“It’s only three miles” they said, “it can’t be that bad, Julia, stop complaining.” they said. Bull shit. Even walking three inches into the desert was ten feet too far, by my account. It’s a good thing I have my podcasts otherwise this would be too much of a chore. This was a lesson to me; never mention that you’ve hiked in the desert before or you will be voluntold by the group. I hated it then and I hate it now.
The ‘budget’ of our group research project had run too thin for any protective measure better than borrowing my roommate’s insulated water jug. It was worth a sizable amount of our grade at the end of the semester so it had to be good. It wasn’t enough for us to do research on native Arizona plants, no. We had to, just absolutely had to find our own specimens, according to Dennis.
I emailed the professor about the delusional tyranny of the group; I think he found it funny.
Luckily, since it’s a desert, the ‘directions’ were more or less a straight line. Starting from the bus stop in a town whose name I’d already forgotten, intentionally, It was a straight line NNW. Sure, there was a dune or two along the ‘path’ but it wasn’t so bad, especially for this ungodly early hour. The sun was comfortably behind my back lazily falling back into its old habits of baking the sand like it had nothing better to do. Perhaps it doesn’t. I don’t either, apparently.
As I finished that last episode I realized I wasn’t even listening to the show; I was lost in my own thoughts. I could moan about group projects all I wanted but in the end I knew that I could have avoided this if I wanted. Nobody held a gun to my head and marched me out here, alone. I was doing this because Heather asked me to.
That girl. I couldn’t say no to that face, that soft smile across smooth cheeks. When I looked at her I could only think how much time I wasted in high school not realizing that I liked girls. She would have joined me in an instant if the desert was handicap accessible. Normally she’s really good at getting around in her wheelchair, with a lifetime of practice after all, but the sand sort of threw a wrench into that; a sand wrench.
I’m not very funny.
I really need to stand up for myself more. I hadn’t gotten my hair cut in months because Heather once complimented my ponytail in a group meeting. This march through the desert had been supremely introspective. It’s been quiet.
I realized that the reason that spotify wasn’t working was because I was in the middle of the goddamn desert and had no signal. I would have been annoyed if I didn’t see my destination from the top of this dune.
Heron’s Valley is one of the very few American oases. Deserts in this country aren’t like the Sahara or the Gobi; an oasis here isn’t a self-sustaining pond surrounded by fertile soil and life. Heron’s Valley is unique, obscure, and ‘off the beaten path’ enough to satisfy our stupid poetry major who doesn’t even take these botany classes seriously. It piqued our curiosity with a lack of details; in the age of wikipedia and google-searchable research papers we expected that every single form of life that could grow in the valley would be categorized, named, and mapped out. It was only a few hours drive from campus, and we certainly couldn’t have been the first class to research it. There was nothing. There was a location, a vague description, and rumors. We found, tucked away deep in the school’s library in a botany book too dull for anyone to willingly open, a half-scrawled list of plants we had never heard of before. The hand-writing was a mess, but even with our loosest interpretations of what a cursive ‘s’ could look like, we couldn’t identify the haphazard notes.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious, but more in the ‘I’ll google the question’ more than the ‘spend an entire Saturday collecting samples’ sense.
Oh well. Heather promised to help me categorize these and prep them for the presentation. So, at least, that sounded like a lovely time.
Heron’s Valley looked nothing like either of the pictures they had put up online for it. One of them was a sketch and the other a drone image; but neither captured the depth of the place. It was odd to call anything on relatively flat ground a ‘valley’ but the way the verdant green foliage caved in on itself in the desert made it seem like a genuine valley; an emerald jungle amidst golden dunes. The trees, and there were trees, Joshua trees, it seemed, were overgrown and twisted in on themselves.
