A Day in the Desert

by Thomas J. Hardman, Jr

Yesterday, I spent the day in the desert. I was drawn by strange forces...

It all started in an ordinary enough manner. I got in my car, and went to the gas station, and got a half-tank of gas, and bought a pack of cigarettes.

The Navaho lady at the gas station took my money, and I tried to engage her in a little very small talk, something to the effect of it sure is cold outside, and she just gave me this weird sort of look, gave me my change, and muttered something that probably had the meaning of Crazy White Boy. Rumor has it that if two Navaho have seen you, they'll both start talking about you. Of course, this is true of anyone anywhere, but here, they evidently have a penchant for making up names for people, since I gather that they think it rude to talk about a person using their real name, they make up some pretty descriptive names. Since they're probably speaking Navaho, you never know when you're being ranked upon right to your face, unless they like you enough to let you in on the joke. I can't speak it myself, Dineh Bizaad being basically an impossible language, but I can understand it pretty well. (I am a polylinguist, and studied Dineh just 'cause it's so difficult) It turns out that my "name" is something like Eastern White Man With Many Loose Screws, or Wacko, something similarly flattering. Perhaps the best translation is something like "Desert-Rat-Wannabee"... like who the heck in their right mind would actually want to drive a hundred miles out into the desert, just to sit on top of a big hill and look at stuff?

Well, I can't include within this description a lovely picture of the beautiful Painted Desert, with the Shiprock towering skyward out in the middle of a lot of flat nothing, or the looming Lukachukai beyond it, or the La Plata, San Juan, and Sangre de Christo mountains, all of which are easily visible with just a turn of the head. I can easily see over a hundred miles in any direction, and at night, it's well worth the fearsome chill of the thin desert winds. There are uncountable stars, constellations I learned of in the city library, but had never before seen.

These local folks may well be jaded by so much scenic grandeur that they'd rather crouch within some cheap excuse for a minor metropolis than sit out in the middle of God's Own Creation (or they may be fleeing some of the worst poverty in the Western World, most likely this last), but I personally find total solitude out in the desert almost as exhilarating as being chased down a crack alley in Southeast DC. Not quite so threatening, though. The worst thing that could happen to you in the desert, so far as people go, is that some oil-field crewmember might stop to see if you were stranded, see if you needed a ride back to town.

Anyway, this Navaho lady is giving me the eye that means: Ol' Screwloose is headed out to the desert again, maybe he'll get stuck out there and I won't have to listen to him talk about the weather no more... so I grin at her, and head for the cheese-mobile.

It'd only be cheesier if I were to paint it yellow. This is a '75 VW bug, it's sat on the lawn for two separate winters, and it has always started with just a push of a button. (Ignition-key starter-switch is long fried.) It has a couple of features that have made it worth keeping, even putting money into... it has no radiator, being air-cooled. Ideal for desert... won't overheat. It has big fat 15" tires, stock, and I have always bought small-truck tires for it. It has also got about the most trouble-free suspension ever put on a car. It has a totally bad paint-job, and more dents than you could throw rocks at without actually straightening it out... and it has the most awesome delivery of an oversized 1.8- liter Volkswagenwerk AG fuel-injected flat-four power through the "granny-gear" from Hades... I can go up hills that would kill dirt-bikers.

I once took it up a hill that was so steep that, well, ya see, I was really drunk at the time, and had this two-fifty pound buddy in the passenger seat, and we finally made it to the top (it took over a minute of screaming up this buried pipeline right-of-way, engine howling in first gear), we decided to stay awhile. Mostly we decided to hang out and finish the case. We didn't figure that any cops would casually happen by... So we got really wasted, and when we woke up the next morning, we decided that we had only gotten up the hill alive due to the grace of God and angelic intervention. We were also gifted with merciless hangovers and were miles from town. And there was no way in Hades that I was going to try to drive that car down that hill with all of these spots before my eyes...

So we had to hike back into town for cigarettes, a hangover cure, and more beer. There was no way in Hades that I was gonna try getting that car back down that hill sober.

As we walked, my companion began to regale me with local tales of power, lameness and jive. He told me the tale of the Albuquerque Police, who evidently wait for conventions, looking upon them as sources of revenue as the Hebrews looked to Heaven for manna... evidently the entire female police cadre dresses in fetching garb, and hangs out at the convention center. Thus came about the phrase, "Land of Enchantment, land of entrapment. Come on vacation. Leave on probation..."

