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An Excerpt from 'Soul of Nowhere' by Craig Childs

Walking a canyon ledge in the desert Southwest.
Walking a canyon ledge in the desert Southwest.
Photo: Regan Choi

Crossing a high ridge on craggy desert rock in southwest Arizona.
Crossing a high ridge on craggy desert rock in southwest Arizona.
Photo: Regan Choi

A sand dune sea traversed by Craig Childs.
A sand dune sea traversed by Craig Childs.
Photo: Craig Childs

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Volcán Santa Clara, Sonora, Mexico

All that is left is this. Rock. Everywhere, rock. Black as India ink. And a strong wind that sings across the smallest volcanic jag. Miles upon miles of rock and desert wind. Nothing in motion except for me, a figure dropping in and out, rising to a crest then down.

Every step came calculated, the weight on my back mostly water, my boots losing thin curls of leather to the crevices. Moving any quicker than with mincing steps was mentally taxing and physically exhausting, so I remained slow. To get a vantage I climbed a stony hook of lava to a tall, angled slab. It was something that looked as if it had been caught sinking, its bow lifted skyward, pearls of shiny black rock dripping beneath. I gathered myself at its top like a waiting bird.

The earth here is scraped down so far that the molten interior has come bursting out. Volcanoes turned dormant only recently stood all around me, and between these were tumbled fields of lava; great exploded arms welded together, not a single flat place to sit. No boulders or individual rocks, this was a one-piece land, a dark sea. There was no end that I could see. One saguaro stood a couple miles away. It had no arms, just a single pillar of green shrouded in needles. It seemed out of place and I felt for a moment that I should walk to it. I should stay there beneath it, crouched in its single stab of shade, conferring with it out of respect. But that was not my destination.

I was walking down on a solo trek from range to range in the Sonoran Desert, finally arriving here in Mexico where the desert turned black. I had passed from a country of craggy peaks to this place, newborn terrain with shapes more ancient than anything I had seen before. What I found was a strange sense of equanimity. No single shape of rock or depression was easily distinguishable from another, yet to my eyes they each were utterly dissimilar, thrown and poured in different ways.

I looked out from my perch. Cinder cones lifted in front of a barren volcano at the horizon, the place called Volcán Santa Clara that was my destination. No direction of travel seemed any better than another. My eyes struggled for some pattern, a guide to follow. There was none. I saw currents and crosscurrents in the once-fluid rock. Whirlpools sat frozen, surrounded by waves of black, hard cake batter. Fossilized ropes bunched against each other.

It is alive, I thought. I listened to myself breathe as I thought this. Not life in the way I would imagine. It is alive in the way that water is alive, filled with direction and intention. The wealth of shapes plagued my eyes, so much happening all at once, frozen in this moment so that I could walk across the surface of creation and destruction without them rising to strangle me.

I brought out a pair of binoculars and scanned the distance. Lava had once poured off the flanks of the Santa Clara shield volcano, crossing the desert nearly thirty miles north toward what is now Arizona, twenty miles south, and thirty miles east to west, studded here and there with new, smaller volcanoes, and sudden gasps from the pit of the earth that had left peaks of cinders. In the sidewalls of these cinder cones, vents opened straight from below where the lava had once welled upward, leaving drapes and mobs of rock. I moved the binoculars up to the cones, studying their shapes, hoping to see a steep arroyo that might house a water hole. It was not the right kind of place at all for water, not the right kind of rock. I dropped the binoculars onto my thighs. If there were no arroyos, where would there be water?

The landscape seemed to give me nothing. I could not even see a way to walk. There were no arroyos or ridges to follow, no canyons with sheltering walls. It looked like the breaking of spring river ice, enormous tablets thrown into each other, ingots lying about, half-melted back into the earth.

The last water hole I had used was back in Arizona days ago, in the smooth, white granite of a canyon that at the time felt desolate, and now seemed like paradise. The water had been dark with age, its surface laced with dead moths. It tasted of death. Each time I had walked away from one of these water holes into the unknown desert ahead, I had the nervous sensation of a free fall. I did not know where I would land next.

I could not land here. This was the crossing of the barren. I had to reach the other side. I let the thought of water go and instead focused on where to walk next. Normally I would come to the top of a prominence and no matter how preposterous the terrain, reach some conclusion. I would pick a course, even if only a random gesture. But there was no pathway here. I aligned myself with the farthest volcano and climbed down, heading in its direction, beating against the shape of the land.

Since entering the lava field I had seen no sign of people. There were no airplanes dragging their contrails around the sky. Even the faint thousand-year-old trails of the Patayan had vanished, leaving nothing to govern this vastness for me.

I hunted for a piece of pottery or a broken stone tool and the only thing I found was the brilliant white flower of sacred datura, its petals sagging like a hang-dried cloth. I crouched and rubbed its dark green leaves between my thumb and forefinger, smelling the dark, musty scent of its poisons. It is a plant so strong that eating a few of its seeds would bring violent hallucinations and maybe death a drug-induced way, I have heard, of seeing beyond the fragile limits of the mind. This was one of the only living things I could find, and not a scrap of human presence.

I had always followed the signs of ancient people because I did not want to be in a place where I did not belong. They would have known which corners of the earth to avoid. Where was I now?

By dark I had gained no more than four miles. I camped in a clutch of lava, sitting in plain view of the sky. With me were some papers by Julian Hayden, an archaeologist who loved this place, a man who drove his International Travelall out to the edges of these rock fields up until his death. He had made 150 trips into these craters and lava flows, looking for what? The same thing I am here for perhaps, reaching for the interior of the planet in hopes someone was once here to leave a sign.

I used his journal articles as a cushion where I sat. I spoke with him out loud, gesturing as I conversed. He had died some years earlier, and his ashes were scattered here, so I at least felt sane in talking to him. At first I had asked him questions, starting a couple of days ago.

Where’s the water, Julian? May I call you Julian? How did you get across this lava field? What did you do with your mind? Oh, forget it. Just tell me where the water is. And these artifacts you found, did you have some obsessive love for the people who lived here? Was it because they knew only this... this place? Because they were made of infinite generations as far as they could know, each mind strung through this crazy land and through time like thread through a needle? Oh yeah, just stick to water. Thanks. Where is it? A day from here? Two? I need to know.

Still a few days from my next supply, my dinner was peanuts, eight dried figs, some almonds, and fresh coconut that was becoming less and less fresh. I pulled Julian’s papers out from under my butt. I laid back on the ground, inserting them beneath my shoulder blades. I looked through the stars, into the deep velvet blue behind them.

I don’t know, Julian. Maybe it’s something about this place. Did you ever get tired of it on top of you day and night? I mean, there’s no rest here. It pulls your soul inside out. Sort of a dry washing machine and you’re never clean until you’ve turned to sand and wind.

I rearranged his papers, softening the ground. I let my eyes wander.

You think humans should go this far? Sure, you do. You found one of their pots out here, right? It was completely intact. You found it in the sand out west of those cinder cones. I remember. I saw a picture of it, a little neck so that it wouldn’t lose the water it was supposed to hold. It was proof for you that they were here, right? But then, maybe they weren’t human. Not in the way we think, at least. They were perfect. Is that how you see it? Perfect?

No answer. Of course. I closed my eyes, thinking of perfection, of a person stripped by the land until there is nothing left but the raw, honest soul. I fell asleep, the desert huge around me.

From Soul of Nowhere: Traversing Grace in a Rugged Land by Craig Childs.
© 2002 by Sasquatch Books.
Reprinted by permission of Sasquatch Books.

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