Gnawing Worries

(Or: In Which We See the Light)

Rodents chew loudly; I’ll give them that. You don’t have to wonder, after a long day of chores and travel, when the curtains are drawn against a crisp November night while you unwind by lantern light in pajamas with herbal tea and a mystery, whether something is trying to gnaw through the floorboards under the brake pedal.

You know.

Out you go in your bathrobe, flashlight in one hand, spray bottle in the other, to roust out the intruder with peppermint oil and cider vinegar. (Rawr.) After much stomping and spraying, the chewing stops, and you go inside, thinking the intruder vanquished. Just as you relax, the chewing begins again.

But hey—you know when it does.

You might repeat all that a couple of times before you get a direct hit with the vinegar. By then it’s the rodent’s bedtime anyway, so you can both return to your corners for a breather. If you’re stubborn, optimistic, weary, in denial, me, you’ll repeat this two more nights before admitting defeat.

The light—oh, the light. When the sun glances sidelong at the waning day, the very air glows. Colors spark to life. The saguaros seem both close at hand and far away, as if you’re seeing them through a shine of memory. When tales speak of fairy glamour, this is what they mean. You would gladly follow a will-o’-the-wisp of this light into another world.

Image shows a desert landscape with a generous scattering of saguaros. Some of them have no arms, some half a dozen. They are as individual as humans. The sky is huge and blue, the air sparklingly clear. The sun is beginning to set and warms everything with golden light.

This was the second campsite I’d run from in two weeks. The first time, I’d rolled into Las Cienegas with a swagger. I’d been on the road for six months, conquered the Chihuahuas of Worry, and was handling vanlife Like. A. Boss. I left with my tail between my legs, responding to a deep fear whose source remains a mystery. I am still trying to understand what was real and what imagined. I’m safe; that’s all I know. I drove four miles to a busier campground in the Conservation Area, and the fear left completely.

Now I’d arrived, chastened, on Cactus Forest BLM land north of Tucson, only to be gnawed upon in a vulnerable place. Eventually I crossed the road to a quieter area with cleaner fire rings. I put the hood up, spread mint-soaked cotton balls through the engine compartment, squirted tires and insulated hoses with vinegar, put a flashing light under the engine, and hoped for the best.

I had done all that before. With rodents, I find, you can do All the Things—Irish Spring, dryer sheets, mothballs, coyote urine, balsam fir—and they will work so long as the rodents aren’t particularly interested. Once you’re in their sights, they’re coming for you, friend.

I slept the rest of the week with one ear open. I did not unwind in PJ’s or lose myself in a novel. I researched rodent repellants (ha!) and mobile mechanics.

The landscape itself is fantastical. It operates by rules you never learned. Saguaros, towering sometimes thirty feet overhead, stretch all their arms to unknown gods; tree chollas bristle at you. (At the base of each is a warren of rodent holes. Stretching between warrens are highways worn by tiny feet powering perpetual-motion teeth.) Palo verde trees stand here and there, almost leafless, photosynthesizing through their bark. You find yourself craving green eggs and ham, hunting for rhymes with “sneetch,” while coyotes serenade the stars with songs as high and weightless as starlight.

Image shows more of the desert landscape. It is surprisingly lush (to me). Cat-claw mesquite bushes, saguaros, and tree chollas predominate. The chollas are taller than you, with prickly, finger-like branches and dangling fruit pods. They look frazzled, like they stuck their fingers in a light socket.

I worry that the effort of dealing with mechanical failure—and losing my home in the meanwhile—might sink me under the weight of illness and trap me again in a house. I love this beautiful life of discovery, but something as small as a rodent could end it.

I chewed on worry for the week.

Over Thanksgiving weekend the shooting began. You often hear gunfire on public lands, where target practice is permitted. Usually it’s a modest half hour of potshots while people maintain their skills. This began an hour before dawn and kept going until an hour after dusk, twelve hours straight, three days running, pausing only for a pit stop. Single-shot weapons, semi-automatics, fully automatics, small explosives. I felt like I was sitting in a room during an argument.

Even after sunset the landscape glows with unearthly light—clear, as if the planet had no atmosphere; soft with that memory of shine. A gentle, complex palette emerges that you didn’t see in full light. You realize how alive the desert is, that it is everything but barren.

Image shows the landscape at dusk. The “belt of Venus” stretches pink and blue bands across the horizon. The mesquite and saguaros look fresh, almost spring-green in this light, and the sages(?) glow faintly white against the sand.

