January 21, 2007
There was a canyon, nowhere in Utah. It was November. I don't remember exactly how many days we were out on foot at this point, eighteen, maybe twenty. We didn't use trails. In fact, we did not have a map, a compass, anything of the sort. Nobody else was there, not a single footprint but our own. We drank out of holes in the rock, old green rainwater. We ate from caches we had dropped weeks before. In between, we wandered like madmen in a country studded by dry buttes, ripped open by canyons, strung together by catwalk ledges.
It was a relatively warm night in the canyon, a few degrees above freezing, when three of us took off our clothes and sprinted naked into cities of boulders. So often these nights were crisp with ice, the distant dead of stars extracting us into silence. We had to take advantage of this change of weather.
The fourth, a man named Dirk, remained prudently dressed among his belongings in camp, his wool cap set aside, back resting against a rounded stone, muscles fatigued from a day of hard walking. Dirk used to be a street cop. For fifteen years he chased miscreants through alleys. Not any more, though. Now he was just a wilderness traveler, a river outfitter working in Moab. But he would not come run naked with us in the boulders. He just listened to us in the far-off as we tangled and jumped, thinking us fools.Boulders coupled into each other. I sank between their jigsaw passageways into dry ripplesand of the ground. Over my head a body flashed through stars and I heard a screech, someone landing on a boulderside, turning to make me out from the dark. Our pupils stretched to read the faintest light, detailing each other. Testicles. Arms. Thighs. His voice lost its English as he growled at me. Another leapt to his side, clawing his shoulder and jerking back, a shriek of offence. The two tumbled from my view. After all, no one was out here but us. We could do whatever we wanted. It was wilderness.
Dirk heard our echoes, hominid screeching and the beating of paw-hands against rock. Imprudent boys at play. A camp left abandoned, dinner pots here and there, while we three leapt like monkeys ditching our precious energy on sport. He heard flight, bare feet leaving ground, a body sailing, and a grunt of breath at the landing. Even for play, there was exquisite animal skill. Dirk traced our movements, listened to the span and reflex of our bodies.Avoid foolish circumstances. Evaluate risk. Conserve strength. This was Dirk's mind.
My companions yapped and scrabbled at each other. I leapt into them, knuckles landing on stone, rounding to my haunches to huff my voice upward. I stood, baring my body, and beat my fists into my chest.
Still, Dirk listened closer and closer to the breaking and pairing of our alliances, strange creatures in the rocks. Primate howls erupted and fell back. No headlamps even. He sat forward from his stone, eyes raking the dark. Our abandon made him grin. He thought, What have I discarded to become this tooled creature that I am? He drew to one knee in the sand, following every motion of ours by sound, waiting for the right moment to pounce. Gripping the sand with his fists, he uncurled a voice from his stomach, a primeval shriek smelling of blood. The wail carved the air, bursting stars from their settings. It burned with bile and death. Dirk became a fist reaching into his own body. He entered our game of boulders, his sound spilling over and over itself, throbbing at the darkness.
It went longer than it should have. Consonants tore against vowels to the very end of his lungs.
When the howl died down, the quiet of evening fell into place. Dirk dressed again in his human skins, his hands, his feet in boots, silently laughing at our sudden hush. He returned to rest, his back against the stone, listening, satisfied. No sound came from us, the stilled, the vanquished. We each thought: there is a thing out there that has broken through the gates, a murderous creature that walks this earth, and we have no escape. We imagined our bodies impaled, eaten by this thing. Teeth crushing bone, ripping meat. We couldn't help it. Our breath was captured. Helpless suddenly, frail creatures, we did not move on the pads of our feet. We listened to the nothing of night. Slowly, we returned to camp and put our clothes on. We sat in the dark beside Dirk, the ex-cop, human again.
Twenty-third day. Twenty-fifth maybe. Dirk and I were scouting ahead, everyone out looking for routes from one no place to another. As if walking strands of a single knot, we knew we would each come back together, at least by nightfall. Entering a red canyon, cliffs bowing back into alcoves, Dirk and I turned at the same moment, our prints swiveled as if by a conductor's hand. Our attention drew to some likelihood in the canyonside. We abandoned the sandy floor and spidered up a low wall of stone.
Dirk and I tended to find odd, beautiful artifacts that might otherwise escape us. Maybe it was in the way we moved together, pushing and pulling, leading one another along. We found a painted pot once, a little ceramic jar from the tenth century. Another time we found a red seed jar in tact, with black scrollwork painted around its open mouth. There were always small signs of humans about, others with legs and arms like ours, men who wept for their sons centuries ago, women who sang love songs in the night.
