“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
From my blog (I called it an “Online Journal” then), The Daily Epiphany, Sunday, August 12, 2001 – Exactly twenty years ago.
I had a leisurely day today – an actual quiet morning home with Lee while Candy took Nick to a soccer game. This was the last game of their Classic League Tournament – they won today, but still fell short of making it into the league, they were tied for 21st in the tourney with the top twenty teams going making the grade. I did some errands around the house and then packed, getting ready for a flight to Tucson, where I’ll be most of next week.
I decided to leave for the airport two hours before the flight (I hate having to rush for a plane, plus with the craziness that is DFW airport, you never know) but when I was almost there, Candy called me on the cellphone, she had locked her keys in the MiniVan at a birthday party with the kids. She borrowed a car and sped across the top of the city while I doubled back. We met at a restaurant where I pushed my Van key through the window and immediately headed back to the airport.
I still made it in plenty of time… and the flight was delayed too. The flight was packed, overbooked. It was a shame I had an important early meeting scheduled because they were offering three hundred fifty bucks to bump people, and I was sorely tempted. I’m a good corporate drone, though, so I boarded on time.
They had nice little headphones stuck into the magazine pockets on each seat. The armrests had the music, though the quality was bad. I remember when airline headphones were simply twin transparent plastic tubes that conveyed sound from tiny speakers concealed below holes in the armrests. Now, they looked like quality miniature headphones with a standard plug – inside the black plastic headband, though, was black writing.
Please do not remove from airplane. Will not work with home equipment.
I wonder why (or if) they won’t work with home equipment. The plug sure looks the same. There are left and right channels and a center ground, three connectors. I wonder if they manufacture these with the order of the connectors on the plug different than on home equipment. I considered getting my laptop out and trying the thing out, to see if the airline headphones really truly don’t work. I was too tired and this guy was crammed in to close next to me so I didn’t bother.
I’ve never been to Tucson before, never been to Arizona. Walking from the baggage carousel to the rental car I passed a big Saguaro and realized I’d never seen one of those in real life before, either. I’ve always had a soft spot for cactus and was unexpectedly impressed with the beauty of the giant spiny things, the symbols of the desert.
After the flight, I was groggy leaving the rental lot and missed the turn that curled back to the terminal and main airport entrance. Before I could think about it, I was out in the desert on roads that went who knows where. I would have liked to enjoy the scenery, but it was pitch black, desert night black. I made a couple turns on instinct alone and was very happy to see a stretch of lighted palm trees and then my hotel appear out of nowhere.
I checked in, and fell into the sleep of the dead.
“Ice contains no future, just the past, sealed away. As if they’re alive, everything in the world is sealed up inside, clear and distinct. Ice can preserve all kinds of things that way – cleanly, clearly. That’s the essence of ice, the role it plays.” ― Haruki Murakami, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
One day later.
I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.
I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.
Here’s another one for today (#94) Almost There! What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.
Thanks for reading.
Ice Machine in the Desert
Chris DeLoama tried to relax and stifle a cough. A child’s soft rubber ball had been shoved into his mouth and a rectangle of duct tape held it in firmly. The bitter taste was overpowering. His arms were locked together behind his back around a wooden pole supporting the roof of the desert shack, but his feet were free. He was too exhausted to do anything more than shift his legs out in front of him – trying to keep his circulation going.
Chris was sure he couldn’t get away. He had heard the plastic sawing sound of a big ziptie when he was put down. They had obviously done this before.
From his captive position he could see most of the interior of the shack. It was a crude circle of rough wooden posts supporting hand-hewn roof poles and vigas. Before he crossed the border a ranger has shown him a restored cabin and explained how the wooden poles were cut and arranged in a pattern to shed the rare rain and to provide shade and shelter. The restored cabin had felt surprisingly cool, but now that it was midday, this place was horribly hot.
There was an open spot in the roof in the center of the one room and a green square of nylon was suspended below this to help keep out the sun while still affording a little ventilation and light. The green gave an odd cast to everything .
