A bird not much bigger than a golf ball and the same color as the sand beneath it darted a few feet ahead, landed, then took off again. It stayed closed to the ground and after the bird took flight I could see minuscule imprints of its claws. For twenty minutes the bird stayed along side me before speeding off to the faraway dunes.
It was my third day in the desert and I was managing far better than I expected. I still had ten liters of water, which wasn’t an excessive amount, but easily enough to get me through the two days of desert I still needed to cross. There’d been cloud cover every day so I wasn’t sweating at all.
Around nine I came to a truck stop. The truck stop was three attached one story buildings. By the near corner a group of men worked on an engine spilling oil onto the gravel.
“Is this a restaurant?” I pointed to the entrance ahead of me. A table sat out front.
One of the men nodded. The others stared. I parked my cart and went in looking for food.
The small room was dark. A bed in the corner didn’t have sheets; they’d been hung over the window. A square table was pushed to the wall with an empty plate on it. A man got off the bed as I entered, rubbing his face.
“Is there…uh…is there food?” I asked, feeling as though I were imposing.
The man pulled a red baseball cap on then grunted in the negative.
“Are you the owner?”
He grunted in the negative again, his eyes unfocused and swollen with sleep. He pointed to the wall.
“Oh, sorry.” I understood his signal, the restaurant was next door.
I went back outside then saw the outline of faded letters on the attached building. Restaurant. But the door was locked. Inside the chairs were overturned on the tables.
“Hey,” I said to the men working on the engine. “Is there a restaurant here? Is it open?”
The man in front of the others pointed over my shoulder.
I went to the last door of the long building. A huge tree, the only huge tree I’d come across in days, cast an umbrella of shade over the entrance. There was no sign for a restaurant but the door was open and inside was a table with food and coffee on it. I took a tentative step inside.
There was some shuffling in the back, then a woman, taller than most, emerged from behind a deteriorating sheet hung over a doorway.
“Do you have food?” I asked.
The woman stopped at the far end of the table. “Food?”
I could hear in the woman’s voice that she was confused, that I wasn’t in a restaurant, but in her home.
“This isn’t the restaurant? I’m sorry.” I took a step backwards, readying to leave.
“What do you want?”
I paused. “Do you have eggs?”
“Scrambled or fried?”
“Fried would be great.”
“Okay, okay. Take a seat.” The woman removed a towel from her back pocket and swept it over the wood table. “Here.”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Sit, sit.” She disappeared behind the sheet.
A minute later three kids came bursting into the room, one of the boys holding an action figure in flight above his head. Once they noticed me they hung their heads as though the room had become a church.
“Good day,” said the oldest boy looking me in the eye.
“Good day,” whispered the middle boy, action figure behind his back.
“Good day,” said the youngest, a girl who’s cheeks were smudged with dirt.
“Good day,” I returned to them.
They were just outside when the girl noticed Savannah laying at my feet.
Her brothers turned back. The veil of piety was shattered. The three crouched and Savannah, tail wagging, clambered to them.
“Oh, how cute!” said the girl.
The mother brought out fried eggs, sliced potatoes, and rolls of bread. The rolls of bread had gumdrops in them which I picked out and left on the plate. The inside of the bread was stained green and red from the candy. Between bites I watched the kids pet Savannah. They were surprisingly pleasant with her. Outside of the States most kids played roughly, or at best extremely timidly, with dogs. Normally it was tugged whiskers and flicks on the nose. I once met a boy in Costa Rica, probably four years old and with a forehead so large it suggested a birth defect. Savannah was laid on the ground and the boy swung his foot to kick her in the nose. He missed, but I was amazed by how he already thought it normal to kick dogs.
“Do you have dogs?” I asked the children.
“No,” answered the oldest. “Just a cat. There. Negro.” He pointed to a black cat pushing itself as far into a chair and away from Savannah as possible. “We found him in the desert when he was a baby.”
The middle brother disappeared to the back for a moment then returned holding his baby sister. She was less than a year. Her eyes were huge at the sight of Savannah. Her brother crouched, took his sister’s hand, and stroked Savannah’s head with it.
Once I finished my breakfast Savannah and I got back to the road. The kids watched us go. I stuck a wad of coca leaves in my cheek for energy. The wind was a force, keeping us cool, but also throwing sand.
Savannah’s doggles went on. If we stopped for a second she pawed them off, but thankfully the windiest area only last about thirty minutes so she didn’t need to keep them on for too long.
