Dirt and Sky

by Joe Walko

I have always held a special reverence for natural areas, whether they be the spectacular vistas of a National Park or the calm and tranquility of my own backyard. They have a way of connecting me to something ancient, something sacred, often times grounding me like a tether to a long lost home. I retreat to these places often, when I am in need of adventure and escape, or recharge and respite, or perhaps just some simple reflection.

Three months after the death of my wife, dealing with issues of grief and loneliness and newfound single parenthood, I felt the pull of the mountains and deserts. And so I packed up our camping equipment and my two boys, ages nine and twelve, and headed to Arizona. Following a disastrous attempt to scale Mt. Humphrey’s (12,633 feet), my fears that I wouldn’t survive my trials were boiling over. We headed down from the mountains to the desert, the boys in search of some confidence in their old man, me in search of some solid ground…


October 2012 – After our adventure on Mt. Humphrey’s, we move camp down from the Sedona area into the big empty Sonoran desert further south, where it will be warmer. We find a wonderful little campground outside of Cottonwood, Arizona, on a bluff spread out overlooking a spectacular desert valley. Vultures circles high on invisible thermals, freed from their bounds, freed from gravity, lazily tilting back and forth like a rudderless ship, looking for the dead to sustain them. I think about grief and living again.

Grief is sometimes like a transcendent gaze. I look down at myself now and what I am doing as if I have been detached from my body. I watch the movie of my life alone from the back row of a dark, dirty little theater, shoes sticking to the floor, afraid every time light pours in from the opening door, hoping to forever hide in the shadows. Some days I just go through the motions, with no empathy at all for the main character in this movie, me. At the end of a bad day I wonder how I even accomplished the “normal” things. Everything is different now, and I search for something to hold on to, something real.

Running is real. Working out, pumping the weights, pounding the pavement, blood coursing through wide open veins, heart pounding, big gulps of breath filling screaming lungs; life courses through me, and I cannot deny it. I can’t hide in the shadows when running; it feels too good.

We rent these incredible instruments for a spell, these vehicles for our light that can do these incredible, immaculate things, that are capable of carrying us to the greatest of heights, across the barren desert, and through the lowest lows. So I use mine now. Let the rhythmic footsteps and breathing transport me to a better place, calming my mind and quelling my fears. Let the endorphin’s soothe the pain, physically and emotionally. Let the cleansing breaths refresh and rejuvenate at the cellular level, and let the sweat carry away the built up toxins of grief.

The Earth is real. Today my footsteps pound the white rocks and yellow dirt of the great wide open Sonoran desert. A solitary wilderness trail winds through the prickly pear and mesquite and yuccas, and the flat expanse of the desert is bounded on all horizons by far off purple mountains. Large lobed jackrabbits and striking black-throated sparrows flee my approach, and I admire them for earning a living in a place that is so full of thorns and sharp edges.

At the top of a flat mesa I pull off trail and stop running. From this vantage point I can survey the entire Verde valley. A brown river cuts through the sand and earth, its cottonwoods providing an emerald green necklace against the tan rocks. After being penned in for so long in a beige cubicle and bounded by all these new responsibilities, the endless horizon is freeing.

The ancient ruins of Tuzigoot are outlined on a bluff in the river valley below me, marking human time and connecting it to the timelessness of the heavens and earth. Burial plots from 1,000 years ago attest to the truth of the cycle of life and death; my grief is nothing special. Indeed it is a necessary part of life; so I’ve been told. What I need to understand now is how to uncover the gifts of grief, buried under the layers of vegetation and dirt that have accumulated around a topic mostly ignored and forgotten, like the ruins before archaeologists did the tedious work to excavate it.

It feels right to kneel on this mesa top, to feel the rock cut into my skin under the bright sunshine, to say a prayer of remembrance to those that have gone before me, to those that would normally be here with me. Alone on this mesa top, I let the wind dry my tears.

But as I gaze down on this valley, on the life giving river, on the ancient ruins and the thorny bushes and a trail cut through it desert, my heart begins to stir. Instead of bowing in prayer to what I’ve lost, I can’t help but feel grateful for what I have right now – this view, this body, this experience of being alive right now. I raise my arms in gratitude as my soul reaches for the sky.

And the sky is real. This big desert sky, picture perfect blue painted with white cotton ball clouds, so crisp, so clear, so free here in the desert. I drink it in, and it fills me. I must run!

It is downhill, my strides stretch full, like the vultures outstretched wings. I take off my shirt and let my skin soak up the warm afternoon sun, and let the wind evaporate the sweat that courses down my forehead and back. I am flying!

For the first time months, I experience joy, pure joy, and my heart and soul are lifted high into the desert sky. I run much faster than my normal pace, for I want to feel my heart pound again, I want to feel my lungs burn and my muscles ache. I want to feel alive again, living, not just going through the motions. Even if it’s only for this brief, glorious run, at least I know it is possible again.

It is an all too brief glimpse, and my responsibilities and fears close in fast back at camp, where the boys are fighting and clamoring for dinner. I know I have so many things to take care of, so much hard work yet to do. But perhaps this brief flash of light at the end of this very long, dark tunnel might be be some real hope this time, not just another train.

I know I need keep this little taste of the glory that this world still has to offer in my heart, to get me though the challenges ahead. I know I will need to feel the grit of sand in my shoes, the sting of sunburn on my face, and the ache in my muscles again to heal. I know I will need to feel again the stirring in my soul that comes from gazing into the infinity of the desert night sky, if only to remind me that beauty does still exist, that it still does make life worth living. These parks and mountains and big, wide open deserts, these natural areas, these places that connect us to our true selves – they ground me. Perhaps they are even a solid enough place to start rebuilding…