The bus bounced crazily, as Brother Frank tried to avoid both the washboarded areas of the road and the nearby scrub brush that grew close to the dusty trail that had been marked as a road. I clutched the armrest of the van, and tried to relax. The drive had taken several hours, and most of the monks had been up since dawn. The desert was completely flat when we’d turned off the road, but as we drove further into the wilderness, we wound down into the bed of an arroyo, and cliffs of dust and small stones rose on all sides. The only vegation I could see were small plants the color of the ddust itself, a few stray tufts of some tough grass, and the occasional stunted grey bush. The hillsides were rugged, crusted in some places, and soft with dust in others. Not much water ever flowed here, and every drop left a distinct trace.
We pulled up to a small flat area, and parked, much to the relief of everyone. In a few moments, all the doors were open, and everyone was unloading. “Remember,” Brother frank called out as he tossed sleeping bags to various monks, “silence starts at lunch, and it’ll be best if we’re set up by then, so work fast!”
The bed of the arroyo was a flurry of activity as everyone set up their own sleeping area, then moved on to setting up the stoves, tables, and coolers needed for the food. As the sun rose towards its zenith, we finally got everything stowed safely, and gathered around the tables for the meal.
Brother Francis rolled back the sleeves of his robe, and lifted his arms to the sky. “Lord God, Father of all that is, be with us here in the wilderness as we learn to see you here. Let us learn to seek You wherever you may lead us, even when the path is hard. We especially ask for wisdom for James Mason Neale Peyton, our friend and brother in the Lord, as He seeks You. Meet him here when all other distractions are gone, and guide him towards You. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
I was embarrassed that he had named me in the prayer, and took some comfort in the fact that silence was now in effect. The area was so barren that there were no birds, and the only thing that cut into the silence was the faint sound of the wind, and the occasional insecnt. Once an airplane flew by overhead, engines roaring so far above that they could scarely be heard.
I knew that today would primarily be spent silencing thoughts and moving into mental and spiritual silence. Brother Frank had explained that we were free to explore the desert, as long as we went in groups of two or more, especially in the caves. A cardboard box at the campsite held walkie talkies and water bottles, which we were required to take if leaving the campsite to explore. It was a potent reminder of the deadliness that lay in wait for the unwary in the unforgiving desert.
I saw a small rounded mound of dirt, too small to truly be called a hill, that rose on one side of the campground, and quickly scrambled up it. I was momentarily grateful that I was wearing my tattered jeans instead of a monk’s robe. The brothers were all clad in their traditional robes, and though they managed just fine, I could tell it was a little difficult at times.
I stood on the top of the little mound: it sloped down gently on all sides, and the top was very soft and slippery under a thin crumbled crust. I could only move about 7 feet in any direction before I would begin to slide downwards. As I looked out over the arroyo, I could see back the way we had come, and noticed a tall thin crack in the side of the hills. Though the sun was almost blindingly bright, the entrance to the cave was pitch black just a few feet in. On my right, to the east, was a series of small hills—we’d driven through them on the way to the campground, and Brother Frank had said that they were riddled with small caves, some of which were unexplored, because the entrances were too small. A smooth wall of dried mud towered over the campsite, to the southeast, and in it was a small vertical chink, like a keyhole. The walls were almost vertical, and there was no way to get to the cave from above or below. Behind me, to the south, a mud hill had deeply eroded, and the bleached earth had deep rivulets and layers running through it. It made me slightly uneasy, and I mentally termed it, The Necropolis. The name seemed to fit, for no particular reason. To the west, the road wound away through the arroyo, amidst more hills. Ahead and to my left, a small mud peak rose. It was perhaps three times as tall as the mound I stood on, but significantly more massive. The slope was gentle most of the way up, but perhaps twenty feet from the top, the earth had sheared away, giving a dramatic appeareance to the crest of the hill. I thought about calling it the Matterhorn, but realized that the name of a snowy peak was out of place here. Casting about mentally for the name of a desert mountain, I settled on Mount Sinai. Wryly, I noted that on one side, the base of the hill was covered with thorn bushes.
