He shook a mound of nuts and raisins into his palm, then closed the bag and crammed it back into his pocket alongside his pen and a small Bible. A “half-Bible,” his brother called it, a book so slim that only one testament could fit. But one testament was enough. A single revelation. A single conversion. He washed the dried fruit and nuts down with a swallow of water, as warm as his blood.
“Less of a shock to the system,” he whispered, something he remembered from an article in a health magazine. He took a long drink.
The cellophane in his pocket crackled with each stride. And each stride became a reminder of the civilization he had left behind in search of God’s country, which had begun with the short walk from the Organ Pipe Cactus Monument visitors’ center and would end, according to his plan, at the vistas of Mount Elijah. Then he heard the crunch of tires atop gravel, which drowned out the scraping of his boots along the trail.
How often had he been aware of the rustling life around him since his arrival—a footstep, a laugh, a breath, a whisper? Or the whistle of a towhee or a poorwill? On the streets of Portland, every sound had become ordinary—the rush of traffic, the drizzle of rain, even conversations among friends—a constant and unremarkable ambience. His exhaustion from the banality of the city elevated his crisis of faith, his belief that God’s voice could never be heard above the hum of urban life, and that urban life without the voice of God was no life at all. Now, he imagined a reaffirmation of his faith in God’s divine presence in all things silent: rocks, trees, concrete block, sand, macadam.
“Why Arizona?’ his wife had asked him, as they lay together, the night before his departure. “Do you think God prefers dry climates?”
While her question, at first, struck him as cynical, he knew that her cynicism was more often a disguise for her own longing. Longing for her husband in his absence? Longing for God? Perhaps both. And his disguise for longing? Silence. Solitude. Seclusion. Yet his disguise seemed somehow nobler—reflection above cynicism, solitude above suspicion—even though each path led to the same uncertainty.
The granular surface covering the first mile of his walk led to rockier ground and eventually to the red streaked boulders of the west face mountain path. In some ways, the photos from the travel guide were more real than the landscape before him. He closed his eyes and envisioned the images—the turquoise sky, the white wisps of clouds, the deep red layers of sandstone, the noble spires of organ pipe cactus. He opened his eyes—to the blue and brown fabric of the Arizona sky. To the dust devils in the distance. To a scrim of sand, the scent of heat. His boots bit into the trail as he planted his feet more firmly onto the ground.&
At the end of mile one, he stopped and propped one foot onto a knee-high boulder. He looked back to measure his progress. Along the broad horizon, he could make out a small portion of the visitors’ center; the flakes from the mineral roofing sparkled in the sun. The flow of traffic had slowed, only the rumble of an occasional car veering in from the highway.
He pulled his trail map out of his backpack. Judging from the legend at the bottom and the measurement of his finger along the faded mileage scale, he was on schedule. In the distance rose the mountains of the Ajo Range. He remembered it from a chart in the tourist center, a minor range on creation’s scale—a rise at its midsection, then a gentle sloping on each end. Brown ridges eventually blended into the plains below and led to the desert growth of cholla and ironwood. So seamless this land was, he thought. So different from the quartered and portioned components of the cityscape he had left behind—brownstones and bridges, port cranes and commuter lines— although he should not have been surprised. Photo after photo had revealed the phenomenon quite clearly—the horizon that seemed to unify the earth and the sky, the dust and the moon at dawn.
“What if you find God in Arizona?” his wife had asked him. “Will that become your monastery? Or what if you don’t? What would be your next destination?”
He told her that jealousy over God was unbecoming. Now, he wished that his response had been kinder. Instead, his answer revealed dishonesty about certainty that he did not truly possess. What if his own questions over faith or lack of faith were not answered? At the same time, what else could he tell her—not knowing the answers or even the questions himself?
He sat on the rock and slung off his small backpack. He slid the book from the front sleeve and rested it open in his lap. The photos reflected the morning sun, just as the peaks in the distance revealed streaks of light through the jagged edges. Not exactly alike, he thought, but then he guessed it would take some adjustment, seeing it all in the flesh, so to speak. And after a lifetime in the city where every action was oriented vertically, from riding the elevator to the 15th floor to climbing the ladder of success, he hoped to accept the desert-scape and its existence within reality and illusion, vision and truth. For a good many years, he had longed for a space where a man could gain perspective, human scale, some spirit within God’s glorious earth.
“God said, ‘let the dry land appear,’” the man said quietly.
He placed his book back in his pack and stood on the rock.
“And on the third day, God said, ‘let the dry land appear,’ and it was so.”
The cry in his voice astounded him, as did his aloneness, his ability to speak, to shout and only be heard by himself and his God. His words dropped quickly in the dead space. Silence. Again the man shouted, “And it was so.” Silence. He stepped down from the rock and hoisted on his backpack.