I approached and removed my headphones. There was no sound, nothing to listen to, and I wanted to soak in all of that experience. The ash grey trunk and brightly colored leaves were a facade, a shell to keep the sun at bay, what lay beneath the canopy had stolen my breath and threatened to keep it.The palette of the desert was muted; the color scheme of the leaves was bright and stood out, but beneath it, under it all; was brilliance. The air invited me into the valley.
Pinks and blues and golds and even darker greens crept just beneath the surface of the valley. A spectacle carpet of flowers in every color coated the desert floor. The air was cool, but humid. Even the sparse desert wind couldn’t reach me through the dense Joshua wall.
The plant life brushes soft against my leg. The little bit of resistance before it snaps back is fun, in a way. I tried my best to trample nothing but there was just too many plants to consider; I tread lightly instead. The air smells nice.
How something like this can exist is beyond words. Beyond comprehension. I check each photo I take to make sure I’m not imagining things. Surely a hallucination would not remain consistent between a picture and the genuine thing; but the flower has the same spots in the same places in both the real world and on my phone. I take one up by the roots and start brushing it off; its silver color will make a perfect specimen.
I couldn’t find the source of the smell, and I needed to know. The sweet aroma that had called to me and kept me here. I wanted to know what it was. The flowers’ smell was subtle, hard to trace without pressing your nose into them. My gloves had already turned green from pulling on and parsing through the plantlife.
The aroma was growing more intense; the air seemed to be getting hazy. No, darker. There was something in the air, sand or pollen, it didn’t matter which, but there was less light coming in than before. There was a small hole in the canopy that wasn’t there a while ago, the wind had pushed some of the foliage and produced a hole in the armor.
In total, the valley was maybe thirty feet long. Every inch of it was covered in things to discover stuff to record. It was beautiful and daunting and way more than the scope of this stupid presentation. I had already decided I needed to come back. I was majoring in this stuff, and having my own secret research cache would set me so far apart from everyone else. I smiled, content with having found a neat looking flower and having taken some pictures.
I would tell Heather, though. I would show her everything. The thought that she was missing out on this, that she would never get to see it, made me sad for some reason. I needed more, more pictures, more videos. More everything. Proof this existed, proof I had been there. Proof that I was thinking about her while here.
I stayed a while longer and gathered my proof. I grabbed a few specimens, moss and short grass and some strange fruit. I still couldn’t find the smell. It was getting late. My phone, which had started at a cool ninety-eight percent at the start of my expedition, was now rocking a solid six percent. If I hadn’t had to reshoot my walkthrough video a dozen times over maybe this wouldn’t have been the case, but oh well. I was entranced and loving it. There’s a twenty-four diner back in town with outlets so everything would be fine.
I had thought that night had come early, given how dark it got. No, it was still firmly early in the afternoon, I could just barely see given the canopy. I turned back to the entrance. Then I turned again. A third time. There was no light pouring in; there was no entrance, there was no exit. I didn’t even know which direction I was facing. I checked my compass. At that moment the answer was south. Cool. That didn’t really help one way or another.
Desert hiking was not my thing, I had made that clear. But now, now I was in my element. Now I was unstoppable. I was the absolute queen of panicking. Nobody could freak out quite the way I could. Some people get loud when they lose it, others become deathly silent. Those amateurs. Without saying a word, without stressing a single vocal chord I was kicking up a storm. I clawed at the Joshua tree walls, nothing. I pulled and leapt at the canopy but the thick layer of leaves was too dense. The thin, spiky leaves resented me as I did them.
I tried to think, why it would close. Perhaps the plants were moving closer to the sun. That was a highschooler-with-a-factoid-book level of botany, but I wasn’t exactly working on a thesis at this moment. Logically, then, when the sun moved more, the entrance might reopen. I would wait.
I wasn’t capable of much else anyways, telling myself that waiting was the best plan was the most comforting lie I could come up with so I rolled with it.
I turned off my phone. Maybe I would need the three percent of my battery later. I shouldn’t have recorded that much video like an idiot.
At least it smelled nice.
