I turned the car off the interstate to enter the Petrified Forest National Park from the North end. We parked and headed over to the visitor’s center, paying a nominal fee to drive the twenty-eight miles through the park. Walking back to the car we passed through a tiny courtyard. Without a word of warning, Michael took off running like a bloodhound back on the scent. I followed close behind, pulling the camera from my pocket. I had no idea what my brother was about to do, but I knew that it was sure to be worthy of a photograph.
And it was. Michael dropped down to the ground in front of a simple sculpture of what appeared to be a cougar. The big cat had been cut from a flat piece of iron measuring one inch thick. The rusted animal was at least seven feet long, with a long metal tail curving up over its body. Michael rolled onto his back beneath the animal and made like he was fending off the cat’s attack. I snapped several shots while laughing at yet another silly moment on the side of the road.
Michael picked himself up, and we started across the courtyard once again. We stopped at the edge of an empty fountain. Recessed into the ground, the cement square was only a foot deep. It was bordered by three feet of round river stones on all sides, and the inside bottom and walls were painted a light blue. A metal sprinkler pipe stood silent and dry in the center.
“I’m going in.” I handed Michael the camera before pretending to wade into deep water. I lay down on my stomach and began to swim over the blue, pushing my hands and kicking my feet through imaginary water. I stretched my arms out long and straight, turning my head to take a breath after each stroke.
I heard the camera clicking away in Michael’s hand. I swam out to nowhere and back before relaxing my body and letting my head drop. The yellow sun was comfortable and warm on my back, the hard sea of blue beneath me calming and cool against my cheek. I could have fallen headlong into a nap, but the temptation disappeared with the sound of Michael’s laughter.
“Matthew, look over there, at those windows, is that a restaurant?”
I twisted around to take a look at a long string of windows in the visitor’s center building no more than forty feet away from my swimming hole. I squinted through the sunlight and focused my eyes on one window after another.
“Yep, it is. There are people in there, and they are probably watching us!” I laughed, then rolled onto my back and swam a few more imaginary yards before leaping to my feet. I took a bow for anyone that might have been watching.
“Dinner and a show, folks! Try the veal, we’re here all week!” I said it with a smile before walking back to the car, not really knowing or caring if anyone could hear me.
As we began our drive through what is known as the Painted Desert, it was made clear to me that Jared had at least one thing in common with God. They shared the ability to take hold of a drab, empty canvas and work a beautiful blend of colors and imagination into something capable of making me cry. I couldn’t help but think that we were weaving our way through God’s personal studio.
I pulled into a parking space at a well-marked overlook. Michael was out of the car and running into the red yonder before I could even release my seatbelt. I opened my car door and stepped out. I watched as Michael ran through a gap in the rock wall marking the edge of the parking lot.
A crow was perched on the corner of the wall. The big black bird didn’t so much as flinch when Michael sped past, despite the fact that he could have reached out and swiped the bird across the beak as he did. I stared in wonder at the confident creature.
He seemed to be looking right at me, his head cocked to one side as if he were scrutinizing me.
“What do you want?” I asked the bird. At the sound of my voice he jumped down from his rock wall perch and waddled a couple of steps in front of the car.
“This is incredible!” I heard Michael shout. The happiness in his voiced pulled my attention away from the fearless black bird. I had not expected to hear such joy in my brother’s voice for a long time, if ever again. I skirted around the crow and followed the path that Michael had taken.
I held my breath at the sight of a red landscape that could not have been anything other than a rough draft of the otherworldly landscape of the red planet nearest our own.
“Matthew, it’s like running around on Mars!” Michael’s unwitting agreement with my own thoughts made me feel good inside. I smiled as I watched him run down into a little valley below me. His shoepers left odd-looking tracks in the red dust.
I snapped a few pictures as Michael bent down, grabbed handfuls of red earth, and flung them into the air above him. Even from my position far above him, I could see the smile on my brother’s face. I laughed, his absolute joy opening a pressure relief valve somewhere within me.
Like a puppy off his leash in a park full of fir hydrants and buried bones, Michael ran around inspecting the terrain for several minutes. I watched from my vantage point and marveled at the beauty all around me. Tears wandered their way down my cheeks.
Michael ran up a trail on the other side of the little valley, stopping at the top of a hill matching mine in height. He turned to face me, both arms hanging at his sides. Warm winds tousled his hair and lifted the bottom corner of his pearl-buttoned western style shirt. His dark blue jeans and black bracelet-wristwatch stood out against the indigo sky behind him. In my mind’s eye we were acting out a living metaphor of our own past, standing atop two distinct hills, a deep chasm separating us.
I took a few pictures of my little brother and wondered if I looked half as cool, dressed as I was in brown shorts and a light blue tee shirt with a red dinosaur printed on the front.
“He’s right; I feel like I’m on Mars.” I whispered to myself, feeling self-conscious as the words left my lips and blew away into the Painted Desert.