Another sleepless night in this unforgiving desert is spent studying my worn map. The stars are out tonight but their cold and distant light offer no comfort as I stare at them from behind tired eyes, seeing but not really seeing. Knowing that dawn will approach whether I wish it or not, I take one final glance at my map, sigh and return it to my pack. Tomorrow is another day that I must face. I should try to get some sleep.
Light takes on a different quality over the sand that stretches out for eternity in this lonely stretch of land. At dawn, it is bruised and beaten much like my spirit upon waking up to another day in purgatory. The ground upon which I have slept this past month is hard and unforgiving, making me long for the soft grass. The air has the same harsh smell of sun dried earth and flint that burns the nostrils and cakes within the nasal passageways. My eyes are gritty and feel as if a thousand grains of sand permanently live within my lids. I know as the day wears on, they will become fire points of pain within their sockets. Knowing that I must get up and start the day’s journey, only wishing to curl up and surrender to time instead, I gather my meager belongings and begin my trek once more.
The day has barely begun to stretch its legs, yet the desert is already awake with life. Small creatures dart along the cracked earth, carrying on their morning duties. Somewhere nearby, a bird lets out a small shrill cry. Once I would have thought these sights and sounds as a beautiful affirmation of life and its possibilities. Somewhere, I have lost that part of myself. It is funny, now that I take a moment to think about it, I don’t remember where I left it. Frowning, I study my map as if it would divulge the answer to this mystery. Frustrated by my train of thoughts, I cram my delicate parchment back into my tattered pack and continue on my way. I have no time for thoughts such as these today.
Ghost images swim just ahead of me as I trudge forward over a long-forgotten river bed. Precious moisture that I cannot afford to lose, runs down my back, face and chest, making the rags that I am wearing stick uncomfortably to my body. How long have I been walking? I cannot seem to remember. The heat is unbearable. It rolls and bakes off of my skin in wave after unending wave. My breath is uneven. My vision is blurry as sweat flows into my already tortured eyes, stinging them. How long have I been walking? I think I already asked myself this. Haven’t I? My thoughts are too much a jumble. I shouldn’t be this confused a few hours after starting my daily walk.
It has been only a few hours since I started, hasn’t it? Why can’t I remember? It is so hot. My legs are like rubber. I long for a cool drink of water to quench my parched throat. When was the last time I tasted water? I cannot remember that either. Keep moving forward. The desert has to end eventually. Nothing last forever. One foot in front of the other. Chase the dancing phantoms who are always five steps ahead of me no matter how quickly I go. They know the way out of this hell. If I could only catch them, I know that I can make them show me the way out. Out? Out of where? I seem to have forgotten.
For how long, I continue in this manner, I do not know. Time seemed to stop. I no longer heard the cry of the lone birds as they searched for their next meal. The small desert creatures scurry about as they always have done. Them more aware of my presence than I theirs. All thoughts cease in my overheated brain. I no longer walk, but instead shamble along, barely lifting my feet. Two shallow trenches mark my passage in the loose sand. At some point, it has sucked off both of my shoes but I have not noticed. I am but a shelled-out husk stuck on auto pilot while the last reserves of my energy are sucked out of me with each stuttering step forward. The land begins to rise steadily upwards. Before I can reach the top, I collapse face first into the sand, sliding down to the bottom.
Delirium is a strange state of being. In it, you see people who are not there. Sounds are distorted. Colors are either too intense or too muted to look at for any length of time. If the body is overheated enough, one could get burned standing too close. This is an exaggeration, of course, but it does cause the brain to boil in its own juices. Synapses misfire or short out completely, never to fire again. The internal organs spasm uncontrollably, screaming for relief. In short, without reprieve, you suffer surrounded by a technicolor of your own dying body’s creation all while completely unaware of the event. This was my fate for a many of weeks. Unknown to me, my best friend was watching over me, fighting for me while I was unable to fight for myself.
Fate seemed to have been feeling sorry for me as I slid down the sandy hill for it took mercy on me even as it dealt me one final blow. My best friend and her husband were travelling through the same stretch of land as I and witnessed my final descend. Rushing to my side, afraid of what state they would find me in, they ran to the crumbled heap that was my body. Death was very near. My pulse was faint and my breathing so shallow that the shadow of the Reaper was standing on my chest as I was scooped up and rushed to their nearby shelter. Being much better prepared for such a treacherous journey, they had the provisions needed to deny the Reaper his prize, my soul.
I finally awakened in the soft glow of a nearby lamp. My hair is plastered against my skull and my clothes are so wet, that I at first think that I had plunged into a lake with them still on. Every inch of my body aches and groans in protest as I try to sit up. A soothing voice speaks from nearby.
“Let me help you up.” My best friend beseeches softly.