I sat down, looking out over the camground. Most of the monks were there, their brown robes contrasting with the paler earth, yet seeming to be a part of it. A few were sleeping, most were reading, and Brother Frank was scribbling in a notebook. I didn’t see Andrey, and figured that he must be off exploring.
The silence overwhelmed me and I found myself just sitting quietly, watching the qquiet interplay of light over the rugged faces of the hills and ground. No one moment was quite like the last, and the clouds drifted quietly overhead. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t care about the Sight. It could go, or come, and I would be happy as long as I was here. I slowly relaxed until I was lying on my back, watching the clouds. They drifted over the top of the mud wall in long streamers, stretching thin across the sky, bfreaking and reforming as the wind hit them.
A piece of paper, tattered and stained as if it had been there many months, flew suddenly over the top of the wall, caught in the draft. It dipped and swirled, but never fell out of the wind stream. I watched it soaring, thinking that it was somehow fitting that the only way to move in that rarified atmosphere would be to dance.
Slowly, the sun sank in the west, and the shadows lengthened. The warm pale dirt on Mount Sinai grew more saturated in color as the sun turned red. I stood again, watching, and the whole top of the mountain seemed to be aflame, the color and light reflected growing more intense every moment. The simple white clouds were now ribbons of the brightest red, pink, and orange, and in the east even a few of purple. The sky was turning a deep indigo, and across the arroyo, the moon was rising, looking like a bride in her wedding dress.
I saw a flurry of motion below me, and realized that the brothers were gathering for dinner. I brushed myself off, and when I looked up again, the sun had sunk below the horizon and the light, though still brilliant, had dimmed on the hills and was fading quickly. I slipped down the hillside in a river of dust, and landed in a cloud. I coughed quietly, and tried to brush myself off.
A fire was beginning to blaze quietly in a firepit, and several coolers were open. I could see packages of hot dog buns being opened, and couldn’t help laughing at the sight of brown-robed monks sliding wieners onto bent coat hangers. Andrey sidled up behind me, and said in a low voice, “The camping diet makes up for the silence. Trying to eat healthy out here is impossible, so it’s camping food for a week!”
Night fell quickly, and the temperature dropped along with it. Though it was only April, I found myself very glad that I had brought not only a jacket but also a light blanket. Most of the monks had made similar provisions, and we sat around the fire, a circle of wrapped bundles. The young monk with cropped hair and thick glasses had brought a guitar, and strummed it quietly. A few of the brothers sang along, but I didn’t recognize the tunes. The sky was still a dim purple in the west, and the moon was shining brightly. A few bats flapped through the gloaming, and I watched them distractedly. The smell of the desert at night struck me: cold dust, plants releasing the last of the days warmth, and a slightly burnt tang on the wind.
Brother Frank stood up, and gestured to us to pay attention. When all eyes were turned to him, he spoke. “Brothers, as most of you know, we’ll be ending each day with prayer and meditation. I’ll spend a few moments guiding you, then let you take it from there.”
He gestured to the barren landscape. “Did you notice as the sun was going down, how quickly it grew dark? And how dark it appeared? As the sun slips below the horizon, the shadows look pitch black, and it quickly grows cold. But look now, how well can you see?”
I looked around. The moon had risen high in the sky, and was shining brighter than I had ever seen it. There were no other lights for miles. Even with eyes accustomed to the glow of the coals from the fading campfire, I could tell that the landscape was brightly lit, and the hills threw sharp shadows.
“Even in the light, the light shines brightly. Even in the dark, there is hope. Keep this hope alive against the fall of night.” He bowed slightly, and sat back down, eyes closed.
As he fell silent, I looked up at the peak of Mount Sinai. There was now no trace of the sun’s fire that had touched it only a few hours ago. It was cold, and looked almost icy. The moon’s light etched across the landscape, throwing everything into sharp relief; blades of grass that had looked dry and withered by the light of thre sun looked now like the blades of sabers, gleaming in the cold harsh light. The entrance to the cave just down the arroyo was now a vertical line of jet black, and admitted no view of its interior.
