Joshua Tree

We were giddy on the drive out. A feeling of escape, of slinking early out of school to get the jump on summer recess. The backseat was piled high: bags, groceries, blankets, pillows. We'd packed light, clothing-wise, but had brought plenty of creature comforts from home. We previewed festival music, joking and dancing in our seats as I poked around on Spotify. Being out of the city had unburdened us, and the quickness with which we sometimes fall to bickering evaporated. Companionabilty eased into the space left behind.

Southwestern desert looks and feels the same no matter which state you're in. "It's exactly like Tucson," I informed Terence, who's never been, but who has mentioned wanting to see my Arizona roots. "Now we don't have to go." Around sunset we passed through town - a scraggly stretch of strip malls, antiques shops, saloons. We stopped to get a few more food items; I wanted to fix pasta for dinner, to fuel up for hiking the next day. Terence foraged in produce while I wandered down the breakfast aisle. When he found me a few minutes later, I was staring blankly at a box of cereal. I'd been distracted by the music playing in the store: Willie Nelson's version of City of New Orleans. I turned to Terence and tried to explain, but choked up before the words got free. "My dad loved this song."

Forty was a birthday I'd love to have shared with him. My mom, too. Their reassurances that I was doing okay, that the middle isn't the end, would not have gone amiss.

The house we rented was nestled up against a small mountain ridge about half a mile from the highway. It shared a dirt road turnoff with a smattering of other homes, each spaced a respectful distance apart. Breathing room for everyone, privacy for all. The property had a name: Sandpiper, "a hideaway in Panorama Heights". By the time we pulled up to Sandpiper's standalone garage (past an electronic gate requiring a passcode for entrance), I was already unbuckled and half out the door. The sun was starting to set the western horizon ablaze, and I couldn't wait to take its picture. There's nothing like a desert sunset. Nothing in the world.

Terence unloaded the car while I made ever widening circles around the yard, snapping photos, reconsidering angles, then snapping more. Joshua Tree gave us a stunning welcome, showing off with a fiery display of purple, blue, and orange. Perishables put away, Terence joined me on the dusty driveway. "Do you like it?" he asked, a question rendered absurd by the smile on my face.

"It's perfect."

"It's so quiet," he said. "I feel like my body is melting."

Inside, the rooms were even more spacious and minimal than they'd appeared on the website. Mid-century modern with a healthy dose of quirk. The front sunroom, the feature that had sold us, was lined on three sides with windows whose gauzy curtains we pulled immediately, letting dusk seep heavily into the space. The silence, intense after the constant din of downtown, felt like a third guest.

After a quick tour of the rental and the discovery that neither of us were hungry yet, we went back outside. Equipped with a flashlight, we climbed atop one of the loveseat-sized boulders to the side of the carport and sat watching headlights on the freeway. Our nearest neighbor was puttering around in a quaint little shack just down the hill; we could hear him clearly through open windows. We talked, our voices low in automatic reverence for the beauty around us. We listened to the desert. I put my head against Terence's shoulder and in the warm night air we plotted our next two days.

I was already itching to explore, though. We were on the edge of the park, minutes from the main entrance, but I was anxious to see it spread out before me. My suspicion was that if we got over the ridge behind the house we'd see, illuminated by a nearly-full moon, an expanse of land covered in brush and cactus and crawling with invisible wildlife. I convinced Terence it would be safe. "Snakes are most active at dusk and dawn," I lied, more to myself than to him. I hadn't spent fourteen years in a climate I'd loathed only to be scared of it now. "We just need another flashlight."

But another flashlight wasn't to be found, though we checked several drawers and cabinets in the kitchen. Terence lit up, remembering something, and I followed him out to the car where from the trunk he pulled a small tote bag. "It's a windup radio," he explained, unsheathing what looked like an old-fashioned transistor radio. "And it has a light. It's from RH," he said sheepishly.

"You and your gadgets." But it was the perfect prop to dispel the tension on our dangerous, dark trek. As we carefully picked our way along the rocky path, Terence continually wound the little radio. It would reward his efforts with ten or fifteen seconds of Christian rock and weak light from a bulb on the side. We laughed every time the music faded and he had to re-crank the handle, which whirred and whined painfully. Before we knew it, we'd reached a clearing about two hundred feet above the house. The moon flooded the ridge with an eerie glow.

