JACK MARTINEZ is a writer based in Missoula, Montana. He studied classical languages at Stanford University. He is currently at work on a novel set in Montana’s Little Belt Mountains.
There is a stream wash in the deserts of Southwestern Utah. Red clay ravines vein between scrub patches.
I have a map which is less useful than an inked palm sweating, and I lose the trail once I reach the stream. Knowing that the stream leads to cold springs, I follow it —first on the bank, then wading in the water when the bank becomes too blocked by rocks and brush. Far up the stream the terrain of the wash recedes, and I pass into a landscape of high plateaus and rusty cliff faces and sharp-peaked mountains pressing against the sky distantly.
Yet with all this grandeur around me, I am now most conscious of the cool water around my calves, and of staying balanced in the current, and of the soft and rippling sand streambed that I can see perfectly through the clear surface.
When a bubble floats by, the sunlight goes through the bubble and refracts onto the streambed, making the cross-like shape of a twinkling star. I look down at the stars, gently moving over the sand and disappearing when they pass over rocks, silent, and an old friend’s voice floats through my head like another bubble…
This is the most beautiful place—Can you feel the sun?—Don’t you just want to drink the sun?—Wouldn’t you want to be a tree?—Doesn’t it make you think—it makes me think—there is some order to things—and God loves us—to have made this land—to have put us here—make this so we can see it—
…and I think about how long I’ve craved silence, and how for silence you have to walk in these places alone.
My friend’s sentiments intend to give comfort, and assurance of the existence of something abiding; but that loud thoughtstream, which is really desperate for safety, transports me back to a circle of concerns I have, especially this one: that I am here for a second in the mind of the desert and forced to sweat in the short hours of the day to make a living in towns and cities, big or small but always full of concrete and car exhaust—how I hate cars, though I’ll spend a large part of my life in or around them. And I might believe this wilderness had been made with me in mind if I had not come from the highway in a car, was not to return there in one.
Still, I’m here now. No one watching, but watching with my own eyes, and that’s good enough. Isn’t it? I get to look. I look up from the water at the canyon. There’s the high red rock, impossibly high, and here are my feet sinking in sand. Yes, in the cool water surrounded by the floating stars and the shade of mountains, the stream like one snaking oasis in the desert—isn’t this Enough?
I’ve learned to recognize Enough-ness. When I’m silent with the world, seeing something you never could in a city—an ocean, a mountain glacier, a vast desert—a column of air rises in me and comes out in total contentment, and this breath is like a single word to the creation I’m seeing, which says more than all other words.
When I reach the springs I fill my plastic water bottle. My hand presses down on the soft moss. The moss has filtered the water and made it clean.
I’m conscious that without this water bottle the desert would not hesitate to drink the life out of my throat. The red rims of rock around me call to mind an image of a sandy Roman arena. I’m glad to have the water bottle, to feel the cool spring water on my hands and to see every drop of water falling into the container as the darkness advances in infinite increments, and I remember when I walk away from the stream and sit down in the sand that there’s no greater comment upon beauty than silence. These things exist to not speak, and to not be spoken to. And the time you have to join them is not an escape into some landscape you were intended for; it’s the borrowing of a silence, briefly, from one of the few remaining gardens that still exists after some unknown Fall—not so much from paradise as from the mere possibility of prolonged silence.
I sit alone now on the sandy bank of the stream as it gets cool, with my tent pitched and comforting to look at, evoking thoughts of warmth.
I pass the time that way for two evenings, before I have to go back to loudness. I don’t look back from the trailhead, because it’s not going away; this place is there and Enough, and it would be Enough even if I were not here, had never been, and it would be Enough in the morning and afternoon and night, perfect in long stretches of silence.
What I feel is one part sadness that I can’t be in nature forever. But there’s another part which is happiness, because nature is there forever, and I was there for a moment, and I still try to picture stars on a streambed when I look at concrete, and that has to be enough for me.
Published: November 24th, 2016