Return to the Desert

The sun beat down, hot and harsh, from a lead-colored sky. I stood at the end of a dusty, winding trail. Behind me lay gray marsh and scrubland, grassy plains, forest and woodland, and finally the rivers and gardens of my home. But before me was a harsh, arid land, parched and withered and hostile, bleak and savage and yet inhabited: my destination. The desert.

In front of me rose an arch of crumbling red stone, pitted and scoured by wind and blowing sand, the words once engraved deeply into its keystone now too worn and faded to read. In the distance past that portal, the sand rose into high, rolling dunes sculpted into fantastic, serpentine shapes. The heat shimmer over the dunes made it impossible to tell what lay beyond them, save in the far distance where jagged mountains rose.

It had been three years since I’d last walked the sands of the desert. On my last journey, I’d stayed too long and gotten lost on the way back – an error I was determined not to repeat. But although I’d stayed away for a long time, I couldn’t seclude myself forever. Despite all the torments this place would bring, I had a responsibility to go back. There were people here, dwelling in this wasteland – some by choice, some imprisoned, either by others or by their own self-built delusions. If I could free some of them, persuade them to go back with me, I would have achieved my purpose in returning to this place. I knew it was possible, and though I wasn’t looking forward to the trip, I had a duty to try.

I checked my canteen, safe in my backpack, and ran my hand along the sturdy length of my walking stick for reassurance. There were strange things that lived on the border of the desert, old superstitions and hauntings that had taken physical form; the fear of encountering them probably kept many people in. I had yet to come across any of them on this trip, but even if I did, I was prepared. Nothing could be allowed to dissuade me from my mission.

“Time to go,” I told myself, trying to work up my courage, and then stepped forward. The wind swirled up around me as I passed through the arch.

To be continued…

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://nickwinnick.com Nick

    I’m loath to use the more uncouth parlance of the internet on a blog–and in reference to a post–that’s so erudite and inspiring, but in this case I can’t help myself: MOAR PLEASE.

    I like where this is going.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I’d rather return to dessert. Apple pie is yummy.

  • Joffan

    It is an interesting question – one, indeed, that the Tempter put at the end of the last journey – as to whether the journey into the desert is an obligation or not, even whether it is an activity worth pursuing or not.

    The easy answer, that it is necessary in self defence, works for now, for many. Is this the true motive? I don’t know – not for all those who travel, I’d guess. But in any case, consider a potential future time when the desert (or the population of the desert, perhaps) is much smaller – is there then still an argument for going to enlighten those remaining in the desert, and enable them to leave? Or does the imagery become – the desert has become small enough (or interpenetrated enough) that there is no reason, other than wilful ignorance, for the desert-dwellers to be unaware of the possibility, and consequences, of leaving.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    The easy answer, that it is necessary in self defence, works for now, for many. Is this the true motive? I don’t know – not for all those who travel, I’d guess.

    Well put, Joffan! Self-defense is the stated motive of many travelers in the desert, and that’s doubtless accurate for many of them. But I’m sure there are other motives mixed in as well – compassion on the benighted desert-dwellers, curiosity (or macabre fascination) as to how and why they live, the desire to test one’s own views against theirs, or the mere stubborn contrariness that delights in presenting people with a contrary view even when they’d rather not hear it. I leave it to readers to judge which of these motives are active in my case, and in what proportion. :)

    But in any case, consider a potential future time when the desert (or the population of the desert, perhaps) is much smaller – is there then still an argument for going to enlighten those remaining in the desert, and enable them to leave? Or does the imagery become – the desert has become small enough (or interpenetrated enough) that there is no reason, other than wilful ignorance, for the desert-dwellers to be unaware of the possibility, and consequences, of leaving.

    I like to think that there will come a time, perhaps unimaginably distant, when the desert itself has shrunk to a tiny remnant of its former self, with gardens all around. I don’t doubt that there will still be people who choose to live there, but I think at that point, the evidence of an alternative will be impossible for them not to notice, and only willful blindness will permit them to remain. Unfortunately, for now the desert is still so large that many people living there don’t even know there’s anything outside it, and it takes outsiders to come and bring them that message.

  • Valhar2000

    and only willful blindness will permit them to remain.

    That, or a preference for sand and thirst. Takes all sorts; that sort of thing.