In Kathleen Norris’ essay, “The Beautiful Places,” from her book, “Dakota,” I found words carrying winged images – images that have most of my life defined my sense of self. Musing over Norris’ essay, I saved out several of her words and phrases with which I crafted the following poem:

The Western Plains –

Bountiful in their emptiness,

A stark landscape offering solitude,

Room to grow:

In this eccentric environment,

Everything that seems empty

Is full of the angels of God.

Things are not in control.

Have you driven Highway 50 through Utah and Nevada? That road is known as “the loneliest road in America.” It crosses “The Great Basin” – a desert expanse reaching from Salt Lake City to Reno. Or maybe you’ve driven northwest out of Winnemucca, Nevada, into the desert area of southeastern Oregon, your compass fixed on Portland at the top of the Willamette Valley and the end of the Oregon Trail. Crossing those barren and solitary regions disturbs me in ways I barely comprehend. Sometimes while letting my imagination play over this or that desert place, a scene in the film “Broken Trail” surfaces. Robert Duvall as Print speaks these words over the grave of a fallen comrade, “We’re all travelers in this world … we travel between the infinities.” It is this sense of having my pilgrimage between the infinities that perhaps best characterizes my experience of desert places.

Years ago, I spent a day walking 14 miles beside the Rio Grande in New Mexico. Even then I knew that the desert mirrored something of my own being. Perhaps, it is as Edward Abbey (also sharing a fondness for desert places) wrote of the desert, “Motionless and silent it evokes in us an elusive hint of something unknown, unknowable, about to be revealed.” Abbey’s words encourage me when in an arid setting to wait, on tiptoe in mind and spirit. In a while, one may be the recipient of the desert’s unsociable gifts – a sense of completeness wrapped in the silence of infinite space. Solitariness overrides everything, which in turn induces the sense of unbounded serenity. I have found as Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote in his classic book, “The Little Prince” that every desert hides a well. It is my experience that by means of these silent places I obtain a renewed sense of myself as a gifted and unique being – someone loved by God.

Perhaps you might take this assignment: Find a “desert place” – a library corner, the seashore, a path in a forest place, or an evening walk under the stars. It can be your kitchen or bedroom. Jesus allowed that a closet would do. Be guided by whatever accords with your personality and opportunity. Take nothing and go alone. Go to that desert place in the same spirit of the psalmist, who prayed, “O God … I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1). Afterward, when you’ve wrestled things through, as Jacob wrestled with God, commit yourself to a mental and spiritual life in the direction of what you believe God desires of you.

Be guided by the intention to be what God wills for you in your place and your time!

Many years ago, while visiting family near Vantage, Washington, I learned that the rising waters of the Columbia River behind the newly finished Wanapum Dam would soon inundate most of 300 well-preserved rock paintings bearing witness to the dreams and doings of a primitive people. Sixty of the 300 petroglyphs had been cut from the basalt cliff face and saved by the state university. Those remaining would become lost to sight after the rising river covered them. Learning the fate of those rock paintings, I knew I wanted to be among those who would look upon them for the last time.

It was August. Azure skies leaned over an arid landscape where desert winds raised distant dust devils. Temperatures approached the upper 80s. Provisioning myself with a map, a hefty lunch and water, I trekked the several miles along the river to where I might view the remaining petroglyphs. Now I ponder what I thought I was about when I set out to view those paintings. I wanted, I suppose, to “touch” or be in the presence of something old, something that was to pass away, as I was “passing away.” Are we not to consider, as the psalmist declaims, that “… our years come to an end like a sigh … and we fly away”?

My tramp upriver was for the purpose that I might look upon some ancient petroglyphs, nothing more. I sat there by the river and ate my lunch, contemplating those ancient scrawlings of a people, who, like me, knew themselves to have been cast upon another river. Seeing myself similarly exiled upon that same flowing river of time, I felt possessed by a sense of wonder that I had this one life, that it was just a one-time thing. Feeling much as the poet Wordsworth may have felt when he wrote upon a time when similarly caught up in a sense of wonder that he had a desire to fetch invigorating thoughts from former years. In his mind, he wanted to grapple with some noble theme.

How in that desert place I might homage the wonder of my life on this only personal place in the universe. Since that long ago excursion, I have come to view that day’s “noble theme” through these words from the “Duino Elegies” by the poet Rilke:

But because truly being here is so much; because everything here

apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way

keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all,

Once for each thing, Just once; no more. And we too,

just once. And never again. But to have been

this once, completely, even if only once:

to have been at one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.

Moving to the water’s edge, I found 12 large rocks and placed them in the form of a pyramid. Placing the rocks singly, I let each rock equal something. Here was the confession of sin. With other rocks I laid down for the river’s hiding certain haunting and painful memories. Another stone expressed my desire to take fresh bearings for living into the future. The final stone signaled my thanksgiving for the gift and joy of being – this brief parcel of time of which I was its steward.

The rock paintings proved a door opening upon the Holy. That eccentric desert place by the river proved bountiful in spite of its emptiness. An unexpected and inward compelling had taken charge of the moment. I was not wholly in control. Angels of God! Who knows from whence arise the promptings of our hearts? We may take little notice of life’s mysterious and underlying potency to shape our lives along purposes other than our own. Still, now years away from that day’s excursion, I am grateful for how in that desert place an ordinary day turned extraordinary.

The Rev. Merle G. Steva is minister of visitation emeritus at First Parish Church in Saco. He can be reached at:

[email protected] .