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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Desert: A Forever Land*

The Dragoon Mountains,
near Tombstone, Arizona

*Somerset, PA Daily American
July 10, 2010
as "Putting the View in Perspective"
(May be listed online as "His Headshot is in Snibbets" )
(No, I don't know why.)
(I don't even know what "Snibbets" are.)

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey
With its customary roar, the plane lifted out of Phoenix, leaving in its rippled wake Sky Harbor, certainly one of the most poetic names ever bestowed on an airport. We flew west for a bit before circling back east, bound for home.

I gazed out the window, watching as the lights of the suburbs slowly thinned out. Behind us, the sun was setting. A desert sunset is a beautiful sight, all purple and gold, the few clouds lit brilliantly by the fading star. The desert during the day seems bright and harsh, colored by the sharp blue sky, bright yellow sun, the darker yellow of the sands, the dark, brooding mountains. But come dusk, the angled rays reveal a wonderfully subtle palette of colors from the softer, gentler part of the spectrum. As the sun sinks into the west, the sky and earth begin to merge. Both are slipped by a velvety cloak of purple as the day ends.

However, these magical moments never last very long. The sun disappears below the horizon, the darkness slides in from the east and night takes the land.

Far above, the plane glides through the night. Below, I can make out the lights of small towns; houses and buildings clustered together, lonely outposts against the vast emptiness. Occasionally, however, a single solitary speck of light breaks the endless dark. Down there, a human has chosen a life of perfect solitude. No town, no neighbors; they live independent of civilization. They have freely spurned the infrastructure we take so completely for granted. As I gaze down, I wonder what kind of person would we find in that lonely house. A hermit, perhaps; preferring the familiarity of his own company. Maybe it’s someone who fled a tragedy, personal or otherwise. Could it be that they hide from their past, from actions wrongly taken; decisions poorly made? Or perhaps merely someone with the soul of an artist, inspired by the desert’s unique muse.

Even now, I imagine them looking up as I look down, gazing into a perfect dome of stars where even the dim light of the most distant is freed from the intrusive glare of any nearby towns. Around them, the silence of the night is broken only by the whisper of the restless wind, and perhaps the mournful cry of a night bird.

And yet, I know this is a romantic image, naively concocted. The sad reality is that this land becomes a dangerous place at night. Drug runners and their ruthless cousins trafficking in human flesh skulk across the desert, their illicit cargoes in tow. No longer opportunistic adventurers, they are heartless and utterly without mercy. For those unfortunate enough to encounter them, the results are all too often mortal.

But this is nothing new. The Southwest has always been an unforgiving land. From the ancients who first came across the Bering land bridge from Asia, their descendents who were called Navajo, Apache, Comanche, and others. Spaniards and Mexicans from the south, white Americans from the east, all paid a price.

But those who came and stayed saw in this endless land the freedom to make the life that they wanted; bound not by the laws of man, but by the yearnings of their hearts. It is this sense of freedom that in a land without borders that calls to me.

Despite the harsh climate and the dangers in the night, this has always been the place where my heart is drawn. The Southwest has gifted me perspective; a place where the musings of a man’s mind ranges as far as the stars and nebulae that populate the night sky, with thoughts as personal and intimate as the inside of a sleeping bag.

I have traveled far in my lifetime, 22 countries, 49 states, and 3 oceans. But across all those miles, all those vistas, no place has touched me more deeply, soothed me more completely, or brought me more peace than this harsh and rugged, yet hauntingly beautiful land.

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