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The Way Out: A True Story of Ruin and Survival


- A breakout book from a writer increasingly celebrated as the 21st-century bard of the American Southwest—a writer in the tradition of Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiessen, Terry Tempest Williams, among others. - In March 2003, Craig Childs received the Spirit of the West Literary Achievement Award, given to a writer whose body of work captures the unique spirit of the American West. - As a chronicle of adventure, as emotionally charged human drama, as confessional memoir, The Way Out is a transcendent book, a work destined to earn a lasting place in

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The Way Out: A True Story of Ruin and Survival

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- A breakout book from a writer increasingly celebrated as the 21st-century bard of the American Southwest—a writer in the tradition of Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiessen, Terry Tempest Williams, among others. - In March 2003, Craig Childs received the Spirit of the West Literary Achievement Award, given to a writer whose body of work captures the unique spirit of the American West. - As a chronicle of adventure, as emotionally charged human drama, as confessional memoir, The Way Out is a transcendent book, a work destined to earn a lasting place in the literature of extremes. - Not since John Krakauer's bestselling Into the Wild has a book so compellingly explored the boundary between wilderness adventure and madness.

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Editorial Reviews

On one hand, this is an inspiring and exciting tale of two experienced outdoorsmen who deliberately set out to hike across some of the most broken and difficult wilderness terrain in North America. Amid scenes of awe-inspiring beauty, they pit their bravery and endurance skills against an arid hell of trackless chasms, treacherous rocks, and venomous creatures. Throughout this survival epic they reach deeply into their troubled psyches: one mulls over his lifelong antipathy toward a domineering father; the other is trying to come to grips with the people he has harmed in the line of duty. They emerge weary, triumphant, and perhaps a little more at peace with themselves. Perhaps. On the other hand, the book can be read simply as the story of two angst-ridden and desert-punchy loners who set out to overcome an impassible wilderness, for no reason that the reader can ever discern. Most of their inner demons remain intact at the end of their journey, making one wonder if the trek was really necessary at all. Either way, Craig Childs presents us with an awesome corner of primeval America, a colorful panorama of raw nature still untouched in this urbanized century. The author's occasional forays into aboriginal mysticism seem a little overdone, especially an incident concerning a skull in the sand, and his relationships with the native Indians are painfully self-conscious. But he also delivers a strong environmental message, demonstrates his genuine respect for the outdoors he loves, and shows how he comes to grips with it. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2004, Little, Brown, Back Bay, 270p., Ages 15 to adult.
—RaymondPuffer, Ph.D.
Library Journal
Winner of the Spirit of the West Literary Achievement Award, Childs is being positioned to break out with this tale of his trek through forbidding canyons in the Southwest. With a five-city author tour. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316107037
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • Publication date: 3/8/2006
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 306
  • Sales rank: 276,400
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Read an Excerpt

The Way Out

By Craig Childs

Little, Brown

Copyright © 2004 Craig Childs
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-316-61066-6

Chapter One

Now at Earth's lips,

Now at my lips.

- Diné Blessingway ceremony


Winter, now. The desert races past.

Driving is a blessing of speed you don't get from walking. I lean into the seat with my boots against the dashboard and watch this oceanic country of southern Utah surge and collapse around us. Canyons fall away, inhaled by red earth. Dirk Vaughan's hand drapes the steering wheel, his fifteen-year-old Bronco moaning to the road. He drives like an old street cop, body hanging relaxed on its skeleton as if loosely prepared for impact, his eyes scanning easily, seeing everything. We pass a semi painted in the highway grime of snowmelt, nipples of soiled icicles hanging from its frame. Dirk's posture does not change as we speed around it, the signal flicked on, wheel nudged, accelerator touched, signal flicked the other way. He has been in sixteen car accidents in the forty-five years of his life: a reckless teenage rollover, numerous impacts maneuvered in close quarters with a patrol car, and high-speed collisions that left cars welded together. I have never felt safer in a vehicle with anyone.

The stereo is rattling badly. Rap music he brought along. I listen to the rainfall percussion of words. It's Dirk's Bronco. He can play whatever hewants.

Outside the window is the wilderness. It is the place beyond the road where a raven hangs tethered in the wind, its talons bunched into fists over red dirt and villages of blue-green sagebrush. For ten years Dirk and I have been walking this country together. He often talks about traveling in this place as if it were a sex act. He speaks of fluids and the enchanting touch of skin, making love with a woman of solid earth, drinking out of the belly curves of her water holes, sinking into her flood-carved folds of canyons.