There were no bulbs, though there was electricity. A thick bundle of cord came in under the wall, half-buried in the dirt floor. He had been brought here blindfolded, on a donkey, but before he was shoved in and tied up the scarf had been removed and he had a glimpse of the outside. For a hundred yards the rocky desert floor was spotted with the ubiquitous viga poles, these vertical, stuck firmly into the hardpack soil. Attached to the top of each pole was a metal and glass frame, filled with the black circles of solar panels. Every elevated panel had a thin wire running down and joining the others in the cable that ran inside.
Now Chris could see the purpose of the panels. The cables terminated in a gray metal box that emitted a low hum and a single cord ran from that into a big green metallic cabinet. It made various mechanical noises including a crystalline tumbling sound every five minutes or so. It had a chrome plated hopper in the front – an ice machine.
Near the ice machine a string hammock was hung between two poles in the ring that supported the circular opening in the center of the room. Don Juapo, the man that was in charge, as far as Chris could surmise, was stretched out in the hammock, asleep, and snoring loudly. The only thing Don Juapo was wearing was a pair of tattered boxer shorts and cowboy boots. His pile of crumpled, dusty clothes sat on the dirt nearby. He did not sleep in the hammock the long way, like Chris had seen people do back on summers in Connecticut, but at an acute angle, almost crossways. His head and feet stretched out the woven string of the simple hammock until it surrounded him like he was a huge, hairy spider on a gently swaying web.
The only other people in sight were two guards in dirty cotton t-shirts and rough jeans sitting in hard chairs spaced against the outside wall on either side of Don Juapo’s hammock. They each cradled AK-47 rifles and were quietly struggling to stay awake – every now and then slumping and almost falling out of the uncomfortable seats.
Suddenly the door to the shack opened and the girl the guards called Maria came in struggling with a large heavy bucket half-full of water. She wore the usual uniform of the rest of his captors – a sleeveless T shirt and jeans, cowboy boots, and a small straw hat – though her outfit looked relatively new and was mostly unwrinkled.
She hauled the water bucket over to the ice machine and opened the lid. Inside was a white plastic scoop and she began shoveling ice into the bucket, mixing it well and doubling its weight. She had to strain to get the bucket over to Don Juapo but neither of the guards offered to help. Don Juapo himself woke up and gestured to her to hurry up.
She sat down on a low stool beside the hammock and dipped a glass jar into the liquid, handing Don Juapo a streaming cold drink. Chris felt his eyes go wide at the sight and he was suddenly excruciatingly aware of his own thirst. Without comment, Don Juapo accepted the water and began to gulp it down. Maria then dipped a small hand towel into the cold liquid and placed it on Don Juapo’s chest. She gently rubbed the towel over him, until he finished his water and took the towel in his own hands. He would move the cool liquid over himself – first his chest, then his face and arms, and finally his legs – until it was heated from his own skin, then hand it back to Maria for a fresh dip of cold water.
Chris could only squirm and watch.
Finally, he had cooled off enough until he dropped the towel and stretched back out in the hammock. Maria didn’t leave – she stayed sitting silently on the stool. Don Juapo reached into the bucket and pulled out a single crystal rock of ice and slowly moved it over Maria’s exposed skin – around her neck, over her shoulders, and inside the folds of her collarbone. The cold water would bead up and run down under her shirt, staining it in a brutal battle between the melting ice and the evaporating heat. When a cube completely melted, Don Juapo would reach back to the bucket and select another.
Chris realized that, although Don Juapo was facing away from him in the hammock, still gently swaying, his arm extended to move the ice over Maria, she was staring directly at him. She sat stock still, allowing Don Juapo to move the ice, not showing any indication of embarrassment or pleasure, with her eyes firmly locked on Chris’.
After a period of time – Chris couldn’t guess if it was a minute or an hour – Don Juapo’s arm fell lifeless and a tiny sliver of ice tumbled into the dust. He began to snore again. Maria stood up and scooped up another jar of ice water and walked over to Chris. She held the cold glass against the duck tape, letting the water on the outside loosen the adhesive, until she pulled it off. Chris spit the ball out and sucked the water down as Maria held the glass up to his mouth, tilting it as he drank. She returned to the bucket for a second and third jar full, until Chris grunted that he was sated.