As I was slipping the doggles back into their cover someone in all black and on a black motorcycle slowed to a stop in the opposite shoulder. I thought maybe they were stopping to offer me water.
The rider removed her helmet. It was a young girl, early twenties, full lips and bright, aware eyes. She waved then ran across the street to me.
“Hi. Where are you going?” she asked.
“Right now? I don’t know, up the road until I find somewhere to sleep.”
“But in general, to where?”
“Ah. Uruguay. Yourself?”
“And where are you coming from?”
That explained it. I’d crossed two borders since last seeing anyone like her. I did my best to remain sane. “I was in Colombia for three months. Loved it. The land is so diverse.”
“Yes, it’s very beautiful. Is this your dog?”
The girl kneeled and Savannah pressed her head into the girl’s belly. I sat Indian style, wishing there was somewhere nearby with shade. The girl sat Indian style too, her posture perfect, and Savannah hid herself beneath the cart.
“Do you have a family?” the girl asked.
She didn’t mean if I had mother and father, she meant kids, a wife. “No, no family,” I answered. “It’s impossible to travel with a family. Do you?”
She shook her head and laughed. “No. No. No.”
I laughed too. Then silence took over as we looked at each other, both appraising and finding approval. I noticed the complex hue of her lips, how they were darker, almost copper where they met, then faded to skin tone at the edges. Seeing my eyes on her lips, the girl grinned.
Caught forgetting myself for a moment I glanced away. “How far are you going today?” I asked, looking back to her with attempted nonchalance.
She smirked. “Trujillo.”
“Sure, it’s only a three hour ride.”
“Oh. Right.” I glanced over to her motorcycle. “I forgot you were driving.”
“How long will Trujillo be for you?”
“About a week, I think.”
“A week! How long have you been in the desert?”
“This is my third day.”
I shrugged. “We’re all a bit crazy. Are you riding alone?”
“I started alone but met two others from Colombia and have been riding with them since. They’re going down to Argentina.”
“How long have you been riding for? Oh, no, you’re Colombian, you’ve been riding since you were a kid.”
“Since I was twelve.”
“Here they come.” She pointed behind me.
I turned around to watch two guys pull their motorcycles onto the shoulder. The girl and I stood near each other.
“I forgot to ask you your name.”
We shook hands. The two guys had their helmets off and hurried to Mariana and I. We greeted each other, exchanged the basics of our trips. Speaking with Mariana one on one had my Spanish warmed up so I was able to banter a little with the guys. Mariana kept interjecting, “Three days from Piura!” – referring to how long I’d been in the desert.
After only a few minutes the guys said it was best they get a move on to make it to Trujillo by sundown. The guys jogged across the street to their motorcycles. I said goodbye to Mariana knowing, as I do with most people, that I’d never see her again.
They drove off, waving to me. I continued.
As the sun lowered the vegetation fell away and I realized there was nowhere to set my tent. On either side of me was nothing but featureless sand to the horizon. I wasn’t panicked, I could see brush glimmering on the silver horizon like a mirage. I figured it’d be two or three hours until I reached it.
My legs were sore, I’d already walked twenty-four miles.
I chipped away at the horizon step by step. With the sun low behind me the air was crisp. Savannah’s tail wagged. A passenger bus slowed ahead of me. The co-driver held a huge bottle of water out of the door for me. The bus still rolling, I grabbed the bottle and thanked the man. The co-driver gave me the thumbs up after the handoff.
The seven liter bottle was about half-full. I rested it on my cart and kept moving. At six-thirty, with the sun barely visible and the sky a dark blue, I came to cell tower at the beginning of the brush. I circled the cell tower. Around back was a flat raised area against the concrete wall. The wall stopped nearly all the wind coming from the coast, but the ground was a minefield of dried shit.
I looked out to the desert behind the tower. Car-sized thorn bushes cropped up intermittently. Back there was somewhere I could set my tent, but the wind would be stronger and tossing sand onto my things. I decided to stay. I found a two-by-eight and scraped away at the ground to clear all the dried feces. I swept a huge area two or three times, then I threw out my tarp.
Since I’d walked thirty miles and it was already dark I laid on my sleeping pad right away. My legs throbbed. The stars overwhelmed the sky. I covered the brightest with my thumb. I was just a passing encounter to them, like Miriam was for me. Soon I’d be gone and they’d still be laying in the desert.