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November 05, 2010
Entering the Dunes

Absolute desolation, not a single living thing to the horizon.

Don't panic.

Barefoot on a crest of sand, I stop and adjust a strap across my shoulder. A couple quarts of water hang against my back, enough for a day but no more. By nightfall we will reach a cache, several days more water in canvas-covered bladders buried in sand and out of the sun.

From the high edge of this dune I can see everything, which is nothing. A gauze of windblown sand flows steadily across soft and carnal forms, sand dunes spooning into each other, fields of oblivion. I've never seen it so dry. Rain gauges have flatlined in northwest Mexico's Gran Desierto de Altar, the country's great northern desert where after four years of solid drought there are no longer sidewinders, and no kangaroo rats. Death has come and gone, leaving the dunes empty. A quarter mile to my left my partner crosses in and out of view, the two of us making a long arc through cups of transverse dunes. On some years white, fragrant lilies uncurl from the sand. Flowers and grass come up and powder your legs with pollen. Not this year, nor the last four. And not for the foreseeable future.

We keep to north sides of dunes, sand on the south hot enough to blister skin. It's a dance, navigation circuitous . Almost noon, clear light seals the country. The only shade is under my hat brim where my head is starting to feel like a soft, cooked apple.

The body wants to panic. The mind says it's all planned out. When the first cache empties, there is another to pull from, and beyond that another. We've seeded the desert with water in bladders and plastic jugs, nothing to worry about. Just follow the water.

This time of day water leaves too quickly, no palpable sweat, the air steals it and crusts my skin and clothes with salt. Too hot. Not enough shade. Body overrides mind. I veer left toward my partner, sliding down off this high dune, legs plunging calf-deep as if post-holing through snow.

I am here from lower Manhattan, where I had been staying in early September. The year is 2001. I had stood on the street with my neck craned watching the World Trade Center towers overhead like a pair of burning torches. Close enough I could see flames pressing against glass floor by floor, close enough to distinguish the plunge of architecture and burning office supplies from a man or woman jumping from over a hundred stories. The first building fell and everyone ran. By the time the second tower collapsed, I had slipped behind another building and felt its impact under the street like the roll of a kettle drum.

I left the city nine days later on an almost empty plane, soon got in touch with a long-time traveling companion and asked if he would join me in the Gran Desierto.

The safest place I can imagine is out here. You ally yourself with older processes, the world ending at a different pace.

The Gran Desierto is the lopsided, bottomed-out bullseye of North American deserts, a focal point of hyper-aridity ranked on the oft-used Köppen climate scale alongside the Sahara and the roasting interior of western Australia for its excess heat and lack of rainfall. It is tucked neatly between the Arizona border, the thirsty glimmer of the Sea of Cortés, and a pair of Mexican two-lanes dotted with llanteras built of scrap, inhabitants sitting in the shade waiting for the next broken down car to show up. At several thousand square miles, the Gran Desierto is a relatively small piece of great aridity, a miniature Saudi Arabia seen from space as a tan, wind-shifted zone interrupted by the black thumbprints of dead volcanoes and barren razorback mountains. On its west side is North America's only bona fide erg, a sand dune sea.

My load is simple. The best gear doubles as something else. A wool serape I sleep in is rolled up with a hood full of water bottles and food, a strap passed through the roll and over my shoulder to make a pack. I wear a sarong, a sheet of thin, colorful fabric as a skirt that I also sleep in. Button-down cotton shirt, sunglasses, hat; I show as little skin as possible.

In half an hour I intercept Devin Vaughan, tall, wiry man dressed much the same, dusty arms roped with veins. He studies me, sees the redness of my face. Attentive, good map-reader, uncanny sense of direction, Devin is the sort of person you want by your side when it all goes to hell. He and I know each other down to metabolism, the time of day a man shits, and what hour he grows dizzy in the sun. I am always the first to drop. Mid-day comes early for me, sensitive in the heat, water-fat, pale-skin.

I gotta go under, I say.

Devin agrees. Even for him it's hot.

We pick a clean, steep canvas on the north side of a dune some 400 feet tall and paw into it. Elegant streamers and veils glide down the slope. This happens most days, digging troughs the lengths of our bodies where we fit ourselves inside the way ancient Egyptians must have once shoe-horned their dead into cramped sarcophagi. Hands working like flippers, writhing deeper, we cover ourselves back over, toes and shoulders last to go. Our heads remain; hat brims, a crescent of shade, jawbones half-submerged in spindrift. Weight settles in. We wait for the long day to pass.


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