I treat my travels in the same way I did when I was a child, walking with my cigar box of pencils and erasers and paper out the school door at lunch, past the tetherball and four-square games, past the blacktop to a patch of unmanicured dirt where I could alone pursue the inquiries of ants. I think of this land where I travel not as a woman, but as a moment, an instant in which a breath is drawn, a still point that ends only when forgotten.

In this place, Dirk and I have reached for each other across wind-spanned cliff faces, shouldering the weight of the other up to safe ledges. If it were not for Dirk, I imagine nothing would be left of me but a cautionary tale, a boy who learned to fly and then tumbled helplessly out of the sky. And if not for me, Dirk would still be living like a cop, a man clutched hungrily over his retired badge, alone in the wilderness.

We are driving now toward a sanctum of desert canyons in the south. It is territory foreign to us. From the air, from the maps, this unfamiliar region looks like the miscellany of a plumber's yard-a geological mess of standpipes, tubs, sink traps, and spouts trash-heaped all over one another. I have imagined for years what this far place, a cavernous domain of sandstone, might look like from the ground. Natural bridges and barren holes and shafts of shadow played against sunlight in the deep canyons. This is what I envision ahead of us. Usually Dirk and I are in a specific part of the desert, a few thousand square miles in Utah where we have named the canyons and mesas for ourselves. This will be different.

Snow as dry as sawdust tumbles at the windshield. A squall briefly passes the highway. The road swings around cliff heads, beyond the brief tempest, taking us down a canyon, through a small town where I've stopped numerous times for Navajo tacos, the restaurant and the gas station owned by the same man, whose face is always waiting in the window. Many of my memories lie along this road. I used to drive here at the beginning and end of each work season, back when I earned a living guiding on rivers to the south. I once drove out alone to spend an entire winter in that nation of salmon-colored mesas to the west, walking the cold desert as if I were a long-distance trader, my wares banging against my back. When I was younger, there were journeys along this road with my father, his truck loaded with guns and whiskey bottles clacking in a box like explosives, a boot-battered copy of Walden on the floorboard.

Past the town, barbed wire goes by, gates rigged shut. Faint two-track roads stab away, overgrown with smoky-green rabbitbrush. I know where the roads go: That one bucks over groves of bedrock; the next leads down a canyon to a wall of nine-hundred-year-old rock carvings of bighorn sheep and spirals and humans with spears.

Music scratches out of Dirk's tinny speakers. He sings along only to the lyrics he most wants me to hear. His fingers work a rhythm over the steering wheel. I see him glance my way, and he says, "People in the city just don't see the minutiae the way we do."

He waits, and when I say nothing in response, he continues, his steering-wheel hand flashing as he talks. "Wilderness. You need to be fucking awake out there. It's truly too much goddamned work for people. To go out and survive. To truly live and not get killed. Too much work."

His voice jousts around as if he is in a knife fight. I don't bother arguing with him. Not now. We will be on foot soon enough, and I will be on my own home ground.

"Wilderness teaches you to see this"-he gestures at the road, at the burgundy streaks of sand wind-pushed across asphalt, canyons carved out of plateaus in the distance. "It requires that you be awake."

But I cannot listen quietly to him. I shake my head.

"I don't think it's so different for people in the city," I tell him. "Some see the minutiae, some don't."

"There you go with that magnanimous Buddhist bullshit of yours," he says over the music. "All the same ... the world is one."

I half shrug. "I don't think it's that. Everything is different." "There it is again. It's all the same ... it's all different."

All I can do is look through the window. Dirk is not ready for convincing. There is a commotion ahead, birds on the side of the road, something dead. A hawk is guarding a road-killed animal. Three ravens challenge it, hopping and calling with flushed throat feathers. Suddenly the ravens are in the air, black capes sweeping away from the Bronco's speeding grille. The hawk sees us, eyes besieged, thinking us the next threat. It opens its ivory-banded wings, its beak wide with a screech we cannot hear. It does not fly off. We speed past it.

"Too close," Dirk complains. "It's gonna get hit." He puts on his signal.

I say, "I'll get it."

Dirk pulls over on the shoulder, his body still relaxed, unmoved, hand circling the wheel. We sweep into a U-turn, and the hawk lifts away, driven by us from the kill. I jump out and move toward the lump of a dead prairie dog, its stomach opened from the impact of a car tire. The air is winter cold with wind, its light stretched into ocher. A sandstorm is coming.

