A limitless tapestry of rich red-gold sand is dappled by hoof prints roughly the size and shape of swaddled footballs. With each tread, a spray of pure gold rises, hovers, and enfolds itself back into dunes.
My elaborately wound scarf has not come undone. I have held steady where others have lurched, given the abrupt toe-to-heel reclining process camels seem to favor. I carefully down 18 ml of filtered water every six minutes, abiding rehydration instructions furnished by my new astrophysicist friend. My camera has not yet fallen into the towering dune from which its shutter will emerge unforgivingly at sundown, as crystalline sheaths of stars begin communing in the night sky.
For now I am hewing to the newly coined “Stephanie rule” that requires I maintain both hands securely atop Geronimo’s Berber rug saddle, even when he pauses photogenically and casts his magnificently elongated shadow across Sahara dunes.
I’m starting to get this camel safari thing down.
It’s among phrases I think my husband Jim did not think me remotely likely to utter during the days, years, and likely decades when he could no longer be at my side.
Night in the desert was far from silent. Cats mewed before curling to nap upon campers’ chilly feet. Our group astrophysicist narrated the night sky. Bare feet thunked on rugs dotted with sandy lagoons. Geronimo, splayed with somewhat less grace than his regal sphinx-like brethren, had borborygmi.
It could have been my recent bout of altitude sickness. As unaccustomed as I am to hallucinogens, I suppose it also could have had something to do with the sprig of Artemisia absinthium that had adorned our cups of mint tea. Whatever the organic source, for the first time in my life I had waking hallucinations while sleepless in the Sahara: I saw filigreed ochre arches morphing into imaginary birds and horned magical creatures and back again, a Möbius of ancient design melting into myth.
Like those who preceded us, we left no traces, but in the desert’s expanse I somehow acutely experienced every sense of the moment even as the vast past’s residuum danced before my eyes. I felt kinship with a Kiran Desai character who “seemed not to have traveled forward in time but far back. Harkening to the prehistoric, in attendance upon infinity,” watching the sun slowly rise into the deepest indigo, and be swept away by a lavender-orange wing of clouds. I stood in an ever-yielding landscape I surely would never have occupied had I not found myself alone to wander in a world I no longer fear, knowing that beautiful and terrible things will continue to unfold no matter where I am or am not. And I no longer ask Jim one of the two questions that tormented me: where he is. I have my answer. He’s everywhere he would want to be, including these red-gold dunes bracketed by watercolor skies and earth, “our heaven, for awhile.”