luminescence – by Christopher Robey

December 31st, 2013

Isla Carmen, northwest of Punta Baja

I’d been dreaming of sand, and its scraping beneath my deflated Therm-a-Rest had woken me again. Loose grains scattered across the tent floor as I turned over in my sleeping bag, minute drifts gathering in the corners as I freed my arms to sit up. I propped myself up halfway then sat blinking — my head ached, and my face was numb from being pressed against the cold waterproof canvas of my drybag. As my head began to clear I was jolted by a cold blast as the wind battered my tent again. I’d left the rain fly open to let the cool air in, and the wind had torn at it all through the night, a constant fwap-whap-whap-ing like bat’s wings.

I reached for my glasses, which I’d tucked into a side pocket near where my head had lain, and shifted forward, craning my neck to look up through the thin mesh roof. The glittering night sky seemed filtered, the gauzy material letting only the brightest stars shine through. Still, it was enough. Orion’s fist jutted from the corner of my vision, his great body hovering overhead.

A brief pulse of bluish light washed over my tent, shining in through the window and illuminating the dark wads of rumpled clothes at my feet. The scraggly shadows of the desert shrubs outside glided across my tent walls, the contorted silhouette of the ruined signal tower briefly looming. Then it was gone, the light fading.

I’d set up my tent at the base of the tower, hoping that it and the surrounding dunes would shelter me from the wind. A mistake, I soon realized. The sloping sandbanks channeled the wind, splitting it into dual streams as it met the tower that then circled and fought each other for claim of my rickety nylon shelter. Though nestled in among the shrubs and chunks of rusted metal and concrete, I may as well have laid my tent at the shoreline. Maybe then I could have avoided the burs.

I laid back down, tried cushioning my head with a balled up flannel. I was comfortable — for a while at least, enough to begin drifting back to sleep. But soon the wadded fabric became a painful spike in the back of my neck that persisted no matter which way I laid. I tossed the flannel aside, shifted so that my head could lay among the clothes nestled where my feet had been, scattering more sand. A sharp rock hidden beneath my tent jabbed into my back. I patted the floor, searching for it, but couldn’t find it. I tried rolling on my side, but after another jab I’d had enough. I sat back up, thought about going out to look at the stars. Instead I got up to pee.

I fumbled for the zipper of my sleeping bag and gradually untangled myself from its sand-dusted folds. I groped in the dark for my headlamp, decided it wasn’t worth it. My eyes had already adjusted to the starlight. I couldn’t find my socks either — they were lost, swallowed by the chaos of scattered clothes and drybags flung about my tent. After wiping my glasses, I eased one bare foot out into the cool sand, then the other, and crawled out.

I stood, fully exposing myself to the blasting wind. The edge of my rain fly was fluttering wildly, whipped about as the dual streams of air clawed at one another. Whap-whap-whap. I stooped and saw that one of the anchors holding my tent down had come loose, yanked out from beneath the hunk of bleached coral that I’d used to weigh it down. I didn’t try searching for it. Instead, I made for the bushes, the gale ripping at my fleece. A sand bur pierced my heel but I ignored it.

As I peed I leaned my head back to look up at the stars. Unfiltered by the mesh, they shone brilliantly, and for a moment I forgot about the cold and the wind. Maybe I’ll stay out after all, I thought. Having relieved myself, I made for the nearest sand dune.

The tower pulsed again, casting its bluish light across the dunes and briefly highlighting the other tents around me, all with darkened forms inside. Nylon rustling as they tossed and turned, fighting for sleep. It’ll be a long night for everyone else, too, I thought. My feet kicked up sand as I clambered to the top of the dune, leaving shifting prints where shadows pooled. Down by the shoreline, the moonlight glinted faintly off the tops of our kayaks. Their long dark forms were lined neatly, rudders pulled up and pointing out toward the sea.

At the top I found a clear spot away from the burs. The sand glowed softly, seeming to absorb the ambient light of the stars and the moon. I dug my toes deep, searching for warmth, but found none, all of it leeched away by the savage wind. I tried lying down, flattening myself against it, but the sand made me colder so I sat up.

I drew my knees in close and tugged mindlessly at the bands around my wrist. They’d been given to us by the Loreto Bay park service, one for each night we were to spend on the islands. The two I wore were already ragged with sand and salt. This would be the third night..

For a moment I paused. We set out from Loreto on December 28th. I tugged at the bands and counted them again. First. Second. Third night.

It was New Year’s Eve. Well, I thought. Shouldn’t I reflect? Make some sort of list?

My gaze wandered across the shimmering black expanse between Isla Carmen and far-off Isla Danzante, where we’d stayed the first night. Colored lights winked and bobbed near its shore, a cluster of them off the island’s northern end. Yachts, probably—there’d been many out during the day—with people on board. People toasting the new year, their echoes faint across the waves.

I sat for a time, listening for their voices, but the wind drowned them out. Again the tower pulsed, casting its derelict light across the sands, across the Sea of Cortez, before fading again, leaving my eyes to adjust to the dark.