“I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams…”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
I sat on top of a giant and it breathed a warm breath that stung the back of my arms and its beating heart was the rhythm of my solitude. A void had opened in the absence of the sun, a sea of sobriety stretching beneath the stars – I swam in it. Between sighs of the wind was silence, and it was in the silence where I dwelled, where I swelled, with peace. The surrealism of my surroundings could not be properly contained or expressed and I sat on top of a giant and was content with its incomprehensible magnitude.
The stars peered between the clouds and the moon lounged near the horizon, basking in the clinging heat of daytime. By myself, I took a handful of sand and rubbed it over my bare feet, and then my arms, wondering how much of the Sahara I could take with me when I left. I held the back of my hand up to the starlight and looked at the minuscule grains of golden sand bleached astral silver, wondering if I could perhaps become apart of the giant itself and simply disappear into landscape, into sand, into wind. It was a tempting idea.
During high school, I read a novel by Tim O’Brien called, The Things They Carried. It is a novel of war and the physiological effects during and after – and it is also a memoir, an autobiography, and a collection of short stories. The fictional characters contained within the novel play with the idea of fiction itself and often tell one another stories. One of these stories is about a girl named Marie Ann Belle. She goes to visit her soldier boyfriend while he is in Vietnam, and within the visit, she is transformed by her surroundings and eventually, goes from being an innocent girl to the embodiment of the war and the primal jungle itself. Within the novel, this is my favorite short story, and now I sit in the Sahara desert contemplating the character of Marie Ann Belle while watching the stars jostle with the clouds for attention.
I am not at war, but there is a peculiar affliction growing inside me. There is a change happening as I adjust to my new environment. I like to think that I am in a constant state of being lost and finding myself. It is odd, really, how that urge exists – to just disappear into the golden sand, to stand up from my position and just start walking until the sun makes its circuit, to change so drastically like Marie Ann Belle. What if a girl who grew up in Midwest America went to the desert and she became a desert nomad? It is an intriguing idea and I am suspicious that somewhere out there, a person succeeded who was not Marie Anne Belle, who was not a fictional character, but was someone who became a myth.
Of course, these are just ideas and the romance of the desert is powerful.
There is magic in the waking world if you want there to be. Adventure can be found in the mundane. You have all of the potential to see things invisible.
I sat near the top of a dune in the Sahara and I watched time spill out of its hourglass when the world was the wind, when the world was reduced to the tip of a pen where multitudes of angels waltzed, when the world faded into the sun shimmering on the horizon, where ribbons of sand snaked gently down slopes and spines before my very eyes. I was outside of time and a witness to time as it was lifted up by the wind and carried away, and I was struck by the sense of eternity trapped here, like the heat of day emitted from somewhere underneath my bare feet. People always talk about mirages in the desert, and before now, I never realized how powerful the imagination could grow when presented a blank, endless canvas. I wanted to be a part of that canvas.
All of this occurred in a forty-minute time frame. After a while, I rose and carefully walked back down to the campsite, where the tents, people, and camels resided. We ate delicious beef tajines and drank mint tea and the tour guides came out with their drums to play. A few stray cats came out of the desert shadows and stalked around the edges of the camp lights, wailing stubbornly for food. At some point during the evening, I snuck around the backside of my tent and scared the cats off. In the dark, we rolled down sand dunes and watched the moon. We even had enough of a makeshift irrigation system to have toilets that flushed. It was an odd mix of the wild and the domestic, of people who shed tears at the morning sun as they drunk large mouthfuls from their plastic water bottles.
The desert excursion only lasted two days, but the memories I collected can fuel me for a lifetime. I already have plans to return and do it again next semester, and I have even greater ambitions of camping out in the desert for at least three full days. After the camping was over and we trekked back to reality, we stopped by a few towns and shopped for fossils and other souvenirs. We didn’t arrive back at the school until almost ten o’clock Sunday night. It has been quite a few days since the trip happened, but I am still finding sand in my bed. I wonder if it came from my backpack or if it managed to spill out of my dreams.
“The desert could not be claimed or owned–it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names… Its caravans, those strange rambling feasts and cultures, left nothing behind, not an ember. All of us, even those with European homes and children in the distance, wished to remove the clothing of our countries. It was a place of faith. We disappeared into landscape.”
― Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient