Arid is not a word I would use to describe the Sonoran Desert, a land so alive that even the rocks bleed. If seeing is believing, then I believe in hued earth undulate against the flatland, staining this imagination long grayed by Los Angeles pavement the color of gruel. I believe in humble clouds that stoop to humanity, but like fickle gods they rouse into storms that race past me when I am doing ninety. Arid may explain the dirt road I am driving on, the wadi that became of Route 66, but still I see defiant life all around me. Proud saguaro and creosote, creatures that brood in their shade. A calico train snakes through a horizon, like a sidewinder rippling in the afternoon heat. Dali’s delusions imbued in the dust.
I am not sure what to make of thirty-five years of existence packed into the back of my car. Minimalism may be a virtue, but does sixty cubic feet really encompass my entire life? Regardless, I set off from Southern California for seminary and a new life on the East Coast. It has already been a few weeks since I quit my career – for thirteen years my means of living without the benefit of living. I said goodbye to my friends, my family, and people I barely knew who wished me well. It was the closest thing to enjoying my own funeral. And all of that when I cannot explain why I am leaving, except that I am heeding a call – a call that is more like a slow burn of taking my faith seriously, a call that is less Annunciation than a preternatural post-it note that says, Hit the road and I’ll tell you later.
Flagstaff, Las Cruces, Austin, New Orleans, Jacksonville; hug the southern border and then take a left — it isn’t the most efficient route to New England, but it gives me a reason to glimpse a land I have not known. Lord help me, an Asian man alone in the Deep South. Of course, I look forward to Texas barbecue, hitting the French Quarter with a beer in hand, Waffle House, and honing a Southern twang as I shoot through Savannah. But unexpectedly, it is the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico that captivate me and that define my long voyage across the country. With no sound but the drone of the engine and the wind boxing my ears, I shut off the podcasts and the talk radio. I roll down the windows; I breathe and I behold —
One day, I am standing on the lip of a crater to see the sun eclipsed by a black moon. I am surrounded by strangers gazing up with filtered lenses at an event once thought to portend the rise and fall of civilizations. I come away from the experience with an oversized t-shirt. But later that evening, while jaunting through dunes of alabaster sand, I see the same sun tip into the atmosphere, keeling into an indigo mist. Another day, another sun, lost somewhere in the land of the Navajo, I take a detour into a dusty road flanked by wildflowers blazed in brilliant light. I get out of my car and I wonder.
Mesmerizing stuff for this city kid.
But it is the numinous silence that strikes me — the via negativa of knowing God for what he is not — a quiet that draws me in to something greater than myself. Without the chatter, the blitz of needless information, I am stuck only with the noise of my thoughts unraveling, until that all that is left is my empty spool of self and the earth around me. The desert has become my cathedral, a house of God incensed by the petrichor of first rain, and as I peer into the rearview, void mirroring the void ahead, I realize that I am alone. Everything, all the people I knew may as well be on another planet. My quest of a million questions – or just one: Will I ever find the place where I belong or will I always remain rootless? If finding happiness means swapping out parts until you make it all fit, then these years of swapping jobs and apartments, lovers and acquaintances at last made me feel –
Sometimes I wonder why I even unpack.
But the desert is a good friend, its presence endures my meandering and my existential fears. Through my window, the sagebrush blurs into the red clay as I speed past, long brushstrokes across a caked, sun-bleached canvas. As I pass under a small storm, I step into the gas pedal and accelerate through violent rain. I lean into the windshield and look up – I see the underbelly of a gravid cloud flash with violet streaks of lightning. The thunder rattles me. Soon, the rain stops, and the sun once again emerges with its benediction of peace. To my left, an orphaned cloud remains, its precipitation dragging across the formless plain like the train of a flowing dress.
What am I running from? It is said that there is a way of running that resembles pursuit, but whatever it is I am pursuing, I suspect that it will take me into the desert of my own soul, that arid place I fear. There, too, I will move in silence through the naked plain and the fickle storms, bereft of all the demands of this busy world that cry, Urgent! Andin the hued wilderness where only I can tread, perhaps I can breathe and behold – I will name beauty and I will name life. Image of the God who spoke unto the formless earth. I like to think that we each have our own desert, joined at the extremity of our collective fears and of our loneliness. Journey long enough with that hope and we will soon find each other by the sound of our longing, our yearning for affection and dignity.
A zeal common to us all, for the rain and our dreams of green.
Bio: Michael Hahn, a writer and theologian, is based in Massachusetts and specializes in essays and short fiction.
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