He had not taken his eyes off of Maria since she had brought him the water, but a rough noise from the center of the room caught his attention. Don Juapo was awake and out of the hammock. He was bent over pulling on his loose pants over his boots.
“That’s enough Maria,” he said. Then he gestured to one of the guards, “Cut his bonds and bring him to me in my cabin, I want to talk to him.”
The guard approached with a large machete and used a confident and violent single stroke to chop the plastic tie between Chris’ hands. Chris let out a moan of pain as both legs cramped when the guard pulled him to his feet.
“You come too, Maria,” Don Juapo said as he strode quickly toward the door of the shack.
I like to use light as a material, but my medium is actually perception. I want you to sense yourself sensing – to see yourself seeing.
A long time ago(2004) , in a previous incarnation of a blog, I wrote about a trip Lee and I took to the newly opened Nasher Sculpture Center. The blog entry was eventually published in a local magazine. A highlight of the visit was my discovery of James Turrell’s work, Tending (blue).
Lee standing in Tending (blue) in 2004.
From the blog (I have quoted this twice before):
My favorite piece might have been the installation Tending (Blue) by James Turrell. We walked into a little opening lit by odd, shifting colors into the wall at the north end of the garden. The passage made a right turn and opened into a small room lined with dark stone benches. The walls on the upper half were featureless and smooth. A gray skylight lighted the whole chamber. The effect was strange and very peaceful. I liked it a lot.
Lee and I left the chamber and walked back up the garden and inside the building. We wandered downstairs and into the auditorium where a film was showing. It told the story of Raymond Nasher and his late wife, how they started out building Northpark Mall, acquired a fortune, and then became premiere collectors of modern sculpture. Mr. Nasher talked about his life, his wife, and his passion for the new sculpture center. The film then showed the construction of the center, how a handful of visionary architects and a few thousand men in hard hats converted a grimy downtown parking lot (I’ve parked there many times, put my quarters or dollar bills into a rusty numbered slot) into a thing of great value and beauty. They talked a lot of how it will be there forever. The film was fun and interesting – it really helped me appreciate the place.
On opening day Raymond Nasher said, “I put Patsy (his wife, the collector, who had passed away a couple years before) in charge of the weather today, and, as you can see, it’s beautiful.
One thing was odd, though. On the part of the film that covered opening day, Nasher and Turrell themselves went into the Tending (Blue) chamber that Lee and I had walked out of only minutes before. The benefactor and the artist sat on the benches and looked around. The skylight rectangle in the ceiling wasn’t gray like we saw it, but a deep cerulean blue.
“What’s up with that?” I asked.
“Let’s go back and check it out,” Lee said.
We hiked back down and entered the chamber again. The skylight was still gray. Something didn’t look right, though. I stood under it, looking up, trying to figure out what I was seeing and how it could change colors so dramatically. I was halfway convinced that it was a rectangle of light projected on the ceiling by some hidden apparatus (the upper walls are washed in subtle changing color from hidden computer controlled LED’s) when I was suddenly struck between the eyes with a big, cold drop of water. I wiped my face in surprise and looked down at some small pools of water at my feet.
“That’s weird, Lee,” I said, “I can’t believe it, but this roof is leaking.”
I looked back up, trying to find the telltale discoloration of a water leak, when, with a sudden shock, I realized what the hell I was actually looking at. That wasn’t a skylight, that wasn’t a projected rectangle at all, it was simply a big hole in the ceiling. I was looking directly at the sky. Once my eyes and my brain were in sync I could see the subtle variation of the clouds passing by overhead. The edges of the hole must have been cut back like razors – there was no visible frame around the opening, simply a featureless rectangle of light. It was amazing.
