I’m already awake when the first daylight slides into my tent. Please, more sleep. I know this will not happen. Besides, I need time alone before beginning another day with twenty-two students. So I pull on dusty clothes and climb a small rise above our camp at Mickey Hot Springs. Once on top, I crunch backward into a sagebrush, facing east, my butt planted in sandy dirt.
Before me a flamingo dawn rises through uncertain clouds, layers of pink above brown bands of Columbia River flood basalts exposed on distant ridges. The blonde dinner plate of Alvord Playa stretches behind me, empty. Steens Mountain juts upward from the edge of the playa, a mass of gray clouds crawling from the west over the snowy summit, then stalled by the desert on the east side. Mickey Butte looms to my left, an austere pyramid with more flood basalts, more layers of time thrust upward into the face of my tiny life. I’m grateful for the caress of cool air, grateful I wasn’t here 15 million years ago when the entire sweep of land rolling out around me was bathed repeatedly in fiery liquid. This morning only cold stone and a sizzling sunrise remain.
Spasmodic breezes course across the basin floor, massaging the right side of my head. The sagebrush backrest sends out an aromatic probe, smooth and slender, plying the upper reaches of my nasal cavities, lighting up sensory cells just below my eyes. The smell plays off the erratic wind, dancing in and out of my nose, in and out of consciousness.
Now sunlight leaks through a ragged hole in the clouds, a cluster of beams radiating downward onto the desert floor. The sun breaks free from its veil, and I shift in my gritty seat, sit straighter against the sagebrush, stretch toward the warmth. In the new light the hills become quantum waves, undulating between taupe and tan, beige and brown. Sagebrush and saltbush splatter across the basin, fat gray-green raindrops plopped into dusty ground. Shadows fill the draws like dark water. A lone coyote woofs from the basin floor to my right. Then a distant pack lights it up from behind me, erratic sirens announcing some crisis only a coyote could appreciate. Probably they just discovered our little splash of colorful tents.
Voices reach upward from camp. The early risers are awake, and soon the work begins: hot water for coffee, packing gear, marshaling people into vans to search the desert floor and rocky hillsides for dry country lizards. The sun remains undecided. The lizards will follow its lead. I hold my breath, wondering what morning will gather into her chapped hands.