I’ve lived alone since the last millennium, been isolated in a house for years. I remained part of a network of care, knew my spirit connected across distances to family and friends through strong ties of love. That had seemed enough. I still thought that because I lived alone, I managed the logistics of life alone. “Self-sufficiency” is one of the great American myths, and I bought it, even while living on disability.

I hadn’t realized how much neighbors had contributed to my well-being. Mine had been good ones—not friends, but people you could ask for a jump-start. We kept an eye out for each other, offered rides to the mechanic, made the occasional casserole, propped up the wall between us while we chatted. We were not interdependent, but we shared.

The sunsets—well. Desert sunsets are legendary and need no further praise here. It’s the hour before dusk that taught my heart what light is, to hunger for its purity, to yearn to be absorbed in that glow.

Image shows a saguaro in the foreground, its arms silhouetted against a glowing, orange-y sky as the sun dips behind hills on the horizon.

The week at Las Cienegas had shaken me from serene solitude to frightened isolation. Now, in the distance, a fellow human trained doggedly to destroy other fellow humans. Rodents had gnawed away—yet again—at my self-sufficiency.

Worry picked up where they left off, chewing loudly, persistently, determinedly, until finally it broke through the floorboards of my long-cherished independence. Up through the opening popped this astonishing thought:

“Maybe this is why humans band together in community?”

Ting! The light shone all around.

Image shows cholla fingers backlit by the sun, haloed by hundreds of prickles pointing every which way, all glowing white. A Ting! of lens flare in the upper left brings home the point that the sun is shining, in case you might not have noticed.

That’s what I needed—to find me some sugar-lending, ladder-borrowing, jump-starting, ride-sharing, casserole-making, dog-sitting, wall-propping, coffee-klatching, portable neighbors!

And so the quest began.

To be continued…

Anything

Where did this algae bloom of fear come from?

I have spent my life in love with the sky. With breathing room. I have gloried in being small in vast spaces, found a perspective in them that freed me from fuss and gave me the right to take action. To be out in the open on a grassy hillside, with nothing between me and the sky—that is heaven.

Image shows the sun just touching an open horizon at dusk, with a lone ironwood tree silhouetted in front of it. The sky is tinged with gold at the horizon but blue overhead. Clouds streak it hither and yon.

I have made my peace with silence. After being forced into it for years, I have lost my horror of what I feared was emptiness. It has become a friend that holds me in its embrace.

And I am at home in solitude. It is my native land, my place of fluency and ease.

So what pinned me, quivering, in a serene, open grassland, like a rabbit in a hawk’s shadow?

I had gone for a short walk at Las Cienegas National Conservation Area southeast of Tucson. It is the kind of landscape that sets my heart singing—a gentle one of rolling, interweaving hills and soaring skies. In mid-November, its blanket of sacaton grasses glowed in late-afternoon sun. The bosque of Arizona ash along that great wonder of southwestern wonders—a year-round river—was just warming to gold. In the distance, “sky island” mountains twisted up from the earth, while the hills in the foreground echoed with birds and the cattle on the Conservation Area’s historic, working ranch.

Image shows late-afternoon sunlight turning knee-high grasses on gentle hills autumn-gold in the foreground. Behind them rise knobbly, gray-brown mountains, with pure blue sky in the background. The feathery branches of ironwood trees partially frame the scene.

I had spent the days since my arrival resting. My buggy is a lovely window on the world, and from its shelter the hills had called out. Just across each rise, they promised, a new mystery awaited. Cattle lowed outside my windows every morning, ambled past to the next grazing ground. A kestrel kept watch in an ironwood tree.

When I arrived, I had neighbors one campsite over. I was glad of them. Signs in this border region warn of drug and human smugglers, and I don’t have enough experience to assess the danger. On the second day, the neighbors rumbled away to journey elsewhere. None took their place.

Image shows the sun setting from a different place in the Conservation Area—an over-bright glow disappearing behind mountains blue with distance. The branches of yet another ironwood frame the photo. Dots of texture stipple the foreground where the grasses’ seed heads catch the light from behind.

On the third day, I returned to life and ventured out into this landscape so suited to my heart. I started with a spring in my step. When I turned for home, though, the sight of my van—my world—stopped me cold. It sat alone on that vast plain, a speck of white sand on a tiny island in an ocean of grass. It was so very, very small.

I stood there for a minute, under the huge sky in the silence of high noon. I stood all alone.

The thought hit me: “You are a sitting duck.”