"What about coyotes?" he asked suddenly. "And mountain lions?"

"You're such a city boy," I teased, but I was secretly glad for an excuse to turn around. The desert will always be in my bones, I'll always feel at home there - but it's treacherous and callous in the extreme. I'd collected the bites, bruises, and twisted ankles to prove it.

Back in the house, we realized we were too hungry to start cooking. We opted for the quick fix of cereal, which we ate side by side on one of the retro floor lounges in the sunroom. There were two of these lounges, which were a cross between a futon and a recliner, with massively thick white vinyl cushions on adjustable wooden frames. These lounges would be where I'd spend most of my LSD trip the next day - where I'd cling in terror and gasp in wonder, mere minutes between the two extremes. For now, though, they were where we planned tomorrow's hikes.

Our next day figured out, I wanted to go back outside again. The sultry desert night was intoxicating; I'd missed it so much. But first Terence wanted to give me my birthday presents, which he did in the cooler, smaller spare bedroom. Lights off - less pressure that way. Blue moonlight spilling across two gift boxes. The first held a delicate silver bar necklace - I'd been wanting one for ages. The second, a slippery handful of midnight blue satin and black eyelash lace. Kiki de Montparnasse. Another something I'd always wanted.

Later, when we realized the master bedroom was too hot to sleep in, we dragged the sunroom lounges into the colder living room and lay down on those. We shut the lights and put our heads together in the dark, our bodies separated by the gap between cold plastic cushions. Terence played the ukulele he'd brought, and I marveled not for the first time at his ability to play an instrument without looking at it. "What time is it?" he asked drowsily.

"Go to sleep," I ordered, knowing he was exhausted from an early morning, and from the drive.

"What time is it?" he repeated stubbornly.

I sighed and rolled over to grab my phone off the floor. "Eleven thirty. You'll never make it."

He plucked at the ukulele and looked over my shoulder as I scrolled through the day's photos. We talked about Chaucer, whom Krista was keeping watch over back at home. We luxuriated in the quiet, so exotic-seeming. We looked out the windows at alien shapes: porch lamps and joshua trees with long, lanky shadows. "The cactus have so much emotion," he said. "They look like people." Then, a moment later: "What time is it?"

I reached for my phone again. Midnight exactly. We laughed. The ukulele started up again. "Happy Birthday to you..."

After Terence fell asleep, I wandered from room to room, thinking about my half-life ahead and how it will different from the one I just finished. I took my phone into the bedroom to read Krista's birthday message, a list of 40 reasons she's thankful for me. I hadn't yet mustered up the strength to look at it, fearing it would overwhelm me. Which it did. 

For a few minutes I just lay on the bed, absorbing. Knowing she'd be asleep with the ringer off, I texted her. All the good things you see in me you recognize because you have them too.  

It took me hours to fall asleep. Might have been the green tea I had at lunch, or might have been the million thoughts I'd accidentally packed along with my hiking boots.

Terence woke me with more ukulele, then coffee. "I saved you the better mug," he declared.

"Why is it better? Is there Bailey's in it?"

"No," he said, "but it has coyotes on it." He sang me a song he made up on the spot, about a sandpiper who'd come to tell us how much Chaucer missed us. It was adorable and I made him immediately record it on his phone while I brushed my teeth.

We dawdled, lazy in the thrall of our first real vacation together. Much of the morning we spent in the sunroom, sipping coffee and discussing our creative lives. We had a very long, very emotional talk about art - what constitutes it, and what does not.

It was early afternoon before we left for the park. We hit Arch Rock, then Barker's Dam, then just stopped here and there as we pleased, slowly making our way through to the opposite entrance. The trails we chose were short and easy; we wanted to reserve some daylight for later.

The desert was beautiful to me in a way it never had been when I lived there. The dry, acrid air; the scarcity of green that I used to hate; the hot dust settling into my pores - it was all strangely seductive. We scrambled up and over boulders, pausing to take in the view and catch our breath. We shimmied through slots tight enough to merit nervous jokes about getting stuck. We clomped through thorny tangles of boot-sticky spurs to reach picturesque petroglyphs. We took sweaty selfies and slow-motion videos. We got hungry and punchy. And after three hours of exploring Joshua Tree, we decided to head back to the house for the other big adventure of our weekend.