That’s why the rectangle looked blue in the film – it was a cloudless day. Now I want to go back. I want to go at sunset… I want to figure out how to go at dawn. The city sky at night… will it be brown? I want to sit in there during a rainstorm. I especially want to go there on that rarest of Texas days, a snowstorm.
The opening in the ceiling of the installation Tending (blue). A photograph does not do justice.
I returned to the piece many times. It became my favorite place. Then… horrors.
JAMES TURRELL American, born 1943 The Light Inside 1999 Neon and ambient light
But I remained a fan of James Turrell. Especially when I found out about Roden Crater.
Imagine a hollowed out dead volcano in the desolation of Arizona filled with Turrell’s work with light. Amazing.
It is one of the things I want to visit before I die. I was losing hope, however. The idiosyncratic artist was taking forever and only a handful of people (each making tens of thousands of dollars worth of donations) were being allowed to visit. That doesn’t… and never will… include me.
As much as I dislike the image of the isolated volcano surrounded by ugly parking lots – gift shop selling doodads and geegaws and rubber tomahawks – crowds of gawking tourists griping about the heat – tour buses idling to keep their air conditioning running disgorging their cargo wearing “I’M WITH STUPID” T-shirts into snaking queues of people staring at their phones…. All of that would be worth it if it allows one person (me) to actually visit Roden Crater.
Faster, please, I’m not going to live forever.
Now that I think about it there are three artistic creations I’ve know about for a long time and hope to live long enough to see finished.
1. When I was a little kid I read about the Crazy Horse Memorial Monument and fantasized about seeing the gigantic sculpture, probably as an old man.
Well, I don’t think I’m going to make that one – it doesn’t look like it has changed much since I was a kid. The other two, though:
I recently discovered this band, Balmorhea… Their music is fantastic, it reminds me of Lucovico Einaudi – and they are named after one of my favorite places in West Texas.
When we first visited Balmorhea, it was like the start of this video – we were crossing the blasted desert looking at the red tornados of dust devils. Suddenly, there was a dive shop, and then the incredible pool of San Solomon Springs.
I wrote in July of 2000:
We drove the Interstate to Pecos and then turned south towards the distant blue wiggly line of the Davis Mountains. Watching the mountains grow, we drove through the most isolated and blasted looking territory yet. Nick and Lee were delighted by the enormous dust devils that the sun spawned across the desiccated fields. Looking like brick-red tornadoes these wandered across the flatlands. We drove through one and it was powerful enough to worry me about the trailer pulling behind, but it only gave the van a good shove and didn’t cause any real problems.
It was an easy drive and by mid-afternoon we arrived at Balmorhea. The park there is an oasis in the desert edged up against the foothills of the Davis Mountains. The rain that falls in the highlands percolates down and emerges from an artesian spring, cold and clear. Back in the thirties, the government took the wild spring and built a gigantic Y-shaped concrete swimming pool. The parks boasts the swimming pool, a nice little hotel, a recently constructed desert wetlands – the San Solomon springs Cienega (labor supplied by the Texas Department of Corrections) that provides habitat for two endangered species of tiny fish( the Comanche Springs Pupfish and the Pecos Gambusa), and a loop of nice little campsites each with its own quaint little fake-adobe shelter.
A quick sketch I made of the Balmorhea campsite.
Nick at Balmorhea, in July of 2000
Nick jumps off at Balmorhea, eleven years ago.
I had one of the most frightening experiences of my life the next day at that pool in Balmorhea.
From my journal, July 3, 2000:
We came back down to Balmorhea in the late afternoon and decided to go swimming. We talked to Lee about his fear of the fish in the pool and, as I suspected, it was mostly that he was tired and hungry yesterday. Some rest and some food and he was ready to hit the water.
He didn’t really do any swimming. What he preferred to do was to put on his goggles and stretch across his inflatable inner tube and let me swim and pull the tube around the big pool. He’d take a deep breath and stick his head into the water and look at the bottom. The pool is very large and there was a lot to look at. He would have requests like, “Swim me over to that end,” or “let’s go out to the deep part,” and I’d oblige. He’d plunge his face and come up with a report of what he saw: a school of fish, or some rocks, or a turtle, or a place where some kids had inscribed their names into the algae growing on the bottom.
