“Every man, woman, and child alive should see the desert one time before they die. Nothin’ at all for miles around. Nothin’ but sand and rocks and cactus and blue sky. Not a soul in sight. No sirens. No car alarms. Nobody honkin’ atcha. No madmen cursin’ or pissin’ in the streets. You find the silence out there, you find the peace. You can find God.”
— James Brogan (played by actor Brian Cox),
Spike Lee’s “25th Hour”
A vast stillness, stretching out far beyond what the eye can see. This place they call the desert is a place my dear friend and colleague Leon Emo often visited, with guests or otherwise. I still hold memories of times he’d shared with me about his trips out there. There’s a few that have appeared in this publication, that he shared with you and other readers.
It’s been two years since Leon passed. Not a day has gone by that I haven’t missed my friend, that “ol’ desert rat.” He had a knack for always lightening up the mood of everywhere he went.
He had a gift, that way, you know. Something I suppose I could be envious of. I admit, I’m not exactly the most sociable person to be around, but Leon was one of the very few people with whom I could be myself. I’m sure Viola, his beloved wife, saw that, too (If you happen to be reading this, Vi, I hope you’re well).
Two years almost seems like yesterday, when I think about it. Yet, when I look back on it, so much can — and has — happened since then. Around the world, in our nation (but I’m not even going to touch that subject with a 10-foot pole); even in our very back yards, so-to-speak.
I’ve gone through so much, and yet, so little since then. Relationships (personal, business or otherwise) have come and gone, amicably or not. You’d think with all the gain and loss there would be a greater story to tell, but what story could I tell you? I’m not exactly the adventurous traveler that once graced these very pages with insights, memories and more that you’re used to.
What I could share with you, however, are some stories he never did with all of you. However, I’m not exactly one to embellish memories he relayed. I’m not even sure I could tell you the whole stories, as the details slip my mind, but nonetheless, they fascinated me at the time they were shared.
One, in particular, comes to mind as I write this. Of a time he spent his youthful heydays in the Bay Area, falling asleep on the beach, only waking up to find what, I couldn’t exactly say was a vagrant, as that has a rather negative connotation, but rather another traveler in the world without anywhere exactly to go.
“Robert,” let’s call him, came up to Leon’s little campfire one evening just to warm up. To Leon, this guy just seemed to appear, as if from nowhere, asking questions and sharing some worldly wisdom that probably added to the sorts of viewpoints Leon held. Then the guy just walked into some nearby shrubbery or trees (I can’t exactly recall which it was) and just disappeared, much as he had appeared. I asked Leon if he thought “Robert” was a ghost, to which he replied (I’m paraphrasing here): He was as real as you or me, he left footprints in the sand, etc. All signifying this person had a physical presence in the world, but the story left me wondering about the event: Who was this guy?
There was another, a tale of a time during the famous “Summer of Love.” Leon was in his youth when it happened.
Seemed like back then, you could make friends with total strangers, and that’s what Leon did. Had a great time with strangers, and even had a strange experience (which I assume was an acid trip, given the area) where it seemed like he’d reached that silence, that peace. Perhaps Leon really did find God that evening in the company of strangers.
Did these stories Leon relayed actually happen? Ultimately, I decided, it didn’t matter. What did matter was that I listened to a friend who just wanted to talk.
Friends … it’s a wonderful concept, one I think has become lost in the recent decades, if not near century. A time when people honestly cared about one another, without need of gain or approval from others.
I should ask, “When did things get like this?” But if you’ve read this far, you’re probably thinking I’m pretentious in my ramblings (and perhaps I am). But can you really blame me for it?
I act as if I’ve been around long enough to endure hardships, when it hasn’t even been that long since I’ve existed. I wasn’t alive to experience the horrors inflicted on those during Civil Rights era, or the casualties of the wars. Just because someone can watch documentaries about these events does not give them the full experience.
Memories are precious, though; probably the only thing left you’ve got when you’ve lost everything else. I’ve been lucky enough to keep my memories, as much as I can remember, even through all that’s happened.
Two years can be so short, and yet, such a long time when you really look back on life.
I ask you, reader, what is two years worth to you? Have you had a positive life in that span of time? Spent the moments you’ve had since then with those you love, cherish, honor? Have you gone to your own “desert,” found the silence and the peace? Do you understand that this all might have just been a lie; something I’ve taken the time to embellish, just to get you to understand the actual point of simply taking the time to listen to someone? Whether it is or not, I cannot rightly say. I just hope you’ll have gotten something out of reading this, and that your life, from this point on, takes on more meaning to you.
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Ben Falcon is a member of the production staff of The Madera Tribune. He often worked with Leon Emo, when Emo was a correspondent for the paper.