Sitting upright on the side of the bed, she steadies me as I raise my head up to meet her eyes. Concern lines form on her brow; worry fills her eyes.
“I am better than I imagine I look.” I assure her.
Laughing gently, “I sure hope so. You look like hell.”
To this, I laugh probably harder than is necessary. My vision swims as tears fill my eyes. She joins me in merry laughter that never fails to lift my spirits. Hearing the ruckus, her husband sticks his head in the room, a quizzical look upon his face. This sends us into a new fit of gut busting laughter. Smiling, he leaves the room shaking his head for he knows our inside jokes shall always be a mystery to him. Several minutes later, we manage to reduce our full-blown hysterics down to an occasional snicker, giggle, and snort.
Once composed, she leads me to the facilities so I can wash up and change into dry clothes. I am still weak so the going is slow for me, but she waits outside in case I become overwhelmed or tired. The truth is that I am damned tired and this simple task that I used to take for granted has nearly left me spent. Knowing that I have already been a bigger burden on my friend than I ever wished to be, I toughed through my chore with renewed determination. I tried to hide my weakened state when I emerged from the bathroom, but being the excellent friend that she is, she saw through my façade but never spoke of it to me. How I loved her for that!
Her husband left us the next day to scout the trails ahead and give the two of us some privacy while I regained my strength. He would be back in a week’s time. By then, I would be in good enough health to continue on my own or with them for a while, whichever was my choice. I was grateful for their hospitality and made a pledge to return the favor to them whenever they needed me. Both accepted as they knew that I would make good on that solemn promise. My spirits were raised by their confidence in me. It is after all, this knowledge that led my best friend and I to become so close. Ours had always been a give and take relationship. Neither taking more or giving less than the other.
As the days passed and my strength was nearly replenished, my best friend asked why I was in such a state to begin with for the last time we had crossed paths I had been full of vitality. It was difficult to tell her of the last dead end that I had reached and of the decaying meadow that led me there. I spoke at great length of my traveling companion, whom she had met once before. It pained me to admit that I had been wrong in my choice of fellow travelers. It was even harder to admit that once the glamour that surrounded this person wore off, I saw everything so very clearly that I was rocked to my very foundations. I couldn’t rationalize why I had not seen what so plainly before my face.
It was this truth that led me to return to the desert. I had to make sense of things, gain a new perspective. At some point, I reached the conclusion that the problem was within myself. This is where I lost hope. I stopped caring about myself. I could not put a finger on when that exact moment was when I made this transition. She suggested that it was more than likely a slow process that I was completely unaware of, and that by travelling alone, I left myself vulnerable to its decay. There was more wisdom in these words than she realized. I thought back to my walk through the meadow, this time from the benefit of hindsight to guide me.
I told her that she was correct. I had started losing myself in that meadow. I had fought hard to keep from seeing the truth. I blamed myself for the decay that did manage to worm its way into my sight. By the time we had reached the foothills and I had to choose the mountains or a return to the desert, the last piece had clicked into place. The mountains meant giving up all that I was, all that I had grown to be as a person in order to follow in someone else’s footsteps. It also meant having to accept another traveling companion would take my place, one who is much more suited to than I for the harsh life that is the mountain terrain when one is a tumbleweed. These truths were too much to take in all at once, so I ran away, into the desert, alone.
If I had been in a better state of mind, the journey across the desert would have been a refreshing experience. I would have taken in the barren landscape as a chance to rebuild myself and explore new territories within. I would have even back tracked a little and gathered the needed supplies before setting out into such an unforgiving and hostile land. I wasn’t, however, in that right state of mind. I was on the run from myself. I was punishing myself for being wrong and not seeing the world as it was. This mistake nearly cost me everything. I was lucky that she found me when she did, for I think I was almost lost to this world for good.
For a long while, she did not speak. When she did, I was once again in awe of her wisdom.
“I think you are much too hard on yourself sometimes. Yes, you were in denial of what was plainly before your eyes. This happens. It is the fallacy of the human condition to wish for more, especially in those who are willing to place their trust in so few. When you do choose to do so, you do it unquestioningly. Most of the time, this turns out to be a good thing. You are rewarded with life time friendships and joy. You cannot be right a hundred percent of the time, just like you cannot be wrong a hundred percent of the time. Yes, you misplaced your trust and in the process, lost a part of yourself. What I ask you now is this, did your journey through the desert teach you anything about yourself and your life?” She asked as she handed me a familiar object, my map.
My poor map had seen better days. It was a sorry sight indeed. It was rumbled in places that were once smooth. The edges were ripped and torn. The lines that had been carefully drawn, marking my passage throughout this world were faint, but yet, they were still all there. I traced the tip of my finger down roads that had brought me some of my happiest of times. There were far many more of these than ones that were filled with darkness. Yes, my map was beat to hell and back, but it was still mine. It still had a purpose. I knew where I had gone and I still had room to map out where I could go, if I only had the courage to see what was out there.
