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On the path of least coexistence

Getting to silence and solitude was only half the trip. But what to do next -- and what about the critters?

Email|Print| Text size + By Kelly Kleiman
Globe Correspondent / January 15, 2006

TUCSON -- I had heard of snake handlers, but snake wranglers were new to me.

As Brother Michael explained, though, there were snakes everywhere, because of heavy spring rains, perhaps, or construction on the retreat grounds. It was his job to transport them from wherever they appeared to the Santa Cruz River nearby, and he had moved one that very day. So I should probably avoid wandering the desert alone, especially at night.

There was a time when this advice would have been familiar -- even unnecessary -- to a Jewish girl. But that was 5,000-plus years ago. Today, it seemed as foreign as Aramaic: Avoid snakes at night. Got it.

I had come to the Redemptorist Renewal Center outside Tucson to do something utterly at odds with my word-fueled life: spend a week without talking. The center, formerly called Picture Rocks Retreat after some Native American petroglyphs on the site, offers guided seminars of all kinds -- Roman Catholic, Buddhist, 12-step -- most featuring some degree of silence. Mine would have silence in abundance, as it was a nondirected retreat, which involved living in a hermitage, wandering in the wilderness, and conversing, if at all, only with myself.

Frequent viewings of ''The Ten Commandments" had given me a clear picture of desert retreats: much stumbling in windstorms while Cecil B. DeMille himself intones ''. . . where holy men and prophets are cleansed and purged . . . until finally, driven beyond human endurance, the metal is ready for the maker's hand." Thus armed, I flew to Phoenix on a Monday morning, rented a car, and set out for a spiritual experience.

Arriving in time for dinner after a delay at the car-rental counter, I tiptoed into the center's refectory prepared for solemnity. Dinner appeared on a steam table in the form of cream sauce with unidentified lumps and, embracing the ethos of sacrifice, eschewing pleasures of the palate, I thought, ''Oh, good, we're having slop for dinner."

I seated myself next to a man in blue jeans, expecting what I had experienced during an earlier effort at transcendence: that the only sounds would be knives scraping plates, with the occasional whispered ''Pass the butter."

''Have a nice trip?" he asked.

''Um," I said, ''very," and addressed my salad.

''Just arrived?"

''Yeah."

''Afternoon flight?"

''Morning," I said. ''But it took a while to get the car."

''Enterprise, right? In Phoenix? Are those people clueless, or what?"

And that's how I met Brother Michael and learned of his prowess with snakes. The center was between sessions, so he and I and about 10 others constituted its entire population, though it can accommodate 65 or 70. The group laughed and talked and made biblical jokes at normal volume.

I noticed, though, that one man sat alone, and no one disturbed him or commented on his unsociability. So from then on I did exactly that, and though conversation continued, it disturbed me not at all. Even if it had, solo meals don't take long. Get food, eat, bus dishes: 10 minutes, 12 tops.

The rest of the time I heard no one, not even DeMille. I was alone at the end of the one-story cinderblock accommodations, in the hermitage, though instead of the mud hut I had pictured it was a pair of motel-style rooms with desk, dresser, bed, sofa, and small refrigerator. Also a private bath. How uncinematic.

Immediately outside, however, was a freestanding, hexagonal, covered porch called a ramada. I spent most of each day sitting there, reading and staring at the desert. The rest of the time I explored the surroundings on foot.

When Brother Michael advised not to walk in the desert alone, I thought to myself, are you kidding? That's the whole point: to walk in the desert alone and find the secret of life. Grudgingly, I conceded his point, and when I got the urge to walk, I stayed on the grounds. Following signs to ''Way of the Cross, Petroglyphs," I discovered a pile of rocks marked ''Do Not Climb," though that hadn't deterred whoever had scrawled graffiti across its face. Behind it was a hill studded with plaques commemorating Jesus's walk to Calvary. There was nothing rustic about the route, which consisted of concrete steps and a curved metal banister, but it would have to do. I put my foot on the bottom stair, swung on the banister around the first curve, and nearly slammed into a rattlesnake, its face level with mine.

If I had been in a true contemplative state, I might have brushed right past him, though I suspect rattlesnakes object to being brushed. Never has deep thought been so promptly abandoned, however. I was back on the ramada and 15 pages further into Kay Graham's autobiography before my heart had stopped pounding, and it took a full 24 hours to essay the Way of the Cross again, though I doubted the rattler made its permanent home on the second step. I also broke my vow of silence to tell Brother Michael about the snake, though it's not clear what I expected him to do. Handle it somehow.

It was peaceful on the ramada, and so what if I had retreated in the face of undiluted nature? This was a retreat, after all. I read on until something -- not a sound, exactly, just a sense -- caused me to look up, whereupon I found myself gazing into the eyes of a bobkitten. He had his head cocked in an adorable way that still said, ''Are you food?"

I took refuge in contemplating the saguaro directly in front of me. The cacti were just flowering, spectacularly this year because of the rains. Some desert plants are magnificent: the one whose flowers look like small orchids; cholla, a succulent with braided stems and poppy-like blooms in red and yellow; prickly pear, with segments like Mickey Mouse ears, buds that would fit a rosebush, and pink, orange, and yellow flowers cohabiting peacefully on the same stem.

Then there are the saguaros, which are what Easterners talk about when they talk about cactus. Saguaros sprout only at the top and the ends of their arms, from overripe bumps that are less bud than pustule. The flowers that erupt look like luridly fake daisies, the kind a magician might whisk from under his coat. Lesson for the week, then: Nature isn't always lovely. Sometimes it is pustules and poisonous snakes.

Lesson, right. I had come here for lessons. So when I read about the labyrinth, a tool for contemplation whose shape suggests a cross, an omega, and a mandala all at once, I hastened to confront it. I pictured the hedge maze at Hampden Court near London, but once more I had imagined things all wrong. This labyrinth is an arrangement of stones on the ground, a circle with a single path inside full of twists and switchbacks that nonetheless leads inevitably to the center, and an identical one that leads back out. My skepticism was high as I walked in and then out: Yeah, yeah, metaphor for life, there's only one direction.

Then, as I stepped outside the circle, I burst into tears. I wasn't ready for it to be over, I guess. I was so busy watching for the next turn the ending caught me unaware. Second lesson for the week: Make fun of metaphors at your peril; you're probably living one.

So I read and slept and walked and did yoga, with one day off campus in Saguaro National Park. The trailheads are a mile or so down a nearly-hidden gravel drive. The entrance sign offered its version of Brother Michael's warnings: Bring plenty of water. Wear sunscreen. Most daunting: ''Tell someone of your plans."

Absent anyone to tell, I instead wrote in the logbook my ''Time In," hoping the rangers would notice if no ''Time Out" was logged. Mindful of my close encounter with the snake, I walked the path in the highest state of alertness I've ever experienced, my eyes constantly scanning the ground, the shrub line, the horizon. I saw nothing, but somehow the very barrenness was awesome.

On Thursday, I went into the little nearby town for essential supplies (Diet Coke). I was back in the world, but still I didn't say anything and I left the car radio off. Another lesson: It is nirvana to be communication-free, without radio, without television, without e-mail, without phone.

One communication did get through, though. All week I had searched in vain for the petroglyphs, until the last evening when I recognized them: They were the ''graffiti." Those yellow splashes were actually suns and cattle and stick people, a shout hello from 1,500 years ago. They had been right there the whole time.

A final lesson: It's all staring you in the face. You just have to know how to look.

Contact Kelly Kleiman, a freelance writer in Chicago, at KellyNFP@uron.cc.

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