Orion: A Monument for Angie

 The road through the desert

The road through the desert

mon·u·ment n

  • 1.            something designed and built as a lasting public tribute to a person, a group of people, or an event
  • 2.            a site or structure that is preserved because of its historical, cultural, or aesthetic importance
  • 3.            a tombstone, plaque, or ornamental stone structure placed on somebody’s grave.
  • 4.            something that remains as a reminder of something, especially something fine or distinguished
  • 5.            a memorial to somebody in the form of a written or spoken tribute
  • 6.            an object such as a stone that marks a boundary

I met Angie in the desert. We crossed paths in West Texas at a place called La Loma Del Chivo. It was a hostel of sorts, a border outpost of banjo-playing street musicians and train-hopping gutter punks who gathered at dusk to sit quietly together and drink down their demons. There was a strangely transient peace to the place. Its dusty, muted silence was a refuge, a deliberate back eddy for the ones who had somehow, by chance or by choice, slipped away from the main current of life. There were no formal parameters for staying: if it called to you, you were meant to be there, and the community’s population sighingly ebbed and flowed as travelers wandered in and sometimes did not leave.

 The entrance to La Loma Del Chivo 

The entrance to La Loma Del Chivo 

Things are far apart in the desert, and the distance blurs the edges—not just of physical structures, but of people and communities, too. There is a gnawed quality to things that have lived too long in the desert, as though some part of them has been quietly eroded by the swirling dust and the enormity of the sky. They hold the mark of a pervasive strangeness, the sense that something has been erased and replaced with a softly humming changeling that follows a slightly different set of rules.

Desert towns have no choice but to feel like way posts, assertions into a landscape that is too large to greet them with anything but indifference. Cars and highways may have blunted some of this effect, but it is impossible to navigate the desert without contemplating just how tenuous the marching advance of civilization really is.  

I crossed the desert on a bicycle, and the slowness with which I traversed that landscape changed me in ways that took me years to fully understand. The desert turned me feral. I felt the hunger of that parched expanse, felt the singing points of my thirsty bones awake to howl in concert with its wild timelessness. The desert left me with a deep and resonant love for how little I mattered, for my fleeting animal life and the smallness of my death.

It seems right that Angie’s story joined my own in this oasis of dislocution, in this place where the edges didn’t quite meet where they should. I had ridden in from the next small town over, following a snippet of travel advice about “a camp full of weirdoes” where traveling cyclists could go and stay for free.  I rode up to a haphazard scattering of brightly painted cob buildings and old shipping containers and hopped off my bike unsure of where to go.

 La Loma Del Chivo: the camp full of weirdoes

La Loma Del Chivo: the camp full of weirdoes

I can’t remember if I found them or if they found me, but Ben, Cole, and Angie introduced themselves just as they were packing up food and sleeping bags to head out. As I tell this story now, I want her to be the one who invited me. I want her voice to be the one that set this all in motion. But I don’t remember who spoke first. Maybe it’s fitting that my memory has softened into something indistinct, that it has revised my recollections such that we already were the group that we would become. “We’re going camping in Big Bend National Park in fifteen minutes. Do you want to come?”

I have searched through my mind trying to find my first impressions. I want to remember how I saw her then and not let my memories be distorted by what happened.

 Angie in a castle of old beer cans and bottles. 

Angie in a castle of old beer cans and bottles. 

Angie was one of the most guarded people I have ever known. She lived in a state of constant tension between her desire to love the world and her desire to not be hurt by it. She moved with the jolting sensitivity of someone who was always waiting for the betrayal, waiting for the other shoe to drop. She picked her way through life as though exploring the jaw line of a dangerous beast, convinced that if she touched and named each tooth of possible threat, the world might lose its ability to bite her. It was sometimes frustrating to be around someone who needed to cut down all the good in things, but she fooled no one with her walls. As much as she fought it, she had a beautifully open heart, and her slipshod defenses only served to loudly broadcast her vulnerability. 

She had ended up at La Loma Del Chivo through Willing Workers on Organic Farms—which made absolutely no sense, as there was nothing there that could even remotely be considered a farm, or even a garden. But she had dutifully begun planting, laying down soil in the rings of discarded tires, and each morning and evening she would wind her way through her little garden tending to living things that could not abuse her trust.

