A Sort of Trespass
The brush we’re walking through doesn’t belong to us. Technically, it’s rooted on a plot owned by the cattleman who makes a living in the crevice of the canyon with his small family and large cows. But, like any good neighbors in a farming community, our friend of a friend has asked the cattleman permission, and so we swing open the wooden, barbed fence with ease. The cattleman also let the people shooting commercials for Chevrolet open this fence last summer, though, so I don’t pretend we have any special privilege. Except that we’re here.
If you’ve never been in a desert during a rainstorm, perhaps imagine smelling the ocean for the first time. That peculiar tinge of salt and decay. Add sage, and this is what it’s like to be in eastern Washington, in spring. It doesn’t feel strange that this is perhaps only my second time on this cattleman’s land so close to my home because things out here go sagebrush, sagebrush, wheat, government conservation ground, sagebrush, and that’s the spectrum of life.
My family and I are here for pieces of flint and wild onions and a break away from the flat earth. The flint (tossed back onto the earth a long time ago from that slow process of knapping, of stone against stone) means there’s potential to find an arrowhead; the neighbor’s father found two, in his youth. So we bend every so often to reach down for pieces of flint to line the pockets of our jeans, and we perform the simple act of walking. Bone and muscle roll over each other to propel. The motion in this wide-open, wind-riddled place brings one down to the fundamental.
The air is fresh with cool spring mud and maybe lichens, if you could pinpoint the scent of lichen. A sudden plateau sends our fingers crawling across cracks in the basalt. Neurons blink. This is the old motion of heaving one’s frame up. Feet press against black rock, against gravity.
On top of the plateau it’s windy, and, from the look of the close-curled flora, it always has been in this place. To the west it’s lime-lichen-green-on-black for miles, and to the north it’s trailer houses. The trailers are a small community tucked up above the farmland and the farmers. Most residents are semi-permanent, and some only come for a week or two in the summer, to say they understand the heat and the ticks and the horizon. One man even built a tepee, just off the side of the paved road, stretching off-white canvas over wood he found from somewhere.
If you squint, though, the trailers seem like white-grey lichen strewn across the ridge across the canyon. On the plateau beneath our feet, we peck around for a certain shade of green: a deep chive color, three strands. Look for it wedged alongside some shale, where it will survive the wind and the deer. If you find this color in three strands and the middle strand is tallest, and you dig, you’ve found a wild onion. The onions are the size of a thumbnail, sometimes smaller, and taste watery and sweet. My brother and I and the neighbor boy with blonde hair dig up one colony of onions after another, sprinkled across the uneven rocks, mashing each find between our molars.
Aside from grazing, I’ve palmed a couple of pieces of flint of my own on the walk up, pieces that glint a rust red or slight green or creamy white, like fat tissue, against the grey of the basalt crumbled down from the walls of the canyon. My father has about a pocketful because flint isn’t something you’ll find strolling along columns of wheat, where the earth has been plowed and turned for generations. When we get home, my mother will trickle our pieces into a glass vase to place under the television set.
We hike back down the plateau before dinner because a few hours of lung-sweeping wind and onions is enough refreshment for our modern bones. But on the way down, my brother does it—he finds an arrowhead. Our father wears the same expression as the day my brother and I found 13 four-leaf clovers between the two of us in the span of an hour, in the clover patch by the garden; each time we would run back inside to show him the new clover, until it was comical, until he got up from his seat for the world to spit him his slice of luck. Only when we went back out, the three of us, we found none.
We pass the arrowhead around from palm to palm, admiring, tilting the stone to catch the dull light in a series of glances. Some angles are a clean break, others trace a slow scratch against the element. I wonder how long this arrow has been tucked among the wind, the mud, the green. The onions I ate.
I don’t remember if the arrowhead came to rest on my brother’s closet shelf or my father’s bookshelf (next to his rows of Louis L’Amour Western novels and a small vial floating a flake of gold he panned from a stream, once), but I remember my father telling us not to tell anyone. If those people knew we found that here, he said, there would be a lot more people walking through that barbed gate. Through the canyon and dirt paths and sagebrush that weren’t ours.
I want to ask, What people, and I want to tell him not to worry, that most people wouldn’t bother to walk in the first place. But a part of me knows what people. And a part of me worries about keeping the secret of that place, too. Like I owe it that solemn quiet of a soft-clouded spring sky. Like I shouldn’t even write about the sagebrush or the rain or how the land becomes an ocean of its own kind: sweeping.