In final preparation for an impromptu camping trip, I was at the local Walmart scanning items at the self-checkout. An attendant approached to approve my beer purchase. He smiled and said, “You better stock up on food, it’s only going to get worse.”
The Prophet of Wal-Mart
I was surprised that the attendant wasn’t wearing a mask. Though our governor had lifted a long-standing mask mandate several days earlier, the other employees (and most of the customers) were masked. The attendant was middle-aged and fit, hair cropped short, sporting a touch of gray at the temples. I thought he might have insight about the distribution problems that had been plaguing our rural town for several months. Eager for information, I asked, “Why’s that?”
He said, “I’m Christian.”
Worried that I was in for a lecture on the evils of alcohol I replied, “So am I.”
The attendant clapped me on the back. “I knew it! It’s good to see a face without a mask!”
I was struck dumb.
“Come on,” he continued, “you get it. Jesus said he’d return in two-thousand years. That’s now, my brother. Take a look around. Welcome to Sodom in America. Pestilence has landed. Famine to follow.”
I smiled and grabbed a bag of beef jerky from my cart and turned to scan the barcode over the face of the machine. The machine beeped, and I placed the jerky in a plastic bag. I took the next item, a can of pinto beans, from the cart. Beep.
I had never felt so much like an automaton as I did in that moment.
The attendant started to walk away, paused, turned back, and said, “I hope to see you again, if not here in heaven. There aren’t many of us believers left, my brother.”
I smiled and nodded. That concluded our exchange.
I don’t know where the attendant got the return of Jesus in two-thousand years, but I sympathized with him about societal decay. I was also concerned about his welfare. While I was grateful to see a Christian voicing his faith in public, I also imagined complaints from some of the more secular customers. The world hadn’t made sense in a long time, but this moment seemed stranger than usual. Something was amiss.
Vision at the City of Rocks
It was our first camping trip in what seemed like years. Wendy, my wife, was looking forward to it as much as me. We packed the car and, after the stop at Wal-Mart (Wendy sat in the car with our trusty blue heeler), we headed to the City of Rocks State Park, about a two-hour drive from our small desert town.
The City of Rocks is in southwestern New Mexico, situated midway between the towns of Silver City and Deming. It has been described as, “In the middle of a place very close to nowhere, just south of somewhere, and a little past over there.” In other words, it’s remote.
The New Mexico Bureau of Geology & Mineral Resources describes it like this: City of Rocks State Park is truly a geologic monument; it is formed by large, sculptured rock columns (pinnacles) rising as high as 40 ft and separated by paths or lanes resembling city streets. About 34.9 million years ago a large volcano erupted, forming the rocks in an instant (geologically speaking); then erosion over millions of years slowly formed the sculptured columns that now provide a natural playground.
The park has been a favorite camping spot of ours for over a decade.
The drive went without incident. I ignored the wind bending the branches of mesquite and creosote at the edges of the two-lane highway. The serrated silhouette of the Florida Mountains bruised the southern horizon. Dust devils as large as apartment buildings twisted over the Chihuahua Desert to the west. Cook’s Peak loomed to the north. We turned north on US 180. From there, it was a short jaunt to NM 61. The wind had picked up steam by the time we pulled into the park.
I stopped at the park entrance (as I always had), filled out a camping permit, and peeled off a copy to stick on the windshield. Tucking a ten-dollar bill in the permit envelope, I deposited it in a hollow metal tube. The familiarity of the routine had a calming effect, though I had to hold my hat against the wind when I stepped out of the car.
We drove past the park’s Welcome Center, home to a small museum and public restrooms, in search of a suitable campsite. There weren’t many campers around (as was generally the case on weekdays). A section boasting electric outlets and water hookups, about twenty spots in all, had several large motorhomes topped with satellite dishes parked just a few feet apart from each other. The awnings on the contraptions were rolled-up against the wind.
As we traveled the south side of the rock formations, we noticed that each campsite had a new sign, the words printed in big black letters on a white background: RESERVED.