Angie was living alone in an old one-room trailer, a yellow and brown seventies affair of faux-wood paneling and thin cotton curtains worn almost to translucence by the cumulative bleaching years of sun. She had a ukulele that she was learning to play, and in the evenings we would sit outside and she would pluck chords in quiet harmony with the rumbling of passing freight trains as the sun went down. 

From the moment I first met her, she felt like a little sister. I wanted to hold the skinny angles of her and tell her that it would be ok; that if she let herself, she would grow into the truth of genuinely feeling the strength that she pretended to have.

But she never got that chance.

 Driving to Big Bend

Driving to Big Bend

The four of us headed out of town in Angie’s car, Against Me growling on her blown out speakers, our dusty feet draped on her dusty dashboard as the desert went by and went by and went by… The empty road led us to the ghost town of Terilingua, and there we got out to wander through dry tussocks of splintered crosses in a derelict old graveyard. The cemetery was a palimpsest that spanned generations, and we picked our way silently across the uneven ground, occasionally calling the others over to look at some particular token or inscription we had found.

 A graveyard in a ghost town 

A graveyard in a ghost town 

 At times it seems that the only honest response to death is silence, and we didn’t speak much after we got back into the car. I don’t know what the others were thinking, but my mind was chewing on time and on death, on peace and how we find it. On the shortness of our human lives, and our need to both mourn and to mark the passage of those whom we love.

 Offerings on a grave

Offerings on a grave

 Ben in Big Bend

Ben in Big Bend

We entered the National Park by way of an unmanned ranger’s kiosk and followed the single road as it marched impossibly off into the horizon. Eventually, we turned onto a winding dirt road and followed it until it ended. We got out and hiked to a series of hot springs nestled in a bend of the Rio Grande. We were literally in border country, and this shallow river dotted with hot springs served as the only divide between the United States and Mexico. It’s strange, the fragility of borders: how the starkness of their ideologies instantly dissolves when measured against the reality of a physical place.

We waited until dusk to (illegally) pitch our tents and cook a dinner of rice noodles and vegetables over the too-small pot we rested on Ben’s camp stove. Later, after the sun went down, we climbed into the rock pool that held one of the springs, and we looked up into the sky.

I don’t know how to tell you what happened that night. It was subtle but profoundly altering. We talked. We shared our stories and our vulnerabilities. And we chose to become family.

I swam across the Rio Grande that night and looked up at the stars from the far side of the Mexican border, marveling about how little boundaries can sometimes mean. There are moments in our lives that we experience in sepia, that we already know will be indelibly burned into the fibers of who we are. That night, as we stared up at the stars, we knew that we were experiencing something magical and permanent. 

And in that moment, each of the four of us noticed the same thing: the constellation Orion was unbelievably bright.

The next day, we drove back to La Loma Del Chivo and began preparing to part ways. Ben and Cole were also cycling across the country, and they would leave the following morning to keep riding west. A few days later, I would rejoin the road to head east.

This memory I am sure of: it was Angie’s idea. What had happened to us defied logical explanation: four strangers went into the desert and came back out as family. And though we all trusted it, Angie was the one who wanted to honor it with a monument: “We should all get tattoos of Orion.”

The tattoos didn’t happen all at once. Angie and I were the first.

After Ben and Cole left, we drove fifty miles to the next town over, stopping at the grocery store so I could stockpile oranges for my ride out the next day. It was swelteringly hot, and our sweat-sticky backs clung to the upholstery of the seats. Angie told me about the tattoo on her shoulder as she drove. It was a depiction of Saint Rita of Cascia, the patron saint of the impossible and of women who have been sexually abused. For her, it was a symbol of a strength that she had not yet found, a hope in which she did not quite believe.

I have often wondered what it was in Angie that made me feel such tenderness for her, that broke down the firm brusqueness of my usual walls and left me with such a fierce desire to protect her. Perhaps it comes down to this: peace is not something that you can fake, and in her I saw someone still wrestling with a battle that I had once fought. I would not say that it was a battle that I won, but rather that I learned how to become a self that did not have to be at war. 