Dirk steps out. He is a white man, his beard gray in patches. The wind picks up blond-brown hair, and he reaches up with a hand the way women often do, tucking it behind his ears with the comb of a finger. A single green bead hangs at his throat on a strip of leather, and a simply curved earring is drilled into his left earlobe. His clothing is practical, forty dollars invested in a pair of softened canvas pants that he has been wearing for years, any repairs cleanly stitched by his wife. His frame is average like mine, but ten years older, body sturdy from working as a wilderness outfitter in southeast Utah, from hefting boats and field equipment onto his shoulders along the desert-rimmed Colorado River.

While I fetch the dead prairie dog, Dirk looks up at the ravens spiraling over his head. The hawk circles among them in the opposite direction, turning Dirk's sky into a clockwork of rival orbits. He thinks that even in the city, even when he was a cop, he would have noticed such a thing. He would have stopped on the street, eavesdropping on the birds, wondering why a hawk is flying among three ravens. The ravens, he thinks, are nothing but smart, cackling jesters. The hawk, on the other hand, is a pure, voiceless spear thrown through the air. The ravens will find their food anywhere. They'll steal who knows what from trash bins. They'll shamelessly tug at plump weeks-rotted carcasses. They'll fashion fishing hooks out of gutter metal. Meanwhile, the hawk knows only the bright flash of blood and the kicking of death. No doubt it was called in by the skitter of a car-struck rodent, came down and clipped its spine, fixing the prairie dog's life with a kind of precision that the laughing ravens do not know. This is what these turning shapes in the sky tell him.

I carry the prairie dog by its hind legs, its body going long, its wet gray intestines unwinding toward the ground. Along a barbed-wire fence off from the highway, I glance up at the ravens who are watching me and imagining my next move. They have their choreography well prepared, reviewing my motions on the ground while one by one cutting off and confounding the hawk. The hawk seems baffled inasmuch as a hawk can seem baffled.

I lay the prairie dog down gently so its body is elongated on the ground. I can feel its bones, the slender, miniature toes in my hand, the brads of knuckles. My thumb rubs between them, and they slide back and forth, sheets of muscle still free. It has been dead no more than half an hour. I apologize to it for the clumsy speeds at which we drive, bullets hurtling blindly down the highway.

I come back around to the Bronco, and Dirk is squinting upward. Without looking away from the movements overhead, he says, "Gray hawk. North for its range. But I'm pretty sure."

I have no idea. "Hawk," I confirm.

We get back in the Bronco and leave the bird scene behind. Dirk asks if he has ever told me his story about the horse on the side of the road, and even though he has, I say no. I've heard most of his tales many times. He is my storyteller, the man who carries me along the roofs of buildings, through gunfire, into places I would never travel on my own. I'll hear this story again.

He talks like a theater performer, hands slicing at the air, different voices assumed to tell different parts of his tales, a Southern accent called up for his ain'ts, street smack for his motherfuckers.

He tells me about a horse. He gives me the introduction, how people kept horses in Denver in pockets of semirural land swallowed by the city. These animals were obsessively brushed and washed like beloved poodles, but they were horses nonetheless, large, easily frightened beasts that should never face the roadside horrors of humanity.

"So the thing gets out," he says. "Who the fuck knows how. Someone left a gate open. It's running around at night terrified, headlights coming at it. Pow! Nailed broadside by a sedan, clipped right at the legs. Its back end was hamburger."

Every word has an exponent attached, charged and thrown. I do not listen so much to Dirk's exact words as to the way he threads them, how he pulls on some and pushes on others. His hands play off the steering wheel, air puppets to go with his story. He evokes every detail of the night, how cars stopped at odd angles and people stood horrified, helpless, while the sidewalk horse thrashed on splintered legs.

Driving street by street in his patrol car, Dirk came upon the scene. Another patrol car was there, but the man in uniform was a rookie, a first-year cop. The rookie stood dismayed, not knowing whether he should contact animal control or the fire department.

Dirk slowed, studying the way people were positioned, their bodies drawn back in disbelief and fear. He looked at their faces and their relief upon seeing him. Finally, help is here. He pulled near and sighted the horse. His heart immediately fled his body like a faltered breath. He knew that there was no motive here, no evidence to gather, only this: An animal had stumbled into the carnage of his city. He slipped the patrol car into park. What mistake had been made? Who allowed this creature into our barren and cruel hands? Humans are all guilty, he answered himself as he opened the door, each of us condemned to this madhouse we have built. But the wild, commanding innocence of animals should never be laid open here.