Confused, I drove back to the Welcome Center. Two young park rangers, both Hispanic, wearing cowboy hats and masks, walked out of the museum towards their government-issued truck. Wendy opened her door and stepped out, mask-less, to greet them. I followed.
The rangers told us we now had to go online or call-in to reserve a spot at the park. They were nice about it and blamed state bureaucrats for the change. “They’ve been wanting to do this for awhile,” said one of the rangers. “COVID gave them the opportunity, and they took advantage of it.”
I didn’t bother informing the rangers that I had already paid the camping fee or that they should post a sign about the change at the park entrance. Like I said, they were nice. I’d cancel the check later. Perturbed at bureaucrats in general, I took out my phone and was surprised to see I had a signal. Navigating to the appropriate website, I clicked on a camping spot on the on-screen map to find it had already been reserved. The next two I clicked were reserved as well. It turned out that most of the sites were booked. I finally found a spot on the north side of the rock formations. The north side was in the direct path of the wind.
On the drive to our designated spot, I informed my wife that I was going to wait awhile to put up the tent.
“We can sleep in the car,” she replied.
“Why? We’re camping.”
“I don’t think the wind is going to die down anytime soon. It’ll will make the tent sound like a flag flapping in your ears all night. Have fun putting it up.”
“It’ll die down,” I said. I had purchased a new tent in celebration of COVID’s end and was determined to make use of it. “It’ll die down with the sunset.”
We pulled into the camp and parked.
Wendy sat in the car with the dog reading a collection of Gerard Manley Hopkins poems while I sat in a portable camp chair outside reading a novel. My hat, an Indiana Jones oilskin, stayed snug so long as I kept the brim tipped low to the wind. Dust swirled through the air as I attempted to lose myself in Shusaku Endo’s Silence, a powerful story of Catholic martyrdom. But the prose wasn’t strong enough to compete with the wind. I decided to shelter in car. Before I could take a step after standing, the wind knocked my camp chair into the dirt. I left it there.
About two hours later, the wind lulled. Late afternoon. Figuring the blowing was over for the day, I exited the car, sat up my camp chair, and opened a can of beer. I watched a gray bank of cumulus clouds muster on the northern horizon. The dog sat beside me. The rock columns towered behind us. The blue-black silhouette of the Mogollon Mountains on northwestern horizon felt like an omen.
A dust-devil the size of a locomotive standing on end twisted counterclockwise over the stretch of desert between the far-off mountains and the City of Rocks. Finished with my beer, I crushed the can and tossed it into a wind-protected space between a scrub oak and the slab of concrete that served as a floor for the campsite’s metal picnic table. A blast of wind tore the hat from my head. I jumped up and grabbed it. Thinking the gust was a lingering scrap of that which had gone before it, I popped the top on a fresh can of beer. Stillness, I mused, would soon be punctuated by starlight and a yapping of coyotes.
It was just then I thought about the Wal-Mart attendant. I don’t know why. I guess his warning of a looming apocalypse had but me on edge. The societal decay that began with the turning away from metaphysical certainty of God in the late Middle Ages had now reached a fevered pitch. The realism of St. Thomas Aquinas had slowly eroded from the winds brought on by the likes of William of Ockham and his notion of nominalism, where the relation of words to reality becomes arbitrary at best. Logos, under the nominalist’s scheme, the classical underlying principle that coheres reality and for Christians is the Word made flesh, had, over the centuries, become just one more theory, and an archaic one and that.
The disarray of stable meaning allows a world such as ours to flourish, a world where pornography and abortion are seen as normal. In this world, human sexuality is demystified to the point of banality. Pope John Paul II got it right: we live in a culture of death.
I had come to this place to get away from societal woes. So much for the escape to nowhere. And then the epiphany hit (I don’t know why): abortion serves as lynchpins that hold the wheels of wickedness together and spurs them to ever greater momentum; it is the twisted logic of evil. A decision against life, abortion works to ruin the souls of the living who dare enter under its shadow. When the mystery of life is amputated from sexuality, human spirituality withers on the vine. Pornography is the spiritless expression of desire that worships at the dark altar of abortion. There is no creation in death, no art, only despair.
