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'Soul of Nowhere'

Craig Childs seeks shelter from a sudden rain in a sandstone alcove.
Howard Berkes, NPR News /
Craig Childs seeks shelter from a sudden rain in a sandstone alcove.

There are some landscapes in the desert Southwest where Craig Childs will walk for a month without maps, or even a compass. Maps often do no good in these wild reaches, the author and explorer says.

"You'd have [a map] in your hand and there would be an arrow pointing to where you need to go and you'd be standing in front of a cliff wall," Childs says. "There are places where to make one mile east-west will require eight miles north-south. It's just that kind of place."

NPR's Howard Berkes recently hiked and camped with Childs, a frequent commentator for Morning Edition. Childs' latest book is titled Soul of Nowhere: Traversing Grace in a Rugged Land about his desert explorations.

"There is this sense sometimes that the land is so huge..." Childs says. "Sometimes I've been way out there and I've just thought, 'God, I could close my eyes and I would be gone.'"

He says Soul of Nowhere is about what a rugged landscape does to you. "What would happen if you came to a place like this and give your life over to it? What would happen if I just went out there and walked? Thousands and thousands of miles of walking."

Childs says he picked the canyons and desert to write about because "it's more barren than anyplace else... The desert is just this cracked ugly place. And it's that ugliness that is the beauty that I'm after."

As Berkes describes it, he and Childs head up a "squat mountain of sandstone sprinkled with juniper." They are joined by artist Regan Choi, Childs' wife. "They spent their honeymoon here, among rock so twisted and gouged by wind and water, it resembles a choppy sea, frozen in stone," Berkes says.

They come across hundreds of waterholes, some as deep as swimming pools, some lined with gooey green water, teeming with tiny creatures, which resemble tadpoles with shells. They find a dry and sandy waterhole to lay out bedrolls and sleep beneath the stars.

Childs is always mindful of the dangers in this part of the world. He remembers visiting a sea of sand dunes in Mexico and Arizona with a friend after another hiker died.

The hiker "had dropped his pack, it was full of water and food," Childs says. "And he dropped items of clothing. There was this trail leading to him. And I know why it happened. I know that he was out there just going, 'Yeah, you're almost there.' That's partly delirium."

Childs says he survives in such situations by remembering that he's a storyteller. "You've got to come back and tell this story. You can't keep going. Because the end of this story is your death."

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Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.