I looked up, and almost gasped at the beauty of the stars. I hadn’t seen them this bright since I had left Indiana, and only rarely then. I thought back to the line from Blake, “when the stars threw down their spears.”
I didn’t feel like praying—not that I was angry at God, I was simply content to rest in the silence for a while. The great inky dome of the sky seemed like the ceiling of a monstrous cathedral, one that held not only the beauty of the day, but the terror of the night. I turned toward the hill I’d dubbed The Necropolis, and it was more horrible by night. The white soil was almost glowing in the reflected light of the moon, and the deep rivulets were a wretched black, but I was content. There was room for it here.
I felt something like the flicker of the Sight, but it quickly fell silent. I felt the cold creeping in, since I’d been sitting still for a while. I let it come, and felt a shiver go down my spine.
In the heart of the circle of monks, the coals continued glowing and pulsing with light and heat. The heat was too weak and too far away to reach me, but I was glad for its simple existence.
After a few more moments, Brother Frank stood again, and gestured for us all to rise. “Father God, You who dwell even in the heart of the wilderness where all else is barren, meet us here. Show us the terror of your glory, and let us see You in all that You have made. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
The fire was quickly banked, and I retreated to the warmth of my sleeping bag.
The night was cold, and the ground hard, but I slept well. I woke early, with a crick in my bag, and found most of the monks already moving about. The coals had been uncovered and were being coaxed back to life. A sparing amount of water had been poured into a tin coffeepot, and it was slowly warming up on a rack over the infant flames. Andrey was occupied at one of the camp tables, setting out bagels, cream cheese, and jelly. I had slept in my clothes for warmth, and didn’t have to worry about getting dressed, so I wriggled out of the sleeping bag, and went over to help him. He pointed wordlessly at the waterless hand sanitzer perched at the end of the table. I cleaned my hands and began rummaging in a paper bag for napkins.
Soon, everyone was awake, and breakfast began. Andrew, the young monk with the thick glasses glanced at the fire, the wire hangers from the night before, and the breakfast table, and began grinning. He grabbed a hanger, and motioned to Andrey to hand him a bagel. Andrey, skeptical of the plan he could see forming, raised an eyebrow, but tossed a bagel to him.
Andrew jabbed the hanger through the bagel, and approached the fire. The weight of the pastry bent the hanger nearly doulble, and something that was not quite a chuckle ran through the group. Several of the older monks looked around for Brother Frank, but he was absorbed in his reading, and didn’t notice.
Edging closer to the fire, which was now blazing, Andrew paused, trying to figure out how to make his plan work. Finally, he grabbed a broken two by four that lay in the pile of firewood, and carefully balanced the hanger on top of it. After a few minutes, he managed to finagle the bagel into the warm air above the flames, and grinned widely. He drew it back slowly, and pulled the bagel off the hot metal, and ran over to the table to spread cream cheese over the warm bread before it cooled.
I stifled a laugh, and moved over the table to grab my own breakfast. Though the thought of a piping hot toasted bagel with cream cheese and jelly was appealing, I wasn’t particularly eager to take the effort to hold the plank and the wire over the campfire. I could tell that several of the monks weren’t as sluggish in the morning, and the toasting apparatus was passing amongst the group.
Finally, the commotion caused by a group of men trying desperately not to laugh caught Brother Frank’s attention, and he quietly put his book down and came over.
Andrey happened to be attempting to toast his bagel at the time, and was so intent to keeping the hanger the perfect distance from the flames that he didn’t notice his superior’s approach. Brother Frank was almost standing next to him when he said in a low voice, “Forgoing simplicity, Brother Andrey?” Andrey yelped, and the bagel, along with the hanger and the end of the plank, dropped into the fire. He whirled around to see Frank standing next to him, and attempted to stammer out an explanation before remembering the silence and quieting himself. The look on his face caused Andrew to start snickering, and finally the whole group, myself included was laughing, and even Brother Frank was grinning.
“Get yourself another bagel, Brother, but please try to do things the simple way from now on.” Andrey looked sheepish, but grinned as he spread cream cheese on a cold bagel.
