Today is the final day of patrol in the desert. I volunteer to stay in camp and “hold it down” with Ricardo and Mike. The Silverado’s battery is dead this morning and the Suburban’s starter is shot, so without a car Elizabeth also has to stay back in camp. The cars are always an issue. Every morning one or another has to be jumped, every afternoon one or another has a flat tire. It is a never-ending puzzle to keep cars, people, and supplies properly moving through the desert. No one in camp knows about cars. Our patient from earlier in the week, Francisco was a chauffer in Guatemala, and for a couple of days he was able to tinker with the engines. With my limited Spanish I was able to act as go between with Francisco and other volunteers. That felt good, like I was useful for something. So many times in camp I feel like I’m along for a ride. I’m placed in the back seat of the suburban, jostled around, taken out of the suburban, pointed to a trail, and then I drop water, and repeat. Too many times I feel like a visitor, like a witness, like a writer, but that isn’t the reason I came. I cam to stop writing, to take my nose out of a book, take my fingers from the keyboard and be active, do something, help.
The Spanish helps with this feeling. For too many years I have allowed others to shame me out of speaking. As a Chicana, people (other Latinos and Spanish speakers) judge me for having limited Spanish. It is a critique I’ve heard my whole life, and unfortunately, instead of practicing and speaking, I have become quiet in the face of the jeers. But now, for the first time, I feel a real need to speak Spanish and little hang up seems inconsequential when held up to the realities of the desert and even the world. This is my opportunity to be a help to someone. I can be a comfort to someone. I can communicate. I can break down a wall, a wall I built around myself because of fear. I want to break down this wall, even if it is the only one I can.
Around lunch, Elizabeth asks if I want to walk with her to Byrd Baylor’s house to feed her horses. Byrd injured herself early in the summer and has been staying in Tucson. The volunteers have been caring for her horses and keeping an eye on her house. It is across the wash that runs around the back of the camp and up a hill, and is a beautiful hand-lay stone house with many Mexican and Native American influences and art. There is a succulent garden, hammocks, a windmill, barn, old rusted out bus, and a patio with a purple and pink mural on the floor of hand prints with two cots with blankets and pillows ready for any tired traveler (people are not the only travelers she welcomes. NMD volunteers have strict instructions to leave a plank of wood in every pond and water trough in order for bees to be able to drink without drowning). Elizabeth tells me a story that when she built the house the contractor laid the foundation and took off with her money, and that she and her friends built the home by hand, brick by brick, over years. Byrd has turned into legend around camp, perhaps made bigger by her absence. I feel her presence and the sacredness of the place and feel an ache that I do not have the opportunity to meet her. In some part of my brain where my fantasies run wild I imagine she is a kindred spirit and we are friends, or at least teacher and student, and we sit on her porch over-looking her garden writing magical tails of nature, want, life, death, and celebration, working together to create a more just world, a world where everyone is allowed beauty.
The Other Way to Listen is just one example of Byrd's beautiful children's books of Native American Folktales and the desert.