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I am the man sitting naked in the desert. My hands are clasped at my ankles, knees drawn to my chest to make my body small and simple. A flash of lightning sparks from a thunderstorm miles off. I breathe and listen. No thunder. Below me, around me, cliffs and canyons swim in a litany of moonlight and shadow.
More lightning comes. The rising head of the storm is illuminated from within, a firecracker snap of white. Then darkness.
The day's heat swells from rock faces below, coming up in waves, rolling over me before spreading into the night sky. Something cool touches my shoulder, brief, a wisp of air no heavier than passing silk. I turn my head, expecting to see something. I see the sharp teeth of rock where cliffs have caved in; I see moonlight banding across butte walls; I see in the distance the cauliflower swell of this approaching thunderhead.
Everything is magnified in this land of giants. The faceted cliffs are prisms exaggerating the slightest touch of wind, amplifying the heat, the dryness, and my slow, even breathing. My senses strain just to sit here. Everything leans inward, as if at the edge of a black hole. Rocks and cliffs bend until breaking. The moonlight drifts toward the bottom. My eyes trace thousands of feet down to where shadows gather, where the great walls of canyons come together. The questions never leave my tongue. What is this desolate lure that I feel around me, as sharp and enticing as freshly broken glass?
My clothes lie in a snakeskin pile behind me, out of reach. The shirt is the same one I have been wearing for months now, the only one I have with me. During the day it is my protection from the sun. At night, sitting in the dwindling heat of summer, I get rid of it and everything else: my boots with their balding rubber soles, and the binoculars that hang all day from a thin, black cord around my neck. And my notebook, too, I leave it with the rest of my things. It is good to be free of them. They have been with me for four months through a province of canyons in northern Arizona, and although they are the very items that keep me sane and alive, I have often thought about launching them off one of these edges, listening with decisive, anxious pleasure to the crash of gear-my hay bale of a pack tearing open and spilling itself, climbing rope thudding like a sack of flour, my metal cup chiming against rocks until I can no longer hear it.
What is down there is a voice, a lure, a landscape alive in its winding shapes, in the light that falls inside and never gets out. I uncurl my body from above it and slowly stand. I walk to my clothes pile to slip on my pants. They are made of light canvas. The knife and its sheath hang loosely from my unbuckled belt. I move slowly. Blued shadows weep across my shoulders. I pull up the belt and buckle it, standing at the edge for a moment. With their distorted moonlit shapes, the landforms all around look like throngs of ghosts. I see faces huge as skyscrapers. It creaks with longing, opening itself: an invitation.
I go barefoot from there, gingerly walking along a platform of rock, leaving my shirt, boots, and gear behind. Numerous canyons and clefts drop beneath me, many of them inaccessible. I cut back around their dark heads, glancing down as I pass, seeing within each a black seam that the moonlight cannot reach. Some canyons send up boils of hot air, while others are completely still, cool even. Crickets sound from below, the pacifying tone of cello strings touched with a bow, hundreds of crickets, and I know that there is water down there, hanging gardens of ferns and dripping seeps in a place where nothing else grows. These canyons are tempting. But I am going somewhere. There is one canyon up ahead.
I glide into it, descending ladder rungs of handholds to a ledge that wraps in and out of the moonlight. Downward stairwells of sandstone are blocked by large portions of fallen cliff and I climb over the debris, my feet tender on the sharpness.
The thunderhead lifts, coming closer, and a hot wind draws up to meet it, coiling through its clouds, forcing lightning out of its folds. I can hear the thunder now. The wind darts around me, a scared school of fish. I recognize the feel of this air. The storm is coming.
There is a cave below here, where I am heading. It is a deep cup within ledges and cliffs. I found it yesterday. I had been looking for a spot to set camp, my pack dragging at my body like a tired child. I ducked into the shelter and after scanning the floor, glanced up to the ceiling. A breath escaped my mouth with a strange sound.
Paintings in numerous colors curved over my head. Paint on top of paint, figures within figures. I lifted my hand uselessly in front of my face, fingers spread as if pushing the wall away from my eyes.