As soon as the breakfast items were securely locked away so that the few desert creatures that lived in the area couldn’t get to them, Brother Frank waved everyone over. “Just a short notice. Silence is in effect for the whole day. We will be going over to the first cave, Plunge Pool, as soon as I finish the announcement, so get your flashlights ready. We’ll probably also be going in there periodically throughout the week, but our meditations will be in there today. Don’t bring any reading material—there’s some light in there, but not much. You’ll only need your flashlights for the entry. There are sandwiches in the large cooler, please grab one and at least one bottle of water.”
The short walk to the cave was hot and dusty, and I could feel tiny particles of dirt settling into my hair and clothing. I fell into step beside Andrew. I didn’t really know him well, apart from a few conversation exchanged in the van on the journey down to the desert, but he and Andrey were the only two monks my age, and I felt more comfortable around them. They seemed to still be having some difficulties completely ffitting in with the monastic life.
We stopped beside the entrance and waited for Brother Frank. He walked into the narrow opening, and was quickly lost to our sight, though I could see the light of his flashlight gleaming faintly on the sides of the entrance. A few of the other monks entered, then Andrew. I followed close behind him, and found myself facing a wall of rock. The entrance, though thirty feet high, was no more than three feet wide, and wound in a convoluted fashion in to the hardened mud of the cliff face. It wound for perhaps thirty feet, and I gripped my flashlight tightly, edging my way sideways through the passage.
Suddenly, I felt a blast of cool air in my face, and found myself stumbling forward into a large open space. My eyes strained to adjust to the darkness after the bright light of the sun outside, but I couldn’t see a thing. I felt a hand on my arm, pulling me towards the wall, and I groped my way forward carefully. I felt my fingertips brush the cool ddirt wall, dislodging a stream of dust. I leaned against the wall, and tired to look around. The darkness was like a physical presence, pressing in on my eyelids. I founbd myself blinking as if hoping to dislodge it, but the inky blackness remained. I switched my flashlight off so as not to blind those across the cavern from me, and looked up. I could see a tiny gleam of reflected light that seemed to be flickering across the roof of the cavern. I assumed that there was a skylight somewhere above, but it didn’t seem to open directly into the large room. The air inside the cave was cool, and I could feel a current.
Slowly, my eyes adjusted to the darkness, and I could see the dim shadowy shapes of the monks across the cave. Most were sitting, some with their heads bent down and resting on their knees, deep in thought or prayer. Again, I found myself more willing to simply sit in silence, just being, not trying to pray or even particularly to think.
It’s amazing how oddly time passes in the dark. All sense of the passage of time deserted me, and I hardly moved, just shifting enough to keep my legs from falling asleep. I absently ran my fingers through the soft dust that powdered the floor of the cave. In a fit of inspirtation, I removed my shoes, and dug my bare toes into the cool powder. I set the shoes where I could find them, tying the laces together.
I pressed my back against the wall of the cave, feeling the coolness of the rock seeping into my back. I closed my eyes, and simply was.
The cool breeze brought with it the smell of long age, the smell of cool dust, and the dryness of old bones. I dind’t mind, and enjoyed feeling the refrigerated blast on my face. I hadn’t brought a razor, and my beard was beginning to grow, though it was little more than stubble at the moment. I didn’t know if I’d keep the beard but I was enjoying not having to shave.
I could hear the occasional shuffling sound of someone shifting position, or standing after a long time sitting. Once or twice I thought I heard the clicking of rosary beads and the whisper of a prahyer. I didn’t know if there were any saints of the desert, but I doubt I would have sent up a petition to any of them if I had known of them.
I let the silence slowly enter my soul, trying to still any thoughts or memories that surfaced, but it was difficult. Nature abhors a vacuum, and my brain would bring something else to the top of my consciousness as soon as I had cleared the previous thought. I felt like a silversmith, constantly skimming off the dross, but the thoughts below were never silver, but seemed to be dross all the way down, murky and dull, heavy with impurities and base metal.
I don’t know how long I sat, still and silent, but finally realized that my legs were growing numb. I quietly pushed myself up, and leaned against the wall while waiting for feeling to return to my legs. They prickled as blood flowed back in, and I winced, shifting my weight from foot to foot, trying to hasten the recovery.
