This piece is part of the #52essays2017 challenge where I will share one essay a week in 2017. To learn more about this challenge or to participate, check out writer Vanessa Martir’s website and post about it.
I’ve probably driven up to the dry lakebed twenty times. The desert holds many arid landscape features, but this lakebed is special in its size and remoteness. It is off a dirt road about thirty miles from the nearest town. To get there you can follow the twisty dirt road through the rocky and narrow section until it flattens and widens and you see the power poles in the distance. Or you can come up the dirt road called Turtle Walk and drive to the junction on the hill where you take a right fork, left fork, right fork, and then around the ridge until the road merges with the power line road.
Veer off as soon as you see the sandy spot. You can pick any spot. The lakebed doesn’t care. No matter, just pick a spot and drive out into the whiteness. You’ll see the surface is bleached, cracked, completely flat. Driving on it is otherworldly. Vehicles cease all orientation with the familiar lines that pin us to known locations. There is nothing familiar here. No road paralleling the horizon. No intersections to use to mark distance. Nothing overhead to cast a shadow. And so the truck can fly. It can speed across and while you know the ground is passing underneath, the illusion is that the landscape is what is moving around you. You feel weightless. You skim. Sometimes there are tracks from other drivers. These indicate that you are not on an alien planet. If you want reassurance of such things.
When you slow, the dust hints at the place you were before. But there is no marker of the road. You just have to remember where to point on the way back. Estimate, aim, and go. The lakebed is so big they can land planes on it. Fifty people could be out and about on the surface and you might not see a soul. Once we shot off model rockets and mine went to so far I couldn’t retrieve it on foot. It simply seemed to disappear into space.
Another time, I drank a beer really fast and Sara and I got into the truck and blasted The Doors. We drove around the lakebed singing at the top of our lungs, laughing and savoring the intense strangeness of the place. I was generally driving in a circle, but when I thought we’d be back at the chairs and the cooler and the group of friends at the end of the arc…I wasn’t. I kept driving. I stopped singing when I realized I couldn’t see them in any direction. I sped up and did another circle. Our dust had faded and the two circles were intertwining. The dust was teasing me, hinting at where we came from, but not revealing any indication of where they were. Sara told me she thought she saw something. Where? She pointed. We drove towards a speck. It was nothing. She apologized. We decided to drive to the very edge. Surely, we would see them by the time we got to the end of the lakebed. But no. We drove along the edge. Nothing. When we got to the power lines and could approximate where we had come off the road we tried following some tracks – we were not alone here – we had just driven this way. The tracks led to the middle of the lakebed, but, we couldn’t see any signs of life. The desert breathed quietly in the dusk.
I started honking the horn – surely they could hear us! They could signal. There were flashlights and things at our camp. I took out my headlamp and tried to shine in the direction I guessed they were. After a few minutes I felt utterly ridiculous driving a big truck around honking a horn, shining a light, listening for voices, yelling names into the wind. The lakebed was silent. I became frightened.
What would it feel like if people you loved just disappeared into thin air? Good thing that can’t happen. What a horror. This isn’t a movie. They were there. But where? What if they weren’t? What had I been thinking? Why had I driven so fast? Why did I drink a beer? I felt the frustration of a child that doesn’t understand and knows they are supposed to have the answer. That feeling of not getting the joke, being left out of the group. I wanted to scream – “it’s not fair!” I wanted to cry and tantrum. I couldn’t cry. We were two grown women. We did a few more circles. I let Sara drive. Ten minutes later we saw a black spot and she drove toward it. I flashed the lights at it. We had a point of reference again. It was them. They hadn’t seen the lights flashing. Hadn’t heard the horn. They hadn’t even noticed how long we had been gone. They teased me for being afraid. They thought I was so silly. But, I learned that day. Places can trick you. People can be lost.
Last year, on our eighth visit to the lakebed, we arrived around noon and drove out from the power line road to the center of the lakebed to let the dogs play and so we could listen to some music and watch the sunset. We were going to look at the stars. The night would be dark. We aimed toward the middle. Always; this is what we did. Just drove to the center. But, today as we drove, we saw the horizon melt. Just a bit. That was right before we realized that we were looking at an edge -but not the one at the end of the lakebed. This was the edge of land! There was an island in the middle of the dry lake. Incredible. We circumnavigated the small rise. Some brush grew in a sandy bank, a dry dune, a mud tower. The elevation went up a bit and I found a campfire ring toward the center. I saw the glimmer of a foil wrapper. People had been here.
Discovering the island was a bookend to losing my friends. The lakebed hid things and kept secrets.