This is why we both turned at once in the sand, why our eyes were pulled to an alcove shelter. We saw something. Humans had been here. We could tell by the angle of rockwall, by forms of ledges, raven shelves whitestreaked by centuries of crapping. This is where people leave their bones, this aspect of cliff, the place where we both were drawn. We saw on the ground the color of glass, stones cut for tools at the birth of Caesar, trash flakes of rock left behind to mark the ascension of the Ming Dynasty. And there, corn, a wooden thumb of a cob blossomed from dry sheets of husk. What did this celebrate? What civilization fell on this day? No broken pottery, Dirk said. I nodded in agreement. This was a time before ceramics. I dropped to my knees. I removed my hat. I slid my head into the crevice of a fallen boulder, peering into its dim protection, and there beheld a basket. It was an arm's reach inside, turned upside-down, a helmet left behind, stored here and waiting for the return. Eight hundred years old? No. The plait was older, over a thousand years, more likely. These were lithe canyon-bound people who once moved through this country. Dirk and I had studied their languages together, investigating the way they painted rock, and the lacing of designs on their pottery. We knew where they walked, their preferences for hunting. We saw how in one canyon they favored obsidian, and in another sugarstone-chert. We imagined their eyes on winter nights tracking the household movement of stars.
I went to a ledge where a piece of cliff had fallen away, leaving a shadow behind. I took off my hat and slid my head into the shadow, straining to see a place where the sun does not shine, where there is no wind. A basket lay there. It had been turned upside-down, left that way so that nothing would gather inside of it.
Even in poor light, I saw the basket's weave, its tightness, layer over layer in a beautiful redundancy of form. I saw the sturdiness, fingers set to their task, a repetition of canyon and wind, the world cast into a basket through the burning lens of humanity. Its style dates back to about 1,500 years ago. Something old.
I pulled my head away, back to the light, and looked at Dirk. Bingo, I said.
We spent the afternoon there. When we left, the basket stayed.
It is there now. You will never find it.
There is a route that is invisible. It is a trick, a smooth cliff maybe 900 feet tall, with a ledge tucked out of sight. The only way the route became visible to us was years ago when we looked up and saw a line if bighorn sheep, desert gods. They were suspended on the wall, a line of magicians. The ledge wraps around into a canyon that is otherwise a dead pour-off. It is a passage into an unknown world, a place that does not exist. It is the space between things. When you are there, you do not age. You do not remember or forget.
Dirk calls it the Disillusionment Route. He's apt to name things that way.
Getting there requires a bit of rope, for the packs. And then crawling across the ledge, because it is a sandwich - it has a low stone ceiling. You can't stand up. There is a crux, a piece of ceiling that fell long ago blocking the way. I do not know how bighorns do it. You have to hold onto the boulder with your fingertips and hang your body over open space, feet, legs, and torso dangling into the sky.This time, day ten - or was it day fifteen - I went first. I hinged around the obstructing boulder and came out the other side, almost to the end of the ledge bending around the cliff. I turned and looked ahead where I saw the eyes of a ram looking back at me. A male bighorn sheep, only its head stuck out, peering around the last corner of the ledge, seeing who was making such a racket, issuing such a smell. We locked gazes for a moment and I saw, around its neck, a thick leather collar laden with a radio transmitter.
The animal's location was being broadcast to an aluminum foil satellite hurling around the earth. It was the first solid evidence of civilization I had seen other than passenger jets cruising the sky. I wanted to say to it, I understand. I feel the leather cutting into my own neck, a transmitter I do not understand myself. Here, I have hands, I can unbuckle that burden and take it from you.
But the ram knew about hands, and their tricky, grotesque little digits. He knew what they were used for. That was how he got this affliction in the first place. He had felt the prick of a dart, had lain in our arms, brain commanding him to flee while his muscles refused any order. He had rolled his eyes in delirium, thinking it a horrible dream. He woke with this proof hanging from his neck, telling the exact location of the Disillusionment Route, a red dot blinking on a computer screen, a number ratcheting out on a printer in a researcher's office.
Here, I can take that from you, please.
The ram puzzled me out quickly, and it ducked from sight once it knew who I was. Gone, just like that, it shot back into the netherworld.
I am sorry.
I looked at my hands. I looked at the sky. Twelve days in. Sixteen, maybe, I understood all too well how the ram felt.
Now it is you picking up my signal, my dot flashing on your monitor, my location broadcast onto your screen. I am nowhere, and now you know.