By Christi Cavallaro

A chance encounter in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains reveals an illusory desert secret.

Speeding across the desert in our white rented Renault, we were nothing more than a careless splash of paint against the backdrop of velvet sand that stretched out before us like a body in repose. The sun loomed so close and low I thought we might drive right through it as we tore across the landscape with crazy abandon, taking in deep lusty gulps of hot desert air. It was impossible to discern speed in the midst of such expansiveness. The feeling was intoxicating.

A wash of green palm trees and glittering jewel-colored minarets and houses made of sand spoke of another time, or maybe just of timelessness. It felt less like driving and more like migrating across the terrain. We pulled off the main road several times and drove straight into the desert, parked, threw our shoes off in a heap, and walked over the curves and ridges of sand so warm and smooth you could hurl your body over the edge of the steepest dune and freefall like a child rolling down a grassy hill. A handprint or footstep was erased in seconds by the light wind as if it had never been. And I remember thinking you could easily get lost there, or lose yourself. Except for the canopy of blue above, sand occupied all the remaining space. It was everywhere, and covered everything yet nothing. There were no shapes or forms protruding beneath, only endless, unchanging smoothness.

And then we were back out on the main road. The long stretches of desert gained texture as we began our ascent into the Atlas Mountains. We traveled for miles and miles without talking, letting the car fill with the sound of grand-scale desert silence. Another car on the road was a rare sighting and so I noticed immediately up ahead in the distance a car parked on the right shoulder. As we got closer I could see that it was a van, and its owner stood hunched over the steam spewing out the propped-up hood. We slowed to a stop several feet from the stalled vehicle, testing the waters, lest it be some kind of ploy to steal our money, our car, or something worse. Although I felt reasonably safe traveling with a male companion, I had read Paul Bowles’s A Distant Episode on the ferry from Algeciras to Tangiers and I myself had no intention of falling prey to the dark side of the desert like the poor protagonist in the story.

The stranded man stepped, alone, out from in front of the van and made his way toward us smiling. My friend and I got out of the car and walked in his direction. All the while he kept raising his hand to his heart in a gesture of praise to Allah for his good fortune at being rescued. It seemed a good sign and so we piled back into the Renault and continued on our way with our new passenger. He switched back and forth between Arabic and French to request that we drop him at his brother’s carpet shop in the next populated village he intimated to be several miles beyond. The fact that I was, at the time, living in Madrid helped me piece together most of what he said in French. Though my responses were limited primarily to Spanish and the odd butchered French word.

The young man was tall and lanky and from where he sat in the backseat, his head grazed the ceiling of our small car. There was a certain calmness about his face, which was very dark from a childhood spent playing in the desert sun and, we managed to decipher, from his Berber ancestry. He was quite animated and though I didn’t understand everything he said, I enjoyed listening to the musicality of his language: French infused with an Arabic sensibility and cadence.

At one point he made excited motions for us to stop the car, indicating that there was something he wanted to show us. We were in the middle of the dry, craggy Atlas Mountains. I could see nothing worth stopping to look at, or rather nothing especially different from what we’d been seeing. It was just rocks and red dirt mountains all around stretching on into infinity and I suddenly hoped we hadn’t misread the man. But he was smiling with such enthusiasm and so persistent in his urging that we stopped.

We tumbled out of the car and I held the passenger seat back for him so he could get out. He practically leapt onto the dirt road and then began pointing to one section of mountain range imploring us to look at whatever it was that held his gaze. I looked where he looked, I stood where he stood, but all I saw was a bunch of rocks. Then he started to say something about “le coeur, le coeur dans la montagne.”

The heart? The heart in the mountain? What was he talking about? I wondered.

And then I saw it. How I ever could have missed it I’ll never know. All those rocks on the face of that immense mountain, together, formed a perfectly-shaped heart.

Christi Cavallaro is a writer and former torch singer. Always on the search for the heart in the mountain—the beauty in the unexpected—these days a pair of glasses for near-sightedness means she doesn’t risk missing a single moment. This piece forms part of a collection of essays in progress called The Heart in the Mountain.

About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For an archive of these stories go to the Editors’ Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.