Bradford stood in silence before his tent and looked to the south. Mexico was only 90 minutes away, easy to drive but too far to see. A thought floated up to the surface of his mind: he’d never been to another country before. Well, he wouldn’t today, either.
The sky was a a panel of dark cotton batting that seemed much closer than he expected. Everything out here was wider, flatter, and bigger than back home. It amazed him, how a sky could appear larger than where he lived, and how a large sky could appear closer. The craggy, charred mountains in the distance tempted him to hike out and explore them. Bradford was told this would be the case, that he shouldn’t overestimate himself in the desert, bring more water than he thought he needed, never lose sight of his camp his first time out.
He looked down at his new hiking boots. The mountains would be a great way to try them out, but he had no idea how far the mountains actually were. Also, he wasn’t sure he’d laced up his boots properly. They were beginning to cramp. Sighing, he sat on the ground, suffering the bites and stabs of granite shards in his butt long enough to switch to hiking sandals.
“Cactus, cactus, cactus,” Bradford said, sweeping over the landscape. “Picnic table, fire pit, sagebrush, cactus, cactus, large rocks, cactus.” He took a deep breath. One good thing about desert camping in winter, the guidebooks said, was that snakes were hibernating, coyotes were less active, and bugs were all but absent. He was glad he wouldn’t likely have to deal with any of that. On the other hand, what was he going to do with himself for two weeks out here?
The fly of his tent whined open. Was that too ambitious? Two weeks, his first time camping anywhere. He grabbed a small pack of books, sealed his tent, and got set up on the concrete picnic table. He’d seen a couple other campers on his way out to the site, one family with kids and a smart dog in an RV, then a younger childless couple sleeping in the back of their car. When he passed them, he went on and on out to his site, with no neighbors at all. Two weeks of near-total isolation, he thought, looking at the two novels he’d brought, plus one brand-new blank book and a brand-new fountain pen. Bradford frowned. What if he didn’t like fountain pens? He really should have tried this out first.
But that was the thing. He was sick of his familiar world, his old life, and this sickness built up until it exploded. He’d gone down the rabbit hole of researching desert camping, splurged on high-end equipment (not too much, no needless gadgets, just good, solid, basic equipment). Trained his replacement at Contralia, a data-monkey who could cover his financial reporting for two weeks, assuming no emergencies, and put his request for time off early enough that the higher-ups couldn’t reasonably deny it. Hell, they’d been telling him to take a break for years.
He’d been indifferent to the idea. Killing two weeks in another city held the same appeal as marking off the days in his apartment. There was just nothing that interested him, nothing he wanted to, nowhere to pour his creative energy—and he doubted whether there was any of that in the first place. So his own irritation and intolerance at his spiritual torpor surprised him: it was like watching someone else doing the research, purchasing the gear, grabbing books and stationery for no conceivable reason, racing off to the airport. Staring out the window for three hours was the last gasp of anything that felt familiar to him.
And now he was in what he called the quartz flats. It sounded cool. Suddenly he wished he’d picked up a pack of postcards at the ranger station: “Dear Mitzi, Greetings from the quartz flats! I’m a quick drive from Mexico, but I think I can break the border if I gun it.” Except there was no one for him to write to, no one waiting to hear from him. The postcards would’ve been wasted on him. And he didn’t have a car: the rental company drove him out here and dropped him off, scheduled to retrieve him in two weeks.
He went back into his tent to lie down on the air mattress and listen to his own breathing.
The second day went a lot like that: moping around his campsite, looking at the paradoxical distances. Bradford could almost hear the mountains calling to him. He tried to check his phone to see how far they were but he didn’t get a signal out here. He had a map, but who knew how to use maps anymore? Instead, he hiked in ever-widening concentric circles around his campsite, walking around cacti, studying the ground because it’d be just his luck to find a scorpion or something.
On the third day he stretched out in a folding chair, a nice one with its own little footrest. He started reading a James Patterson novel. It plunged into the action, and sometimes he would’ve liked a little more detail, but he easily fell into its pace and surprised himself by having plowed through the first third of it in one sitting. He didn’t see himself as a reader. “I guess now we know why you’re a millionaire,” he said to the novel, setting it on the jagged ground. It looked good there, a bare-knuckled drama on harsh terrain, and he was moved by the desire to photograph it, which he did for five minutes.
In this manner the first week passed by more or less easily. Bradford slowly adjusted to the expanse of flat land, begrudgingly covered in bursage, sideoats, and hop bushes, according to his nature guidebook. He played amateur ethnographer and theorized how a culture of people living out here would have different attitudes toward community and time, but he was immediately confronted by how little he knew about other cultures and stopped wondering. Without knowing what else to put in his notebook, he cribbed his impressions of the Patterson novel and tried to outline his own story ideas. He discovered he had none, so he attempted to sketch desert plants instead. He enjoyed drawing barrel cactus and Engelmann’s prickly pear, and he did one really nice saguaro that he liked.
