We were covered in dust and sweat, patches of bodily mud, when we finally found a campsite. We set up the tent in the heat, then drove the broken dried riverbed called a road back to the highway and into Kanab, to the grocery store. I brushed my teeth in the bathroom and you selected beer, and I found the tortillas and cheese and apples while you washed yourself in the sink. Fundamentalist Mormon women, their dress collars rising to their chins and their hair in tight complicated braids like metaphors, walked by us, in our scant, sweat-stained T-shirts and shorts, burned and aching. The sun was starting to set when we made it back to the campsite, where we started a fire fueled by ponderosa pinecones and pinyon branches while we swatted the dust of Zion off our clothes and tended to our sore limbs. Nine miles up, nine miles down.
You read me the first chapter of Desert Solitaire and I read you an essay about the history of tumbleweeds in the west, weeds brought accidentally by eastern European farmers that took root and spread quickly and viciously across the frontier like ratification. That was when we had our first round of beer. I cooked quesadillas on the fire as the sky rusted, dissolving into salty shades of sandstone and granite.
The fire dimmed, but we were still hungry. You found an English dictionary from a used bookstore in my car, large and outdated, missing all the pulpy new vocabulary that had sprouted since its 1987 publication. One by one, we tore out all the pages containing our favorite words: bone, desert, fuck, holy, keen, solidarity, solitaire, wind, Zion. Thin pages, the kind used in Bibles and encyclopedias, wadded into nests and chucked into the shrinking fire, turning the smoke greyer. The next batch of quesadillas had rough grey-black streaks where the chemicals reached upward, and we dined on these ink-burned quesadillas happily, eating the ash of our words. That was the second round of beer.
Just that morning, we stood on a cliffside gazing out at Zion. The City of David, the fortress on a hill, centuries of law and blood. In Brigham Young’s America, Zion was the promised land, the frontier we scaled in a day passing hikers who also scaled God’s country in a day, for the well-advertised scenic views at the top. It was a surprisingly small fee to get into Zion for a day with six thousand raptured souls in hiking gear passing each other at the visitor center. Most Biblical cities get to be destroyed one way or another. We read about the destruction that tumbleweeds brought to the west, turning plains to deserts, doing to the country what the Plague did to Europe, what ten plagues did to Egypt, if the rumors are true. For a moment, with you, Zion felt real and safe.
Then the third round of beer, when we started tearing out whole sections of the dictionary. The A section had to go, then the F section. B and S followed, and then Z went into the fire. The remains of the English language not thrown to the fire for our final batch of quesadillas lost their support between the book’s hard covers. By then, we were full and relaxed enough to stare at the stars in silence, directing our stiff muscles to the heavens, clear and quiet dangling breaths over the forested desert. We only found the same old constellations we always find up there.
We relied on the same fictions we were comfortable with. The same shapes emerged above us. We, as camping college students in the desert, burning ourselves under the sun in the parking lot of the promised land, had nothing new to offer to that depleted place, not even in our stories. There wasn’t enough language between us by then to say anything that would have saved the ground we shared, and finally we were too tired to analyze the space between us.
Keene Short is a creative writing MFA candidate at the University of Idaho, focusing on nonfiction. His work has appeared in Atticus Review, Bodega, Dark Mountain, and elsewhere. He blogs about writing and history at keeneshort.com.