My mind is a piece of slate in the desert

My mind is a piece of slate in the desert

By Hannah Phinney

We are driving driving driving through a simplified landscape. The color & texture of ground morphs subtly every fifty miles but always in the distance great swathes of mountainous rock. I am breathing deep-sea breaths and not realizing this, although my mind is a cool piece of slate as I gaze out car windows at the rushing-past of dusty ground, bouldered ground, ochre-coloured ground pockmarked with myriad shrubs like so many fat, hunched little animals bristling against the heat…

We’re in an ugly white Chevy rental zooming across the dusty brown skin of the desert, windows rolled down, eating up her dry earth, watching as she spreads her naked self out before us languorously, shamelessly. Air or Zappa or Johnny Cash cranked up on the radio, and us three in very high spirits. I am talking to Maddie who’s driving and Lyn in the back seat, although it is in fact mostly Maddie who is doing the talking and me the listening and Lyn the dozing… Maddie talks and talks, her mouth is like a machine, she is telling crazy stories of when she was young & dumb. I’m zoning in and out slightly but catch all the important parts. There’s a painful pocket of lead in my lower back but I have chosen a joyful day, chose it with resolution at six fifteen A.M. in the warming tent, and so I am as nonchalant as can be about it, and also breathing the breaths of a meditating sphinx unbeknownst to my conscious self still. The swathes of rock follow us, precede us, hurl along motionless next to us, and a portion of my gaze is on them always. Miraculous, these vast quantities of empty space between me and the mountains. I’m filled with an unfamiliar reverence: this birth country, she is pouring her emptinesses down my gullet, my belly swells with white red & blue… My mind is a piece of slate and my soul feels HUGE here. If I believed in souls. Okay: huge & tiny simultaneously. Huge because everything is expansive & silent, and I am expansive & silent with it. Tiny because microscopic next to the immensity of these geologic spaces, and the terrifying enormity of the sky at night (billion-year light of galaxies & constellations dazzling our eyeballs but numbing our minds because they are cheap instruments and cannot fathom space)… yes, so very tiny is my soul.

We are driving to the Eureka Sands and it is a two-and-a-half hour drive down a dusty, unpaved road choked by rocks. We pass absolutely no one the entire time. Ochre & shale-coloured mountains loom closer and closer… the road cuts through a mountain pass, the dunes are on the other side. Maddie’s mouth opens and closes, she’s recounting an inane story from her early twenties, when she was impulsive and didn’t give two shits about anything. Something in me is breathing the breaths of a slumbering god. Maddie is saying All that coke, and He frost-bit his nose off, and Then the engine caught on fire…

We are ever driving but IN the mountains now. It is mid-day; the sun is hot & broad, and strips the exposed sky of any more saturated blue. Lyn & Maddie & I are wearing cowboy hats and baking through the open windows. Lyn is dressed like female Indiana Jones in long light linen & khaki. The road winds and winds. We come to an area that has flattened out, and see big reddish-brown hunks of machinery lying derelict & rusty a few hundred feet away. An abandoned mine! we say. Car is stopped, yes, a thorough investigation is necessary. Sand fans out, multicoloured, around large, strange canisters, corrugated sheeting, cables & truncated pipes speared into a big mound. There is a large but very sad-looking machine poised precariously on many thin iron spindles. Some small wheels affixed to one side of its corroded tank. The sky now sweating cobalt, the sun at zenith. The sand is pebbly, greenish-yellow and brick and oxidized orange, and I run toward the odd metal shapes and pick up pieces of radioactive rock, feeling like a small child suddenly rich with souvenirs. There is not a single living thing about. No animals, no birds. It is so quiet… the throbbing of the heat is noiseless… I feel as if I’ve lost all hearing. I feel deafness carving slowly into my skull – until Madeline yells to me, and her voice is a unitary slice of sound.

Finally we are pulling up to our destination. The tightness of the mountains has stretched out again to wide-openness, and the road a zipper straight to clumps of creamy yellow that grow and grow. We arrive. There are four other people there, three picnic tables, two cars, one outhouse. Maddie, Lyn & I jump out of the car, we are all ten years old again, and our eyes are fixed on the dunes. They are one self-contained mass, as if trapped within the confines of an invisible snow globe. We stare; we are searching for some other entity or substance to put their size and shape and grade into context. Without a contrasting agent, the eye swims, lost, and the mind gnaws itself. For they are so smooth, their curves & peaks so subtle, their creamy yellowness so uniform that their dimensions are utterly unguessable from afar. The eye drowns in optical illusion, the mind gnaws, confounded.

Wind is whipping violently about. Maddie & I tear off our shoes, stash them under a shrub, and ready ourselves for a climb to the highest dune peak (Lyn detests the wind, she is not coming with us). We cannot guess even approximately how long it will take. Of the others here – a family – two have just returned from the peak, and I speak to the adult son, who says breathily and gleefully (every one of us sporting a farcical shit-eater, we’re strangers in the way seven humans would be strangers if they were suddenly dumped on Mars – that is to say, not at all) that their round-trip trek lasted a healthy hour plus. An hour plus! The highest peak gleams beatifically down at us, a monstrous golden nipple thrusting at the sky.

So we make a dash at the base. Our feet melt into the warm sand… and already the wind, carrying an army of particles in its gusts, is sidelining into our nostrils, eyes, hair, blasting our bared limbs. We climb, laughing maniacally, eating fistfuls of sand, struggling to move upward on a surface that is not a surface, that falls away under each step, and our footprints disappear near-instantly… we have no reality, we are allowed no mark-making, and it must be also that the wind & the dunes have a special agreement: that the contours remain exquisitely smooth, and the shapes in eternal alignment with anciently pre-specified angles of ascent. Hundreds of feet we climb! Breathless the whole while, awed and delirious. Now within spitting distance of the ridge, and the incline is sharpest yet, so nearly vertical… we are blinded by sand, scrabbling to the top, laughing laughing laughing, and as we reach our goal, my legs give out from under me, and I collapse on the crest, stupefied. MORE! There are miles & miles more. Another world lies before us. The dunes go on and on… windswept waves, monochrome & stunning, far as we can see and beyond. I am choking delightedly on my disbelief. Madeline saying Oh my god Oh my god Oh my god. Certainly just ship-descended onto some deep exospace planet. These memories of the climb, the driving – implanted. Certainly, we are the most intrepid of inter-galactic adventurers! And then this enormous, barren flat landscape on which the sands have seemingly been dropped, surrounded on all sides by exposed rock mountains, whose striations, whose solidity & darkness provide stark contrast to the transience of form, the softness, the lightness of the dunes. It is more magnificent than I can bear.

We are sand-marked for two days following. I find it in curls of ear, crunch particles randomly between my back teeth. Feel it stuck to parts of my scalp underneath the hair, despite repeated showering. A full exfoliation of face & head & limbs has taken place. My mind, too, has been exfoliated.

And so once again I am plugged into the chaos of my grad school & working lives, re-plugged into the manufactured, claustrophobic sensory overload of the city… and I ache with my whole small coil-sprung body to return to the desert. But I run images through my mind, a constant, slow-moving backdrop of monochrome landscapes, of monstrous, cleansing, silent monotony, and I am able to breathe. Things are so much bigger and more majestic than all this little pile of crap life.

Hannah Phinney is a bartender, a graduate student in linguistics at San Francisco State, and an aspiring writer of semi-surrealistic/sci-fi/postmodern fiction. Her poetry and prose can be found at:

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