Smiling, I answered her, “Yes. I have learned quite a deal about myself. This map still being here is proof of that very thing. It lives here, in my two hands. It lives here, in my heart. More importantly it lives here, in my memories. I am never completely lost as long as I still have it in one of those places. That is the part that I had forgotten. My map does not define me, but I define it for I am the master of my own destiny. Running away from problems does not solve them nor does blaming myself for their existence. Buckling down and solving them is the key. If the answer is not clear immediately, then take a step back. Get perspective. Retrace your steps, but do not walk so far away that you leave the problem behind unsolved. Only cowards run away and I am no coward.”
Seeing the familiar gleam in my eyes that defined my spirit for as long as she could remember, she said, “And what of your tumbleweed? Your companion that you left in the mountains? What have you learned?”
These were questions, that I did not wish to answer, but to say them out loud was a necessary evil.
“He has already joined another. I saw their campfire as I was leaving the meadow. I believe I knew that was going to happen even before he did. It was the straw that finally forced me to see clearly, bitter as it was but necessary. It took me far longer to come to terms with it that it should have but as you said, it happens.”
Nodding, she asked, “This much I had already gathered on my own. I appreciate you finally saying it but it is not exactly what I asked, my dear friend. Let me clarify. I wanted to know what the experience has taught you about yourself and how it pertains to others.”
Frowning, as is my way when I am deep in thought, I sat for a while pondering her question. As patient as a saint, she let me sort through my thoughts, never disturbing me or prodding me to answer until I was certain of my response.
Finally, with a sigh, I answered, “I got myself into such a sad state by not listening to myself and my intuitions. I ignored the signs all around me. I knew better but I went ahead anyway in hope that I was wrong. Looking back now, I can see that a lot of the pain this whole sorry state inflicted on me came from my inability to admit to the truth. I am a wander who is looking for a home. Tumbleweeds only combine with other tumbleweeds. They gather together and are at their most happiness roaming in the wilds. I, on the other hand, am happiest when I find stability. I need to stick with those who are kindred of spirit and of mind. Tumbleweeds are still great people, but not ones I need to try to harness. It is best to let them do their own thing and I do mine. Does that make any sense to you or am I just blowing smoke up my own backside?”
Laughing, she responded, “I would only add that you should stay true to yourself and if you feel that you are not, move along. Don’t blow away in the wind just because the whim hits you. At least, don’t blow away forever. That’s when you get lost for good.”
Comforted by these revelations about myself and her trust that I am stronger than I appear, my mind was finally at peace. It would take a while to sort everything out and get complete perspective, but overthinking was the wrong way to go about finding answers. In the end, I took the best and left the worst behind. I accepted my part in the journey and learned from the rest. The lessons were hard, damn hard to learn, but I did learn them. There was hope for me yet.
The day arrived for us to depart our shelter in the desert. By then, I was back to my old self. Well, that is not entirely true. I had changed quite a lot during my stay. I was no longer the carefree traveler that I had once been. The days ahead would be difficult. My strength was back. My mind was clear. This time, I had prepared for the trek. I had new shoes and proper clothes. Food and water supplies had been replenished. I even restored my map. The paper was still crumbled and torn, battered around the edges. The lines and features marking where I had been on my long travels were restored to their former glory. I even took the time to add the meadow and the mountains. They were, after all, part of my journey.
I traveled with my best friend and her husband for a few days. We made plans to meet up in the forest that they knew of a few weeks journey from our current location. They marked it on my map. It would be delightful to hear of their travels when we met again, a little further down the road. My best friend’s husband had spotted a village on his scouting mission that looked promising. They were eager to check it out. He also found a lush valley. I decided that would be my destination. The forest would be in between our two spots. What better way to fill in all of our maps by dividing and conquering the area in the name of friendship.
As we parted ways, a thought occurred to me. There would be more dead ends and more tumbleweeds up ahead. It was true that these two possibilities could still be lingering out there, waiting for me when I least expect them to show up. My travels might even lead me to the same dead end that I hastily escaped before. I was not filled with dread at the prospect. I am a bit wiser and am learning to read the signs now. Hell, my travels could even lead me within sight of the tumbleweed and his new companion. I would be lying if I said that it was outside the possibilities, but I had a strong feeling that the encounter would be in passing and short lived if it ever occurred. After all, I am a wander looking for a home and after my journey across the desert, I am damned determined that it will be a fine one. Leaving the desert behind, I felt a new sense of purpose grow inside me with each step as I walked ever forward to my destiny.
Unfamiliar with my journey? Read The Last Dead End