Dirk could not tolerate being a passive witness to such suffering. He stepped out of the car, his body strained with resolve. He pushed a gap between the people. Their faces were glad for the relief, their questions dashing out: How can we get this animal to the vet? Is there something you can do for the pain? He did not return their deluded optimism, thinking, You all know what needs to be done. The first cop looked at him, same expression, What do we do here? Dirk slid by him.

He paced directly up to the dashing form of the horse and pulled a six-shot .357 revolver from his holster, steadying the barrel inches from the horse's head. He fired five of his six bullets.

Dirk mimics every shot across the steering wheel, his head cocked to the recoil, pow, pow, pow, pow, pow!

When he turned away from the executed horse, he faced the witnesses. A woman sputtered and cried through the spiderweb of her hands. A pair clung together, their eyes scandalized. A man's unbelieving face stared at him. He looked at each of their expressions in a single sweep, saying nothing. He walked past these bystanders toward his patrol car to make his calls. If they did not understand, he had no business explaining it to them. Everyone here will find a way to cope, he figured. We all have our illusions.

As Dirk drives, I think back to the way he fired his gun over the steering wheel beside me, the bravado of his recoil. I say, "You enjoyed it after a few shots."

He glances across his arm at me. "The killing? It's an abstraction at that point. Sure, there's a perverse pleasure. Otherwise, what are you going to do? You gonna hate yourself for doing what is right? For making the one move that no one else is willing to make? Of course, I didn't have to fire those last three shots with those badass hollow-point bullets blowing open its brains, but I was already there. The animal was going down."

"You adored the killing as much as you hated it."

"You, young brother, would be in an insane asylum if you had to do the shit I did."

"I've belonged in an insane asylum all my life."

Dirk laughs, shaking his head. "It's no contest of comparison, Opie, but the polarity between the two sides of my coin is more than a match for your crooked genes."

I unraveled his words in my mind, as if picking apart a code. The two sides of my coin: on one side is his human-stained memory of cophood and on the other his current life of drifting through the wilderness. Your crooked genes: a family of alcoholic men who died suddenly and early.

I look at Dirk.


Excerpted from The Way Out by Craig Childs Copyright © 2004 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 6 of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 28, 2005

    Ego Trip

    Craig Childs writes yet another ego-massaging epic of self agrandizement. Yawn. Want somebody who could actually write about the desert? Read Ed ABbey.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 7, 2013

    This is a harsh read. Is the way out from a wilderness desti

    This is a harsh read. Is the way out from a wilderness destination? Is the way out from within oneself? We not only carry stuff in encased in GoreTex, but there's that stuff we tote around in our heads as well. Which way out are we looking for?
    Craig and Dirk put the reader through the ringer trying to decide. It's a good read - but it's going to be different than the typical adventure book. There's plenty to learn here and plenty to keep your minds eye on the country that is the southwest. Just know you are going to get to know both Craig and Dirk well, maybe a little too well.
    A lot of us soul search in wild places. Maybe some wild people go to search for something of their souls in far out places.
    At any event, not wholely a "travel here" tale, but not something entirely without contemplating either.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 4, 2005

    Childs moves on, but takes fans with him

    I read 5 other Child's books prior to this one. If you're a fan, be ready for something a little different. The colorful description of remote desert terrain is here, but so is the candid description of Child's and his companions psyche. If you hike in the desert or the wilderness, you understand the landscape is interpreted through your own strength, weakness, and experience. This certainly not a conventional travel log, nor is it a 'disaster tale'.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    powerful biographical adventure

    Craig Childs and Dirk Vaughn have trekked together the United States for ten years, but as they drive in Utah to their latest starting point feels different. The plan is to hike the canyons of the American Southwest deserts where practically nothing lives for two weeks. Both men understand theoretically the danger of this quest as they carry as much food with them as possible because living off the land is impossible as even vegetation is scarce. This is survivor at its fittest as Craig and Dirk know maps are not very specific, the terrain is unfriendly, and they have no exit strategy.--- On the wilderness journey, the men think back to what led them to this seemingly insane potentially deadly trip especially when they see early on the bleached bones of someone who failed to make it. Each reflects on their past: fights in bars and insane risk taking culminating with a need to prove themselves.--- Both the journey and the surprising flashbacks grip the audience who take each dangerous step along aside the two explorers. Displaying candor Craig Childs pulls no punches as he exposes himself and Dirk to the scrutiny of true life tale advocates for he could have hidden the background and told a tale of two intrepid men undertaking the quest in a Sir Edmund Hilary context of it is there. Instead genre readers obtain a powerful biographical adventure tale that will haunt readers when they follow the why of needing the cleansing of the souls.--- Harriet Klausner

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 24, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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