Dec 2. 2017
Beautiful morning to wake up to: 32 degrees, light breeze from the north, a magnificent sunrise peeking over the treetops in the woods across the road.
I put on some water for tea, then went outside to sprinkle a cupful of sunflower seeds on my gravel driveway. Looking out across the prairie, I thanked God for his wonderful creation and then went back inside to sit by the window in my bentwood rocker and watch as the birds drop by for breakfast. The bluejays swoop in almost immediately; I’m convinced they watch from the trees, patiently waiting for me to feed them. They seem to live peacefully amongst themselves in their bird-community, but only to a point: they chase one another away as they jealously defend their one-square-foot of feeding ground.
Today is the first day of shotgun season for deer. The blasts from shotguns in the woods have been echoing off my farm buildings since early this morning. (If I go for a walk this evening, I’ll be sure to wear my orange vest.)
The deer follow a path that comes across the hilltop from the west and goes between the edge of my property and the neighbor’s cornfield. This morning I see a good-sized deer standing nonchalantly in the middle of the road, followed by two smaller ones making their way up the trail. I’m surprised they’re following the trail right into the woods. A few minutes later, I hear a volley of gunfire. My neighbors will have a freezer-full of venison to get them through the winter.
This weather is perfect for jet contrails. When the jetstream is calm, and the temperature at high altitude is around -34 degrees, the contrails can last for hours. I live on the south-to-north and east-to-west air traffic routes, so as the number of contrails increase they make criss-cross patterns in the sky, forming precise geometrical patterns and triangles. I sit in my rocking chair and drink tea and feel as though I’m watching an artist paint a picture on a canvas of blue sky.
Watching the airplanes sparks a memory. Shortly after moving to Salt Lake City in the mid-1970s I awoke one morning, threw some gear in my backpack, drove six hours south to Arches National Park and headed off into the desert.
Arches is a world so different from our everyday lives that you can’t help but feel as though you’re standing on Mars: towering red pinnacles riddled with sandstone arches; a desert floor of fine, red sand that imprints permanent red stains on your white tee-shirts and socks; and skies so clear and so deep-blue that you want to cry like that guy on YouTube who saw a double-rainbow.
The Viewing Area and some easy hiking trails are near the park entrance, but I wanted wilderness: I hiked deep into the 120 square miles of pristine desert that stretches to the faraway horizon. I followed the narrow trail that leads from the rocks to the flatlands, and then I kept on going: I hiked until just before sundown, and set up camp as the stars began to appear in a perfect dome of sky above me.
I didn’t have a tent, because it rarely rains in the desert, and mosquitoes are almost non-existent in the dry air. I found a flat area, moved a few rocks, and rolled out my sleeping bag. I sat down and ate some snack food, drank some water from my canteen, and then stretched out on my sleeping bag. The fading sunlight had long ago disappeared, and now the starlight from a billion galaxies cast a pale, eerie glow across the desert. I felt tiny, like a speck of dust in a vast universe, all alone and surrounded by deep silence. It was a kind of beauty that I’d never experienced before.
But then something unexpected happened: high above me, in the darkness between the stars, I saw the clearance lights of an airplane moving silently across the sky. I felt mesmerized, and my gaze became fixated on those faraway lights.
I thought to myself, “Wow, there are people in that plane.” I pictured the dim lighting in the airplane cabin, flight attendants serving drinks, and smiling passengers chatting with one another.
I began to realize where I was: alone in the wilderness, miles from civilization, far away from friends and family and strangers on the street, and waitresses in restaurants and fellow believers in church and the mailman who delivers the mail; and right then, like a bolt of lightning, I discovered a new emotion: I felt lonely. It wasn’t the loneliness that we feel in our normal everyday lives, where we can pick up a phone and call a friend. This was an abyss of ‘aloneness’ that went deep into my soul.
I began to feel desperate. I wanted so badly to see another person that I rolled up my sleeping bag, threw everything into my backpack, and began hiking across the desert in the darkness. Whatever the cost, I was determined to talk to another person…. I would hike back to the parking lot, jump in my car, and find a convenience store or a late-night restaurant and talk to someone, anyone…
….but I couldn’t find the trail. In the darkness everything blended together, a jumble of sand and rocks. I walked back and forth, up into the rocks and back down, feeling panicked and alone.
I finally gave up. I went back into the desert, rolled out my sleeping bag, and drifted off to sleep.
The sun arose in the morning, and I was okay again. The beauty of the desert and the warmth of the sun drives away the darkness on the inside as well as the outside. I took my time hiking back out, stopped to take a few pictures, and felt happy to be surrounded by nature.
Now, 40 years later, I’m planning another trip to the desert, to the same spot, but this time for three days. I’ve learned a few things, and I know what to expect. And I think to myself, “What a wonderful world”.