A Delicate Balance

Sara Etgen-Baker

© Copyright 2018 by Sara Etgen-Baker

Photo of the  Chihuahan Desert.

This is a true account of the move my husband and I made from my native North Texas to the Chihuahan Desert near El Paso, Texas. Although I agreed to support my husband in relocating, I was bitter and resentful and wanted to turn back. But within hours of our arrival, the dusty terrain and simple landscape of the Chihuahan Desert taught me an invaluable lesson.

I stood in our living room surrounded by cardboard boxes scrawled on with a broad, black felt-tip marker. White parcel labels were stuck on black garbage bags filled with clothes. The walls were bare, devoid of the usual smiling framed faces; and dirt and dust shapes were on the floor like templates of the furniture that once stood there. I paused facing the stark reality that our home was no longer a home—just an empty house that within days would become someone else’s home. Today was moving day—the day everything would change; and familiarity would be a memory locked away in an old dusty wooden box.

Inside I felt undaunted, ready to face the challenge of moving across the entire state of Texas and rebuilding our lives from scratch. But when Bill and I closed the door and drove away, I struggled for composure. Yanked out of the normalcy of life and pulled into a milieu where life’s transience grows, I felt I couldn’t bear the unpredictability of what may come. I bit my tongue, trying to hold back the tears that threatened to leave my eyes. But I couldn’t hold them back. First, one small crystal bead. Then another. And another. My eyes flooded with them then burst forth like water from a dam, spilling down my face; and the muscles of my chin trembled like a small child.

I know moving and changing aren’t easy for you, especially this long-distance one.” Bill reached across the seat and patted my leg. “But, you’re gonna be alright, Darlin’. Promise.”

If you say so,” I said, evading Bill’s eyes not wanting to show him my doubt, my fear, and my deep-seated anger and resentment towards him. I choked back my tears and looked out the window hoping the scenery would somehow soothe me. For the next 100 miles, I sat motionless, speaking not a word and staring into the side view mirror of the U-Haul truck. One mile forward, one more, and then another. With each mile we drove forward, everything familiar slipped further and further away. By lunch time, the lush, tree-covered green hills of North Texas gave way to the parched, bland Permian Basin with its sage brush and low-lying mesquite trees. By mid-afternoon, absolutely nothing was in front of us except miles of dry, hot Chihuahan Desert. Flat was the land—yellow, ochre, and brown.

By dusk a gnawing wind stirred across the desert uprooting tumbleweeds and forming a huge wall of dust. “Driving through this wind and dust is impossible!” Bill gripped the steering wheel. “Do you want to stop for dinner and give the dust storm a chance to blow over?”

I mutely nodded my head in agreement. Bill exited the interstate and pulled into the parking lot adjacent to Chuy’s—an old trailer converted to a diner. We fought our way toward the front door; and once inside, I heard the sand patter like rain against the trailer’s metal walls and brush across the windowpanes. Silt accumulated beneath the door and on the window ledges. I breathed in and choked. The desert, like my anger and resentment, tasted bitter and brown.

I looked outside; the only thing visible between the diner and the interstate was a battered barrel cactus, a couple of yucca plants, some cinder block houses, and a ramshackle motel aptly named The Desert View Motel. Bound for El Paso, eighteen-wheelers roared down Interstate 10 leaving clouds of dust in the dry desert air. The hot wind carried the dust across the parking lot of the diner and deeper into the small border town where all the dirt roads seemed to lead nowhere in particular.
You and your husband aren’t from around here are ya?” The waitress handed me a menu.

No!” I snapped with a caustic tone of voice. “No, we’re not.”

Never seen a haboob, have ya?”

A what?” I asked, a frown darkening my face.

“A haboob—it’s that huge wall of dust you’ve been driving through.”

No, I’ve never seen one.” I sipped on my water and gazed out the window at the swirling dust. “So, what causes a haboob?”

Locals say a haboob happens because the desert is angry with itself. When the anger persists, heat grows fueling the winds that stir up the dust. Eventually, though, cool winds replace the hot air forcing the desert to let go of its anger and bring it back into balance.”

Sounds like a myth to me,” I said sarcastically, wiping the dust off my arms and face. “All I know is that I’m tired and feel gritty and dirty.”

Then you’ll be needin’ a warm shower and clean bed. You can get a 30 percent discount over at the Desert View Motel. When ya check in, just show Carlos your dinner receipt. He’ll fix ya right up.”

Um, I don’t know.” A shadow of dismay crossed my face. “Isn’t there a LaQuinta or Holiday Inn nearby?”

Nope. The closest hotel is in El Paso, 55 miles down the interstate. Trust me. It’s not safe to drive down the interstate during a haboob.”

Bill and I ordered dinner and ate in silence; afterwards, we heeded our waitress’ advice and checked into the Desert View Motel. Although our room was cramped, it was clean—clean that is until we turned on the air conditioner. Trapped sand inside the air conditioner flew across the room; and a layer of the grit landed all over our sheets and pillowcases. I showered and fell into bed; but even as tired as I was, the sandy sheets irritated me. So, I lay awake most of the night wrestling with the turbulent thoughts swirling though my mind.

