In climbing Khongoryn Els, it is far better to crawl. On all fours, one limb at a time, barefoot, breathing. This will be over soon, I thought. I was a different kind of tired now, a new sort of weary, at once beaten down and energized from months of drifting on the wind. The climb filled me with fire, as if I was clawing for something vital in the sand. For days I had been floating on a perfect current of air, and I did not trust the ground the way I trusted the wind. Or the way I trusted this deep refusal of what I feared lay ahead, the thing I know now as stillness, as a departure from the breeze I had drifted in on. Don’t leave me here on Earth.
The sand kept moving underneath me. The grains flowed like water and swirled in the air. I took a step forward and slid back down. To a woman resting on the dune, apparently tired of stepping and sliding, I said excitedly, “Can you believe this?” And my chest crushed when she said, “What’s the point of this?” But I was elated. “Look how far we’ve come,” I said, slowing, turning around, seeing for myself and growing giddy. “It doesn’t feel like we’re getting anywhere, but look how far we’ve come.”
I reached the top of the dune on a burst of vigor. The wind was howling now, the sand stinging and singing, the sun sinking, its color deepening, the endless sky darkening. My mind slowed. I sat and just cried into my sweat, looking down at the powdery sand longingly, lovingly, even as it whipped my skin. I stared at many golden miles of sand settled into mounds like the one I had just climbed. This will be over soon.