Over the years, I’ve gotten past the almost manic need to spend time in physically imposing places, but I’ve never gotten over how they make me feel. Though I’ve aggregated plenty of them during my roaming, each is a frozen-in-time moment that I can’t seem to explain properly – I end up trailing off into a cloud of memories to the confusion of everyone else in the conversation. Trying to describe them always sounds like one giant cliche. “I wanted to stay there forever!” or “It was so beautiful, it brought me to my knees!” Wadi Rum, with its rust and gold and rivulets of sand, with the water in the far distance and the cliffs lining the seemingly endless wide open space of the desert, is now one of those places. Nothing I write comes close to the majesty of seeing the valley stretch out before me.
I’ve always been a fan of wide open spaces. I grew up in Montreal with long winters punctuated by snowstorms in even bursts. During those cold months, the sky felt like it was snuggling closer to the ground, with grey-white clouds looming just over the buildings as the flurries rolled in. Winter in Montreal isn’t all dreary; the snow is interspersed with blinding blue skies on days when the temperature plummets sharply, too cold for precipitation. But even clear and sunny, the city felt like it was encased in a bubble, inexorably shrinking until spring was upon us again.
* * *
We often seek opposites when we begin our travels, and for me (and my Montreal winters) I longed for openness and people who moved with the seasons. While I felt comfortable in the cities that I loved - Quito and Amman and Bangkok - it’s no surprise that the staggering openness of the Mongolian plains and optical illusions in Salar de Uyuni’s immense salt flats also blew me away, each stretching as far as I could squint and see.
I spent a limited time in Wadi Rum, but the weather was perfect and as the afternoon wore on the colours only deepened. We took a truck out into the dunes, circling this way and that and stopping at the edge of a giant sandstone cliff, perfect to watch the coming sunset.
In one direction, shadows of a lake in the distance and a still-blue sky:
Below, the perfectly wind-swept lines of sand:
Shadows of two sunburned but happy people:
And in front of me, the sun setting into the distance:
We stayed until the last of the light hit the valley and disappeared behind the dunes:
Even in the dead of night, the vastness of the desert was impossible to miss. Lanterns lined the walkways of the Bedouin camp where I was staying, their flames dancing on the sand below and casting wide shadows on the sides of my tent. I decided to sit outside as the candles burned down, sputtering out in a final blaze of light. I have no idea how many minutes or hours I spent next to the dunes; with perfect quietness in the camp and a vague understanding of how much unknown was out there in the darkness, it was an ideal end to the day.
My time in Jordan was followed by a few weeks in Thailand and then a return to North America. Montreal in the summertime was as glorious as I remembered it, with the Jazzfest and a long-awaited reunion with old friends. But throughout my initial days, I kept staring up at the sky, often stopping as I walked down the street. A car ride with my mother started out with my asking if the sky was always this close close to the ground in Quebec – did she notice it too? No, of course she didn’t. Yes, she thought I was a bit nuts. But the wide open sky from Wadi Rum remained a benchmark for all other subsequent skies, whether I realized it or not. Close to three months later, I can still close my eyes and immediately conjure up the open space and that feeling of smallness from standing at the edge of the desert.
It’s not a feeling I’m going to forget anytime soon.