As I said, the border promotes fear. I hadn’t anticipated being on my own in a land tailor-made for traffickers during the week of the full moon. Perhaps I was just jumpy? I didn’t detect an immediate threat; the hackles on my neck stayed low. The anxious hamster-wheel of “what-if’s” lives in the mind and adrenal glands. True fear runs deeper, bypassing the conscious mind to galvanize the body. This fear ran deeper yet, to chill the soul. I was small and alone, and the world was vast and empty. (Meanwhile, cattle lowed. Birds sang.)

I happen to believe that a little existential terror is good for the soul. After returning to the van, I sat with fear for a couple of days to sift through it, sorting what-if’s from reality, imagination from gut, coming to terms with my place in the cosmos. I realized that part of the fear was the sense that, in this nomadic life, anything could happen.

Anything.

With that, my heart leapt high. When I was trapped inside four walls, knowing to the minute what every day would bring, I had withered. The sense that nothing would happen almost brought me to despair. Knowing now that anything could happen—yes, that might be fear. But it also looked remarkably like hope.

Image shows the same scene as the first photo, a few minutes later. The sun has disappeared. The lower clouds streak up at an angle and are orange-red. The higher ones are wispy and charcoal gray against pale, gray-blue sky.

For two mornings I rode that wave, balanced between fear and hope, keenly, painfully aware of the fragile, astounding gift of life. Every morning, the cows ambled by. Birds sang. I came to a delicate truce, where hope and fear shook hands.

Again on the third morning, I went for a walk, while the horizon stretched out on all sides. Again I was pinned with terror. But this time I knew the difference between what-if’s and the now, between body and soul. This time was different.

No cattle lowed. No birds sang.

A pause to listen. Yes, there—in the distance they did. Just the circle around me was silent.

And then I knew the peace of turning tail and running.

To be continued…

Pause

For those of you in the throes of winter, I offer a memory of summer:

Even at 8,500’, the day promised to be warm. Locusts droned from the meadow grasses, cicadas from the piñons. After a pre-dawn rain, the sky had cleared. A sea of golden flowers gave ray for ray back to the sun; among the sagebrush, scarlet gilia burned. Fragrance rose like smoke from the junipers as their resin warmed.

Image shows tufts of dozens of tiny yellow daisies with golden centers, glowing in sunshine. Some poor, benighted soul, who should have read more poetry as a child, named them “rubber weed.” Near Poncha Springs, CO, July, 2021.

I had paused mid-morning to write down some impressions of the last few days. Without the pause, I was finding, time passed in a blur. No bright thread wove the days together into a larger purpose, into a story or even a word I could speak with my life.

The van’s sliding door was open to the breeze. Flies flew in, flew around, flew to the back windows and flung themselves again and again at the glass. (Why can a fly not just leave?) Occasionally I would stop writing to open the back doors to let them escape, but they would not go. With a mile of sky around them, they buzzed against the glass. Eventually, using my fly swatter like a scoop, I would shoo them toward freedom, whether they wanted it or not.

Puffy clouds—the kind that “wouldn’t hurt a soul”—began to rise on the thermals. A raven called, the locusts buzzed. I drank tea and made notes in daydreamy solitude.

Image shows a dangling spray of vivid red flowers, which go by the slightly more poetic name of scarlet gilia. They are shaped like trumpets, but their mouths divide and open out like stars.

Mid-sentence, a bright flash of movement zipped through the sliding door. A hummingbird hovered for the time it took me to gasp, then flew to the back doors, lost. She flung herself again and again against the glass to escape, her wings beating against the windows. I leaped outside to open the doors, but even once they were flung wide, the bird would not go. She was too focused on the glass to sense that freedom lay elsewhere. Her perceptions trapped her.

I can still hear her wingbeats, see the light on her iridescent, emerald back, still see the sun shining through her wingtips when she perched, wings splayed against the glass, on the bottom of the frame and paused in…exhaustion? Despair? For a few seconds’ heartbeats she stayed there—a handful of mine, a hundred of her own—and in that pause she looked around the window instead of through it. A heartbeat later, she was free.

Image shows the view that day from my back doors. Beyond a horizon of blue mountain ranges, the “belt of Venus” glows palely pink just before sunrise. The foreground is in shadow, with a lone piñon tree in silhouette on the left.

I was not aware of “living the moment” at the time. The distress of a tiny creature cried out too intensely for anything but care. But that same intensity etched the moment in memory (the bright eye, the whirring wing, the translucent feathers, the pause). Only later did I stop to look around, to wonder.

To sense the honor of our kinship.