Photo by Josh Carter

Broken Badlands

I

WHEN WE ARE SMALL and close to the earth, there is more landscape than time. It’s only later that we forget. Only later that we begin to play pretend.

I was a dramatic child, often given to tears and declarations, and when angered or otherwise worked up, I’d rush from the house, the screen door clattering shut behind me, and race across the gravel road and throw myself into the dry irrigation ditch—there cry, seethe, toss rocks. After a time, I’d dry my eyes on my shirtsleeve and dig in the dirt, tally the few comings and goings along the far highway, note the gold hue of the afternoon hills. I might wander down the ditch to its thinning end, where it gave out into the field. Maybe a tossed rock would scare up a flock of grouse, their sudden hundred wing beats throbbing through me, their rise and long, synchronized glide like something from a dream.

No matter the particulars, the ditch did its work. My anger drained away. I came back to the house or went exploring in the fields or climbed the haystacks, but no matter where I went after, I was better, am better, for my time crouched down in the ditch.

 

II

THERE WERE so many people at the funeral, even more at the reception. I was nine when my father died, and after a plate of potato salad, baked beans, and roast beef, a bunch of us boys spilled out into the churchyard. We were all in our good clothes, but decided to play tackle. February, the sere grass brittle and slick, the dirt frozen hard, I fell and dirtied my knees. I caught a pass, and the thump of the football stung my hands. My team won. I was happy.

In the strange, grieving months to come, as the crowds of relatives and neighbors thinned, as everyone went back to their own lives, their own griefs and struggles, I’d shoulder open the door of the shop, that dark, greasy sanctuary, and wander among the detritus of my dead father’s work. Wrenches and chains and a red-bodied welding unit. Old tires and inner tubes. Buckets of grease and cases of motor oil and white, lifeless containers of pesticide and herbicide. On the high workbench were a stationary vise and all manner of hammers and saws and ratchets. His motorcycle was still parked there, a red Honda dirt bike with a length of PVC pipe stuck through the back rack and bungeed tight—that was where he carried his irrigating shovel, in the pipe. There in the shop, my father seemed so near. And even for the succession of men who ran our land—first friends and neighbors, then my brother and me for a few seasons, then a series of leasers—he never lost his place. The shop was always his. The tools too. And the ditches, the fields, the cottonwoods, the meadowlarks, coyotes crying in the night.

My father died. I lost my father. Yet he was all about me. I’m telling you the place took his place. They became one and the same. Like thin stalks, we rise. We sway and bloom. One day let ourselves back down. The places are what remain.

 

III

SIX MILES UP the Mosby Road, on the way to my grandfather’s ranch, there was a great boil of stark, burnt sandrock and scoria badlands. My mother often drove us out there to explore, to play hide-and-seek—and to climb. The badlands were dominated by a steep butte, an almost perfect cone, that rose up sharply maybe sixty feet from the shattered land below. Scree skirted the base of the butte, so we’d get a running start, slip and slide and scramble our way up through it. Farther up, scoria burned our hands and feet on sunny summer days. Nearly to the top a darker, softer band of rock ringed the butte. Blue-black and ashy, it stained our fingers.

On the small, windy pinnacle, we’d turn ourselves about. We knew we weren’t the first to stand there; we knew we kept the company of a thousand travelers and ghosts. There was a cairn atop the butte. A five-foot stack of flat sandstones, some of which must have been gathered below and hauled up. An intricate, exact assemblage, we approached it with awe. Touched it carefully. Or not at all. Our mother, who sometimes read a book as she waited for us and sometimes climbed up alongside us, said the cairn had been there as long as she could remember. Once, riding out to fix fence with my grandfather, I asked about it, and he told me cairns used to dot every lonesome corner of this far land. When you spent a long time alone, he said, a long time in the sun and wind, the dust and deep silences, a cairn was a conversation—with the landscape, with whomever happened to wander next through that landscape.

Though I don’t remember why, I one day drove out to the badlands by myself. I was in high school then, busy with other things, and save hunting season I seldom did much tromping around in the hills. Yet that day I drove out and scrambled up the butte and found the cairn knocked down. The rocks scattered, smashed. A couple of beer cans and a tin of Copenhagen left there as well. Though I was an idiot seventeen-year-old myself, I couldn’t think of who would do this. From atop the butte, I could see now the curve of the hill where my father was buried, I could see the bend of the road that led to what was left of my grandfather’s ranch. I felt myself knocked over as well, broken and scattered.

I dreamed the other night of every acre of the land we once called ours plowed and planted fence to fence with something low, curling, and brilliantly green, a color alien in that land of umbers and duns. I was on the highway but driving by so slowly. I tried to speed up. There was no accelerator. I tried to stop. No brake. I stomped and stomped but there was simply nothing there. No pedals at all. I swung my head about. I held the wheel hard.

 

 

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Joe Wilkins is the author of a novel, Fall Back Down When I Diepraised as “remarkable and unforgettable” in a starred review at Booklist and short-listed for the First Novel Award and the Pacific Northwest Book Award. He is also the author of a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers, and four collections of poetry, including Thieve When We Were Birds, winner of the Oregon Book Award. Wilkins grew up north of the Bull Mountains of eastern Montana and lives now with his family in western Oregon, where he directs the creative writing program at Linfield University.

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