dot the landscape are a few lonely ocotillos. Here and there,

long, bony limbs of the cactus reach precariously into the air. They are often wrapped in the litter

of city life, their thorns catching garbage as it blows across the ground. The spindly sculptures
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are sometimes themselves blown across the ground in high wind. A sudden movement at my feet

startles me. A jackrabbit bounds out of sight, surely more frightened and startled than I. The

rabbit must have been feeding, unaware of my approach. This is the first animal I have seen all

morning. The desert abounds with jackrabbits and lizards during the day, but the sun has only

just risen. The desert and all its life are still right now. The path takes me to the schoolyard.

The air smells clean, like it does just after a rain, and the trail lies behind me. My shoes are dirty,

and I feel self-conscious about this. I am a little cold, but I am no worse for the wear.

          My years of walking through the desert are over now. They ended the year after I took

this walk. I still had the early morning music rehearsals, but I became more concerned with

fitting in, wanting to be driven to school. Since no one in my family would drive me, I began to

walk the other route, hoping to catch a ride. I all but forgot the desert.

          I never really thought about why I chose to walk that way in dark winter mornings,

knowing I might arrive at school, and often did, with muddy shoes. I certainly did not do so

because of ease and convenience. It was as though I was compelled, drawn to seek the

experience. A year later, though, the pressures of growing up took the upper hand.

          There is no desert today. There are only half-standing hills, their other halves graded

down, following an invisible property line. Here and there, sections of the path are all that

remain of the way I used to walk. There is no empty tomb. Condominiums, a retirement home,

and a convenience store are testaments to development. I did not make time for one last walk

along the path through the desert.

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