Strolling with the Desert Fathers

Let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine Let the world turn in the trees, and the mystery hidden in the dirt swing through the air.

Mary Oliver

Twice a year in the spring and fall I go to visit a friend who has a rustic cabin in the Painted Desert of Arizona near Petrified Forest National Park. I have been going there for many years now. By “rustic” I mean no running water, no electricity, cooking over a wood stove. . .in other woods, camping, which is probably why I like it so well.

Guests come and go. We sleep on cots in our sleeping bags. During the day we go for walks in the desert. Life is warm and slow, unlike my usual hikes and vacations when I invariably try to see as much as I can in a limited amount of time and to power my way over mountain passes.

Going for a hike in the desert is more like going for a “stroll.” The uneven terrain makes fast walks a little challenging. Our routes involve scrambling up canyon walls, following arroyos, searching for passable routes. But these things are not the real reason we walk slowly. The reason is there on the ground, as in the photo above. There are things to be seen, items to be discovered: pottery sherds, ancient tools, dinosaur teeth and bone fragments, colorful pieces of petrified wood. Such a walk demands close attention to the ground.

This is a bit challenging for me. I am a hiker who likes to walk quickly on the trail, to celebrate the movement of my arms swinging at my sides, to watch the clouds change in the sky, to look up, not down. I am more often drawn to the striations of color in the hills, the way the light changes as the sun moves across the sky, the patterns that emerge and call to me, the mystery of a landscape that is older even than the mountains I love.

It is an ancient landscape, filled with the reminders of a world that once was, that is uncovered over many millennia in the layers. Dinosaurs and logs have been resting in the buried seas, turning slowly into stone, which is gradually uncovered as the layers erode. If the bones and stones can wait for millions of years, I suppose I can slow down my pace a bit to savor the wisdom they offer. It is not complicated. They tell me to slow down.

In more recent layers the landscape tells the story of the people who have lived here long before I was strolling through the desert. They leave reminders that are unearthed in the same manner that reveal the secrets of the ancient seas. Every few years a new pit house is discovered, its walls rising a few feet above the ground. Pottery sherds and various tools usually can be found in the vicinity.

The sherds are what interest me the most, especially the type that are coiled from long ropes of clay and then imprinted with the thumb nail of its maker to create a decorative pattern. I often will hold my own thumbnail up to the design, comparing the size. Mine are always smaller. I am used to that.

Slowing down is a worthwhile lesson for me these days, as I am reminded regularly by an aging body. I have still not completely recovered from a fractured shoulder I acquired in a bad fall several months ago. Mostly it is much better, and I can make it through the days without much pain at all. Strangely, it is not heavy lifting or reaching that causes the pain. Instead it is the rapid pace I favor while I hike, the act of swinging my arms, in other words, doing what I have always done. I like to think there is a desert father or mother standing over me. “Slow down,” they say. “You will be in the ground for a very long time. Why be in a hurry?”

Published by Colleen Drake

Colleen Drake (AKA Teacup) has over sixty years of hiking exerience (yes, I'm really old) and has seen some pretty big changes over those many years. Join her on the Solitude Trail & share some of these adventures while exploring with her the value of solitude in the wilderness.

4 thoughts on “Strolling with the Desert Fathers

  1. Hi.  This seems off.  Did you post today?  


    div>It did not download for me?  Jan

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