Before I was born I would often come to this place. I do not mention this lightly—in fact, I seldom mention it all. People would not abide me if I spoke of this matter. But I would come here before I existed and I would drink from the stagnant waters and marvel at the sweep of the empty valley and the bite of the barren mountains. The sky ached. I would come here for the calm, for the certainty of my life and my death. This was soothing in the time before I was born and continues, almost against my will to still soothe me to this day. My life has not been soothing, what with the booze, women, drugs, and violence. So this place is very important to me, the place before I was born, the place after I die, the place of right now as I wait for dawn.
It is a desert, and like all deserts, clean to the eye and offensive to my ways. It refuses to allow for sloth or cowardice or evasion. It is thorns and heat and cold and scant water and, until the recent mass flight of Mexicans north, very few footprints—generally no footprints at all. Here I am left to myself and that is the hard discipline.
Torrents of people passed here on their way to the gold and many stayed in the graves that now sing to me at all hours. A man camped here a century ago and one moment he heard a bellowing and looked out and saw a man struggling with death and he saved that man and then wrote the first serious scientific paper on the curious path that leads to dying of thirst. A friend of mine re-enacted that paper and, of course, he almost died.
Floods of memory come to me at this place—I have camped here before—but then memory is always rich in the ground you knew before birth and will know after death. This is the comfort, to have this sense of belonging in the place you do not belong.
Days ago I stood far to the east, on the edge of this great empty. I was at a spot where a ranch once struggled. Now that particular ranch house is empty and slowly the rats and vandals take it down to the ground. The wind was up and made everyone edgy. A television crew stood me up against a creosote and drilled me for the camera. I spoke of beauty and of silence and of serenity and of the need for conservation, ecology, hell, everything but vegetarianism. Park, I said, we’ll make it a national park and treasure it until the end of time. As I spoke, a scientist was carefully placing rodent traps in the desert around me. The traps suggested we had real questions and this place would provide real answers that could be graphed and tabulated.
And as I spoke, the cameraman fiddled with the lens and the sound and the reporter kept a serious and profound face. And the wind licked at me and nearby I could see the cell of a storm, growing like a tumor off the side of a mountain. I spoke in a cheap language and did not mention the fact that I often came here before I was born. I stayed pretty much within the prattle of a kind of conservation blues song about this ground being a boon to our descendants who would come to visit a national park that we would create out of this terrain. I talked about the simple pure goodness of it all. I did not really believe a word of it. It was like the language a prisoner uses to communicate with an interrogator, a kind of official sing-song that skirts all the dangerous thoughts.
Now I am on the western edge of this huge empty, this void on the map that lacks a single resident and stretches east to west for more than one hun-dred miles. The jagged crest of the old rock mountain to my back picks at the sky as if the fabled vault of heaven were a scab irritating to the blazing earth.
I have lain here for hours in the darkness, awake but rested. Another storm threatened early in the night and then pulled off. I felt a few drops, then nothing. The coyotes sang, then left. The heat held. At three in the afternoon yesterday it briefly reached 119, then sagged back to a steady 116. With the night there was, yes, a slump in the temperature, but then the clouds rolled in from the east and it held again. The clouds also roofed over the sound, the rumbling from trucks on the Mexican highway about six miles away, just across the line, and so for hours in the night, the scream of diesels clawing up the grade, the hammering of air brakes on the downward slope, these cries and roars stomped against the desert and into my place. I hated the trucks and every driver of a truck and the road the trucks followed and the cargo in their trailers. Hated all of it as I sprawled out here under the low clouds and the wet-feeling air and the heat and I thought, there are too many of us. And this place is too small. My dreams now feel cramped.
I’d always come here for the dreams. The nature business was simply a ruse, just as going to a bar for company is a ruse. Everything is about dreams …
Excerpted and adapted from Inferno by Charles Bowden, photographs by Michael P. Berman (University of Texas Press). Reprinted with permission. On Saturday, May 6, the Stephen L. Clark Gallery in Austin will host a booksigning for Inferno with Charles Bowden and Michael Berman from 1p.m. to 4 p.m.