Entry # 2

Dec. 2015

Duet with a Desert Tree

Do you know I still remember you? We met in passing:  you were one amongst the thousand flurried marvels of those days, I the rare pilgrim on your desert road.  Only the dust and hills, the shrubs and sun witnessed the encounter. Maybe only they can tell who approached whom.

I rattled headlong towards you on a rented bike, road an improvisation of dirt, sand, patches of gravel. At the road’s crumbled edge, the desert began its thousand mile reach to the horizon. I half feared stepping off the road, for what soul could survive getting lost in such austere desolation? There was the whole sky and the bright desert plain. There was the road. There were soft mountains to the east and behind. A few dry, hardy shrubs.  Somewhere high, high overhead, the sun cast its whitest light, chasing shadows down holes and under rocks. Sky and desert seemed bound in an infinite contest for vastness, the suspense of which had everything holding its breath. At the horizons where they collided, the edges shimmered.

And there was wind. It swept the sand clean and filled that vault of sky with wild breezes. It rushed at my face and over my helmet to dry the sweat off my back (later it would blow my weary limbs back to town by twilight). It felt good to be riding a bike again. My legs, cramped from months spent packed into Santiago’s metro and two days crammed into a bus seat, pumped the pedals with abandon. In my backpack was a hand-drawn map of the road leading out of San Pedro; it took me out of town along a Sharpie line and off the page into the desert. At the bike rental, the woman took out a sheet of paper and drew the route in swift, practiced lines. She marked three Xs: “Verás tres árboles, you’ll see three trees.” She saw my question before I asked it. “You’ll know they’re the three because they’re the only real ones out there, you’ll know when you see them.” I nodded. “Go past all three, then right, off the map, and follow the road into the south. Within a few hours you’ll encounter las Lagunas Cejar, then los Ojos de Salar, and finally, Tebenquinche.”
Each day’s roads were something of a wonder to me—the spiderweb lines of maps I had pored over for months now unreeled into something solid and dusty beneath me. Though my body traveled from Santiago to Lima by bus, I had the sensation that I never really moved. The world seemed to pass through me, not I through it. I only watched, shocked-still and wide-eyed, as it swarmed over the horizon and poured onto the sidewalks. Maybe, I wondered, all things move towards each other at such equal relative speeds that encounters are no coincidence at all. Everything whirling, clenching, inhaling, towards itself.

I rode past the town’s last homesteads, past the graffitied bridge, past the first tree (later I would rest inside its wide willow skirt), past the second, past dry creek beds, dodging potholes all the while. You were waiting on the right, twenty feet off the road. The woman’s advice came to mind:  If you get off your bike, leave it by the road. These trees drop needles that can puncture tires. I left the bike by the road and approached on foot.

The sun on the pale desert floor had me dazzled already, the biking had me breathless, and there you were—another life—not another character or stranger, not even a brother or sister soul—but a fellow life amidst all that dazzling bright nothingness.

Upon reaching up to touch your leaves, I knew you were special. They were the same as those sported by the pimienta trees in San Pedro’s plaza, same as the pepper trees in my hometown’s square. Your kind and the occasional palm were the tallest living things around. The plaza’s pimientas stood surprisingly grand for having grown up in the driest desert on Earth. Tall and generous-limbed, they shaded the plaza’s nativity scene; the couple playing guitar; the vagabond and his dog; the tourists with their blatant English, French and German, their shirtlessness at midday, sipping piscos.

For being kin to the plaza’s trees, with their straight trunks and full crowns, you seemed all the more extraordinary because you are everything they are not. Squat, crooked, bark burnt in some parts, bulging protuberances of ugly knots, you lean to the north under the weight of yourself and the wind. Your few branches are ungainly, your sparse foliage a comical topper to a ridiculous figure. Only your leaves are delicate and uniform.

How many centuries have you spent becoming you, before you came to be the dot on my map? How many moons have set over Valle de la Luna in your time?

Yours is another way of being. Your way is still, yet full of movement. In your infinite extremities you are constantly dancing, while below your trunk expands into space millimeter by millimeter, year by year.  You do not hunt, but are always searching, unfurling downwards and about for moisture. To the ants filing through your crevices, you are all the universe they will ever need.

I peered into your gnarled wrinkles, crouched, walked around you with my fingers bumping along your ridges, leaned back to witness your branches and twigs, sang something to strike up a duet. My voice was lost to the booming desert. All was silent: the flat sands stubbled with shrubs, the purple volcano leaned against the sky in the east, the road to Argentina etched onto the magenta mountains. If I held my breath, the only sound was your stirrings. I rested my cheek on your bark and listened:   

Stay awhile in my shade

calm yourself in my pauses

rest from wandering

feel my roots—

and I will show you everything

you have waited to remember

Ojos del Salar

Sara Alura Rupp

San Pedro de Atacama

Because this business of becoming conscious, about being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be?

Anne Lamott

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