A Quiet Journey by Mostofa Hisham
Submitted to The Coup: Lucid, Vol. 32 (2014)
I opened my eyes. A bright shining light blasted into my face, and I sat straight up, startled by the brightness. Looking around myself, I saw I was in a large SUV, with two people sitting beside me, and a driver ahead, who was wearing sunglasses to block the blinding sun.
“Yuh fell asleep right after we started. We figured you were tired, so we didn’t bother you much”, said the driver, at my sudden resurgence.
“Yeah, I had a rough night. Had to get everything ready”, I said groggily.
Since I was sitting next to the window, I watched the fleeting scenery out the window. I could see nothing in the horizon, but a few withered trees in the midst of the vast Texan farmland, which alternated from green to yellow as we flew by the patches of rough, yet hospitable land. There was a certain beauty in this rather arid landscape, and I was spellbound, some vitality, some warmth, in those small wooden houses that I never seemed to be able to find elsewhere. The occasional tree, which looked so lonely, standing by itself in a sea of nothingness, seemed to invite a sense of withered strength, having fought the daily battle with the merciless climate. Amongst all this I saw a sea of golden yellow grass, stretching mile after mile, which clashed sharply with the cloudless sky. Time seemed to be transfixed as I was, and I had not realized that I had spent a few hours observing the magnificent landscape.
Finally able to sever myself from the enrapturing scenery, I began to think about our destination, which was a secluded section of bedrock near the Petrified Forest of Arizona, where we would be searching for a very important fossil of a dinosaur named Dilophosaurus, so we could investigate the lifestyle of such animals after the Triassic extinction. The group of paleontologists sitting around me here actually my students, and I intended to lead the search, since I had recently begun to recognize the importance of the environment during such a critical period in the Earth’s history.
I started to observe a certain haziness that lined across the horizon ahead of me, and I figured at first that it was some kind of fog. As we neared the mist, I realized that the farmland outside gradually took a slight shade of light brown, and the atmosphere started to become thicker and thicker. Smoothly, the once rough yet magnificent landscape morphed into something darker and more mysterious, as the colors of the land and sky drowned into a dull brownish hue. It was no fog It was a dust storm. It was the great accumulation of floating dust that molded a mysterious, dramatic change in the land, as the once warm, lonely houses now seemed ghostly in the haze. As the blue sky disappeared and a single color of brown enveloped the whole world. We did not dare open the windows, because otherwise the thickening dust would enter and shower us with a fitful of coughs and sneezes. We sat quietly through this storm, and I observed the climate with a new eye. Although the singular murkiness stretched on for mile after mile, I could now observe, by squinting at the horizon, a faint string that seemed to float above the horizon, and I recognized them to be the peaks of a long mountain range. The road started to undulate, and it seemed to cut through small rocky mountains in order to maintain its determination to stay as straight as possible. I could see the faint outlines of shrubs all around the new rocky land, and I deduced them to be of the most hardy type, since they endure the raging of frequent dust storms and the lack of thunderstorms.
After two hours of squinting at various sections of the misty land, the dust storm suddenly lifted, and everything became clear once again. Although sunset was near, I saw around me that the farmland was long gone, and the mountains that seemed so far away in the storm seemed to have moved closer, and there was an aura of subdued grandeur about them, as the red light of the sunset reflected off its rocky surfaces. Surrounding the flaming mountains were canyons that cut deep into the rocky soil, like scars from the Earth’s violent geologic history. Shrubs seemed to be the primary plant that inhabited this merciless land, and therefore colonized every possible place where there was relatively softer soil. Looking in the back window, I gave a small gasp at the massive brown wall that was that rose up to the sky and stretched on to both ends of the Earth. I tried to pierce through the wall with my squinting eyes, to look for something within that great murky prison, but I could see nothing in it. Anything that occurred in that prison of a storm would never had been known to the outside world, everything that happened there was a secret and a mystery. We broke through that formidable defense, and I was proud to know that I had lived to tell the tale. Looking back at that wall, at that gate between obscurity and freedom, I felt something powerful within me, a sensation of just witnessing something that many an artist would endear to see at least once in their lifetime.
