We left in the dark Sunday morning. Traveling away from the heart of the world for our annual pilgrimage to the Old Mermaids Sanctuary. I had sung to the weather spirits and whispered to the mountains and the dragon of the hills for days ahead of time. Now we said goodbye to the house and the land and drove away.
We stopped every hour to change drivers. At one rest stop, a group of scrub oaks grew up tall and lithe and looked like a grove of dryads caught in the dance. We bowed to them.
Later we went up and over. The pass was clear. I pressed my hands against the window in thanks. When the White Mountain came partially into view—she wore clouds like a veil—we stopped the car and made offerings to the mountain and the weather spirits. The wind whipped the offerings away. And it was done.
We passed the dragon made visible and knew we were on our way. We waved.
We kept driving. The light on the distant hills was mesmerizing. Unlike anything we had seen on this journey in other years. Sweet light shafted the hills here and there, like giant spotlights, making the hills look like mountains, green and gold, never dull, never gray.
When it wasn't raining, hawks perched on fence posts in the fields just beyond the highway. The hawks looked toward the road, waiting for some passing car to kill some passing creature. I loved the plump hawks immediately but was glad not to participate in their feeding this day.
We saw crows everywhere on our journey: individual crows picking at dead things on the pavement and flocks of crows rising up from the trees and fields. There they were, our ever present road companions, at every rest stop. In every field.
Redding was nondescript. In our hotel room, I got emails from my father. He seemed to be recovering. Wished I could do more.
I slept some.
We began the morning driving through thick fog. Sometimes my vision was so impaired by the fog that I kept driving only on faith. It felt like one of those nightmares where I was driving with my eyes closed—or through a thick fog.
It seemed appropriate for this pilgrimage to the Old Mermaids Sanctuary, somehow, to have to make it through the fog. To come out the other side.
All my trips to the Old Mermaids Sanctuary are pilgrimages. I go to write. To rest. To be still. To walk with the wild things. To be in the desert is to be present to all things, to the possibility of death. The possibility of life. The fog only reminded me that the veil was thin between here and there.
The fog ended. I heard from my youngest sister. She said our pops looked good. I was glad to have some of us there looking out for our dad. On Saturday last, five of my friends and I had done healing work for my father. It felt powerful and loving. Before I left home Sunday morning, my dad emailed that he'd had the best night yet and asked me to thank the healers.
Sometimes life works in mysterious ways.
Near the end of the day, we drove The Grapevine, up and over the Tejon Pass and then down toward Los Angeles. I could feel the dragon in the land. Moving, stretching, twisting.
We found a place to stay the night. After dark, we went out to the spa by the pool near our room. We took off our shoes and socks, sat on the stone, and put our feet in the hot water—becoming mer creatures for the evening. At least part of us. The sound of the traffic seemed to surround us, as though we were at the bottom of a circular waterfall, only it wasn't soothing like a waterfall. It felt intrusive and overwhelming. I got up and turned on the jets of the spa. The sound of the traffic disappeared.
We kicked the water. I closed my eyes. I whispered, "Hello." And then I felt as though the disappeared and displaced creatures from all around came to be near us. "I had nothing to do with this," I said. "I wouldn't have paved paradise." Although I wondered if it was true that I had nothing to do with it: After all, I was sleeping in a place where they paved paradise. "And he had nothing to do with it either." Not my Mario. "What can I do?"
I looked around. Was that a rowan tree heavy with berries near us or some other tree disguising itself as the rowan on this Winter Solstice night? Weren't rowan trees notorious fairy hangouts? There was something wholly natural about this tree in such an unnatural setting. The red berries hung down from the branches like tiny edible rubies waiting to be plucked.
I could feel the real place beyond the concrete, beyond the traffic, underneath. Underneath.
Under the Earth I go...
I opened my mouth and sang. A wordless song. A song of recognition. Everything got still as I sang.
All that has passed away, all creatures, the flora, the shape of the earth, all these beings are mi familia.
It seemed as though the world settled into place as I sang.
Or else I did.
Eventually we shook the glittering scales off our feet and legs and got out of the water. Nothing looked the same any more, or any different. Mario and I held hands and went back to our room.
In the morning, we drove away from the dragon place and headed east to the desert. Blue-black clouds hung from the sky like a heavy theater curtain ready to drop. Eventually the clouds moved north and the sun came out. At a rest stop a hummingbird greeted us. Our first desert creature. The dirt beneath our feet was pink and diamond-colored.
On the radio news, we heard the wind had kicked up a dust storm on I-10, not far from us. The dust had became a cloud and moved over the road. People died in collisions and explosion. I stood on the pink dirt and called out to the wind. Be calm, be calm. The wind snapped the flags at the rest stop. I didn't remember ever seeing sustained wind like this in Arizona before.
We drove deeper into the desert. The low mountains hunkered into the ground. Saguaros raised their arms in greeting. I recognized this land. I knew it in my bones.
After a while, ahead of us, a strange kind of fog moved, only we knew it wasn't fog. We talked about what we would do if visibility got bad. We realized we had no idea what was a prudent course of action in a dust storm. I wondered if this was what the West would become as the climate changed and the top soil continued to erode: a giant dust bowl a la Oklahoma? We should all be prepared for this.
I thought of the dream I had last week about tornadoes. I could see small one and huge ones all across the landscape. In fact, I couldn't see the land, only the storms. In the dream, Mario and I tried to get to my father. We passed through the wall of the tornado unharmed. Later we survived a tsunami. We ended up at an old farmhouse, or some such—some kind of amazing house made from dirt, sunlight, and darkness.
As we watched the dust storm, I sang for rain. Wouldn't rain stop a dust storm?
We kept traveling through the dust. Visibility never got bad or dangerous. Yet it felt apocalyptic. As though everything had changed and we just didn't understand that yet. We were all living a life that had already passed us by.
Then it began to rain. Arizona monsoon rain. Only this was December. The sky was black. The dust storm disappeared into the ditches to be resurrected another day.
The rain followed us to the Old Mermaids Sanctuary. It stopped while we unloaded the car. Then it rat-tat-tatted the roof while I put away our things in our casita. It rained as I thought about how grateful I was to the people who owned this place, who built this place, who loved this place, who are this place. I thought about how this place had saved my life. How I would not be the person I am today if it wasn't for this place where I go and listen to the voices of the desert. Where I listen for the heartbeat of the world. Where I sing with the coyotes.
When the place felt like ours again, I went outside and stood at the edge of the rain. And I sang. The rain came down harder as I sang. Water splashed up all around me. It was so dark out I felt a little spooked. I thanked the weather spirits for helping us get here safely. I heard thunder. I shivered and went back inside. I could almost hear desert calling out to me, "you can run but you can't hide!"
It is true: in the desert you can't hide anything. It's all out in the open. One way or another, if you stay long enough, the desert will show you the truth. Every year here I learn things about myself and the world I didn't know before. Sometimes they are things I would rather not know.
But I am not going to think about any of that tonight. I am not going to think about my father's surgery in a few days. Or about what novel I'll write while I am here. Not yet. Tonight I am going to fall to sleep next to my sweetheart and listen to it rain in the desert.
Right now it sounds like the Old Sea is coming back to the New Desert. Perfect conditions for this pilgrim.