It smelled powerfully.
I had nothing better to do but enjoy the quiet. Enjoy the comfort. To nod off, for just awhile, in this lovely oasis.
I didn’t dream, there was no need.
I was never a heavy sleeper, my roommate woke me up constantly with her careless nocturnal wandering and this was no different. The shifting earth, the convulsing sand, the roiling moss; no matter how I think to describe it it’s just a little wrong. The gist was this: The ground was moving and even asleep I didn’t care for that at all.
I woke, sweating and with the distinct taste of ‘nasty’ in my mouth. It’s awful. It’s impossible to saw with any certainty what time it is; but it is very much still dark. There’s a new feeling, a new sensation near my feet: wet. Not water, more like third grade science goo. My feet resist movement at first but break free as I pull myself up into a crouching ball.
I need to know what time, what day it is. I turn on my phone. With two percent battery remaining, this is the last hurrah for awhile. It is eight thirteen; the sun would be setting sorta soon. I turn the phone around hoping the screenlight is enough to see the walls.
There’s a person, or something vaguely person shaped. I would say that I screamed, but that would be demeaning to any earnest screams. I yelped and squealed in fear. There was no sound, no movement, not even a breeze cutting through this humid cocoon.
I turn on the phone’s flashlight after a minute of meditative breathing. Nothing moved and I have always had a bad habit of seeing shapes in the dark.
The light cleaved through the darkness as I set my phone upon the trampled flower bed. The mossy green floor before me had given away and something else had risen up in it. and opened into a crimson maw in the earth. There were vines curled around where my feet were just a minute ago; they crept, receding back into the dark red mound. It was lined with something; a plant of some kind. I crept forward. The hole was lined with mushrooms. Smooth red caps coated the throat of this ‘mouth’ in the earth, all the way down towards its center. I nearly threw up.
There was a person. Or, more accurately, there had been a person. Someone was caught up in the mushrooms long ago, their skull formed the base of the fungus; the stem had grown from inside the skull and out through the eye sockets, curled around the teeth and kept the jawline ajar. Though the arms had fallen long ago, its spine kept it propped up like a macabre scarecrow with fungal tendrils keeping everything together. The mushroom was the most red at its base, it flared out in each direction. This wasn’t the flowerbed, filled with lots of different bits of life; this was one thing. It was all one.
The smell is more pungent than ever, I must be losing it since I swear I can see it. I know, I know.
There were other bones, ones that didn’t belong to the body in the center. They jutted from the sides, wrapped in vines. They were being pulled into the desert sand beneath the valley. I know I shouldn’t get closer, I know it’s a terrible idea, but it is so compelling, it smells so nice and I need to know more, I need to see it for myself.
The phone battery dies.
I can’t see anything anymore. At least, at first.
In the light a detail I had missed was hidden, but now, with time for my eyes to adjust, I saw it: the pale soft glow of night seeping in through the entrance. It was back and I could leave. I wouldn’t hesitate even one second, I run out and into the cold night only barely remembering to grab my things as I leave.
My pace is fast and steady, my breath is desperate. I am finally free to leave and leave I shall.
With no music to accompany me I am lost in my thoughts. The more I focus on what happened the less I can seem to recall; only the smell. I had fallen asleep and dreamt about a nightmarish ghoul in the valley. I don’t remember dreaming at all, in fact, I distinctly remember not dreaming.
The smell is pervasive. It was sweet and potent. It stays with me as I walk, all the way until I’m back in town. I can still smell it like it’s with me; it must be my clothes. I almost don’t want to wash them, but I suppose, I could always go back. In the future I’d be more careful.
It’s less dangerous when you know more.
Yes, I would go back. I need to go back. I need more.
Robert Badgley is an author and poet from Illinois battling every day with the very concept of existing in the midwest. It’s difficult to live where the air hates you. Robert has had a few short stories published but more recently has been dedicating resources to his writing blog.