Anyway, there's evidently more reasons that they call this the Land of Enchantment than the mere grandeur of Nature.

According to this buddy of mine, there's the old origin-tales of the locals. Evidently, this was a sacred land set aside for these people by the elders of a more powerful, godlike race who brought them through what translates in Science Fiction terms to a transdimensional gap, brought them from a world grown "evil" to this lovely but desolate place. The Navaho have a concept, from what I have been told, which is somewhat akin to the Oriental concept of chi, of a harmony, a oneness with things around one, and this applies to spirit forces, pantheistic animae which surround and permeate the very land. It is very important to not antagonize those forces which, as St. Anthony could tell you, exist in desolate places.

Could it truly be that our (human) shared belief-systems and worldviews actually have some force that they exert upon our shared reality? They say that one doesn't usually have an ability to recognize something that one has no word for, like if you have no word for triangle, you don't automatically categorize triangular objects as members of the class of objects having three sides... has something to do with the priority levels assigned.

Perhaps in our mundane worldview, shared and acted upon as it is by so many of us, in such population-pressured zones as our cities, we simply have no word for certain forces... and having locked such things out of our worldview, such things find no hospitable environment... but perhaps in the desert, where there might be more of those unrecognized forces than there are people, might not the shared disbelief of those forces in people tend to cause a reversal in the order of things?

Such was the gist of our conversation as we walked, though rather less concise or literate. We were, after all, suffering the merciless hangover that cheap beer and dehydration will give to one, and we were slogging through sand at high noon in the blistering sun as it shone from a cloudless sky... soon enough, though, we reached "civilization" and a convenience store, where my money changed from worthless green paper to a medium of exchange convertible to about a gallon of Gatorade, two gallons of water, and a half-gallon of Jack Daniels.

We continued to my house, and there we sat around, watched the game, and talked a lot of jive. Among other things, we decided that there was precious little chance of anyone stealing my car, and we seriously doubted that it would get towed away by anything less than an Army helicopter. We mostly sat around and waited for the sun to go away. The sun out here makes anyone without built-in tans basically burn like Dracula, and we'd gotten a good dose on the way in, so we just sat and moped, and eventually our hangovers had gone away, and we again desired to drink alcohol. So we did. And at about sundown, we sallied forth to retrieve my cheesey bug. Sunset on the desert is a particularly magical time, as that is the time when all of the life comes out and lives before the chill of night drives it back into its burrows. So we had to look alive as we trudged... the sidewinders are certainly mysterious. They sort of sit there and watch you, and then they decide that maybe they should go, and zip off like a spring rolled across a floor. God they're weird. The scorpions basically squish under your boots, so all you have to do is not go picking up rocks.

Eventually we got to the car, and not a moment too soon. We had taken the low road to my parking spot, and I was amazed that it had climbed the hill. About fifteen minutes later, I was amazed that I had climbed the hill. Eventually, though, I had quaffed enough JD to consider actually trying to get the car down.

There was no way. This was the only route onto or off of the little bluff where my car now sat, looking like some mad used-car dealer's knock-off of those famous commercials of yesteryear. I brooded, and did it aloud, blistering some of the already peeling paint off of my car. This was looking about as hard to undo as the infamous West Point prank where the graduating corp of engineers had assembled a Jeep atop the desk of the Dean of Engineering, as a final act superglue-ing all of the bolts together to prevent disassembly... I began to call upon deities mighty and weak, and to regale the spirits to do something about that damned Volkswagen...

I paused for breath, and looked around. My buddy was looking at me with a rather aghast expression. I asked him why the weird looks, and he said something to the effect of, didn't I remember the talk we had about the closeness of the spirit world, this far out in the boonies? Sure, I said, I remember. I'm supposed to take that seriously? His look told me that I really, really should have taken him seriously. I was pretty smashed, so I didn't care, and told him that unless the spirits could help me get my car offa this damned bluff where there wasn't even room to turn around so as to not have to drive bass-ackwards into the unknown off of the Devil's own hill, the spirits could basically go screw...

"Now," he said, "you've gone and done it."

The air began to shimmer. It was now near dark, with only the reddish glow of reflected sunlight leaching the horizon to a bloodshot hue, and the shimmering could not be totally discounted as heat-mirage. The mountains loomed against the horizon, and suddenly I felt very, very alone. Perhaps there was something to the idea of living amidst smog-choked massproduced Levittown clapboards... perhaps the shared disbelief in animistic spiritual forces was suddenly preferable to the desolate beauty of the desert... perhaps it was better to huddle with the masses of opiated churchgoers, better to believe in a God created whole-cloth in Man's image... Better that then to believe that there were spirits slowly gathering, condensing out of whatever realm it was that they normally inhabited, coalescing to whirl about us like a softly glowing whirlwind through which flitted half-glimpsed images of the beings from legend into which they had once been shaped by the belief systems of the ancient locals...

