I still hold in my mind, all these years later, scene after scene, clear and bright and detailed as a perfect photograph. I see the desert light, golden at dawn, intensely white at midday, red at sundown, and the fathomless shadows where the light didn’t reach. I feel the rock-hard pebbled sand surface through my sneaker soles–despite all wisdom, I could never stand hiking boots. I hear the silence of centuries, of eons, of speechless rocks and long-deserted human habitations and animals with no energy to waste on sound. I smell creosote and piñon, the baking wood of old buildings, the hauntingly mundane Bactine smell of the River. I remember the towns of forsaken dreams–Swansea, Planet, Garlock, Goldfield, Salome. I see the first sun-purpled bottle I ever found, lying under a rusting pipe outside an old mine. I see bats by the thousand flying out of their caves at dusk; a tiny sidewinder S-ing across an old grave; a tortoise under a bush that offers the only shade in sight; moths the size of small birds banging against a trailer’s screen door. I remember warnings of a hundred ways to die for a moment’s carelessness: the bottomless black hole of a vertical mineshaft, its top an immense opening in the level ground; the roads barely wide enough for a vehicle’s wheelbase, with a mountain on one side and a dropoff on the other; rattlers, scorpions, gila lizards; thirst; madness.

Maybe that’s why I took to the desert as soon as I encountered it: it was hard and unforgiving, unpredictable, requiring one always to be on the alert. It was what I knew.

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