When I go to the Mexican desert I go for a couple of reasons. Most of them are professional, it’s a place of remarkable biology and whether or not you have knowledge or interest, you are bound to recognize that in nature’s extravagance. But the other reason, the one that is solely about personal privilege is the fact that the place speaks to my soul.
Maybe it’s because the desert valley wears her antiquity as a badge of human perseverance. There are caves that evidence in picture and symbol of the men and women who traveled the boundary less Americas more than 6,000 years ago. They left their mark in ochre, siennas, and sepia tinged reds on the roof of their shelters at the top of arroyos. At one time they left a small child whose death saddened a family’s heart, her bones still cradled in handwoven mats. I have climbed among limestone, tortured cliffs, and brushed my bare, freckled knees on native rosemary and stinging nettle. I have marveled at the chemistry locked in small buttons of peyote nestled among desert crust and rocks and I have tried to place my life in context to those ancient people.
Maybe it’s the fact that societies have existed in this place, creative in their use and respect of the land. They have mined ancient fossilized reefs for travertine and gypsum for dry wall from sulfur rich sand dunes. They have scoured caves of bat guano and stands of mesquite for fuel and charcoal. Today, they will stand over fire pits where wax from the candellia plant drips into vats, and will pay their family a wage of 150 dollars for a season’s harvest. Men and women, generations of them, have eked out livings in a valley where less than 1 inch of rain falls a year. Nourished by an oasis, fed by waters percolating deep from volcanic fractures, surface pools and wells provide irrigation for a handful of communities in an mountain ringed valley, 700 feet above sea level.
Maybe it’s the sleeping man, a rock structure whose weathering visage suggests a man who, long asleep, and who will continue for much longer to sleep, is a tireless but ineffective vigilante of the valley. I have visited with the sleeping man, many mornings, rocking in a chair where we stay, staring up at him, listening to the crazy roosters, praying a little, letting this place and the spirit that rests in my soul, seep into my heart and bones.
This desert valley is a trying mistress though. This last time, when the sun was hotter than I thought humanly survivable, this time when the desert sand could slow cook a roast if you buried in it, this time when dry winds from an oncoming hurricane whose northern bands brought dust and sand, she made me work hard for the peace she has always been tireless to give before. To be fair, I made it hard on my valley, because I did the worse thing we humans can do, I expected things to always be the same. Life is about change.
I walked the streets, a corner of the square, and realized this little town that has begun to change. I see a few more unusually placed body piercings, a few more young ones sneaking puffs from a cigarette, evidences that we gringos or Hollywood or just life has moved through television and ipods to affect, good and bad, the cultures they fill.
Drinking in the cooling desert night air and longing for something to quench my thirst and ease my heart, I follow the young and old to the paleta shop. Popsicles and ice cream has never really been my thing, I am a chocolate girl after all, but I find that the thought of something icy sounds good in many ways. As I order, I think about Jake being in the Iraqi desert and Josh soon to be there, and the many deserts that we all walk in. The man who serves the paleta is young; he is here every night, his black hair shiny and smoothly combed back. I think he knows very little English, but he has a welcoming smile, one of the kindest, straight from the heart, and peaceful. The ice boxes are full of choices, bright fruity colors that nothing but God could come up with. I know the melon drink will be full of cantaloupe chunks and the coconut will have shaved sweet and oily bits frozen around the familiar stick. There are fancy, full of cream choices with nuts from the region. I choose a mango smoothie. There is nothing like it. I skim the first spoonful from my cup, and let the tangy, orange-colored ice melt in my mouth. What a privildege to take the time to savor this moment. I sit on a bench on the square and watch as young people flirt and old people hobble with stooped shoulders and bent knees. Life’s a journey with a few deserts. Thank God there are paletas. Happy Monday.