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  • I went south from Baker to find some petroglyphs. A blue sign at the edge of town warned: NEXT SERVICE 75 MILES. The road ran straight and empty through flat brown plains rimmed by low dark mountains. Some miles ahead, I was told, an unmarked BLM road on the right would take me to a box canyon with petroglyphs. Once I was in the canyon there would be a metal sign. A prairie falcon followed the road, hunting. It was dusk and his shadow flickered across the low grass far to his east, offering no warning to the creatures in his path.

    There was a man walking along the road.

    He wore a ragged black poncho, black pants, a shapeless black pack and a striped felt top hat. He held out his thumb. Worn face shrouded by hair. I didn’t stop and he shrank behind me, a solitary figure still miles from anywhere.

    The road began to rise, aiming for a notch in a small ridge ahead. The form of the man dissolved black against the black road, and it melted also in memory, a foil to this unhuman landscape whose shape I could not hold. When I saw him, I saw nothingness, and into it he fell.

    Two burrowing owls flew from the road. A badger loped through the grass. The hunters of night were awake.

    Beyond the ridge, the road dropped into a vast plain. Light earth dotted with green sage. To the east along the darkening sky were mountains ribbed with exposed rock. To the south the plain simply tapered to the horizon. Barbed wire fence—just gnarled logs and wire—marched rulerstraight across the empty space. I tried several roads, each unmarked and gravel. One led me to a family of pronghorn, but none to a box canyon with petroglyphs. I couldn’t think of where any of the roads could possibly go. There was nothing human as far as I could see.

    The sun had nearly set when I found the road. It ended abruptly at a wide wash, the only interruption of the otherwise glassy plain. Where the road ended, the wash suddenly contracted to a narrow rock chute. There was indeed a sign.

    A canyon wren sang and the first stars began to shine.

    I saw the petroglyphs—faint etchings, pale on the dark rock. Stylized bighorn sheep, men, turtles, snakes, shapes I could not read. They lined the walls high up; maybe floods had since dropped the canyon floor.

    It was a letter addressed to us by now-dead grandparents, ones we didn’t know but ones who seemed to know us. Ones who saw ahead of us all the same choices they had made. All the trials and all the errors, all the struggles and all the triumphs. Ones who saw, dressed in different robes, the same fundamental choices ahead. All the same questions. Here was the work of an extinct people above whom the same stars had shown, and I took no pictures lest I defile something sacred. I gazed at shapes and wondered if they were profound—ancient man’s vision of himself and his world. The canyon was easily a day’s journey from water; they couldn’t be idle doodles. I wondered but found no answer. But something stirred in them and they were driven to record what they had seen, and that I understood.

    I saw some big lizards and an abandoned falcon’s nest. Back on the road the grass that lined the asphalt glowed as the grain caught the last of the sun. The sun set, the mountains glowed pink, the sky grew gold, rosy, blue, black. A tiny shaving of moon hung low above black mountains to the west. The road reached both ways into desolation.

    My headlights caught the dark form of the man. He held his thumb but I passed by and in the receding red glow of taillights I saw him lower his arm and continue walking. I hadn’t seen another car the whole time.

    Back in Baker it was night and I sat on the porch and listened to the crickets. Earlier that evening I’d eaten dinner with a couple in their late twenties. Both worked aboard cargo ships and they had two months off. They were traveling around the country flipping a coin to determine their next destination. I could still see the shape of the man aflame for a moment in my headlights and I wondered just what string of chance had brought him exactly there. No water for miles, half a day’s walk from Baker, at least a day and a half from Milford. Where was he going? How much water did he have? Had he done something to get kicked out of a car that far from anywhere? When will he die?

    And I wondered just how far we follow chance down unknown roads.

    A big question, asked under sharp lights that dimmed the looming infinity of the sky, and I think the bright white porch and the starry night offered different answers. Was it the same uncertainty that moved the hands of the ancients in the canyon?

    The barn swallow nestlings were asleep in their mud nest above the door. Their parents were nowhere to be found. Asleep too.

    You always imagine them asleep somewhere else, not dead.

    And maybe next time that man will be me.

    And maybe next time I’ll get a ticket.

    And maybe next time she’ll step out into the sun.
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