Sugar and Grass

There is a heaviness to the air that builds up when heat in the high desert pushes huge clouds above the surrounding peaks. A sense of possibility that unfurls like the endless ribbon of blacktop through the windshield, a yellow stripe and two narrow lanes leading anywhere but here. Atoms rub together and create a cosmic spark, future lightning, kinetic energy. Something could happen. 


Rewinding, the pallid gray interstate hums beneath worn tires. Expansion joints click-clack, camping gear rattles a half-beat later. The heavy haze of red dirt in the wind renders the world in an exhausting yellow. There is a disconnect between what is and what will be, and it is in this tension that moving forward feels nearly impossible. 

The thing about humans is that once they’re going, they can go forever. It’s getting going that’s the hard part. Or changing direction. We are stubborn locomotives, stuck on tracks and following them unquestioningly. 


Somewhere out there, a pronghorn watches the endless diesel pickup trucks hum down the road and perks up its ears when one hits the rumble strip. A coyote misjudged the closing speed of a lifted truck with a brush guard, the type of vehicle that refuses to slow down even one second for the rest of the world, and so it lays forever cross-eyed on the side of a lonesome highway, slowly returning to the dirt that fed the prey its mother ate in order to provide milk for her pups.

A mere week later, I am driving down from a faraway dot on the map towards a bigger one, cruising the empty roads after dark. If you want the sublime experiences, you have to shrug off the hostility and discomfort of the world. To watch the sunset from a remote hot spring means trekking through the woods after dark and seeing a 10:57 PM ETA on Google Maps. 


On this distant roadway, it is obvious that we modern humans are the outliers in the natural world. All day we rode bikes down small dirt roads, watching coyotes dance through the tall grass and elk graze while keeping a leery eye on every passerby. Trout sip caddisflies off the surface of creeks and disappear into the current at the first sign of shadows. Swallows skim ponds for those same flies, birds becoming fish for a nanosecond in order to fill their beaks with hard-won spoils. 


I cannot help but think about how the whole world could look like this, if only we didn’t clear cut and pave and landscape it all to death. I want to cry when I watch the pristine stream wind through a meadow as elk graze in large numbers just out of reach. It is so peaceful and beautiful, so bountiful and alive. To see nature as it once was is to mourn every second what the world has become. 

I jab on the brakes to give a dancing butterfly an extra second to try and dodge my windshield, an unnatural fifty five mile-an-hour existential threat in its peaceful home. I notice deer ears poking out of the understory alongside the road after dark and lower my speed. I do not need to be where I’m going any more than they need to survive the night. Further down the road, a deer stands still in my lane, staring at the car and then looking all around. I know that her hooves don’t work well on damp asphalt, just as I know that blinding LED lights render her temporarily blind in the darkness she prefers. I come to a halt and dim the lights, waiting for her to make an informed decision about which way to go. She must smell and listen for predators – perhaps she scans her memory for a fawn she left hiding in the grass, helpless except for its stillness and dappled camouflage. Why do we think we can barrel through her world and call her stupid as our plastic bumpers crunch into her fur and flesh, how is anything we are doing more important than everything she dreams of? 


I watch her scan and make a decision and then tiptoe off the asphalt and into the night. Slowly I accelerate again, only to see a massive bull elk trotting down the shoulder of the road a mile further. He’s not far from the dead elk we passed on our bike ride earlier, another victim of hooves and pavement and impatient people. I stop the car. Nobody is coming, not out here, not now. For a moment, we watch him survey us and then take off with the testosterone-laden strut typical of male ungulates. Just down the road, a harem of yearlings and cow elk speckle the road and the grass on either side. My buddy is in awe. You don’t see nature like this in Los Angeles. Or much of anywhere anymore. 

Last week’s weariness and tomorrow’s loneliness are far away. Tonight, the world is awake while much of the city down below sleeps. There is algae all over my body from the hot springs, the embarrassing fleshly form spared its self-awareness after enough practice using it instead of fearing it. I am neither hungry nor tired, I am simply awake like the next elk we see crossing the road. Traveling is a responsibility that far too many people take for granted. There are screens in our cars and screens in our hands, screens in our homes and in our offices, taking advantage of our biological predilection for light. We are no different than the moths we mock for dancing around lamps and getting zapped by our horrible bug killing contraptions.