It occurred to me that these beings might be, if not exactly amenable to reason, perhaps shapable by force of will? I have heard that the spirits mostly crave to be noticed by physical beings, and indeed, it might well be that they conformed themselves to the conceptions of those who could notice them... hence the half-seen resemblances to beings out of legends which I had never heard... Perhaps they really were "there", and perhaps they could become, as in the words of Carlos Casteneda, "allies".

I looked over at my buddy, who was not quite cowering, and he whispered, "don't believe in them... it only makes them more real..." Not much help there. An idea suddenly struck me...

"Wing it," I muttered half to myself. So I poured about half of the remaining Jack Daniels (wasn't much left, anyway) out to the four winds. Strangely enough, very little of it seemed to reach the ground. The strange four-dimensional dance of amorphous godlings half-glimpsed became both more clear, more "real", and more disorganized. I lit a cigarette and threw it into the "whirlwind" and watched it hover, twirling, burning, as if smoked by invisible shamans... when it flew back into my hand, I was hardly surprised. I drew heavily on it, and it seemed as if there was more substance to the smoke, as if there was a spirit-flesh on top of the cheap generic tobacco.

I began to dance. Last time I danced this way was when I had just had my butt kicked by some anti-racist Jewish Skinheads from New York in 1982 in DC. I had then gone to the nearest punk bar, coated my hair with soap, drunk three Long Island Iced Teas, and slammed down a six-pack of Pauli's, and slammed the DJ booth to the thrashest sounds of the Dead Kennedys for about three hours straight (and was hired on the spot)... The whirlwind seemed to halt its whirling for an instant, and then it settled back into its incomprehensible gyrations. After awhile I got really tired, and stopped dancing, and the whirlwind seemed to slack off also. It was full dark, but there was a sort of invisible glow coming from what had looked like a whirlwind, or a column of smoke, which now looked like a pillar of a dark fire, illuminating the desert hilltop with an invisible light that cast no glow, but instead brought a light that could not be easily seen with any but the inward eye...

"Maybe I am getting the hang of this," I thought, beginning to get cocky.

The wolves appeared.

There are no wolves in this part of New Mexico. It seems that they have almost all, except for a protected strain of the Lobo, found only in the south, been hunted and trapped out of existence. So who could these wolves be? "Oh, shit," my compadre moaned, "you done called th' Skinwalkers."

The Skinwalkers are the local equivalent of witches, or vampires, or physical ghosts, strange beings which may or may not be living people, but are given to evil gestures and practices. They are rumored to shoot tiny darts into people, darts made of the bones of plague victims, and to practice incest, and poison watersupplies, and generally do all of the things that can make other people quite miserable. They also are attributed with powers such as extremely rapid motion, perhaps even flight, and from some of the tales my buddy had told me, they can be not only mean, but annoyingly so... purportedly devotees of Coyote, the Trickster, who is not a great fighter, but loves to make you hurt yourself... dressed in the skins of wolves, they might howl outside of the door of your shack in the old days, just so that you'd be afraid to go outside and you'd have to pee your pants and live with the smell until morning. Wonderful folks.

"Whaddaya think we ought to do?" I asked, and he simply got in the car, and shivered. So I thought to the spirits, nice meeting ya, fellahs, but I gots to go now... and I got in the car myself, took one last hit off of the eighth-full bottle of Jack, and took the brake off, hit the starter button, and began to roll towards the edge of the grand abyss. "You ready for this, dude?" My nameless friend opened his eyes for a second. I leaned out of the window to try to see where I was going, and the wolves crowded closer. I tried to back and fill, and actually succeeded in getting the front of the car aimed at the rutted, eroded path that we'd followed up the hill. The whirlwind seemed to be gathering itself to take off, and I begged it not to leave, after all I had more Jack Daniels left, and more cigarettes. I prayed hard, and let out the clutch.

The car lurched over the brink, and as the front end dropped enough to see what I was getting myself into, I realized that I was not only drunk, but insane. It had to be at least three hundred yards down to the flats, and the grade seemed to have suddenly increased from forty percent to more like fifty degrees. With the brakes fully locked, I was sliding slowly down the hill, traction fading by the moment, and gathering speed. My buddy was trying to eat his own fist, and I myself was torn between heart failure and stroke... I decided to bail. "Out," I yelled at him, and waited for him to jump. "No way!" he exclaimed, "Out there with them?"

