It was late summer, dry, and the afternoon heat was just beginning to break as the front pulling the day’s afternoon thunderstorm began to roll in from downriver. I had left my friends back at the waterfall, and I had stolen away to scramble farther up the hillside, beyond the place where the trail ended. Slipping over loose dirt, sliding carefully around rock outcrops along the cliff edge, I indulged the powerful sense of curiosity that pulled me higher and higher. I had never been up this way before, and the going was not easy. Grabbing the knotted trunks of Utah juniper, scraping across the branches of pinion pines, reminding myself constantly not to look down, and often doing so anyway, I moved, tense, excited, as if I was the first person ever to walk along this rim.
If I had been looking at my feet in that brief moment when I bent forward to pass under a shallow, sandstone overhang, I would have missed them. Four or five tiny handprints, each no bigger than the round of my palm, slapped up upon the stone, staining it the color of rust. The color of blood. And I stopped, interrupted, awed. The hands that had been placed upon this wall would be between 800 and 1200 years old today, and yet, they looked undeniably familiar. Human. They could have been mine. Suddenly, I was standing in another’s place in another time; and suddenly, we were together, thinking, breathing, seeing. I was holding hands with an unknown soul across hundreds of years, and all at once, I understood just how short and how long human history has been.
Maybe it is the vast openness of the desert that does it. Maybe it is the sheer determination of the desert’s inhabitants to hold onto life. Or maybe it is simply the dryness, the power of arid places to preserve remnants of the past. But somehow, the desert holds history like rainwater, precious and ever passing, in a landscape so big it does not let me forget exactly where I stand. And I feel them, the papery dry whispers of ghosts on the back of my neck. “Foolish young one,” they say, “you are not alone.”
One would think that in these moments of perspective, when the whole of the universe and of history suddenly flashes before my eyes, that I would feel tiny, insignificant, and irrelevant. That my life would seem meaningless and futile. That I would become depressed and overwhelmed, losing sight of my purpose here. But, amazingly, I do not.
Rather, it is these moments that sustain me. That place me in a community of interconnected life. Of kindred spirits. Of complexity and beauty and mystery. It is these moments which reveal to me that, despite my smallness, the ripples I will make when I am dropped into the universe may be far larger than myself. And they may spread, slowly, wider and wider, making the world around me wave and dance, if only for a moment. I am not, I see, for myself alone. I need not think myself as grand as the universe to know I have a role in it. And this gives me meaning. I am part of something larger than myself, and in accepting my responsibility to it, I find purpose.
The ghosts in the desert have been trying to remind me. Along with the winds, and the thunder, and the skin-tearing shrubs. As a being alone, individual and detached, I will be forgotten. In relationship, a stone in place along the path, I will be remembered.
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