One more week, he thought. One more week out here, alone. Nothing to do but walk. He hiked into town to replenish his water, and when he returned he saw that both his distant neighbors had packed up and left. The rangers said that this time of year was usually a low season. Bradford watched gallons of water blast into his plastic tank from an iron faucet, turning over the feeling of loneliness he felt when the rangers said no one else had reserved a site for the next couple of weeks. It was just Bradford out here, now, him and his notebooks and novels. He’d been unable to get into the second novel: he tried to challenge himself by reading the memoirs of a Black woman, but though he’d never confess this to anyone, it sounded like a lot of whining. He just didn’t understand, but there was a lot he didn’t understand. That’s just how it was.
The nights were something else. Bradford deeply enjoyed staring up into the vast black sky, so far away from any light pollution. He’d thought light pollution was another whiny complaint until he came out here and saw how beautiful the sky was without it. Thousands upon thousands of stars sprinkled across the sky, draped in astounding streams. It almost looked like they had a purpose, like there was intent behind their layout. He wasn’t particularly religious, but looking at the way outer space was structured, it was difficult not to feel moved and impressed by something greater. He’d heard of other people getting terrified by staring up into the sky, coming face-to-face with their incredible smallness in the larger scope. They said they felt they didn’t matter, gazing up into limitless reaches, absolutely nothingness between stars millions of light years from each other. That terrified them, but Bradford found comfort in this. In a way, it let him off the hook: he was an accident on one planet in the vastness of the universe, and nothing he did mattered. He could go back to work, he could stay here. He could pick up that Black woman’s memoirs once more or throw them away. He could eat through all of his food, wander out into the desert, and slowly die of exposure. None of it mattered, he certainly didn’t matter. Nothing was affected by whether he existed or not. Staring up at the sidelong view of the Milky Way, he found himself smiling.
It was in the middle of the second week when he was awakened in his tent by high winds. There had been breezes, on and off again, during his stay out here but these were gusting winds, like from an explosion or standing too close to a train. Lots of strange thoughts filled his head as he pulled on his hiking pants and a shirt, curiously free of fear. He grabbed a headlamp before climbing out of the tent.
There was an enormous woman’s face hovering over his campsite. In the vastness of the flat terrain, with more questions raised than answered in night’s insufficient light, there was no way for him to know how far or close she was. It looked like he came up to her chin, if she was right up against him. He stared up her nose: one massive hand held a warbled, threadbare green cloth over her nose and mouth, like a desert wanderer might have done in the Middle East, Bradford supposed. Again, he didn’t know. The cloth wound over her head, too, perhaps holding her hair down. If she was right up beside his campsite, her face would have been… He had to compare her to buildings he knew. Assuming ten feet in height for every floor of a building… she would be seventy or eighty feet high. Just her face, that is. Her head could have been a hundred feet by itself.
And that was if she was close to him. If she were farther away, which she could easily have been, as she defied Bradford’s depth perception, she would have been… huge. He felt like he was going to vomit. Nothing but the Earth itself was this large, and to stare up at an immense face like this, a human face…
He clamped his hands to his mouth, to cover the noise of his gasp when he remembered to breathe. She hadn’t noticed him. She was just sitting there… no, she was getting closer, coming closer, growing larger. Slightly larger. Slightly… but people think trains are moving slowly when they’re barreling up at top speed, because they’re huge and people create an optical illusion in their heads, and they die when they try to run in front of a train, because they think it’s so slow… How fast was she moving, then? How large was she?
Bradford whimpered. She was huge, this was confusing and scary. What did she want? Where did she come from? He knew nothing… he never knew anything. His nails bit into his palms as he made tight fists. He never knew anything. The world was just spinning around him, he had no effect on any of it, like this immense woman’s head.
She was beautiful. He extrapolated that she was beautiful from what he could see, which was only one bold streak of eyebrow, one intense eye of ivory cornea and milky jade iris, and a single lock of rich brown and auburn hair that escaped her shroud. He could see the ground reflected in the lens of her huge eyeball: rocks and plants and sand raced below in the fish-eyed reflection. She was moving along at high speed, then, which made her…
Vertigo threatened him. He felt his knees go weak. He hoped he wasn’t about to urinate himself, in front of this colossal goddess racing over the desert at him. Or was that the appropriate reaction when encountering the divine? Were gods jaded to the fact that pathetic humans tended to release all their sphincters when they showed up? That would make sense. Bradford almost laughed at himself, but he was terrified of attracting this goddess’s attention.
