Solstice and the Silver Bullet
A tale of not-so-rugged Western individualism
I’d like to be able to say I spent the Summer Solstice out in the desert, watching the sun rise and set at the apex of the ecliptic, or gazing in awe as daggers of light met in the center of a spiral, etched in stone a millennium ago, or simply gulping up the sun as it makes its longest appearance of the year.
But alas, no. I actually spent a good portion of the day in the shadow cast by my car, struggling with seized up bolts, treacherous springs, and 33 years of accumulated grease and grime. Yes, I marked the Summer Solstice by replacing the struts on the Silver Bullet. It wasn’t exactly fun, but such is life when you own an old car — and when you stubbornly refuse to take the damned thing to the pros like an intelligent human being would.
It’s a sort of affliction, a pathological manifestation of the old stereotype of the rugged individualism and independence of folks from the Western U.S. Except I don’t feel that rugged and in many ways I’m a collectivist. But I just have a problem asking for help, especially with my car, even if I know better, and even if I can afford to get it fixed by someone who knows what they’re doing.
This character flaw resulted in me trying to use the wrong tool to compress the strut springs (anyone who knows anything about cars knows how dumb/dangerous that was), breaking down in tears when I stripped out one nut, and literally jumping up and down on a wrench with a cheater bar on it to break a seized bolt free. Don’t try that one at home.
Anyway, I eventually got the new struts installed without breaking any bones or critical parts and the car drives a lot better as a result. I guess I kind of feel fulfilled, but that doesn’t offset the feeling that I should have just taken it to the mechanic and saved myself a lot of grief.
With the car fixed, and still a few hours of the Solstice remaining, I hopped in the Silver Bullet and headed west. At least, I thought, I still could catch the sunset. I cruised through the meadows south of the La Plata Mountains, newly greened by the recent rains; along the parched flatlands at the foot of Mesa Verde; and dropped into McElmo Canyon, where water diverted from the Dolores River has created a contrasting pallet of emerald greens against burnished pink stone, of a ribbon of tamarisk and cottonwoods and willows slashing through sage and piñon and juniper.
All that moisture—relatively speaking—cooled things enough that I could shut down the AC and open both windows wide to inhale air lightly infused with the aroma of irrigation. I cursed the irrigators for pilfering the waters and drying up the Dolores. I praised them for creating this little oasis, a reminder of what once was, and regretted not timing my trip to coincide with one of the season’s cuttings of hay, when it sits baled and aligned in grid-like rows and fills the air with the smell of fresh cut grass. The fragrance triggered memories of a feeling that always would wash over me in June, a kind of sad hope that this, at last, will be the summer when the long days heal the wounds and the warm nights return us to a time and place that never really was: A dreamland where we were whole, when everything was possible, when we ran heedlessly through fields on dusky lavender-hued evenings, when we kissed under the whispering leaves of the old weeping willow, the nighttime grass cool against our skin, and we lay on our backs in the warm dirt between corn rows at dusk, marveling at the tassels blowing against the star-studded bowl of the June sky.
The spray of the sprinklers melded with the mellow evening light and then I passed through the Slickrock Curtain.
The Slickrock Curtain does not appear on any maps, and its location varies depending on the season, the quality of light, and even the time of day. Only those who pay close attention, or don’t pay any attention at all, know about it. But there it was, readily apparent in the subtle change in the quality of light, the way clouds skittered across the blue sky. I wish I could express the feelings I get when I go behind the Slickrock Curtain. But the words just aren’t there.
When the irrigation ended, aridified reality returned. The place is parched. If this area got moisture during the recent rains, it doesn’t show. Grazed areas are a wasteland. Ungrazed areas are visibly stressed.
I got to my camp, and the prospects for a nice sunset seemed good. The air was clear and calm, the sky dappled with clouds in which the waning light could dance. But as I set up camp I noticed something odd to the south of me. It looked like a virga—the sheets of desert rain that never reach the ground—only this appeared to be coming up from the ground and there were no rain clouds above it. And it was growing, somewhat ominously, and appeared to be headed my way. Was it smoke? A nearby wildfire of that magnitude seemed impossible, given the lack of vegetation in the area it would have been burning. Perhaps the Pipeline Fire near Flagstaff had really blown up again? I consulted a couple smoke maps, both of which showed nothing.
The wind kicked up into tent-flapping gusts. And then it was upon me: A huge cloud of dust that cut visibility down to less than a mile, like one of those “haboobs” that terrorize Phoenix. I’ve been in my share of spring dust storms out here, but they usually come on gradually. This was abrupt and unexpected. I abandoned hope for sunset pictures and went to bed.
When I awoke at dawn, the dust had mostly cleared. I figured I’d treat today as if it were the Solstice, greeting the sunrise all dappled with orange, pink, and red; running along a shallow canyon to one of my favorite pieces of architecture on the planet; and now sitting in the shade of a juniper tree, whiling away the heat in hope that the promised afternoon thunderstorm arrives.
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