We spent last spring hitchhiking in search of desert lilies. We were somewhere in Arizona or maybe New Mexico when he sat down on the road and asked how long we’d been wearing down the soles of our feet.
We spent last spring hitchhiking in search of desert lilies. We were somewhere in Arizona or maybe New Mexico when he sat down on the road and asked how long we’d been wearing down the soles of our feet. I’d stopped counting after forty-seven days and started to loose myself in the nights spent laying outside on the sand, searching for Sagittarius and Aquila in the night sky.
Between the months of March and May, little clusters of funnel shaped flowers called Hesperocallis bud throughout the Mojave and Sonoran deserts of southeastern California, northwestern Mexico, and western Arizona. Before she died, Margaret had spent late afternoons reminiscing about the intoxicating crackle of wilderness she found and of those cornsilk colored buds.
Dust caked constellations on our cheeks as we stretched vertebrae by vertebrae through the desert until we reached a flat spot to make camp for the night. Assembling our canvas tent as the sun melted beneath the dunes became a therapeutic ritual at dusk before the desert became alive around us. Kit foxes emerged from their dens to romp the dunes and barn owls swirled overhead in search of an unsuspecting pocket mouse. The quiet rustling of sand and coyote yips would lull me to sleep for the night.
Some mornings the Katabatic winds confined us to our tent. They would howl around us, nipping at our cheeks if we peeked outside to grab another jug of water. It was so hot that we’d sit in our underwear and he’d feed me crusty bread and juicy segments of tangerines. My hair curled like the tails of Siamese fighting fish, caked with salt and braided with sand. He’d play sitar until his fingers became raw and we’d sip grainy coffee from hand- carved teacups he acquired in some nordic country a few winters back. I came to love this nomadic lifestyle of wandering endless stretches of desert in search of the next patch of sweet smelling Hesperocallis.
We’d find them lining worn roads along the way. Deep-rooted tunicate bulbs hidden beneath the earth sent thick stems upwards that stretched up to four feet high. Peeking just above the surface, deep green basal leaves curled outwards in a wavelike motion. The rainy winter brought dozens of them — they flourished here. Creamy petals lined with a silvery green stripe down the center formed delicate trumpets on the plant’s stalks. He’d pluck them carefully and tuck them between my braids until I looked like a desert lily myself.
These plants have been part of the indigenous peoples culture here for centuries. Margaret had shared that the Cahuilla and Quechan tribes had utilized them as a food source in the arid climate when sustenance was limited. The Spanish called them Ajo Lilies — or garlic — due to the bulb’s pungent flavor. The tribes would walk for miles in sandals made of mescal, foraging bulbs from the Hesperocallis, finding acorns, and collecting other seeds and pods. The bulbs were eaten raw, baked in oven pits, or boiled by tribes. I preferred smelling them to eating them.
We’d have picnics along the way and drink ice cold beer from gas stations and eat Bánh mì sandwiches or Rubens from local delis we passed. Sometimes we’d sit with a passerby and listen to the story of how they came to the Sonoran desert. Somewhere in Arizona we befriended a man who called himself Yanni. My skin was blistered like blood oranges from our grove back home and Yanni took us in for the afternoon. For twelve years he’d called a small teardrop-shaped camper home. It was full of pockets of rust and had been patched together haphazardly. The trailer was a time capsule: full to the brim with age-worn polaroid photos, coffee stained journals, and unique artifacts. We sat on folded tapestries while Yanni boiled milk and prepared traditional Saffron Masala Chai Tea for us to enjoy and fed us fresh Beet Thinai Paniyaram he had made that morning. He shared with us that someday our future selves would hold us accountable for our actions and that if we persevered through our trials and tribulations that we would find peace in the future.
I found bliss in the fleeting beauty of Hesperocallis blooms that spring. We were exhausted and dirty, but we were happy. Some years have passed and these memories of journeying through the South West in search of Margaret’s flowers grow richer to me. Waking up curled in cotton sheets and hearing the wind blow softly outside my windows will never compare to the endless mornings we woke up in that tent. Some days I think I can still feel the grit in my boots. I think I might forever be in that desert. Even when I close my eyes, all I can see is an endless stretch of sand and feel the delicate petals on my skin.