Even though he wanted it. He was fine with Contralia easily finding a replacement for half a month. He was fine with the indifferent heavens lazily grinding past, reminding him how insignificant he was. He found relief in that. But this… something irrational inside him wanted her to notice him. He wanted her to turn that huge eye down toward him and… react. Just react. Whether with displeasure or limitless love, he didn’t know. He just couldn’t be an inert witness to this spectacle, watching a goddess rushing up at him, the most amazing thing he’d ever seen in his life and yet one more thing that passed him by, oblivious to the suggestion of his existence.
He looked around. There were the books on the picnic table. Beside him, his tent glowed with an LED lantern inside. He’d forgotten to put sandals on and slowly realized the pain digging into his soles. The gigantic woman was upon him now. Her face seemed to dip slowly, rotating with the grandeur of a planet. She hadn’t looked at him, but her chin was turning away and her broad lips, behind the fabric, were approaching.
Was she going to eat him? Had he made a terrible mistake? Why had none of the guidebooks warned him about carnivorous desert goddesses?
He could only watch, rooted in place, as the woman’s lips came closer. He felt no heat, no radiant body heat from the immense face, and that absence stood out in the cool desert air. She stared steadily ahead, far above him, but her lips came down to mere yards away. What should he do? What was he supposed to do?
He stretched out one thin arm, reaching into the darkness of the desert night. His pale skin stood out against her olive green fabric. There was a name for this fabric, but it was one more thing he didn’t know. His spindly fingers were as wide as the individual threads in her garment. Her lips… he could have put his palm upon her lower lip and it would’ve been smaller than a housefly. Larger than a gnat, maybe. Maybe. He reached out…
The colossal woman’s head turned up again, and she sailed on by, rapidly disappearing into the darkness as she went. When her chest was about to glide over him, she faded to perfect transparency, and then it was over. The night was restored, the air was empty again.
Bradford’s heart broke. His entire, puny body had been filled with an intense longing. Reaching out to her had electrified him with a need to know what could happen if he touched her. Should he have acted sooner? He should always have acted sooner, always, throughout his life. He should always have done something. And this inactivity served him once more when confronted with the divine. As always, as always. Weeping, he stretched out on the gravel and clutched his hair, and it really didn’t matter how much noise he made.
Somehow he woke up inside the tent, though. The LED lantern was still glowing. He shut it off and crawled out into the daylight. He stood in boxer shorts, entirely alone, and scanned the horizon once more. Of course there’d be no trace of her, if she were even real. What else was there to do but find the firestarter and make coffee. The morning sun hardly warmed up his bare shoulders, and the concrete picnic seat was cold against his butt, but the Black woman’s memoirs felt different today. He could hear her words, as he read them, and strangely he could feel them in his heart like he’d never been able to before. He got what she was saying. It was a communication from person to person. Why hadn’t he picked up on that before? Why didn’t it feel like that before? He had to tear himself out of the second chapter and stoke the fire for breakfast.
The thing about this high-end camping equipment was that it was as easy to tear down and pack up as it was to pull out and set up. When the rental agency drove out for him, he loaded up in a minute and they were on their way. He checked all the camping equipment, bundled into a large black flight bag, and watched the world slowly turn beneath him as he flew back to his own city.
He asked his boss at Contralia how the replacement had done. He advised his boss to take him on for longer, as Bradford was putting in his two-weeks notice. Questions of “how was your trip” swiftly changed to “what on earth did you see out there” over the next two weeks. He didn’t bother attempting to answer them, only said it was time to try something new.
And he took up the Black woman’s novel of personal experiences again, curled up in bed, warm in the glow of a little lamp, secure and bug-free in his bedroom. This time it felt like he was reading an entirely different book. Instead of a litany of gripes about how mean the world had been to her, now it felt like he’d slipped into the cockpit of someone else’s vehicle, flying through a foreign countryside. Everything was superficially familiar, but now he was seeing it from a new angle, reading new values into it all. He was unable to sleep, overwhelmed with the privilege of… something like living someone else’s life, for a precious moment. What was different this time? He didn’t know, but he sensed the edge of a great fear that he would have lost something important if he hadn’t tried to read it one more time.
Not much mail was waiting for him when he’d returned, but among the “this is not a bill” and “your response is urgently required” notices was a course catalog from Washington Community College. Normally he threw these things away, too lazy to take himself off the mailing list (and how’d he get there, anyway), but this time he broke open the mailing seals, sat down with a pen, and circled some interesting-sounding courses in personal development. He brought his desultory desert notebook to a class on creative journaling, and the instructor held it up as an excellent beginner’s example. Retirees smiled at him, younger business-types glanced at him with a little envy and confusion.
And there was one woman who sat in the front row of the horseshoe-shaped arrangement, nearly across from Bradford as he sat in the front row too. Her milky jade eyes stared straight through him, almost. He resolved to earn their attention, this time.
(Driven by an image by SyxSeralyth.)