Beauty

north ridge of Teutonia Peak

It is raining, a little. The wind off the little storm front brings the temperature down to a positively comfortable level. It’s almost cool. Not even 80°, and the scent of wet juniper and rock hangs in the air.

How long has it been since I’d climbed Teutonia Peak? Probably that day I was here with Matthew in the wake of the Hackberry Fire, which would put it at the last few days of July in 2005. More than three years. It was eleven years ago I first made this little hike, three miles out and back at most unless you bushwhack around the west face of Teutonia the way I did that first day, and I don’t remember even once noticing, hiking back down from the saddle beneath the summit, how just utterly beautiful the north ridge is. Perhaps it’s the slanting, cloud-filtered light, or the temperate air after an oven summer. Maybe it’s that juniper tang in my nostrils or the slow ebb of the heartbreak that’s preoccupied me these last months. Maybe I’ve noticed it before and just forgot.

Whatever it is, the sight is a fixative. I am suddenly embedded in the moment, a fly in desert amber. The clichéd sensation déjà vu has a lesser-known complement, jamais vu, the sudden feeling that one has never before seen the thing beheld. The sundered rock before me seems wholly unfamiliar, a spectacular surround entirely new.

And of course I recall earlier visits, hiking down into the rocks there with Sharon eleven years ago, clambering over fall after dry fall, marveling at the coffee ferns and lush moss in a desolate desert canyon. Alone a few years later, I dropped down into one of those little defiles before me there between the boulders and found a stripe of wet sand. There was a bighorn sheep hoofprint in the middle of the sand. I watched it fill with seeping wet, my hair standing on end: the print could not have been more than a few minutes old. I do remember being here, and yet I am wholly certain I have never been here before. I am split in two, two selves momentarily occupying the same space.

There is Ephedra growing here, and Echinocereus. The ground is covered in bright quartz gravel. I walk along the little trail, picking my way down the slope. My heart is full and I am content and yet I know this feeling will pass, will become one more memory of past happiness. I regret that for a moment. It is one more ache in an uncountable string of aches, this desire to take this spasmodic stroke of beauty and preserve it in some metaphorical solvent, to fold myself somehow into the landscape and never leave.

Pinyon jays raise a tumult in the Joshua trees. I watch a small flock of them work their way south along the base of the hill. I have no idea what they’re looking for. The closest piñon pines I know of are a dozen miles away, in the Mid-Hills. And are they even there anymore? I took a quick look last year, my first visit to the Hackberry burn since the fire went out, and I couldn’t look closely enough to tell whether any of the pines I’d known had survived. There were a few stands of juniper still living, islands in a charcoal sea.

There was a day I had wanted to become that landscape too, to forever grasp the moment and the smell of sagebrush, the tail of the fat coyote trotting across the rutted dirt of Wild Horse Canyon Road, the loud jays in the piñons and the long view north toward Teutonia and Kessler Peaks, and of all those things I longed to become that day the view still remains. A wall of fire took all the rest, turned sagebrush to smoke and coyote to calcinated ash. Though the jays were likely among the few animals that could outrun the front — at its worst, on June 26, 2005, it advanced five miles in an hour and a half — the trees they fed on were somewhat less able to run away. An animal may escape, but an animal is nothing without the habitat that feeds it, houses it, envelops it as a fossil cast contains its mold. There are piñons in the New York Mountains, the Clark Range, in the McCulloughs; settlement camps for Mid-Hills refugee jays.

Had I become that landscape, my heart would be char and smoke today. Instead I watched from 400 miles away, heart breaking by increment with each bit of bad news, a week that is, in the clear light of retrospect, the commencement of that long slide that culminated in the dissolution of my home and family. Distinct from the incinerated landscape, I survived with no visible scars.

That separation saved my skin, but that separation was as inevitable as breathing. By its very nature self-awareness implies a separation between self and not-self.  Beauty, a transaction between the perceiver and the perceived, could not exist without that separation. It is the obverse of longing’s coin.

Mastamho, the Mojave culture hero, after he summoned Coyote to bring fire for his father’s funeral pyre, after he created the Colorado River, after he apportioned the land and sent the various peoples — the Yavapai, Hualapai and Havasupai, the Chemehuevi, the Kumeyaay and Quechan and Ahamakav — each to their own places, after all his labors, he was tired. He became a fish eagle, according to the story, and now flies back and forth above the river he freed from the sand with his staff. In the process he relinquished his memory, his identity. One cannot merge with the landscape without making a similar though certainly far more prosaic sacrifice.

What would be the point? All is as it should be. I am that part of the desert grown aware of itself, these walls as natural as the chollas’ gloriole of spines. We long the way coyotes howl and ravens quark and datura blossoms clasp themselves closed until the night arrives. And this mountain too will burn, and preventably so. One beloved landscape after another will be lost, and we mourn, and we resolve to fight the next looming loss as inevitably, and as inevitably we will long for the staggering chaotic beauty that replaces them.