Wallace Stegner citations are a commonplace in High Country News. Stegner, a writer and historian, is our bard (if we have one), and perhaps most familiar to HCN readers for his call to Westerners to create a “society to match the scenery.”

Now comes a Colorado writer who quietly turns this idea on its head. In his latest book, Soul of Nowhere, Craig Childs suggests that Stegner’s wish is as inevitable (and prevalent) as earthquakes, wildfires and floods. Soul of Nowhere finds Childs chasing down jackrabbits in southern Arizona, clambering around cliff faces in Grand Canyon, and navigating sandstone mazes where it takes a week to go five miles.

In short, there is a lot of Childs getting into trouble and getting out of it. But this is not merely adventure-seeking for adrenaline’s sake.

Everywhere he goes, Childs notes the traces of past desert travelers. In these remnants, Childs sees a pattern of art and architecture that mirrors the landscape: High, narrow cliff dwellings tucked into the narrow notches of central Arizona’s Mogollon Rim; swirling, psychedelic rock art left by nomads in central Utah; Anasazi tree-trunk ladders wedged into cliff faces above the Colorado River.

For Childs, these artifacts are not accidents, but evidence of a basic force of nature. He maintains that the land expresses itself through us, no matter what we do. If the pottery sherds and crumbling ruins of the Southwest are any guide, society will be brought to its knees and forced into compliance by the scenery.

Childs thinks on a different time scale than most of us, but he may be right in suggesting that the land will have the last word. Even societies that matched the scenery quite well couldn’t last in the arid West.

— Adam Burke,
Radio High Country News

A Radio High Country News interview with Craig Childs is available on CD. Contact adam@hcn.org, or call 800/905-1155. Craig Childs’ book is Soul of Nowhere: Traversing Grace in a Rugged Land, Sasquatch Books, 2002. 240 pages. Hardcover: $22.95.

From Soul of Nowhere


“These Salado cliff dwellings are inseparable from the cliffs that they inhabit, as blended and fine-tuned as a brown moth on tree bark. Pausing in this dwelling, I understood that I was at the meeting point where land and human graft into each other. This is where people were formed by the canyons, driven by their severity and sheerness to build spindles of dwellings in the rock. The land here changes us into its own shape. The very mechanics of my eyes and my way of seeing were being re-formed as I traveled. Wanting to sleep only in canyons. Induced to climb up into its cracks and hunker there. I was being taken in, as had the people before me.”

What he’s looking for:


“People seem to respond to the landscape by becoming it. You can’t defeat this landscape because it is so primal. You have get in there and bend to it. And the people who painted there (on the redrock walls), the people who built their dwellings and their granaries there, they figured out how to bend and match the landscape with their lives. The landscape just embedded itself in these people. It was in their blood and it would have come out in their brush strokes on the wall. I spent a lot of time trying to see back that far and see what it is that the landscape had done to them.”

Why he goes to the edge:


“Your mind just shuts off and you’re going on something much older and something much more intelligent — none of this rhetoric of the brain. And that is what happens to me in those moments, where I am not going through my usual chatter. That boulder over there? I am the same thing as that boulder. That wind I can hear in the distance? There isn’t a difference between me and it. This is a landscape. I am one of the things in this landscape.”

— excerpts from a Radio HCN interview