Falling in love with a place is not so different from falling in love with a person. You start all doughy-eyed and gangly-limbed, then something inside you swells, and the orbit of your life bends just a tiny bit. The moment it hits you imprints on your mind.
I can still see the tire treads that pickup trucks left in the sand of this place, the haze gauzing the spaces between the limestone towers where the camel-colored sand pools, the etching of desert varnish drawing a line between little stands of scrub that cling to the cliffs like mountain goats. I can think of no bigger sky.
I thought I had seen desert before I came to Wadi Rum, but this was the archetype.
Like falling in love, the desert stuns you with its grandeur at first, but soon the awe atomizes into tiny little points of light: lizard tracks, rock plateaus stacked like pancakes, campfire sparks rising in a night sky with so many stars it seems more gray than black. And in these moments, when the veil between fantasy and reality is about as thin as it gets, that’s when I start to feel the internal swelling.
I have often tried to isolate this feeling so that I might examine it, but like love, it resists reason. You can’t have it with just your mind, because the first, most obvious question is the elusive of all: Why is it so beautiful?
The world is filled with little places and moments like this. Next time you see a bowl-over sunset, perfect little current marks in the sand from a receding wave, or the yellow veins of an otherwise crimson sugar maple leaf, ask yourself why it’s so beautiful. See if you can tease out causality. See if you don’t, like me, get caught in the mental cul-de-sac of whether nature is beautiful because that’s how I define beauty, or if I define beauty based on what nature has shown me. Or maybe you simply look at it and see God.
And when the sun goes down over those sandstone spires and stacks in Wadi Rum, when the overhead pink-and-crimson hues fill the desert like a bowl and the fine sand is still warm to the touch, it’s hard to think you’re looking at anything but the divine. Those moments never leave you. They linger inside you and color the way you see the planet, begging the most important question of all: What do I owe the Earth for all this soul-nourishing beauty that it gave up for nothing?
How do I repay Wadi Rum, or any other place, for its very existence?