A flash of lightning pulsed through the clouds to the north. The blue heeler whimpered. ‘Ugh,’ I thought. ‘Did the Wal-Mart guy really get to me that much?’ I patted the dog’s skull. A surge of wind belted through the camp knocking the empty beer can from the protected crevice near the tree.
I ate some pinto beans and beef jerky, read from the novel, and spent the night in the car listening to the old dog snore as my Wendy tossed and turned in the back seat. I prayed the Rosary, silently, over and over. I prayed for the Wal-Mart attendant, for my family, for us all. When sleep finally found me, I dreamt of horses galloping across the desert. They were coming for me, for all of us, and all hell followed with them.
The wind died with the coming of light. The clouds that had threatened rain had not produced and the Horses of the Apocalypse had not arrived with the thunder. I witnessed the sun creep over the eastern horizon through the windshield of the car. It’s a pleasure to watch night giving way to day.
Outside, the air was chill so I set to work building a fire with the mesquite I had packed in the trunk. I then set water and coffee to brew in a percolator at the edge of the flames. I fed the dog and poured her some fresh water before setting up the camp chairs and sitting down to listen to the water percolate in the pot.
Wendy emerged from the car just as the coffee was ready. I poured her a cup and we sat in silence. The air was still as a secret.
I noticed that the campsites surrounding ours were all empty, though they had been reserved on the interactive internet map when I checked them the day before. It occurred to me (the sky above was the color of bluebells in bloom) that the bureaucrats who sought to further regulate the campground by requiring reservations had got it all wrong. So had the advocates of electric cars, renewable energy, and a reduction of carbon footprints to combat the environmental rape of our planet. The desire to regulate human behavior misses the point. Behavior is one thing, desire another.
Evil can be likened to a virus of desire that attempts to keep the host alive via mutation. Abortion, electric cars, and renewable energy all attempt to regulate the consequences of desire (depletion of spirit) while at the same time promoting those very same desires. To accomplish this slight of hand, they reduce desire to behavior. Stripped of spirituality, human nature is reduced to mechanical behaviors that can then be manipulated with technology, a would-be vaccine made from algorithms.
Here God is simply forgotten or relegated to the realm of myth. This is a formula for hubris where ‘beauty’ is mass produced to provoke calculated desires which are then regulated through scientific and technological means. The root problem, desire, is never addressed. Instead, it acts like a cancer feeding on itself. It is in this world that metaphysical certainty concerning a boundless God is fully eclipsed by faith in the formulaic reason of finite man.
Faith, however, transcends reason (without contradicting it). When desire is reigned-in by faith, people realize that the common good is related to the ultimate good that is God. Faith leads to truth. Freed from of the shackles of the dark altar, desire naturally seeks the Good.
I had a dream
“I had a strange dream,” said Wendy.
Remembering the horses, I said, “What was it?”
She sipped coffee near the fire, the smoke rising straight as a chimney onto the sky. “I was in a hospital nursery and the babies were crying. All of them. A woman walked in and started to sing. Her voice was beautiful. I couldn’t see her face. She was dressed in white gown and wore a necklace of blue stones. Her voice was beautiful. I knew the song… I can’t remember it now… I started singing with her and the babies all stopped crying.” She took another sip from her coffee and stared into the flames. “It was strange but, in the end, good. Did you dream?”
“Something about horses,” I said. “They were running.”
“Something to do with the wind.”
“It’s liable to come up again soon. We better get a walk in while we have the chance.”
Our heeler knows the word ‘walk.’ and stood at attention.
Wendy said, “Thank God, it died down.”
Standing, I said, “It’s a beautiful morning.”
Wendy stood from her chair. “Like a song.”
The dog yapped approval as we all walked together into the day.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!