Hallowed Ground

June 2017

Monument Valley, Utah

Monument Valley, Utah

If you don’t love this place, it can be dangerous. But if you do, your heart it will keep.
— Jimbo Scott, "The Parklands"

Thick skin, rough edges, and a whole lot of grit.

That’s what it takes to live in the desert. The cactuses know it and so do the lizards that retreat in the shade beneath their limbs. The scorpions know it too, and so do the rattlesnakes and the hardened cowboy-types rolling in and out of wind-worn towns that pepper the unforgiving landscape of the American Southwest.

Among the desert-dwellers, there is a deep respect for the land. There has to be. The hellish heat of the day is interrupted only by the dramatic chill of the night. Only the chatter of cicadas and some wiry, durable birds pierce the brittle air, breaking the otherwise vast and oppressive silence. Rainfall is scarce and nearly everything that has roots also has spines. A life in the desert void of precautions—or distinct evolutionary advantages—is probably a short one.

It’s difficult living for everyone, but the same dust covers everyone’s boots. And if you’ve got the backbone to stay, you’ve earned your place.

The word “solidarity” isn’t exactly descriptive of the relationship between people who occupy the sun-saturated Southwest, but there is a certain sort of respect, not unrelated to the respect that is attached to the land itself. Because whether you work as a make-believe sheriff in Tombstone, Arizona, a chili farmer in Hatch or a Border Patrol agent outside El Paso, you’re still there. You get up every day and leave the shade of your doorway knowing there’s no abundance of foliage out there to shelter you from the relentless rays of the sun.

Sappy steel guitar melodies drifted out the wooden doors of the Starlight Theatre in Terlingua, Texas. A group of leathery Woodstock desperados loitered near the entrance, laughing loudly and lazily nursing bottles of Lone Star. An abundance of bolo ties, tie-dyed shirts and elaborately-braided white facial hair. One short, squinty-eyed man recognized an old friend from below the wide brim of his hat.

“I thought that was your van out there!” he hollered at a lanky fellow with a bandana headband and a mess of necklaces hanging over an old cutoff concert t-shirt.

“I was in need of an attitude adjustment,” Necklaces offered by way of explaining his presence in town. A strange admission, perhaps, for someone so late in life. Attitude adjustments tend to be associated with rambunctious toddlers and rebellious adolescents, spoken of by parents and not by the child in question.

“This is a bit of a reset for me,” Necklaces went on, “Yeah, just hitting the reset button. I’m working at the music festival.” He showed off his wristband.

“No kiddin,” Squinty Eyes replied, “I’ve never been, myself, but I hear the music’s pretty damn good.”

“Oh yeah,” Necklaces said, “You oughtta come out.”

Squinty Eyes promised he’d try.

Miles away in Marfa, an attractive, 30-something brunette arrived home and unlocked her front door, dully illuminated by the soft golden porch light. It was quiet inside. She flipped on a light, kicked off her brown leather heels and locked the door behind her. Words tumbled around in her brain, orders from the restaurant, then lines from her tour guide spiel.

Judd chose the color often for its lack of narrative association.

He said he didn’t learn much from the process of fabrication and felt others were better at it than he was.

 Lots of Marfa locals work more than one job to cover the high cost of living. People come here for a change of pace, to get away from their lives elsewhere. Everyone here has an interesting past.

The jokes she was used to making.

This is the ninth place I’ve lived in twelve years. I came for vacation and never left.

My mom is afraid I’ll do the same thing when I go to Mexico, because apparently, I like to run from my problems instead of facing them!

Delivered with a lighthearted laugh and a biting shot of truth.

The arid desert landscape ironically serves as a bit of an oasis, an oasis from the pressures of achievement or the regret of mistakes, away from the tangles of an unshakable reputation.

Some of the more formidable regions of the Southwest begin to foster collections of mankind’s most interesting characters, a menagerie of poets and outlaws and scientists and millionaires and vagrants. Because neither failure nor success will chase a man that far, and the ground is too rocky for roots anyway.

The landscape lacks mildness of constitution necessary to merit the use of adjectives like pretty or quaint. Awe-inspiring and intense. Captivating, fascinating, and powerful. But it’s not exactly “pretty.” Certainly not a roaringly-popular luxury retirement destination or a trendy honeymoon spot, but if you learn to listen to its rhythm, you might find that your heartbeat slows to match its pace.

It’s like this: when you glance at a night sky, you see a high black ceiling cluttered with static points of light, points that appear to be motionless and inactive. You have to look a little longer to see them twinkle and flicker and move to some universe tempo. If you maintain your gaze even longer, you might see one sail across the sky.

At that first glance, the desert can seem barren and void. But look a little longer, and you’ll see the wild beauty of the land.

You’ll become overwhelmed by the fiery sunrises that awaken the towering rust-colored mesas of southern Utah. You’ll marvel at the unlikely presence of proud cactus blossoms, boasting water stored within. You’ll notice little paw prints in the dusty ground and wonder how anything can live in that heat without a tall thermos of water and some trail mix, at least. You’ll see 10,000 cactuses before it occurs to you that they’re all so strikingly different. There is such diversity in the wildlife.  Really, you’ll be amazed.

Art invariably reveals something of the artist. No one who sees the frescos that adorn the Sistine Chapel walls will deny the talent and dedication of Michelangelo.

The sheer intensity of the Southwest says—screams, actually—of the power and creativity of the One who created. The hand of God left its mark in the carving of Arizona canyons and in the absolutely anomalous existence of oases in the rocky hills of Southern California. The desert whispers of His lavish mercy and staggering attention to detail. For an omnipotent deity to create a climate that just barely meets the conditions necessary to foster human life speaks of the tension that exists between His unfathomable power and immense and inexplicable love for the human race.

Cathedrals are put to shame by the intricate, expansive chambers of the caverns hidden beneath rolling, cactus-covered hills in New Mexico. The supernatural, otherworldly weightlessness of the caves is unlike anything besides those carefully-erected places of worship.

One cannot help but feel that the place is sacred.

It’s untamed and, at times inhospitable, but the American Southwest has long captured the affection of those who gave heed to its vibrancy and magnificence. It’s place like no other. It’s hallowed ground.