I had heard of this place from another traveler, who told of an unmistakable gallery of apparitions in the desert, but I hadn't known exactly where it was, not any closer than twenty or thirty miles of here. To come across it unprepared was alarming. Heads and eyes had swarmed over me when I looked up. Figures painted in blue, red, ochre, and green stretched across the ceiling above my outstretched hand, their shoulders pinched together like too many genies housed in too small a bottle. Within some, painted organs were visible: hearts, intestines, veins, ovaries. But the bodies looked only vaguely human, more like anatomical diagrams of phantoms. Some had red stigmata circles painted into their open hands. Their torsos bent and spread, becoming alive, as if pulling themselves out of the rock, opening their mouths in the air. Inside of these bodies were images of animals, geometric shapes, and untellable stories played out in multiple colors. Stories within stories.
I knew immediately from the colors and types of figures that the paintings dated back at least three thousand years. The style was a kind used by nomads, desert hunters who once covered about thirty thousand square miles of canyon country. They had come to paint at this blistering edge of the planet.
Why here? Why not on the bison-studded Great Plains, the Pacific Coast with its fish and blackberries, or the sloped and watered foothills of the Rocky Mountains? Why not even forty miles to my back on a mesa top shielded by piñon and juniper trees? They had chosen a different kind of country, one defined by severity. They found some raw element of human longing out here, and it, like everything else, was intensely magnified for them.
Archaeologists call them the Desert Culture, and the ones that came after them they call the Mogollon, the Anasazi, the Hohokam, and the Salado. I don't know what name I should use. The Painters, maybe. Their remains are scattered throughout this landscape, their finely worked stone tools and pieces of basketry left exactly where their hands last let go of them. They tell me that there is a way to live here, that I am not the first or the last, and I am not alone.
This place is more portentous, more enigmatic, than most of the artifact sites I find. I would have set my camp nearer to it, but the thought of sleeping there made me nervous. The cave's figures are weirdly vivid and enticing, as if the strangeness and roughness of this country had a hand in their art.
Even the aboriginal Anasazi who encountered the site a thousand years ago were strangers to it. Archaeologists who came upon it in the 1980s decided that it might once have been a place of shamans. I spoke with one of these archaeologists. When I mentioned the site to her, I saw her change from a federal, managerial scientist to a woman of flesh and imagination. She set her papers down on her desk. She said that archaeology is a science. Artifacts can be categorized, but this place is a different matter, she said, perhaps a vision into a more complete world, maybe a way of understanding this maddening landscape. She told me that she had gone to document the site and that the wind picked up whenever she used her video recorder. She said the wind died each time she lowered the machine.
The wind gathers tonight as I descend toward the cave. The storm is almost here, its lightning sharp. The thunder is a bag of stones given a hard shaking. I smell rain. Not a long rain like that of winter in this part of the world, but a quick and savage rain, the kind that comes to the desert in the late summer. When I look behind me, I see a single fan of clouds huge and spreading, going through dark, dramatic motions of disgorging, reaching down and colliding with the ground. I move swiftly, my bare feet as alert as a slapped cheek. Every tiny pebble. A stick. A warm belt of sand rippled by an old wind.
I am within an interior canyon now, looping the back ledges of its small feeder canyons. I remember the moves I made yesterday, certain crags used to cross the drops, and the trunk of a dead juniper fallen into a crevice, useful as a solid platform, leaping off of it to a ledge. Going into this country is like cutting open a fish. Beneath sleek skin is a place of surprising, visceral oddities, an earthen Gray's Anatomy. There are layers within layers, a few familiar shapes but mostly a mystery of bloody fans and tubes, all of it fully functional, spare and essential, but unknown. I climb through these organs, my hands gripping bones of sandstone, fingers hunting for holds the size of ribs.
The spreading roof of the storm blocks the moonlight, sending me into sudden darkness. Rain strengthens its smell, pushing at the wind. The lightning is close, brash white cracks that kick like horses. Lightning touches ground on one of the canyon rims far above me. The sky sears with thunder. I can hear the rain, sheets of water bracing into canyon walls as the storm comes over the edge. There is no rain down here yet.
It is difficult to see where I'm walking now. My feet find the way, lifted high enough with each step so that I don't stub my toes. The wind comes from my right shoulder, overturning small rocks. I want to run to get down to the room of paintings, but I'll wait for the rain to push me. I glance back again and see moonlight swirling into the rain. The day's heat is still rising out of the canyons, twisting the cold rain into misting, urgent spirals. I pick up speed. My eyes pluck gradations of gray from my path, distinguishing angles of rock for the next step. A cactus spine dives into the softness of my arch. I break it off by dragging my sole over the ground without slowing.
