Desert Rat Dumpster Diving

With the car packed for a traditional desert outing — two cameras, two dogs, two .22s and two beers apiece — we left in search of sunset. We found it on the distant Book Cliffs, recently snowcapped, glowing with the low burn of a winter day’s final embers. Though lapine prey remained elusive — and, thus, the guns made no appearance — the sunset was striking enough to abate our bunny bloodlust.

As we watched the shadows race across the flats around us, soon lifting the curtain of light on the cliffs to showcase dusk and her dance into dark, we noticed a jumble of junk in the foreground. Abandoned buildings and the stormy detritus of human-habitation-gone-missing occupied the cracked and barren earth near the railroad tracks. Places like this, where desert meets the outward fringe of its denizens, are always the most compelling, suggesting stories of inventive collaboration. With trepidation — not wanting to surprise anyone with guns more at-the-ready than ours — we approached the scatter of trash.

First, we poked around the coupled singlewides, two riveted together to form a DIY double. The outdoor couch had eroded to nothing but wooden slats and springs. Bike frames rusted, plastic toys cracked and clothing disintegrated as if before our eyes. Though we grew more daring with the lack of shots or shouts fired our way, our courage dissipated at the entrance to the trailers. The sense of vita interruptus, of the inhabitants having been snatched away in the midst of ironing and cooking and changing the baby, was too potent. This disheveled inner sanctum was not ours to invade.

Curiosity then led us to a plywood crate standing on its side. One wall had fallen off to expose scores of used printers and scanners, their squat grey bodies and electric-cord tails giving them the look of nesting mice. Nearby, the undercarriage of half a charred caboose met our gaze. Despite our desire to associate the freight with the railcar, the two seemed unconnected. What we had was a story made only of nouns, like a three-dimensional Mad-Lib scattered across the desert. We needed more verbs. We needed a voice.

And then the real mystery appeared. Beyond the burned-out caboose stood Scraphenge.

Included: a maze of stacked computers in which our dog became lost, innumerable televisions and toaster ovens, Matchbox cars and Mason jars, ornate boxes for jewelry and burly boxes for tools, Cuisinarts and car parts, pots for plants and pans for cooking, laundry detergent and dirty laundry, fluorescent lights and floorboards, Discmen and Visqueen, doorknobs and corncobs, a sewing machine, two bags of topsoil and a surprisingly well preserved recliner. We sorted through the bounty, shouting with delight while uncovering new and surprising treasure, sharing theories on the pile’s origin story. For us desert rats, this was our sunken merchant ship, our Eldorado. Though not abounding in traditional riches, it was rife with mystery — an even more intoxicating currency.

Our incomplete inventory — and our enthusiasm — waned as night enveloped the scene. Soon, we were forced to turn our attention to Jupiter and Venus queuing up behind the smiling crescent moon. On the dark walk back to the car, as the dogs wove our paths together while sleuthing their own scented unknowns, we vowed to return, to continue to tally that which has been forgotten, to enliven lost objects with a contemplative gaze.

We will return to reinvent histories, like rearward-gazing gods, one artifact at a time.

Each item — now on its journey to desert decomposition — was once a part of a story. But we must make it up. We will never know who wore the size-10 high heels or baked in the bread pan. We will never know what was stitched together on the sewing machine or rent apart by the hatchet. We will never know what dreams were dreamed on the pillowcase or plans unfurled on the office desk. The lives that once animated these items are now detached from them, much as souls eventually leave bodies. And seeing these objects isolated from possession and purpose is a reminder that they do no constitute the weft and warp of our lives. They merely play bit parts in the ever-unraveling, day-to-day screenplay.

But beyond the brief bliss we found in it, this inert detritus of a life no longer has a supporting role. It occupies the desert floor under the indifferent gaze of celestial bodies, now a backdrop to the action. Our worlds will rush on around this forgotten waypoint of taciturn tales, the true substance of our lives standing apart from it all, enduring tides of wealth and want. Persisting. Prevailing. Allowing us to take joy — no matter our means — in the simplicity of sunset. Camaraderie. Playful dogs and cold beers. Trash. And the mystery of the voiceless unknown.

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