I noticed that I had been in darkness enough for my eyes to adjust completely, and the light from the skylight was, far from being a mere gleam, a bright glow. I could see the faces of the men across the cave from me, and even see the irregularities in the walls of the cave. It was a very round cylinder, going almost straight up. There were a few small ledges, but not enough that anyone could climb to the skylight without the help of rapelling equipment.
I thought of the rains that must come sometimes, and imagined the skylight as the mouth of a rushing waterfall. How quickly the place would full up, I thought, and wondered when the last time that much water had come through there. Brother Frank had mentioned that one of the smaller caves had only been formed in a rainy season forty years previously, and I wondered if that was this cave.
I dug my toes into the powdery dust, and realized how fragle the cavern was. Rain might not come for fifty years, but even without the rain, it was slowly drifting apart. The slow march of time would wear it down, even if the rains never came.
But the rains would come. I’d seen the hills outside, and they showed the clear marks of rainfall, though it couldn’t have been much. One of the monks had told me that there was often water in the bottom of Footprint Canyon, though he didn’t know if that would be the case this year. I let the dust drift through my fingers, and felt the cold.
I felt my stomach growl. I didn’t know what time it was, but decided to go ahead and eat my sandwich. I pulled the rather squashed bag out of my jacket pocket, and tried to reach into it as quietly as possible, tbuit the paper bag crackled pretty loudly. Every sound was amplied in that space, and I felt a little bit bad about it until I heard other bags started to crackle.
The sandwhich was cold on one side, where I’d had my back pressed against the wall, and somewhat warm on the other, where the pocket had rested against my leg. I wasn’t even sure what kind of sandwihch I’d grabbed. I pulled the plastic bag open, and sniffed carefully. Tuna. I checked it first to make sure that no-one had put lettuce on it, then bagen scarfing it down. I wondered why I was so hungry, since I’d done little that day. As usual, the sandwich taseted fantastic, like everything does on a camping trip. An odd mixture of smells arose in the cavern—I could smell tuna, ham, and I thought I caught a whiff of peanut butter and jelly.
I finished the last few bites of the sandwich, and took a few drinks of water from the water bottle I’d brought. I assumed that since we were sitting in the cold dark cavern, I wouldn’t be particularly thirsty, but I was. I hadn’t realized just how quickly the dry atmosphere of the desert, even in here, would wick away all moisture, and I wished I’d brought another water bottle. Even after stadnign, my body was still stiff, and I decided to explore the entrance of the cave a little bit. It was bright with the afternoon sun which reflected into the main cavern with a yellow glow: there were at least five switchbacks, and with every surface it bounced off of, the light picked up a warmer tone.
I followed the stream of cool air, and discovered a smaller cave just off the main one. The entrance was so narrow, I had to squeeze through sideways; even then I wasn’t sure I could make it. Unlike the main entrance, this one never opened into a larger cavern, but simply went a few feet back. I could tell that there was more to the opening than I could get to, since the air was not only fresh, but cool, indicating that it had passed through a good bit of the cavern system before exiting here.
I paused, not quite stuck in the rock, but knowing it would take a bit of squirming to get free. I was cold, and could feel the chilly rock touching my backi, my knees, my ribs, my arms. It was much darker in here, since my body was blocking most of the light that came from the entrance. I stopped edging forward, and simply let myself rest. I wedged one knee against a wall, and lifted my other foot off the ground. I tried to relax, there in the rocky cradle. Slowwly, I was able to persuade myself to relax and began to feel as if I was sinking down and becoming a part of the stone. For the first time my mind was silent, and I felt myself drifting as though asleep, though I’m sure I never closed my eyes.
I’m not sure how long I stayed there, held by the rock, and thinking of nothing, but I didn’t stir until I heard the brothers stirring in the cavern beyond.
I shaded my face with a hand as we came back out into the light. The sun had gone far past noon, and was now falling slowly towards the western horizon, though it would be a few hours until dusk. The light was bright and warm, and the air was hot, hitting us in the face like a furnace blast after the chill of the cave. We paused at the entrance, waiting for our eyes to adjust again. It took quite a while—the sun reflected off the pale dust and launched itself back into the sky, which though still blue, had gone pale, and dusty near the horizon.