The rain arrives. Piercing drops. It sounds like a bellowing machine, water caught up in wind, gears screeching. I run. Everything moves fast, lightning charging through the sky ahead of me, striking ground far below, instantly illuminating a heap of boulders and three craggy juniper trees, then going black. The water begins to run. Mud and sticks set into motion. They pour over edges of rock; my feet splash through, mud spraying against my calves. Rainwater grumbles into holes of foam and uprooted plants. Waterfalls form. The land is suddenly threaded by water, flashing to life. Water comes from everywhere at once, leading down, rushing toward the floor of the canyon, joining and joining.
I duck into the dark eye of an overhang, just big enough to be called a cave. It is dry in here. My hands spread on my thighs. I bend down so that water can drain from my hair. Thin waterfalls start across the face of the shelter and I look up to watch them. They form a dark, sheeting wall, spattering against the solid stone ground with high-pitched tones.
Behind me and above me within this shelter are the paintings. They are well protected from the rain. I had planned on viewing them in moonlight, but in the dark of the storm I see nothing. Every other sense is full, though. I smell everything dead that has been waiting to rot, waiting for the storm to come and bring rain. The air roars with wind and water. I squint over my shoulder, but cannot see even the faintest outline of the paintings. Adrenaline drips cold into my blood, not from the storm, but from the darkness. They can see me but I can't see them.
I crouch close to the sheet of water, my back to the artwork. A match from my pocket could illuminate the ceiling so I might view the paintings, but the moon will return soon enough. Summer storms are full of fanfare and agony, but they are quick. And my matches are probably soaked. I stare at nothing through the sheets of water.
Among the jumble of exotic characters behind me is a single deer painted in black. I remember it clearly because it is the most concrete figure of them all. It has antlers and cloven hooves. Its external anatomy is accurate. Made with very few strokes, it had reminded me of a Japanese silk painting, and yesterday as I studied it, I saw bold, easy gestures used in its creation-strokes made from the shoulder and not the hand, the brush not lifting from the rock until the painting was finished. I had stood in front of it in the last light, clinging to its certainty, while around it floated the hallucinogenic, multicolored shapes of humans turning into animals, of ungodly and beautiful creatures.
I cannot shake this idea that the land painted these images, soaking into the lives of the people who came here. The paintings are an older version of the modern maps that I keep in my gear, a person's judgment of what is critical in this landscape. Only, the maps I carry were compiled by machinery and by people who likely never set foot in this territory, while this artwork is the result of humans commingling with this place. Myself, crouched in this cave, I am hoping to become the same, a person who is changed by the land, who puts a pen to paper and tells what I have seen of this land.
For seven years now I have been traveling the southwestern wilderness, coming out to places that open my life like a knife slipping the seam of an envelope. I have walked bladed peaks rising out of dunes in northwest Mexico; scribbles of red canyons in southern Utah; a sand and gravel wash in the Sonoran Desert as dry as a basket of beans, where coyotes and feral burros come to dig for water; chasms in the border country of Mexico, where the only place to travel is through dark, crooked causeways between boulders. In these seven years, I have had no residence nor telephone number. I have been a pilgrim of erosion, seeking the places that fall away, places of sand and corroding monuments.
Everything is in motion here, the artwork wearing away in dry flakes of paint, boulders unearthed and fallen, always revealing beneath even greater, more alluring terrain. The ground tears open as if reaching for an endpoint, maybe a living mind within, or maybe the emptiness of a peeled onion.
Excerpted from Soul of Nowhere by Craig Childs Copyright ©2002 by Craig Childs. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted October 7, 2013
Dis-focus is what makes this book work. It is the total of Mr. Childs presentation, not the order, which brings this achievement.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 1, 2013
A little unfocused. It is still a good read on the American Southwest and the culture that was there long ago.
Childs puts the reader on the land in a series of places. In each case you are going to experience what he does down to the dry dust in your mouth, the fragilness of artifacts in your hands.
The difference here and most of his works is this jumps around the region. He usually stays with a theme. The over riding idea here is "nowhere's soul" is found in so many wild places. The idea that he was ever going to identify it doesn't matter so much as the "journey".