But after he left I sat here in the quiet darkness remembering the desert in the early morning. Rock Springs is much busier now than it was then. I used to wake up early and take my dog for a walk. Most of the dogs ran loose, but someone had accused John-dog of killing a sheep and I tied him up to keep him from being shot. John was half coyote, born under the barn on the mission. But that’s for another time.
I tried to go out between six and six-thirty and take him for a long walk. There was seldom anyone around at that hour. The white people were still sitting inside drinking coffee. The Navajo were up but going quietly about their business. From time to time someone would drive by in a pickup but mostly the desert was empty.
I would take John-dog out and either up the road or up across Bobcat’s ‘pasture.’ There were a couple other dogs that would come along too. It was a good time to walk-that early in the morning.
In the desert the fragrances are more prevalent at that time of day than at any other. On a moist morning you notice the scent of the sage and juniper on the breeze that sifts through it all around. That early in the morning there is no real wind-that comes later in the day. At this time of day it is as though the earth breathes. The breaths aren’t deep panting huffs, but more like the gentle exhalations of a resting earth. The soft drafts rise and move around you. The fragrance of sage and juniper is one of the things I miss most.
On mornings when there is no moisture you don’t smell the sage and juniper, you only smell the sand. It’s strange but until I went to the desert I never knew that sand had a odor at all. It was just dirt lying there inert. But in Rock Springs I discovered that it had a fragrance that I can’t describe unless you have stood in my shoes in the early morning. It’s dry and tickles your nose and makes you think of old stones and ancient ruins with broken shards of pottery scattered around. But everything about the desert is old, it seems. Even though we have scraped roads across it and built our modern frame house, it still feels and smells old sometimes.
One morning I went out and stood a couple minutes in front of our house just soaking up the sweet smells and the silence. From somewhere across the desert came the sound of a man singing a morning song in Navajo. It was haunting and beautiful. I stood still, just turning around trying to pinpoint the direction of its origin. I couldn’t. The soft chanted melody seemed to come from all around me filling the desert.
It didn’t go on for long-that desert song to the morning. I couldn’t transcribe it if I tried. I hadn’t been among Navajos long enough to have learned much of the language. Even if I heard it today, I’ve always had trouble separating the words from the rhythmic filler syllables of Navajo singing, I probably wouldn’t be able to translate it. I’m fairly sure it was a morning song. And it was beautiful.
I never tried to figure out who was singing. I just left it stand alone in my memory of the desert.
Looking back, it had to be an older man because the song had the timbre of age in the voice. That eliminates a lot of people there were only about three old men in our general area. Two of them lived too far way for me to have hear them singing, I think. The other lived just a little ways up the road from us he was very traditional in his beliefs even though he lived in a square house he’d built for his wife out of the native stone all around in the desert. (He had a hogan off to the right behind his square house. It was built of stone too.)
It had to have been Bahi Jones singing his song to the new risen sun in the early morning. He made himself a memorial in my memory that day. I’ll never forget the sound and the scent and the sensation of that morning.