We wake just as the sun hits the top of the cliff band. Our first morning in Snow Canyon. Still air. Shards of sun and thin blue light cut the cloud cover. We haven’t been on the road like this in almost a year but the routines come easily. I peel the thick synthetic sleep layers from my body, bristle and goose bump as the air hits my skin which I then cover, systematically, layer by layer, until I am again puffed and protected against the cold. You make coffee and boil eggs. We laugh through mouthfuls of granola and the last of the persimmons from home. What we laugh about I can’t say exactly but the days have been full of giggling and silliness. The stresses of home and work and “real life” have been left behind for a few precious weeks. We are giddy with it. You mug for the camera, shoulders stooped, jaw jutting forward. You look like a Neanderthal I say. You smile. Success. Then I see her, our neighbor. She sits alone in her sleeping bag on the other side of a soft hedge of desert sage. She is alone. She is writing. She can’t speak. That’s what the park ranger told us last night. She can hear but she can’t speak. She carries a notepad. Neat girl. I want to say hello but I don’t. For fear of…what? Awkwardness? How would the conversation go? Does she want to talk? Would I make her feel uncomfortable if I attempted to be neighborly? So I say nothing, and she writes in her pad, never turning her head and soon we are in the car, winding through the Beaver Dam Mountains, the northern edge of where Joshua Trees grow, and we don’t see cars or people all day.
We see oil derricks. We see cows. We see shot gun casings and surprising patches of lush green grass. We climb until our fingers can no longer bend.
At camp we add layers and head lamps and when we go to the stove we see it: A small ziplock bag with a piece of obsidian, a small tin of skin salve, and a note: Hello sweet neighbors! Some healing balm for the Neanderthal feeling parts! Love 16A.
The girl is gone. Her campsite is empty. Weird I think. But sweet. I don’t open the bag or even move it. For days I leave it where she left it, and I start to revere it. Days later I look at it and I think, what an amazing gesture. She was listening. She heard me call you a Neanderthal. She heard us yammering about where to climb. She heard us joking and singing nonsense songs, our constant chatter, sound for the sake of sound. She heard us. And though we never even saw each other’s faces, she found a way to connect. I spend all day thinking of all the times I speak when I should listen. Then I think how lucky I am to have all my senses and all my health. I am so lucky in fact that I take these things for granted all the time. We spend the day taking note of the things we are grateful for: the luxury of living outdoors for a month just for the sake of recreating and the greater luxury of a comfortable home to go back to; The great lengths and heights our bodies will take us to; To have found love and known love in so many ways, in so many forms; The sublime peace of standing alone in the dark listening to a Cottonwood tree shake and trill in the wind so steadily it sounds exactly like hard fast rain smacking wet rocks in a river; Our families; Our friends; To love to do so many things we often can’t decide where to start. The list goes on and on.
When we dip into town for groceries and internet we are surrounded by the holiday frenzy and the relentless messages to buy more, ask for more, and even when giving to others, to consume just about everything in excess. The holidays are filled with joy and celebration and generosity and love but they can also cause anxiety, stress, guilt about having as much as we do, and feelings of inadequacy for not having as much as we might like. We try to quell that anxiety with grand gestures and flashy gifts and for five weeks we work ourselves into a national hysteria, forgetting sometimes to just breathe and look around and give thanks for what we already have. That plastic bag with a half-used tin of hand salve and a found rock, and the reminder that connection and generosity of spirit can come from the most unexpected places, may be the best gift I receive this holiday season. It is helping me move through these next few weeks knowing that I have all that I need and more, and that the simplest gesture can be the most powerful gift.