The Zen Curmudgeon

by Zak Podmore

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All day he walks ahead of me, his body lithe and his feet sure as he skirts the canyon’s edge. At times juniper branches grab onto my pack, but they never seem to touch his. After five decades in the desert, his bag is as much a part of him as the top of his head or the width of his shoulders.

Anywhere that can be hiked in a day is merely training, he tells me; anywhere that can be reached by a trail is for the tourists. The goal is to find a place where you can ask this question: How many centuries have passed since someone else stood here?

This landscape is alive with ancient traces--pictographs, cliff dwellings, arrowheads. He points to a crack running down a boulder like a lightning bolt and says, there’s a painted pot in there.

I believe him. He is seventy-one. Together we’ve lived exactly one hundred years.

The first day we hike for nine hours straight and in that time he never stops talking. Wild, ranging conversations and soliloquies and rants. He speaks of his past, local politics, the battles for Utah wilderness. He reads the fortune of our doomed town and our doomed state and our doomed planet, and explains that nothing is ever truly doomed. Tales flow from the years he has spent camping and hiking alone. Snooping, he calls it.

Again and again he takes a stand--controversial, untenable--and holds it against all my objections until I relent and he is free to walk out the line of his own reasoning. He then lets his argument guide him in a great arcing loop until everything he’d first claimed is knocked on its side. When he finally returns to where he started, he is holding some new view with as much conviction as the first. In the morning I pointed this out, but I soon realized to talk oneself in circles was exercise. Koans stretched across miles of slickrock. The point of a walk is to return to your door transformed, not hardened in your habits.

In nine hours, we pause only to down a fistful of peanuts and to refill our water jugs in a hidden spring.

He was once a poet and he recites lines to the moment. Upon crossing an ATV track and seeing the melted hunks of bottles and cans in an old campfire it is Richard Shelton:

This is the desert

It is all we have left to destroy

Years ago, he walked away from career after career to come here and walk. And eventually he left a marriage in the city to live closer to the canyons. The daughters he helped raise will hardly talk to him anymore. Now it’s feet to the ground every day.

What can the old hope for? he asks, quoting a question once posed to an Australian aboriginal elder. Strong legs, the man had answered.

Then he recites a few lines he wrote thirty years before:

I am learning to be an old man

It is slow work

I am taking my time

Every winter, he goes south to spend months among the saguaros, and he hikes both sides of the border fence. Once he came across two bales of marijuana laying in the American cactus--packed into tight green blocks and dropped on the run. He buried them for later.

This year he found a skull, a human skull, clean and white as paper in the moonlight. Two dark caverns of eye sockets guarded a little shade where a man’s memories once rode. Teeth lined the jaw. There were no ribs or femurs or vertebrae, just the skull. The ranger he notified told him this was not the thirst-driven death of a migrant; this was a message, a marking of territory. Like a dog pissing on a telephone pole. He shows me a picture on his phone.

In nine hours, his pace never slows, but as the winter light sinks into the afternoon rock, I notice how his boots began to scrape across ledges as we move uphill. It is as if he has to pause for them to catch up as one might pause for an old hound scrambling up a steep slope behind.

We walk through the sunset while he searches for the perfect campsite. He wants it to face east toward the rising sun. He insists it have a sandstone wall so he can wake up in his sleeping bag and lean against the wall while he drinks coffee in the first warm light. We never find the right spot. He worries we’ll run out of water tomorrow.

There are more days like this, but a week later, I’m in the canyons alone. I return and find the painted pot tucked in its hiding place. It is a seed jar, orange with red paint, and it’s at least eight hundred years old. I think of the thousands of artifacts that have already disappeared from this mesa. I sense the destruction creeping across the land even as I crouch in the quiet sunlight before the patient pot.

Leaving the jar where it belongs, I sit with a notebook. Koans, desert, doomed. Pen touches page and twenty words pour out for my friend with the strong legs:

Still walking ahead

The zen curmudgeon

Offers slickrock syllogisms

To the fading light--

We're fucked, he says,

Isn't it beautiful?

Student Picks: Bowden, Machado, Egan


Zak Podmore-- As someone who's spent a decade actively seeking out Southwestern authors, I was surprised to find a new writer at the top of a list that rattles around in my sunbaked Utah brainpan this year, a list I like to call "The Best Desert Writers Ever." Even more surprising was that the author, Charles Bowden, was only new to me. He died in 2014 at the age of 69 after a prolific career. I've devoured six of his books so far, all of which deal in varying degrees with violence along the U.S.-Mexico border (think Cormac McCarthy turned journalist).

Easily my favorite is Blood Orchid: An Unnatural History of America, Bowden's amorphous, genre-defying 1995 masterpiece that slides between reportage, memoir, history, and natural history. In a grinding, lusty tour that takes us from the age of Red Cloud and Sitting Bull to 1960s Tijuana whorehouses, from Argentina’s U.S.-backed Dirty War to the five-day wedding bender of a Mexican drug lord, Bowden explores the concept of “soul-death” with moral outrage, trenchant wit, and plenty of dark humor. It’s a hell of a ride but Bowden is a more than capable guide, whether through skid-row nights or the vast Sonoran wilderness.


K. A. Hamilton-- Released this October, Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Machado could not have been more aptly-timed. If 2017 was the year of the “silence breakers,” Machado’s book is about the silence. Her collection of stories exposes the consequences of having a female body so delicately as to leave the experience wholly intact.

In addition to an expert storyteller, Machado is also a weaver of form. One piece is told in the format of an episode guide to Law & Order: SVU, while another instructs the reader on how to adapt the tale into an oral telling, complete with recommendations on voices to use and actions to be taken in front of the audience. At one point she advises: “give a paring knife to the listeners and ask them to cut the tender flap of skin between your index finger and thumb. Afterward, thank them.”

It’s difficult not to feel a visceral connection to the experiences of Machado’s characters. To read Her Body as an open-minded outsider is an act of empathy; from the inside, one of catharsis.


Shawna-Lee Perrin-- I’ve been a little obsessed with Jennifer Egan’s writing this year. Most recently, I read her debut novel, The Invisible Circus, and the most accurate word I have for its effect on me is haunting.

The older sister, Faith, spent her short life chasing and creating magic, but ultimately ended her own life under mysterious circumstances. Her little sister Phoebe has spent the almost-decade between then and where the novel begins being cautious, sad, and socially isolated. Phoebe’s drive to understand her sister’s tragic end propels her to travel Europe solo, going where Faith went, seeking out her final journeys.

Egan depicts two very different experiences of coming-of-age: Faith’s insatiable lust for adventure and dramatic change couldn’t survive adulthood, while Phoebe’s extreme caution and nostalgia for her own past threatened to lock her away from the world forever. As Phoebe discovers truths about her sister and the people who loved her, the romanticism is yanked away; at first, this unfiltered view of her past is blinding, but as her vision adjusts, she can finally clearly see her way forward. Both paths toward adulthood are painful and dangerous, and Egan depicts both in vivid color.