There are so many of them down there. I watch them from up inside the mountain. Dozens of them there, passing as I tried to sleep, laying down over me a mantle of dust.
I drank coffee.
I nodded a silent hello to the trees.
I’m back, I thought.
— We never left.
There are so many of them here this time, I said.
— You will all leave eventually.
They keep to the roads, a trait both curse and blessing. I walk away into the desert. There was a canyon facing us all: In ten years I have seen just one person hike into it, and that was me. A braid of washes spills out of the canyon, and I lost myself in them, dropping out of sight of my neighbors.
Four-o-clocks bloom incongruous purple on the washes’ north banks. The wash was full of color. Paintbrush and turpentine broom, cholla with its golden armament and I dodged each bristling stand by centimeters, brilliant milk quartz where floods have broken open red-varnished shards of shattered mountain, washed down over centuries.
The trees kept me company. “I’m back,” I said aloud.
— You never left.
“Not the part of me that matters, I suppose.”
They nodded as I gained altitude.
This canyon is intimate, a cleft in the red-varnished rock. There is a pillar there in its center, a monolith thirty feet or so in height, and a patch of shade just my size beneath its north face. A seat for me amid a plenary of trees, of barrel cacti and red-baked rock, of lizard and cactus wren and fly. We sit in fellowship.
I do not know how much time passes. It is as if the passage of time has ceased to matter, though more likely time passes as normal and it is me that has ceased to matter. It is a result of solitude, this blurring of the boundary between natural and preternatural. In the company of people the minutes ratchet past as usual.
The wind shifts a bit, blows from Teutonia Peak and up the canyon to me, resinous and sweet and salt, gnarled juniper lost in longing for distant, fond-remembered jasmine.
Sounds from the crowd four hundred feet below reach me, borne on the wind. The big friendly dog whose barking will cancel any coyote concert tonight. The joyful complaints of old women.
And then a rasping chainsaw sound, and then another, and I recoil inside. Off-road motorcycles starting up, knife-sound to my ears. My hat is brown, my clothing black, skin red: they could not see me up here in the mountain if they looked, but I see them. The mountain has eyes today and we are watching them, and not kindly. Seven of them. Eight. Nine. They roll one by one past my campsite. They keep a sedate pace, I will grant them that much. In time I will find their dust has drifted inside my sleeping bag, clogged the burners on my stove, but that comes later.
They turn one by one, keep to the road, roar off northward down the dusty two-rut. They think they do no harm, I tell myself. Someone has told them, I tell myself, that if they keep to something on the map labeled “road” and do not raise giant clouds of dust near asthmatic campers that they are thus comporting themselves without harm.
A dozen species in this forest rely on sharp hearing to survive, to find prey or to avoid becoming prey. A dirt bike engine commonly puts out about 100 decibels, sometimes more. Human hearing begins to show damage from exposure to sounds of 85 decibels. Those fucking machines are loud. They are loud up here, a mile away. There are rabbits living in the blackbrush stands along the road: I met some on my way up here. I think of their reaction to this acoustic assault, and wince hard.
And of course the dust settles, coating leaves that may not feel rain for years, covering pistils and stamens open just now, cutting photosynthetic efficiency of the plants at roadside by increments and making it harder for those plants to control their internal temperatures, damaging what cryptobiotic crust was left when the cattle were finally removed from this forest, one more injury in a century of injury, and for what?
They deny this earth is alive. They deny the forest can be injured. There is them, and there is a desert landscape that is to their minds a paved track with a dust covering and some landscaping they cannot identify, and they deny the commonality between the two. They may be good people, with good hearts. It is true that the off-road “community” possesses a shockingly high percentage of ignorant thugs, who respond to concerns of environmental damage with threats of violence to children and pets. This forest has seen enough of that sort: it was a leg of the infamous Barstow-to-Vegas hare and hounds race, an event so useless and destructive that even the US federal government had to agree, at long last, to stop it ever happening again. These riders may not be that sort. They seem well-mannered, considerate of campers.
I do not care. There is no excuse for ignorance of the damage their sport inflicts; damage to the desert and to themselves. Their ignorance of the desert earth allows them to indulge in its destruction, and their so indulging protects and extends their ignorance.
I am furious. I feel as if I should answer this assault somehow, and yet if I had a gun and plinked their tires, somehow I would become the bad guy. My eyes ache, the tire-spun dust reaching up this far, and I turn to the trees for counsel.
“I should do something.”
— What would you do?
“I don’t know.”
A hundred trees face downcanyon, watching the dirt bikers, watching me. Atop the summit ridge one tree, its view obscured by another red monolith, cranes hard around to get a glimpse.
— They will all of them leave, eventually.
A lesson I have had to learn repeatedly from these instructors. There is a rock behind me slanted imperfectly toward my spine. I lean back, varnished quartz nubs hard against my knotted muscle. There is nothing to do.
I sit for a long time in the company of the desert.
The sun has moved, and I am cold. There is a flat rock in the sun, in front of me and forty feet upslope. I move to it and sit crosslegged. The sun puts me to sleep, partway. I talk to a far-distant friend, a conversation interrupted down there an hour before dawn. I wake again, and doze again, and sit, and wake again.
The sun has moved more. The bikers have not returned. Did they pass by on a broad loop from the Interstate? Perhaps they fell into an impossibly deep hole on the other side of this range. I care somewhat less now. I am content.
I have not moved a muscle for some minutes.
There is a rattlesnake in the shade of the shrub next to me. It rattles almost hesitantly. I move away, and then circle back to get a glimpse. It does not show itself but rattles again, more insistently this time. Dirt bikes a mile away and a deadly poisonous snake at arm’s length, and the sound of the first roils my mind while the second spurs a cautious fondness. Still, I take it as a hint.
Snakes greet me all the way back to the truck. I pack.