Laughing wolf teeth were barely visible all around us, but the glowing eyes could not be disregarded. I decided not to bail. The car continued to skid, trying to turn its backheavy rear to the downhill, and at this angle, the car would definitely roll if it turned sideways. All there was to do was to ease up on the brakes slightly, and to try to maintain just enough control to keep us pointed directly downhill. After all, at the bottom of the hill was a lot of mostly soft scrub, some sand dunes, and then the bottom of the dry wash... where I suddenly remembered was to be found much quicksand.

The VW from hell was gathering speed, evidently trying to get back to hell. It seemed that it wanted to take us with it, and I remembered that the Skinwalkers usually don't hurt you directly, they try to get you to do their dirty work for them... no blood on their hands, and the guilt is really all yours... and I had played into their hands. The car bounced off of the path, beginning to skitter, but we were almost a third of the way down.

Then the wind came. It blew up out of the flats, up the canyon, and up the hill. It was one of those phenomenal desert winds that slam up out of nowhere, headed again for nowhere, but anything in their path gets, well, pushed around. The images of wolves faded in the blast of sand, and I was sure that we would be blown off of the hill, but the blast seemed to be coming from directly in front, and the car had stopped skittering... and the blast seemed to turn from a straight-line howler into... - well, whaddaya know...- a whirlwind, right at the front of the car. I let the clutch out again, and forced the car through the winds down onto the flat. As suddenly as it had started, the wind died... all except for the dancing of the winds at the bumper of my car... which jostled and whipped like the mane of a racing stallion.

"I can't believe that it's over," my buddy said. "Remember that I told you that there was a point of the 'North American Satanist Pentagram' about ten miles north of town?"

"Yah," I answered, and followed his pointing arm up to the top of the bluff from which we'd just descended... the top of the bluff had a big columnar rock above where the car had been, and its flat top was bathed with an eerie bluish glow... St. Elmo's Fire, no doubt, reradiating a static charge engendered by the freak desert wind that just blown through... "I recognize that rock from descriptions... that's the point. That's where they keep finding sacrificed goats. It's supposed to be a focus for spirit powers, and a place to call demons."

"Shades of H.P.Lovecraft," I said, "what next? Elder Gods? Should we wait around for Chth-mmmfff," his hand was over my mouth, and he screamed above the noise of the rushing, stationary whirlwind, "Don't you fer-Christ's-sake ever learn anything!?" I stopped trying to talk, and he said, "Let's just get the hell outta here..." I nodded, and he released me. The whirlwind continued to dance glowingly. "One more for the road," I said. I think he followed my gaze, and he nodded, and I got out of the car, and looked inquiringly over at him. He just shivered again, and remained where he was.

I thanked the strobing half-seen images whose names and tales of power I knew not, for their assistance, and told them that I was just a lost stupid white boy who didn't have any idea what he was messing with and thank you very much, gotta go, and I lit a cigarette, and threw it into the air where it was caught and smoked, and I took another hit off of the bottle of Jack, and threw it also into the air. The amber liquid seemed to drain right out of the bottle, which flared with light, and seemed also to expand, and then condense... and suddenly my hand grasped a palm-sized sphere of smooth warm glass, and I thanked the spirits again...

We drove back towards town rather uneventfully from that point on, and when I remarked about the experience, my buddy simply said, I just want to forget it ever happened. In fact, he continued, it never happened at all, in fact, it couldn't have happened...

As I was dropping him off at home, I couldn't help remarking that considering how drunk we had been the first night...

"Yes?" he said dangerously...

"Well, since it took spirits to get us up that hill, is it any surprise that it took spirits to get us down?"

I popped the clutch, and I was whipping the corner by the time he'd found a brick to throw.

And at home, within a strangely warm sphere of crystal-glass, I watch tiny half-glimpsed figures out of legends I have never heard dance their tiny stories out for me, tales told within glass, moved by an unfelt whirlwind.

And I forgot to mention this: Now that my stupid buddy went and told a Navaho friend of his, now they all have a new name for me:

Drinks Jack With Gods.

brought to you by AA.

Welcome to the Land of Enchantment.

Perhaps you'd like to read other stories?

Copyright July 1992, all rights reserved, by TJ Hardman, Jr.