The heat of silence

We were getting used to the land, to feeling as though this wild African savanna, with its drama of violent shapes and subtle colors, could be followed like a freeway. And we were still getting used to our maps (those squiggly topographic lines were actually beginning to look like gradations in elevation) when we came to a small grass-covered plateau which overlooked a steep, thorn-tangled escarpment.

Here, as the six of us settled for a short break, we realized we were lost. We laid our two maps on the ground and shook our heads in discord between the landscape and the maps.

''The only thing I can see,'' one of us said, ''is that those peaks there,'' and he pointed out past the escarpment, ''are these two peaks here,'' and he pointed at a spot on the map.

One more moment of sitting on the grass and we would have seen the illogic of that observation. If we had been correct, those peaks would have been two hundred feet higher than we were, instead of hundreds of feet below us and miles away.

It was important, though, not to sit too long. We tacked back and forth down the escarpment, following bush buck trails, ducking low under thorn bushes, our backpacks getting tangled and our arms getting scratched. We moved efficiently in the heat, slow step after slow step, through matted thorns to a place where the steep escarpment dropped into a steeper, impassable, cliff.

In an hour, we had traveled about one hundred yards.

''Are you sure this is the right way to go?'' someone asked.

Of course it was. We scouted in pairs for a way around the cliff. There was none. We backtracked to a small clearing and sat. To our left, a trail curved gradually uphill. Maybe if we followed that trail, we'd find a way down. No. Look at the land. It just gets steeper.

From where we were sitting we could see over the bushes into the Rift Valley - into a heat of silence.

This silence was disconcerting. Whenever we stopped moving, I felt a little more lost, a litle more cast into a culture of sand and shrubs completely different from my own, into a landscape organized around values completely different from my own. Our fear and our athletic cultural values kept us in a heat of perspiration.

''We've got to get down,'' someone said.

''But we can't get down.''

''Sure we can. Let's go this way.'' She and one other person raced down. I loosened the straps of my backpack and looked out to the Rift Valley. Those peaks, which were like street signs before, seemed farther away now. Between those peaks and us we could see thicker, more angular slices of land than we had seen before.

The land, in fact, was impassable. The two ambitious scouters returned to confirm this fact. We walked slowly but efficiently back to the top of the escarpment. Here we sat for some lunch of nuts and dried fruit.

As might be expected, I thought of home. At home, if you lose yourself on a freeway, all you have to do is keep moving until the next sign tells you where you are. But as I thought about this, it gradually occurred to me that this land's freeways were constructed a different way. I began to appreciate that, despite the tangle of thorns and impenetrable terrain, this was a peaceful land with waves of dry riverbeds and valleys and ridges. It wasn't in a hurry. We needn't be, either.

We split into pairs with our maps and took it slowly - took time to notice the composition of an acacia tree, or the vast stillness of the landscape. We even enjoyed ourselves, spending as much time identifying an eagle as we spent identifying landmarks.

When we found where we were going, it was as if suddenly those subtle gradations of browns and wheat-gold colors had compelled us to pace our thought and our action. We spoke quietly together until someone broke into a gentle laughter. Then someone else. The land and the map had become friends.

When we arrived that night at a nice flat field, we were tired, hungry, and a little ashamed of ourselves, but we had learned to travel in the heat of silence - to find a balance to the heat of haste and sweat in the energy of quietude and intuition.

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