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness,” he said quietly, and his voice was diminished further by the clack and crackle of his boots on the trail.
He began scaling the incline before him, a slope that was, at first, gradual, but then steeper as he threaded his way through the first formations of limestone and shale. Higher up, he could make out a grouping of boulders and set toward them to rest. Before them, no shade, and the sun blazed across his back, his neck, his legs and arms and face. He stopped and gazed upward. At its midsection, the outcropping of rocks created a dark pool of shade. The man drank from his bottle, then, with greater effort climbed the stepped and rocky terrain. Once at his destination, he slipped off his pack and dropped into the shadow of the overhang. His breathing came heavy, even in the desert’s shade. He adjusted his body to the rock’s crease.& He drank from his water bottle, even though, to his surprise, he was not all that thirsty. Tales of clear streams and hidden springs anointing the rocky nodes and desert cliffs were well known, and although he was sure to find them if he needed to, he would save such a close exploration for another day.
“God provides,” he said between breaths.& &
He sat up and took out his book once again, which opened quite naturally to the photo of the monument. He pushed his hat back and stared over the edge of the book. The land before him was spiked with saguaro that stretched into the open sky. He followed their arms toward the heavens. Rings of gold and haloes of red light dispersed into the blue. Clouds hovered like spirits in the distance, then drifted east above Mount Elijah. A second look and they were gone. Were they really there at all or part of his imagination? A mirage? The possibilities enticed him. He trusted visions over flesh—the visions of the sacred over the heat and the sweat and the scent of earthly existence. Ezekiel, Daniel, John, Job—all had visions, but he suddenly feared thinking about it further, confusing his own humble delusions with the visions of holy men. It was enough for him to tremble in God’s presence, to be naked before him in spirit and thought.
He rolled his water bottle along his neck. “Young men shall see visions,” he whispered.
He pushed his hat forward and rested his back against the rock. He crossed his arms tightly and closed his eyes. The air was hot even in the shadows, although the shade remained a welcome relief from the naked sun. The rhythm of his breathing soothed him and he drifted in and out of sleep. Above, he heard the sound of a hover fly shuttling back and forth, its hum rising with the man’s breath. In the distance, a wind rocked an aging saguaro and swept through the brittlebush.& &
Within the short spans of deeper sleep the man dreamed. Thin clouds grew heavy, and their mountains of white disintegrated into flakes of snow like moths, fell upon the desert plain, covered the stems of columbine, and drifted against the spires of cactus. When the snow melted, rivers and lakes formed. A voice called from the distance and echoed even in the dead space of sand and cactus and sky, where words dried and dropped like rocks to the earth. “Water and land are one,” the voice said. “Light no longer separate from the dark.”
The dream voice startled him. His arm dropped into the crevasse between two boulders. In his half-waking moment, he felt a sharp prick on his right hand. He jerked it back quickly and cradled it with his other hand. At the base of his thumb, a small scratch, a drop of blood, a welt, tenderness appeared. He wiped the blood with a cloth from his pack and flexed his fingers. Beneath the shaded overhang he heard a rattle. The pages of his book rippled in the wind. Confused by his weakened perception, he could not distinguish one sound from another, a book from a snake, a whisper from a dream. Panicked, he rolled off the rock and jumped onto a boulder below. He rubbed his hand again and examined the wound closely. The scratch was long and straight—no sign of punctures.
On his sleeping ledge above lay his trail mix and water. Sunflower kernels had scattered across the boulder and dropped to his feet. The man could not get high enough to peer into the crevasse for the snake, but he envisioned its thick, coiled body, its diamond stenciled back, its fangs ready to strike. The man stood silently and considered the quickness of men and the quickness of serpents. He wondered if it would be worth going back for his belongings. Perhaps he should give praise for his escape and begin his return to the visitors’ center. He did not need the food or the water for the short hike back, and he could take care of his hunger and thirst on his return. Then, toward the front edge of the boulder he noticed the book, pages blowing and shining in the bright afternoon sun. He stared toward the dark hole in the rock once again.
“Must I kill you for a book?” he whispered. “Must I kill you for this desert? No. For an image of this desert? A likeness of this land?” The words frightened him. He had never thought of a foe beyond the symbolic, beyond the parabolic. Now there was movement and breath. Now there was life and heat. He listened but heard only the sound of rustling paper.
Cautiously, he climbed back to his sleeping boulder. He crouched behind the rock and raised himself, trying to peer into the crevasse, but the sun destroyed all gradations of shade or shadow, of color or hue, only the stark contrast of dark and light. He could see nothing beyond it.