As night fell, we eventually arrived at Albuquerque, where we would stay for the night, before our final stretch to Arizona.
We found ourselves the next morning on the road again, and we eventually arrived at the border of Arizona and New Mexico within a few hours. By now the group was packed up completely and ready for the excavation, which we would begin shortly after arriving at the Petrified Forest. There was a quiet murmur amongst them, and the air was charged with the electric energy of youthful excitement. Nevertheless, I, although being the group leader, still remained recalcitrant, and was watching the fleeting scenes of the outside world with a calm mind.
The environment soon transformed into a complete desert, as the mountains became bare of the green adornment of plants, as the very ground seemed thirsty for water. The rock formations that lined across these mountains were simply extravagant, with layers of flaming red and basalt black rocks. Since the fiery color dominated everything else, these mountains seemed to be red-hot from the beaming sun. Rarely I would see a creek, yet it was so empty that it resembled rather like a miniscule canyon. Being the first time in any desert climate, I was very intrigued by the vibrant medley of colors painted on the mountains, and the desolate, yet serene expanse of land seemed to evoke a sense of quietude and warmth deep within myself.
When we finally reached our destination, which was that small spread of limestone and shale close to the Petrified Forest, the sun was at its zenith. Since there was no town in the radius of fifty miles, we had brought ourselves two tents, and we quickly built them, and then I finally gave a few last minute reminders of safety and precaution to my students(which had seemed like the first time I had spoke in a while) and we then began search for our quarry. The search was nothing haphazard, since I had advised the students to research deeply into the rock formations of the bedrock we were currently exploring, and to be able to accurately distinguish the fossil-carrying sedimentary rocks to the rather impertinent igneous or metamorphic rocks. However, finding the rocks were miniscule in difficulty to actually finding any fossil lurking within them.
Time was slowly draining out as we tirelessly scoured the ground for any sign of such fossils. Whenever we would be suspicious about a certain rock, I would use a small hand-sized drill to slowly scrape away at the stubborn rock, but to only find that there was nothing of value inside it. We, however, did find a few remnants of fossilized leaves within the cracked shale, which we carefully stowed away, for later research.
The days slowly whittled by, and we made slow progress. There was no sign of any remnant of Dilophosaurus, nor any creature of such significance in the area. The Department of Paleontology had only given us enough funding in order to last us three weeks, so the tension in the camp was running quite high, and we therefore continued searching with more vigor. Almost every cracked rock was soon unearthed, and we slowly lost hope in goal our main goal.
It must be said that our search was only fruitless in that respect; we did indeed find the most beautiful traces of plant material, and the remnants of petrified wood, which must have come from the Petrified Forest nearby. However, our most significant find was that of a juvenile prosauropod, an ancestor to the famous family that included Apatosaurus and Brachiosaurus. The skeleton, although incomplete, contained remains that show a smooth transition between the primitive prosauropods of the Triassic and the colossal giants that had once ruled the world. Covering the skeleton with a thick coating of plaster for protection, we laid the bundle in the back of the SUV with utmost care.
We finally arrived at our last night at camp. All the students were inside their tents, but I decided to remain outside, in the chilly night. I looked up and gazed at the bright show of stars that glittered the pitch black heavens. There was something about the night in the desert that captivated me. The lack of light gave the surrounding darkness much more purity than the murky darkness that would often engulf a bustling city. With the full moon shining bright over the mountain peaks, the surroundings seemed very soothing to the beholder, and I then felt that even within this harsh and desolate land, there was a certain softness in the night, a softness that was molded from the pure colors of the serene landscape, from the gentle breeze that rippled my matted hair, from the starry, starry night. The night had instilled within me a feeling of satisfaction, a satisfaction that overcame the hollow feeling of not completing the expedition. That satisfaction seemed to spread to all parts of my quiet journey, from the golden yellow grass of the Texan farmland, through the raging of the formidable dust storm, over the rocky peaks of New Mexico, and finally here, with me sitting quietly under a beautiful night sky. As the cool breeze gave a sudden breath, I stood up, and spread my arms, taking in as much of it as possible. And then I closed my eyes.