After the crowded holiday that day before, only a handful of swimmers and some scuba divers were there. As I pulled Lee around Nick dove off the high board and swam until it was his turn. Lee wrapped in a towel and walked back to the campsite. Nicholas put on his goggles and I started swimming him around on his tube. We went into the deep end to try and spot the place where the copious flow of water erupted in a bed of white bubbling sand.
We came up against the stairs on the far side. I was getting tired and cold, the spring water is very chilly, it was late, I’d been swimming a long time and it was taking its toll. I asked Nick if we should walk back, around the pool or swim across. We did have his inner tube – I felt confident we could make it across one more time. We decided to swim. It was a mistake.
Nick looped his goggles around one shoulder and took hold of one side of the tube while I grabbed the other and we started to swim. Not too far from the side, but at the deepest part, maybe thirty feet deep, Nick called out, “Oh, oh, there go my goggles.” In retrospect I should have let them sink; but I took a big gulp of air and took off underwater, diving as deep and as quickly as I could. Maybe twenty feet down I saw a sinking orange blur, frog-kicked over to the goggles and grabbed them. Then I swam back up to the surface.
When you start reaching well into your forties, like I am, there is a fundamental change in the relationship between you and your body. What has been a good friend over the years, a partner, something you are… well, attached to – suddenly turns traitor. Abilities you have taken for granted for decades disappear. No one tells you about this. As a youth I could swim underwater with the ease and comfort of walking across a field. I took this for granted, the ability to hold my breath, come up for air and refresh myself. I discovered tired, and cold, and old, and fat… this is no longer true.
When I came up and handed Nicholas his goggles and put one hand on the inner tube and started kicking and swimming I realized that I was not going to be able to catch my breath. It came on with awful speed. No matter how hard I tried, my breathing became more and more labored, shallower, moving my arms and legs in the cold spring water was becoming extremely difficult.
It was horrifying.
With amazing clarity of thought, I knew I was not going to drown. I did have that inner tube for a float, even though I was rapidly becoming so weak I could barely hold on to it. There were some scuba divers in the pool that had finished diving and were sitting on the steps talking over the day’s sights and I knew I could call to them and they would haul me out of the pool. I came within a hair’s breadth of doing that.
The main fear I had was I thought I might be having a heart attack. I had never felt like this before. There was no pain, but I simply could not breathe, I could not get enough oxygen into my body to keep my arms and legs moving.
I don’t know what Nicholas thought, holding on to the other side of the inner tube, my son’s face only a few inches from mine. I must have scared him a little because I know I was flopping more than I should, trying to hook my arm into the tube and was unable to get it done. I didn’t want to frighten him unnecessarily so I kept my rising fears to myself.
Slowly, we continued to move across the wide pool, and finally I was able to reach down with a toe and touch the bottom. That didn’t help as much as you’d think because I was too weak to stand in the water and the energy used to hop and get my face above water made my breathing more impossible. Finally, the floor became shallower and shallower and before I knew it I was on the steps.
I released the tube and the brisk wind blew it away. “Could somebody get that please,” I asked, and a scuba diver caught it with a couple strong sure strokes and brought it back to me.
I didn’t have to sit beside the pool for very long before I felt fine. The fear and panic quickly drained away and left me with a slight elation even though I was still a little tired. I told Nicholas to take his towel and walk back to the popup at the campsite, I’d catch up in a minute.
Looking back on it now, I realize what I was feeling, in addition to simple exhaustion, was hypothermia. The spring water was cold and I had been in it for hours. There had been no pain, but I had felt a thin sliver away from death.
Walking slowly back to the camp, enjoying the last purple glow of the set sun, following the channels that the water followed as it coursed out of the pool, roaring down the irrigation ditches on out of the park, I felt fine. But the memory of those minutes of fear, the feeling of helplessness and drowning, are still with me. I had never felt like that before and I don’t look forward to feeling like that again.