Why had I agreed to this move? Sure moving to El Paso gave Bill an opportunity to fulfill his life-long dream of teaching and coaching and seemed like the right thing to do. But was his dream realistic or just some midlife pipe dream? And what about me? Yeah! What about me? My family? My friends? My own dream job and career? I glanced over at my sleeping husband. How could he possibly sleep with all this upheaval and uncertainty?! I resent you, Bill, for the sacrifices I’m making on your behalf! I got up and paced around the room. How would I survive let alone thrive in this colorless, lifeless, god-forsaken desert? What was I thinking?

I continued pacing; but the longer I paced, the more my fear, resentment, and anger grew. I opened the venetian blinds and pulled back the curtain. The howling winds had ceased, and I wondered if cool air had in fact replaced the hot air that had churned up the desert just a few hours earlier. Hmmm….Perhaps there was some truth to that crazy haboob myth. I stared out the window at the inky darkness freckled by thousands of tiny stars. The occasional hoot of a great horned owl and the chirping of tree frogs were the only sounds permeating the empty silence of the Chihuahan night. I closed the blinds; plopped down on the edge of the bed. We’ve come too far; too late to turn back now. I leaned back, finally falling asleep.

I awoke early the next morning; the sun sparkled off the dusty venetian blinds casting a warm glow across the room. Curious, I peeked through the blinds and discovered that the sky was now abundantly clear. The sun glistened across the sand and beckoned me outside. I slipped into my running clothes and jogged across the motel parking lot and onto the sandy land in front of me. As I ran through the desert, my feet sank in the soft, cushiony deep sand. My ankles felt weak, and I teetered from side to side unable to keep my balance, eventually falling face forward in the powdery sand.

Damn you, desert! I hate you!” I spouted, spitting out my resentment and tasting the bitter, ochre-colored sand on my tongue. I looked up and saw a cactus with a single yellow flower. How can ANYTHING possibly bloom here? Something rustled behind me. I turned around and sat up. A short distance from me a roadrunner dashed across the desert. Other than in cartoons, I’d never seen a roadrunner. Fascinating!

Miss! Are you alright?” asked a genial voice behind me; I turned my head around and found a brown-faced teenage boy staring down at me. “Here. Let me give you a hand up.” He pulled me up, and I dusted the sand off my legs and arms. “If you’re gonna run in the desert, pick up your feet and look ahead; otherwise you’ll continue to lose your balance and fall.”

Thanks for the tip.” I bent over and retrieved my hat and sunglasses.

“And you might want to get different running shoes—ones that balance your body and better support your ankles. By the way, my name’s Miguel.”
Nice to meet you Miguel.”

I run pretty fast, but you’re welcome to follow me if you like.” Miguel restarted his stopwatch. “Oh, one more thing. Never eat the sand!”

Miguel chuckled then sprang forward on his toes and sprinted across the desert; and for a short while, I followed Miguel’s graceful, brown form mimicking his style as he ran across the open Chihuahan Desert. Eventually, I lost sight of Miguel but continued running alone until I found a place to turn around. I stopped momentarily, catching a glimpse of my silhouette—a lone, silent figure in the vast emptiness of the desert. The still silence began clearing a gracious space inside of me, and into this space came a presence allowing me to confront my anger, pain, self-pity, and self-absorption.
I noticed a gentle, cool breeze had replaced yesterday’s hot, gnawing winds. The breeze brushed across my face; I removed my sunglasses and closed my eyes. I inhaled; filled my lungs; and exhaled, releasing my anger and resentment into the barren stillness. I slowly opened my eyes, and for a moment the sun blinded me. I shielded my eyes and looked far off in the distance. The sky over the desert became a membrane of orange colors; and the aridity had somehow freed the light, unleashing the desert’s grandeur. The sand dunes in front of me took on sunlight and pulse—a pulse that vibrated through me. I felt a sense of ignition inside me, of being engulfed by a feeling of deep connection to the world that lay before me.
No, the earth here wasn’t cloaked in forest, nor draped in a pastoral, peaceful green. Instead, the desert donned a simple, comfortable, khaki-colored robe trimmed in brilliant oranges and pinks. I clutched it close to my heart and resumed my run, retracing my steps back to my motel room.

Bill, Bill!” I threw open the motel door. “Hurry! Come outside. It's amazing out here. The sky is a gorgeous, intense blue color." I stood in the doorway; and using my fingers, I traced the outlines of the wavy sand dunes on the horizon. "I'm sorry, Bill, it's just..." I tried stamping down the rush of emotion. “There’s lots and lots of beautiful sand. It’s kind of orangish-gold with hints of pink, and I can see tiny clouds of it floating above the ground, like…like smoke. It’s breathtaking, absolutely breathtaking.”
Tears came again; but these were not tears of loss, anger, self-pity, or pain. Rather, they were tears about this place of presence where I’d touched down, tears about the beautiful austerity of letting go and living in the present. Later when I thought about it, I realized that moving to El Paso was an intensely fraying life event that had plunged me into a mysterious, inward divestiture and distillation in which I learned that life is a delicate balance between holding on and letting go.

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