As we reached the camp, I found myself drawn to the little mound I’d climbed the night before, and made my way to the top again. Several of the other monks wandered down the arroyo and around the bend. Most simply sat in camp chairs below, enjoying the warmth and light. Andrew began climbing some of the lower hills in the area, and Andrey watched.
My body was eager to move after so many hours of stillness, and I did some stretches. I felt a bit silly, but was determined not to let self-conscioousness inhibit me here. None of the brothers were watching anyway, and I raised my arms above my head, feeling my spine pop several times. The warmth of the sun was intense, but not unbearable, and I soon broke into a sweat.
After about thirty minutes of stretching and moving, I decided to explore some of the other mounds nearby. I didn’t alert anyone else—the hills were all within easy shouting distance, and none were higher than the mound I was on. There were about five little hills between the one I was on, and the Necropolis. I had no intention of climbing that one, but I wanted to get a better look at it.
Climbing each hill took longer than I had expected. The dirt was soft and slippery all over, and when it gave way I would slid back down the slope under I hit a more solid section. Before long, my shoes were full of dirt, and I could feel dust between my toes, and even gritting between my teeth. Finally, I stood on the hill that sat at the foot of the Necropolis, and stood looking up at it. It wasn’t very large, but I still felt a chill as I looked at it. The rare waters had carved rivulets down the side of the slope, and subsequent erosion had explanded them, until the uneroded sections looked like crumbling columns of an old temple. The soil was slightly different here, a different mineral in the soil, causing the wwhiter crust of dirt coveriung the formation. I’d seen streaks of a similar mineral, perhaps a calcite, on the other hills, but none were so covered in it as this one. I wondered how long the hill had stood, how long it had taken to carve it out of what had once been flat land. It still shocked me to realize that I was at the bottom of a valley that had been carved by water, and that the tops of what looked like hills were the remnants of the original flat lands.
I leaned forward, and rested my hand on the crust of earth that covered the Necropolis. It felt surprisingly warm to the touch—I had almost expected it to be cold, though there was no reason for it. The hill sloped away from me at a sharp angle, narrowing towards the top. For a moment, I was surprised, as the hill began to glow with a warm light, but as I turned I realized that the sun had begun its final dewscent and the whole arroyo was glowing with the warm colors of sunset. Mount Sinai was a mass of dusty fire across the way, and the cliff face to the right was a wall of flame, the keyhole entrance a deep velvety black. I slowly made my way back over the hills, and down to the campground. It wasn’t yet time for dinner, but Brother Frank was poking at the fire, trying to persuade the banked coals to come back to life. I grabbed a stick, and joined him in prodding tinder and wood into place, until the first tongues of yellow flame caught. Soon the fire was roaring again, and the others came and gathered for dinner. Old Brother Aidan, a monk of at least seventy, opened a few cans of chili into a battered kettle, and placed it on the rack above the flames, and stirred it occasionally. Another monk, whose name I couldn’t remember, clattered a stack of bowls, trying to separate them. Another wiped the bowls down with a paper towel to clear out the inevitable dust that had settled into them since we’d entered the campsite.
The chili was bubbling happily amidst the flames as we settled down to dinner. Brother Frank had packed cheddar cheese, onions, and sour cream, so we made a feast of the chili with the various additions. Andrew brought out his guitar again, but insteadof singing, just played it quietly, meditatively. I wondered what he was thinkning. He was a wuiet man who seldom spoke, and often seemed lost in his own thoughts. Andrey was the monk I saw him with the most often, but even then, I hadn’t seen them speak often.
I got a bowl of chilli with all the toppings, and settled into a chair next to Andrew, trying not to spill the chili into my lap or onto the ground. I mostly succeeded, but winced as a trickle of hit chili fell over and tricked down the back of my hand. I set the bowl on one knee, and wiped my hand carefully on a paper towel. It didn’t seem burned but would probably be a little sore for a few days. I waved it through the air to cool it, then picked up my spoon and dug in.