I watched her as she spoke and I wanted so badly to be able to give her some of my own strength. I silently told her all the things that I had learned, the things I wished she could believe for herself: You do not need to be defined by your battle scars. Survival does not have to come at the cost of trust or joy. You can heal, you can love, and you can be okay.

We pulled up in front of the tiny tattoo parlor that we had passed the day before and went in. The proprietor carried a thickly strong build granted by manual labor rather than the gym, and he wore a Harley Davidson T-shirt and an open disdain for two little girls who wanted dumb tattoos.  

We didn’t care, and twenty minutes later, the slight curve of Angie’s wrist and the rounded mass of my distance-biking calf held a series of small dots that people would later misidentify as dirt, bike grease, or oddly colored freckles. But we knew what Orion meant to us. Cole would be next; he got his on his own after he returned to New Jersey. And Ben was the last holdout, lovingly peer pressured by the rest of us.  

The next day, I got back on my bike and I left. I followed the road for three thousand more miles, tracing the contours of the Mexican border and the Gulf Coast before skirting the eastern edges of the Appalachian Mountains as I began to head north. I detoured to New Jersey to visit Cole in his hometown. I rode up to his front door and greeted him with a bear hug, grinning as I held my too-tan leg against his too-tan arm so our constellations could meet.

 Cole's arm, my leg 

Cole's arm, my leg 

And when Ben began riding up the West Coast, he passed through the tiny town that I grew up in and he stayed with my family in my childhood home.  

The four of us all eventually found our way to the Northwest. After a detour to Antarctica, I landed back in Seattle—a city that I had planned to leave, but that would instead become the base camp of this newly-beginning life of seasonal home. The other three went to Portland: Ben to work on bikes, Cole to start college, and Angie… to drift. 

It took a while for all of us to settle into our homes, but when we did, I came down to Portland to see the rest of the pack. By sheer coincidence, the four of us met up for the first time one year to the day after we had initially met. Ben cooked breakfast and we went to the park, walking because Angie—always the odd one out—stubbornly refused to learn to ride a bike. We asked someone to take a picture of us, together for the first time with our Orion tattoos. 

I am so glad we used my camera.

These are the only pictures we have of the four of us together. 

 Angie had been the documenter, the one who took the pictures and posted them online. It wasn’t until they were gone that we realized that those photographs were not as concrete as they had seemed. They would only exist as long as her online presence, and towards the end, when she deleted her social media accounts, those pictures of us in the desert disappeared. 

It happened this past summer. Ben was the one who called, and the message was garbled when it arrived. But when I saw who the message was from, I think I already knew. I was living in Denali National Park in Alaska with no cell phone reception, and I had set up my phone so my voicemails were forwarded to me as poorly-transcribed emails:

Did I see it coming? No. But I can’t say that it was entirely a surprise. Angie had never been happy; I think she had been too afraid of what happiness might have meant, of what it might have opened her up to. But I never thought that she would commit suicide. 

What does it mean when a tattoo becomes a monument? When the inscription of a shared experience instead becomes the home for a ghost? Tattoos often begin as memorials, as ways to fix the intangible: but there is a difference between deliberately choosing something as a monument, and having something turned into one through loss. Her death transformed my body, and these marks on my leg suddenly become an elegy. 

I often think back to that day in the ghost town graveyard and wonder what thoughts had passed through Angie’s mind. In that silence where we had each contemplated our own relationship to death, what had she felt? And what had opened up within her that night beneath those stars? What did Orion mean for her? 

On the day that Angie and I got our tattoos, we stopped for food at a Sonic drive in. I remember looking at her across the car and smiling as she daintily picked at a small pile of fries: even that tiny act seemed to accentuate her helplessness. Angie was a hollow-boned sketch of herself, an unfinished direction with so much still to fill in. I wanted to leap across the seats of her car and swoop her up from the crinkled paper detritus of our fast food wrappers. I wanted to carry her because I knew that I was strong enough to take the weight. 

A monument marks a boundary, a line that we cannot cross. On the night when I learned that Angie had died, I stumbled outside because I wanted to return to the constellation that had tied us all together. But the clouds were out that night, and although I raised my eyes and searched the sky, I couldn’t see Orion at all.