Disorienteering

Nonfiction / Vivian Wagner

They’re all white, the gypsum dunes at White Sands National Monument. Like snow in the hot desert sun. Miles of it, flowing, cascading, moving thirty feet a year, creeping across the salt flats of the Tularosa Basin. I hike across them like an arctic explorer, traversing somewhere between brilliant blue and blinding white. There are trail markers, little orange stakes planted in the dunes, placed so that I can see the next one just as I leave another. Without the stakes, I realize, it would be easy to get lost, swept into the always-moving brightness. I orient myself to the Sacramento Mountains on one side, the San Andres Mountains on the other. One range smooth and kind, the other rough and sharp. I know east, and I know west. And I can see the sun’s arc. If I had to, I could orient myself with it, or with the stars, or with the magnetism of my own body. Part of me wants to go off trail, to keep walking in any direction, going so far that I can’t see the orange stakes, with their comforting and unnerving inevitability. I want to get lost.


Four years ago, in April, in the desert not far from here, my dad shot himself. I still don’t know how to talk about his death. I could give facts about suicide, facts that would seem to bring order, to mark a trail. Suicide rates are highest in the spring, for instance. Or suicide is the tenth-leading cause of death in the U.S. Or each year, around 800,000 people kill themselves, making around a quarter of a million people suicide survivors. But facts can’t tell a story. They’re like background radiation, constant, humming, measurable. His suicide itself is too luminous to see directly. I can only look at it askance.


Gypsum sand comes from ancient oceanic deposits to the west of the dunes. Over eons, wind and sun and water have turned the ocean bottoms into an impossibly fine sand that can’t help but move. There’s a physics to dunes, as they form and re-form in the wind. And on top of each dune, mini-dunes follow the same logic. Even my footprints quickly become dunes. Once made, they no longer belong to me.


Along the road by the dunes, people park and sled down hills of sand. It seems odd to see kids in shorts laughing and piling onto sleds, zooming down, taking the long, heavy trudge back to do it again. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think they were sledding on snow. You’d think it was cold. You wouldn’t understand what was happening.


One of my earliest memories is of riding on the back of my dad’s Hodaka on trails in the California mountains. My mom rode her bike in front, and we followed. The dust rose around us, tasting dry and acrid as it mixed with gasoline and exhaust and pine needles. I loved the simultaneous sense of danger and security. I knew, no matter how close we got to granite outcroppings, to looming trees, to the edge of the trail, his firm grip would prevail.


The valleys between New Mexico’s mountain ranges are full of alkaline minerals and salt that wash down and accumulate. There’s no sweet water in the center of these valleys. People who live there have their water piped or trucked in. Even the deepest wells hit bad water.


All that white puts everything in relief – the sapphire sky, the rocky mountains. You can’t see the white, exactly. But you can see everything around it. I’m not sure if I believe in God. I’m not even sure what I think of the existence of a force behind the universe. But if there is such a being, such a force, maybe it’s something like those dunes. Maybe it’s so bright you can’t see it. You can only see what it sets off in relief, what it illuminates, what it makes visible beyond itself. Or maybe it simply is miles of dunes, stretching as far as you can see between mountains, surrounding you but blissfully unaware of you. Maybe it makes just as much sense to think of God as a sand dune as it does to imagine an old man in the sky. They’re both large. Almost infinite. Cascading and disorienting. And both, finally, erase your footsteps, transform them into something new.

Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. Her work has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Creative Nonfiction, Zone 3, Silk Road Review, The Atlantic, Narratively, and other publications. She's also the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music.