He picked up a small stone and tossed it toward the black hole. It bounced against the rock rim and onto the sandy plain below.
“Smart serpent,” the man whispered. He tossed another stone toward the opening.
“I know you,” the man called out. “I’ve read all about you.”
The sweat on his forehead gathered into a stream and dripped along his temple. He closed his eyes and rubbed them with his thumb and finger to regain his focus, but remained wary of keeping them closed too long. They shot open. The blur of sky and light dissipated and refocused.
“I know you,” the man said again, his voice quivering. “Cunning is your pretense, but fear is your truth. You’re afraid of me. Afraid of any man. Afraid to show yourself in the bright light of God’s day.”
Slowly the man hoisted himself onto the next rock, his eyes fixed on the dark hole. He ran his hand over the rocky ledge above him. His water bottle rolled from his fingertips and bounced onto a rock below. He reached again, this time peering over the edge. He heard the crinkle of cellophane and saw the bag of seeds next to his thumb. He grasped the corner of the bag and, inch by inch, pulled it toward him.
“That’s it,” he muttered beneath his shallow breathing.
He clutched the bag in his hand and stuffed it back into his pocket but never took his eyes from the dark opening. He took another step higher. The pages of the book, shining and colorful, and scarcely a foot from the crevasse, flipped furiously, a disquieting rattle that mimicked what he feared most. He stretched forth his hand and his body at once. His fingers quivered above the photos. Finally, his hand dropped down onto the book, and he yanked it toward his body. The sand-covered ridges of rock scraped his forearm and tore into his shirtsleeve and his elbow. A rattle. He was certain. He pulled back quickly. He tucked the book under his arm. He grabbed the strap of his pack and turned for the desert below. Another rattle, he thought, his sense of hearing now acute, adrenaline pumping him with quickness and fear.
He rushed down the face of the boulders, feeling for footholds in his flight, while holding tightly to his backpack and book. Below, he caught the glimmer from his water bottle rocking back and forth in the basin of a boulder, a sure sign of life and of hope. With even greater purpose, he looked down and jammed the toe of one boot into a foothold. So solid was the placement of his foot that upon turning, his ankle twisted around. Pain like a spark shot up through his ankle and into his leg.
He fell back, the weight of his body tearing his foot from the recess, and he toppled toward the rocks below. He came to rest with his hip wedged between two boulders, one arm twisted behind his neck and the other arm tight against his chest.
“God!” he screamed into the darkness of his tight and wincing eyes.
For an instant, his eyes flashed open. The sun blazed above. He could feel the book against his chest. He closed his fingers tightly around its spine. His groans fell into the desert silence. Sweat dripped down his forehead and into his eyes, even as he squeezed them shut. Light burned through them, swirls of blue and shards of red pierced the darkness and gave life to new and more vibrant light.
“Are these the visions?” he moaned. “Am I tested, God?”
He could feel the half-Bible pressing against his thigh, a good sign, he thought. Pain meant life. Death meant nothing. Or was it the other way around? He wanted to pray for the answer, but he could no longer sort out faith from delusion.
“Not fair,” he whispered. “Doubt at the edge of doom.” He pressed his leg against the rock.
“The serpent tests me,” he said, and moaned through the pain.
“No,” he said. “The illusion of the serpent tests me.” He tried to raise himself up but could not lift his head. “Young men shall see visions, but old men shall dream dreams.”
In the desert silence, he closed his eyes.
“Am I a young man or an old man?” he whispered.
He struggled to focus on the divine, but he could not separate the sacred from the secular any more than he could separate the sky from the sand, the blue from the brown, the horizon from the heavens. The earth and the sky pressed upon him as one weight. As he closed his eyes in prayer, he envisioned his wife—the longing in her gaze, the trembling in her embrace, the heat of her breasts, the cool of her palms. But what of God’s passion?& &
He stared upward, his vision diffuse, a watery mirage, welcome relief in the dry heat. He lifted his hand and brushed it across his face. He looked at his palm, muddy red like clay. Red streamed across his eyes. He clutched his book. He longed for the cool springs of holy visions but felt only the warm stream of his own blood. The fire of the sun burned above him. Suddenly, a horn trumpeted in the distance.
“The end of man,” he said, and smiled toward the sky. “It is the end of man.”
The horn sounded again and again, and the man’s visions of the flesh gave way to images of the heavenly. The silence of the sand was replaced with the trumpeting, the trumpeting. Then, from the visitors’ center, he heard the rumble of a car engine.
His smile faded. His eyes squeezed shut.
“Am I a young man or an old man?” he cried. “Is this the beginning or the end?”
The car revved its engine and drove off. The horn faded into the distance.