Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs I’m headed for the high desert this week to get a fix of that alien landscape that is sure to be calling my name in the middle of the night all cold winter long.
And I’m going to take a friend whom I’ve never met along with me. It pained me last April to miss the local speaking engagement by Colorado author Craig Childs; I was on a flight to Connecticut when he appeared at Library Hall.
I’ll try to make up for it this week by bringing along a paperback copy of Child’s book “Soul of Nowhere.” No one writing about the American West today blends science, adventure and mysticism in their prose quite like Childs does. And few writers have penetrated deep into canyon country the way that Childs has.
When the harvest moon rises Saturday night I could be looking at it through the limestone spires of Bryce Canyon National Park. We could decide to wait for the moon to rise between the otherworldly formations in the Devil’s Garden down Hole in the Rock Road, then unroll our sleeping bags on the rim of Cottonwood Canyon. Or maybe we’ll perch on an unnamed crag somewhere along the Cockscomb.
The region where the Grand Staircase, Escalante Canyons and Kaiparowits Plateau merge into one another is one of fantastic geology and elusive water where, if you slow down and let them come to you, one can find remnants of ancient civilizations.
Childs is a more highly-evolved life form than I when it comes to immersing himself in the desert and allowing it to gradually reveal its truths. He’s the kind of explorer and writer who will spend days and weeks pushing his own boundaries to get deeper into the trackless desert. Childs will take risks to follow an ancient Puebloan route down a steep side canyon of the Grand Canyon.
In a chapter of “Soul of Nowhere,” he describes finding an intact Puebloan pot that was notable because it bore none of the painted geometric markings that are typical of the period.
After taking a good long while to admire the form of the pot and to sketch it, Childs buried it in an unmarked spot, memorizing nearby landmarks so that he could find it once again.
Three years later, Childs struggled to take a friend back to the spot where the pot lay hidden. The twisted landscape of slot canyons and narrow ledges still looked familiar and yet the bizarre rock formations seemed to have been altered.
“I knew then how easily a person could vanish here,” Childs writes in "Soul of Nowhere." “It is like walking through a constantly shifting illusion, routes appearing and decaying, the solvable and the utterly impossible snuggled so close to each other they cannot be told apart. I had thought then, ‘How can a person know a place like this?’”
When Childs was finally able to find his way through the maze, he carefully dug up the little white pot only to be stupefied at the appearance of traditional black designs on its curvilinear surfaces.
The author and his hiking companion finally deduced that the soil had been dry the first time that Childs unearthed the pot. This time around it was damp, and the moisture in the ground had brought out the ancient design.
The experience made Childs question what is real, and what is not.
“Today I found this changing pot, something that I thought could not be altered,” he wrote. “If I cannot trust the indivisible, what can I trust? I remained standing in the damp wind and the coming night, holding onto the ground with my eyes and thoughts, afraid to let go.”
It’s unlikely, but perhaps we will find our way to Child’s secret spot this week. More likely, we’ll find a place of power to claim for our own.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com