Raconteur, essayist, and NPR commentator Childs (The Secret Knowledge of Water, 2001, etc.) offers a memoir of mad-dog adventures in desert badlands.
Unlike most of his writing peers—or just about anyone else, for that matter—Childs has actually lived in places few travelers would dare enter. He’s dined on roadkill, homemade posole, and wild game. (His spirited account of killing a jackrabbit is not for the squeamish.) Here, he recounts his adventures walking the hard desert ground on the trail of the ancient Anasazi, Hohokam, and Patayan peoples. Our hero can usually be found balanced on some precarious rim with broken rocks far below him, or entering places “where even animals can’t reach.” As he travels, Childs exults in loneliness, ponders why the ancient desert folk disappeared so swiftly and with so few traces, and conjures up arresting metaphors and images to describe the tortured landscapes through which he passes. “Going into this country is like cutting open a fish,” he writes. “Down here is a different universe, a gathering place where migrating neotropical birds announce their presence with exotic, watery voices. This is the deep snare into which everything falls, building a chaotic, tumble-down terrain.” In all this, Childs steers clear of the sentimentalism and preachiness that mar much contemporary nature-writing, crafting instead a friendly, robust, eyes-wide-open vision of what it takes to be at home in the desert. (“Everything around me was a predatory landscape.”) If there’s a flaw here, it’s the occasional purplish prose sometimes so lush as to verge on eco-porn. But he’s entitled to his celebrations: after all, he knows this difficult country better than just about any other writer.
Superb, meriting shelf space alongside the best of Edward Abbey, Mary Austin, and Frank Waters.