26 March 2004
“I’ll race you to the top!” I shouted to young Kent as I sprinted past him toward the base of the dune. The race lasted all of 30 seconds. Ten strides into the sand, we both realized this was hard work. We only had to make it 100 yards up a 45 degree incline before we hit the exposed rocky plateau. (Imagine Castle Rock, with its base covered in sand.) But those hundred yards were the hardest I’d ever taken. I’d take a step two feet forward and sink one foot back into the fine sand. It wasn’t long before the explicatives were flying from both our mouths. “Fudge” or “Gosh Darn” with each exhalation. Half way up the slope my thighs were burning. Kent and I were now crawling on all fours, grasping with our hands and driving with our knees. Our young Bedouin guide, smoking a cigarette inside his 1950s tan pickup at the base of the hill, must have thought we were crazy…or at least very silly.
The sun was setting fast. A couple of hours earlier, it had painted Wadi Rum bright red and orange beneath a powder blue sky. But now, dusk had pacified the scene with lavender and gray.
“Dear God!” I shouted with a laugh to Kent who, though struggling himself, was 20 feet up from me. I was feeling the ten year difference in our age. Near the top, the sand finally gave way to solid rock and I was able to gain my footing and stand erect. I was completely winded and could taste the bile in my throat. It’s much the same feeling as I get when I return annually to Colorado to visit my parents and try running at altitude for the first time in a year. “I’m seeing spots,” Kent said as he unscrewed the cap on his bottle of water. “Good,” I replied, “I don’t feel so bad then.”
We had to climb up some big rocks and through a small crevice to make it to the very top. Once there, we each found our own flat patch and flopped down on our backs to catch our breath and recover. The first smattering of stars were visible directly above, while the last fingers of twilight loosened their hold on the mountains and slid below the horizon.
With some effort I rolled over on my right side and surveyed the magnificent landscape stretched out before me. Wadi Rum is an enormous expanse of desert interrupted by gigantic oblong rocky bluffs. Ancient waters had washed away hundreds of feet of loose topsoil, leaving great bowling alleys of sweeping desert running between titanic battleships of stone. The tremendous openness of the space and size of the rocks distorts both one’s sense of distance and time. Indeed, the scene in front of me looked exactly the same as it did to T.E. Lawrence some 90 years earlier or to Moses and his followers long before that as they camped out in this space during their 40 year journey through the desert. Add to this a silence that is so complete, that one could literally think they’d gone deaf. Like many places in Jordan, Wadi Rum feels both brand new and eternal. Indeed, other than the small rectangle of an old pickup at the base of the hill, there was no visual or audible reference in that entire moonscape to give a Rip Van Winkle any idea of what century or even millennia it was.
At such a time and place, I was moved to offer some captainly advice to the young specialist with me. “At some point I decided I wanted to have an extraordinary life.” Thinking it over for a moment, Kent replied, “I like how you said that.”
After a few more minutes of taking it all in, we got to our feet with a few grunts and groans and carefully climbed down the rocks to the top of the dune. Then, using as a beacon the far off tiny square of blue light emanating from the mobile phone of our very modern Bedouin, we took giant easy strides down the decline, pushing large quantities of deep soft sand out of the way with each step. After a long, bumpy ride across the desert, we were back at our rental car. Back to CD players and electric lights and pavement. Back to reality.