The Devil's Fingers

I’m tempted to call the place unyielding, but I don’t think I can: it gives so much. I’m referring to a series of four canyons near the northern range of the Chihuahuan Desert, some forty miles south of Marfa, a place called The Devil’s Fingers. We thought there were three main canyons, but when we flew over it on our return home we discovered a fourth one; it was huge and deeply red. Another vast spread of rock is a kind of ochre that suggests it’s ripe with uranium. From the sky it’s easy to see what’s not nearly so apparent on land: watercourses from numerous directions converged here millennia ago. Helped by volcanic eruptions, they shaped this place jaggedly and deeply. On our trip there we saw that great chunks of lava had landed miles from the core of the explosions. The canyons are huge, but there are few paths down into them, few ways at least to walk down, even precariously. Falling is possible almost everywhere.

An arroyo spills its dry winding way through smooth and rough mounds of lava. Several black formations even preserve the image of gigantic bubbling. Near the floor of the canyon are a couple of springs, but the riverbed stays dry. The average yearly rainfall here is about seven inches. In places, even prickly pear cactus dries up into clusters of papery brown fans. At a particular turn of Dry River, however, a spring’s flow drips from the bank into a thick spread of maidenhair fern. Another spreading clump of it grows across the sandy, pebble-rough bed. We couldn’t find the source of that second spring, but there must be one there. Still, about ten feet away at a two o’clock angle from the oddly placed first growth of ferns is the thick dead trunk of what had once been a large mesquite. Sometime back, its roots had lost their sources of water. Or was it the will to live that had disappeared? Not far away we saw another mesquite. It was in poor circumstances, too, but its largest visible root hung exposed in open air for at least four feet before entering the hard earth again.

Much of the world here looks scorched. At the same time there are images of ripeness. In the distance petrified volcanic ash whitens the mountainside; the alluvial flow, called tufa, looks like snow. Today, though, only the wind brings us cool relief from what is often unforgiving heat. Because of a bad mountainbiking spill the week before, I’m using a cane to support me on the rough jaunt. Even on flat land it’s hard to walk without it. I am, though, managing the changeable land here, but maybe not as well as I think. I’m soon handed a long dried yucca stalk. It’s as tall as I am, so now I have two supports on the barely visible paths we’re maneuvering at the edge of a steep slope. I feel safer than I did several moments before.

There are two photographers with us. We plan to do a book on the place. Today we’re being introduced to it. We’ll have to come back, of course, a number of times. We’ll have to camp in the valley, and perhaps we’ll bring a burro to help carry supplies. It’s too long a trip down to stay in the lean-to on the ridge. Because of the glare here we’ll need early morning light and late afternoon and early evening light; and walking down into the canyons or up out of them in the dark is no option. We won’t, however, stay the night here, not this time. The extended jaunt will have to wait till fall. The javelinas shouldn’t be so protective of their young then; and if the mule deer return–they’ve apparently been gone for awhile, we’ve heard–we’ll also need to think about mountain lions. Bighorn sheep are possible, too. They’re scarce, but today we’ll see two large ones before we head back to Marfa.

What mainly draws us is the rock, the raggedly deep gouges in stone. They came from earthshifts. They came from erosion. Thinking that the density of this place seems greater than that in the Grand Canyon or the larger Copper Canyon, the Barrancas del Cobre in Mexico, I suddenly realize that the colorful images in the distance can be dangerous. Intrigued by what looked like a gloriously long cave in the sheer rock wall across the way, I lost my balance, my yucca stalk getting caught in a wiry clump of weed. There’s more here to alter your equilibrium than gravel, loose dirt and rock. One shouldn’t forget that. It’s easy to fall, and there’s little brush to brace you if you do. It’s a long and treacherous way down; and if you have a fear of heights, as I do, defying that fear won’t relax you much. At least it doesn’t me. Somehow, though, there’s a power in the land that’s more intense than spasms of caution.

There’s a complex of reasons why we’re here. We’re preparing for more than a coffee table book. We’re preparing perhaps to deserve to be parts of that book.

For now, my two sticks and my left leg are my main guides and support. My smashed right hip, however, is handling the climb better than I expected; but I need to be careful not to twist it. The pain from certain torquing might be my undoing. A sudden jerk could send me sailing down a mean slope. My balance is precarious. Apparently noticing that, one of my friends asks how I’m doing.

“It’s not that it doesn’t hurt,” I reply, quoting Lawrence of Arabia who I call an old friend, “it’s not minding that it hurts.” He made the remark while being tortured. The cocky chatter, however, doesn’t do me much good, not here. It might be useful in certain knotty situations on what we call the street, but it’s probably not effective–at least for me today–on a short idea of a goat path, for the path we were on has disappeared.

Glancing at the two who are ahead of me–they’ve both been here before–I stop for a moment to figure out how to zigzag my way up. There are several possibilities. A number of them aren’t good.

I keep remembering the desert willow we saw awhile back. I’d never seen one before. Their little flowers are usually bright yellow, but sometimes you’ll find them white. There were other plants, too, that I hadn’t seen before, like ephedra. They’re dried out and spiny this time of year. One of the photographers said we might need some of the visions that the plant promises. It’s amazing what tricks of perception sudden changes in heart rate can perform.

Earlier today, on the bank of Dry River, we found some desert walnut trees. Their little nuts are almost as hard as rock. We broke a couple open, but the amount of the meat was tiny. No matter how many of them one might find, there is little to feast on here, except visually. The quarry available for the eyes, however, is abundant. The possibilities of imagery and thought seem endless.

As I hitch my way up the friable terrain, sensations of mortality seem more than passing notions. One long, one short, my two sticks stab the ground to give me a tolerable semblance of balance. I find myself wondering: How many stories have occurred in this place? The question at first seems foolish, but I don’t have in mind the areas surrounding and relatively near the Fingers. Those places are thick with ghosts driven by sin and intrigue and adventure and redemption and grief. What I have in mind is what has occurred within the deep canyons. Water and food are impossibly scarce there; and that seems to have been true for centuries. In fact, one of the more active field biologists at the university told me that he didn’t much care for the place.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Not enough animals,” he said.

Even sightings of snakes are rare, the world stripped down to something more primitive than bone. The place has, however, made gestures toward the exotic. The paleontologist who bought it, site unseen, from a nearby rancher then willed it to the university, once found some fossilized monkey bones in a canyon. Now, though, the closest thing to a skeleton that one is likely to find are the bonelike year-old remains of cholla, but there’s even little of that in the valley. There were, however, remnants of what had once been cottonwoods. They aren’t alive any more, and the world here even seems to have gotten too rough for creosote, or maybe the soil is simply wrong. Ocotillo, with a splash of red on the tips of its long thin stalks, offers sudden bursts of color. All of the tallow, though, seems to have been burned out of the candelaria, so we won’t be making any torches. Drought is a fact of life here, but so is the oddity of maidenhair fern in the desert–and the inclination toward metaphor, that perception of linkage between the dissimilar. That, after all, was perhaps the first way that we and our ancestors began to understand those portions of the world that are inside us yet beyond us, the way, at least for now, The Devil’s Fingers are.

James Hoggard is a poet, novelist, essayist, translator, and Professor of English at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls. His most recent books are Medea In Taos & Other Poems and Rain In A Sunlit Sky.

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Published at 12:00 am CST