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Know the West

In the throat of a black hole


I am standing over this crevice of Antelope Canyon, a thin fissure in the bedrock of far northern Arizona, a tourist attraction on the Navajo Reservation. It is dark down there, as if I am looking through the cracked roof of a mosque into an unlit interior. A metal ladder leads down and I follow it. There are others with me, friends. We paid $17.50 each to a reservation concessionaire to enter. We wait, one at a time. There is hardly enough room to squeeze inside. On the rim above, a hand-painted sign warns of flash flood danger.

Below the surface of the wash, inside of the crack, the ground spreads open. The ladders lead down farther, the canyon turning to a cavern. It is indeed a cave. It is a canyon underground. The sun is mostly shut out, the air suddenly cold. There is only one reason such a deep, slender canyon is here. Floods have carved it, leaving a thin space down within the bedrock. Its walls are sheer and close together, like the walls of two tall buildings almost touching, leaving barely enough room to walk through. Draped through the grates and bars of the metal steps are streamers of flood debris. Small stones are jammed into the spaces, forced down by pressure. The power of water on earth has never been so clear or so graceful. But for now, it is completely dry.

Sweeping in and out of each other, the rock walls look more like fabric than stone. The canyon slides around itself, a hall of mirrors. Huge fins and condyles of sandstone hang overhead, hundreds of tons of rock supported by nothing but curves. I walk. Slowly. The next ladder appears, and I drop farther, pausing so that I don't step on the head of the person below me.

We use trite adjectives when we talk. "Astounding," "beautiful," "unbelievable." They are the only words we can find. My head tilts back as the canyon deepens by a couple hundred feet. I am wondering if a human artist could ever reproduce something like this. In what medium? Perhaps marble polished by hand, or maybe silk. Down in the midday darkness, far too dim to even read, I see a tiny patch of something that almost resembles light on the wall above me. It is maybe a slight variation in the color of rock. I reach up and touch it. It is sunlight reflected and reshaped before getting this far down, turned into a slight stain on the rock.

I edge my body sideways to slide through the next passage, sandstone smooth on my hands. When I come into a yawning space, the canyon walls weaving overhead, I see a friend of mine standing in the middle. The sandy ground beneath him is as flat as a stage. He uses his entire body to describe to me the passage of water through here. His hands reach into the air. He is telling me about a fast, tight corkscrew 120 feet deep, how water acts like a lathe against every surface. He describes a single rock's passage in a flood. It would be hurled through like an electrified pinball. Around and around and around.

"Think about being a person inside of this," he says. "There is no way out."

I walk around him, examining his giant corkscrew flood. The rock walls mirror the path of water. I can see every turn it would take, a monstrous whirlpool sucking from the ceiling to the floor, carving out a passage as smooth and curved as the bowl of a spoon.

I look at him and say, "Did you know that one person survived a flood in here?"

I look back up to the corkscrew, continuing to walk around him, tracing the flood with my eyes. When I come around to his face again, I ask, "What does it mean that somebody was shot from the flood, just cannonballed right out of the canyon alive?"

He doesn't have an answer for that. I don't have an answer either. The mechanisms of water are unbearably complex. A tension is created between the resistance of stone and the erosional power of moving water. This shape that remains - a long, narrow mansion full of dark walkways and parlors - is a geomorphological search for resolution.

I am here seeking resolution, as well. I struggle to find a balance between darkness and hope. I can't find the sharp line that I want between the two, not in this canyon. Everything in here is circular, hard to define, with no explicit angles. Severity, elegance, terror, and beauty are inseparable in Antelope Canyon. It is hard to make sense of it because I live in a human world where things are labeled either good or bad. That this canyon and its floods are neither does not sit well with this way of thinking.

We are ventriloquists whenever we speak in here. Our voices turn around and come out someplace else. Every time I move a matter of feet, the sound of my speech or my motion changes from closet to concert hall back to closet. Even writing in my notebook, the scratching of my pen echoes in the tight spaces. I imagine that sound follows the same path as water, waves and ripples curling neatly into the alcoves. A shout would be a bursting wave splashing to the rim. But no one shouts. The canyon urges us to move quietly.

I walk into a room where flowers have been left on top of a rock pile at the back of a dimly obscured, ear-shaped chamber. Above the flowers are three names carved almost illegibly into the wall. The names will be taken out by the next flood. I recognize them. These are names of three of the people who died here, Elsa Pascual, Chee Chin Yang and Thierry Castell. It is strange to hear people speaking out loud in this memorial room - or in this canyon at all. There is a bit of general laughter, a half-posed photo taken. I remember that the people who last died here had cameras with them. They were equally enchanted as they walked through.

To die here, I think, would be like dying in the throat of a black hole in space. Every physical law is brought down to its most principle form. Sound and water and stone and light are the same, equally reshaped in the search for resolution. These people's bodies were stolen into a perfect place. I cannot speak for them or for their surviving families and friends. But I can ask for myself. Would this be the perfect place to die? It would be a swift and difficult death, I know that. Even ghosts are scoured clean from this place. I try to shake the thought from my head, because I remember that children were left behind, their parents killed here where I am standing. I know details about the dead, jewelry that they wore, hobbies, friendships. I spoke with people who pulled the bodies free of the chaotic muck left behind, and I saw the distracted pain of their faces.

I imagine that they died like this, like us walking through today. Just down here traveling, living life, aghast at the beauty. Each thinking separate thoughts when suddenly, all have the same question: What is that rumbling sound? Then, oblivion.

One of the people with me here is from Australia. He is a world traveler. Running his hand across one of the walls, feeling the pecks and divots left by flood rocks, he tells me that it reminds him of European cities. "Many of the buildings are pocked by bullets and shrapnel from the wars," he says. "All of these marks left in the walls feel like war scars."

We each move up to the wall and caress the holes. "You can feel each rock," I say. "Like here," my finger swiping into a long scratch. "It was a fist-sized rock carried down by a flood."

One woman takes a closer look. "Or a belt buckle," she suggests.

A man glances at her. "You can't say that. That's bad juju."

There is a bright place ahead of me. It looks like a blinding spotlight shining against the floor. I walk to it. The walls around glow in blushing light. This is the only place where sunlight comes directly through, hitting the floor. It is the shape of a dagger, so bright I cannot look straight into it. I stretch my hand out. A stark shadow breaks the ground. I turn my hand in the light, studying it, feeling the pulse of warmth.

I wonder, is this what they were thinking before they died? I open my hand so sunlight lands in my palm. My hand looks as if it is burning white hot. Were they immersed in the strange beauty of this canyon, in its quirks and miracles, a hand held into a sliver of sunlight, when they heard the sound of a flood moving through like a locomotive? Did they know what it was? When they saw it, did they have any idea that it could be true?

Craig Childs lives in Crawford, Colorado, with his wife, artist Regan Choi. He is the author of The Desert Cries (Arizona Highways Books, 2002), from which this essay was excerpted, and The Secret Knowledge of Water (Little, Brown & Co., 2001).

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Craig Childs