Editor’s note: Craig Childs is scheduled to visit Colorado Mountain College at 6 p.m. on April 3 as part of One Book, One Valley.
I already was a fan of Craig Childs, thanks to “The Secret Knowledge of Water,” an Abbey-like look at the fundamental problem with deserts, and “House of Rain,” perhaps the best way for lay people to glimpse ancient pueblo civilization in the Southwest through archeology.
So even though I’m naturally averse to group think, reading clubs and such absurdities as “One Book, One Valley,” sure enough, I found myself reading “Finders Keepers.”
Truth was, I’d let Childs slip, much as I admire his work.
But I’m still with him in my imagination as he sits in a sandstone pond fed only by inconsistent rain, tickled by fairy shrimp and the like at sunset; as he and a buddy jump into a flash flood in Chaco Canyon and float with it for miles to where it peters out; as he wades and swims glistening pools while stringing his way down from the rim, plunge by plunge, with 70 feet of webbing to the bottom of the Grand Canyon as he follows a flood that killed two people.
He stoked my already healthy fear of flash floods in canyon country, and through “House of Rain,” he gave me the key to surprising discussions with my son studying anthropology at the time at Fort Lewis College. By “surprising,” I mean as in stunning that Dad had any clue at all about tying pots to different cultures by their markings or about the various ruins scattered across the area. Definitely not in the old dude’s normal wheelhouse.
I’m not a desert guy, although I loved Edward Abbey’s classics centered in the region. Armchair is close enough. I’m far more drawn to the mountains and the ocean, the pretty places, right?
Childs, actually a stronger writer than Abbey, got me quickly with how he turns a sentence. Like a guitar player admiring Hendrix or Santana, we journeymen snap to when we notice a true talent.
He also has a great knack for weaving his own story and adventures into the greater tale. The reader gets this blend of research, anecdote and sense of being there with Childs, whether as a dumbass in Chaco or parrying with his interview subjects.
It’s a powerful way of storytelling, and journalism, in a style I often share in pale form.
He also is more of a bootstraps writer — I’m guessing that compulsion caused him to rise naturally from gas station attendant, camp cook, raft guide to distinctive author and lecturer.
And then the outsized quest for adventure and love of the wilds. He lives with his family under a monolith in the Crawford area, Needle Rock, which sweats boulders and makes his home a bowling pin. He told The New York Times that he likes the bit of extra awareness that comes with living in such a place.
With “The Secret Knowledge of Water,” Childs joined my personal pantheon of authors including Abbey and Tristan Jones, a British navy man who wrote about his next life adventuring in his small sailboat.
Abbey and Jones were writers I aspired to, well, ape while a 20-something wildland firefighter who packed their books, along with no end of Louie L’Amours, for the long in-between moments in that biz — nighttime mop-up shifts, waiting on helicopter rides, bedtime at camp so there’d be something besides root, rock, dirt and fire in my head as I went to sleep.
In this riff, I just realized I haven’t even gotten to “Finders Keepers,” the One Book One Valley read this year, and the first of this sort I’ve picked up.
The subtitle is “A tale of archeological plunder and obsession,” which neatly sums it up. Childs explores the taking of relics by the professionals, the looters and casual travelers across the Four Corners and beyond.
It’s essentially a philosophical tract heavily leavened with anecdote, adventure and fundamental journalism. And Childs is right there, too, in all his glory and failing often enough to live up to his own implied creed. Perfect.
Alone, with a group, whatever, the book strikes me as important. We’re not at the epicenter, like, say, Blanding, Utah. But we’re close enough geographically and as a relatively conscientious and thoughtful community to the issues that Child raises to make this a must read. Also, more than a handful of people with collections from antiquity live here full or part time. There’s a pang or two in the book for them, too.
Maybe more interesting for me is meeting, through Childs, characters like Forrest Fen, an octogenarian multimillionaire in Santa Fe with a large private dig of ruins on land he bought for the purpose and who claimed he buried $1 million to $3 million worth of treasure in the Rocky Mountains for the finding (no one yet); and discovering places like Dunhuang on the edge of the Gobi desert between Tibet and Mongolia. There hundreds of manmade caves held ancient art and manuscripts including the Diamond Sutra, oldest known printed book that predated Gutenberg by 600 years. It was found in 1907 by a Brit archeologist collecting for the Empire and sending long camel trains filled with loot back along the Silk Roads to London.
These are just two of the anecdotes that build the book into not just a case, but literature.
I realized that Childs had taken on celebrity status for me in the summer of 2009, when my son interned at Mesa Verde National Park as an interpretive guide.
One evening, my wife handed me the phone. “It’s Ben. He’s got something to tell you,” she said with a big smile.
“Hey, I just met Craig Childs.”
I was so jealous.
Editor and Publisher Don Rogers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 970-748-2920.