Desert Highway

Photo by gaspar zaldo on UNSPLASH.

In the end, the most surprising thing about the video was how no two people ever remembered it the same; it was a modern-day Rorschach test.

It was only three minutes twelve seconds long, but people saw different things when they recounted what they had watched.

One thing almost everyone agreed upon was the video wasn’t right. For one, it made you sleepy. People felt a heavy invisible influence. Some said it felt like hypnosis.

I can confirm that this is true. My eyes went where I didn’t want them to go and didn’t go where I willed them.

Everyone was more or less in agreement about what happened during the first twenty seconds. But after that, most stories diverged significantly.

It opened on a long, flat stretch of desert highway. The sun sat oppressive in the sky above. They all said it looked like a dry, hot road through hell. Maybe they were right.

The video opens on an indistinct gun-metal gray finish sedan headed west. The boxy station wagon fills the screen pointing to the left.

Blind spots. We all have them. Here is a thought experiment for you. Think of one of your biggest fears. For me, it is wasps and hornets. I’m sitting in a cafe having coffee, in the corner, facing the door. From here, I can see almost all of the establishment. But if I imagine hornets crawling around in the corner walls where I sit, I can freak myself out. I fear hornets, wasps, bees in general.

As they scurry back and forth across the wall, defying gravity as they walk on vertical surfaces, their wings occasionally flutter as if they are about to lift off from the smooth, cool, soothingly colored plaster. I can imagine the tiny sounds the fluttering wings make; it invades my brain. I’ve heard it before; it’s memory, not imagination.

I’m convinced they are there, inches from my exposed neck.No longer am I visualizing them; I’m conjuring them. If I turn my head, I won’t be surprised to see one, two, or possibly more.

Fear. A funny thing. I don’t want to fear something that’s not there. Or if it is, I don’t want to expel the hormones from the back of my head that would cause the imagined bees to sting me.


I turn my head; the corner is empty of winged pests.

I face forward again.

But my mind is not ready to drop this thing.

What if?

What if when I whipped my head around, they flew around? What if they are only acting, instinctually or with some evil intention, to avoid being seen? What if they are hovering 180 degrees from my sightlines? They could be floating behind the back of my head. No matter how quickly or erratically I twist my head about, they sit undetected, floating in my blind spot.


The shot holds on the ugly gray sedan. The suspension is a memory, or the tires are smaller than usual. It rides especially low to the ground. The rear wheel wells are covered, enclosing those wheels almost to the ground. Like some preparation or design. Something to prevent them from being shot at, for instance?

The scene shifts somehow. That is where the discrepancies start. Thirty seconds into the video, and already people report seeing different things.

I want to say I remember seeing two cars now traveling along the road. I know I felt influenced. I remember my lids growing heavier as I watched a video that I had no desire to see.

Then there was the driver.

Many people claimed there was none. Or, if there had been one, there was nothing remarkable in their appearance. That was not my experience.

The driver was a fat, dark-skinned, greasy man, wearing a white, sweat-stained tank-top, a wife-beater.

His posture is alert, guarded, tense even. He sits slightly forward. Nothing about his body language says relaxed.

I look closer. There is a mystery here, and my brain is trying to unravel it.

It’s the light.

The light from the driver isn’t right. It’s not like the stark, sun-bleached high contrast, saturated colors from the hot asphalt, or primered metal of the car. No, the man looks to be some image from a black-and-white TV monitor; one of the older models; the kind that had little resolution and a slow refresh rate.

As if he senses my eyes on his profile as I ride along with whoever filmed this from the other lane, he slowly begins to turn his head to the left, toward me. I want to look away, but I cannot. His motion is jerky, glitchy, discontinuous; one instant the man’s head is turned only 10 degrees, then he is facing me. The black and white pixels fill me with dread. Then he is facing forward again. Is he moving this way, or have I surrendered to the video?

I feel it; the video, the cameraman, or the driver trying to tell me some secret message. Maybe all three of them are conspiring to convey some private, dark truth. Or each is trying to tell me something different, some orthogonal, incongruous meaning in each. The total of such an experience is a tuning-out kind of lethargy, a bored sadness, something I’ve forgotten, some grief fleeing through the labyrinth of my mind.

Then there is a series of shots from the desert.

A cactus stretching upward to the low, punishing sun blasting down on everything, begging for mercy that would never come. There are no shadows now; the sun is directly overhead, close enough to touch. Its relentless rays baking everything.

A snake unhinges its jaw as it works to swallow a rather mangy, shivering rat.

A discarded white sneaker, the side of it stained some dark color, blood most likely.

A scorpion rears back on its hind legs, slowly backing away and into some scruffy, colorless, dead weeds.  

Several vultures circling overhead, their swooping shadows enormous on the gritty sands below.

The hornets are in my hair. I brush my hands innocently around, without touching my head. Hoping I will convince them to move on. They ignore me so far.

They step lightly, nimbly on their little legs, but I can feel them there; slowly searching through my scalp. For what? I have no answer.

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