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Journal of the Dead: A Story of Friendship and Murder in the New Mexico Desert by Jason Kersten

 

Rating: (Mildly Recommended)

 

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Dry

Two friends go camping in the desert and one comes out alive. What happened? Jason Kersten presents this story in his new book, Journal of the Dead: A Story of Friendship and Murder in the New Mexico Desert. Kersten, a journalist, lays out the story a piece at a time, much of it based heavily on court testimony. The macabre and sensational story is quick to read, but remains light on insight and short on writing flair. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 6 (pp. 56-61):

Just past the visitor center's west parking lot, a swinging cattle gate marks the beginning of Desert Loop Drive, the dirt road that leads to the Rattlesnake Canyon trailhead. Next to the gate is a brown park service billboard, covered by Plexiglas, with a brief description of the local ecology, a map of the road, and the same list of camping guidelines that Eash had read off earlier. Raffi and David passed this point sometime close to six P.M. Eager to make camp, they likely paid little attention to the sign, but it's there to remind anyone passing it that they are entering an unmitigated wilderness of Chihuahuan Desert.

A "hot, sandy place" is what the word Chihuahuan means in the language of the native Tarahumara Indians. It is not only the largest, but probably the least understood desert in North America. Unlike the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts to the west, it doesn't look like what everyone expects a desert to look like. "The Sonoran has the giant saguaro. that scarecrow of a cactus that children the world over know from Road Runner cartoons; the Mojave has the otherworldly Joshua tree with its spindly branches and starburst leaves, along with the dunes and salt pans of Death Valley. None of the cacti in the Chihuahuan get very tall, and sand dunes are rare. Vegetation carpets the landscape, but few plants grow more than two feet high. Almost all of them bristle with spines. The plant most emblematic of the Chihuahuan is the deceptively humble lechuguilla, a low-lying cluster of banana-shaped leaves that belongs to the agave family. It lacks the saguaro's brooding menace, but each rubbery leaf ends in a point that can pierce denim as if it were tissue paper. Every twenty years, the lechuguilla sends up a thin, woody stalk that resembles an eight-foot-high shaft of wheat. As Raffi and David drove deeper into the desert, the scattered blooms stuck up from the plateau. It was a surreal world of lonesome antennas.

The origins of that world were far to the south, in Mexico, where a battle between land and sea had been going on for more than 50 million years. Its fronts are two mountain ranges, the Sierra Madre Occidental in western Mexico, and the Sierra Madre Oriental, in the East. Moist air from the Pacific, the Sea of Cortez, and the Gulf of Mexico pushes inland from both coasts until it hits the Sierras and rises. The air cools and condenses above the mountains, showering them with rain, and by the time it reaches the interior there is almost no moisture in it left. Squeezed dry by the two great ranges, it disperses over an area of roughly 220,000 square miles, like a giant, empty cup. Deserts formed this way are called "rain-shadow" deserts, but the term is illusory. It rains only ten inches a year in the Chihuahuan, and shadows don't get much longer.

Raffi and David knew they would have Rattlesnake Canyon all to themselves when they arrived at the trailhead. No other cars were parked in the small dirt lot that lies right next to the road, and it was late enough in the day to assume none would be coming.

As far as camping gear went, they considered themselves well equipped. Desert survival books devote entire chapters pondering the precise list of items, right down to individual brands, without which people should never enter the open desert. Raffi and David indeed had some of the core items, such as pocketknives, hats, sunglasses, boots, flashlights, matches, Band-Aids, and cigarette lighters. But there were key items they didn't have—a compass, a signal mirror, binoculars, a whistle, and a first-aid kit. The rest of their gear was standard camping equipment that's good to have anywhere: for shelter, they had a tent, sleeping bags, and foam pads; and for cooking, they had a portable stove, fuel, three frying pans, dishes, and some Tupperware containers. To eat, they packed a can of creamed corn, a large can of beans, half a bag of hot dogs, some buns, and a few energy bars. Among the numerous trivial items they brought in were some playing cards and a few cigars. Raffi also brought along the journal and some pens.

When they were ready to go, they locked up the Mazda, shouldered their packs, and struck off down the trail. It was all downhill, and as they hiked, every fifty yards or so they passed rock cairns—fifteen-inch-high piles of white limestone—that marked the route down to the canyon floor. Now and then the trail would skirt an overlook, and they would get a view of the terrain below. It looked like a lonely backdrop from an old western: a rocky moonscape of canyon, cacti, and bone-dry riverbed.

After about twenty minutes, they reached the canyon floor, where they stopped to rest and drink some water. They both carried a pint bottle Raffi had bought (the third was packed away with their gear), and they chugged at them voraciously. Sunset was approaching, but the temperature still clung to the mid-eighties, and they had worked up a sweat on the way down.

The terrain was now flat, and they could camp anywhere they wanted. But as tired as they were, they elected to move on. There were only two directions they could go: up the canyon, following a trail to their right, or down it to the left. The trail down the canyon—or southeast—would have been the logical choice. It's the main trail, marked on the map by a bold dotted line. The trail up and to the northwest is lightly dotted—a "primitive route" according the key.

They took the trail less traveled. Turning right, they hiked up the canyon. After about a mile, they left the trail entirely, wandering another quarter mile up a side canyon to the west. The site they finally chose was next to a rock face on the side canyon's wall, where an abutting horizontal slab of stone provided a natural bench. They leaned the packs up against it, set up the tent, and prepared to eat.

Dinner was hot dogs and creamed corn. But as soon as they started to cook the dogs, they realized they needed water to boil them in. They opened the last full pint of water they had, poured it into the pot, and lit the stove. When the food was ready they had the first meal of their new adventure, quenching their thirst with a bottle of Gatorade.

Satisfied, they kicked back on the rocks and talked. Dusk was settling in now, profoundly softening the character of the desert. During the day's heat, Rattlesnake Canyon can seem hostile, but as the night's cooling begins, colors deepen and change as rapidly as the temperature, and the earth's iron reds and the cacti's pale greens buzz and glow with an almost hallucinogenic depth. They say that if you stare at the desert around Carlsbad long enough, you can envision the time when it was all water. The Capitan Reef is there in the shapes. Stare at that lechugilla stem long enough, and after a while it becomes something tunicate, a lonely sponge rising from the ancient reef. That prickly pear cactus, you suddenly realize, is not unlike a fan coral, while mice, rabbits, snakes, lizards, and road runners dart among the scrub like fish in sea grass. The primordial liquid roof is gone, exchanged for sky, but the fundaments of form remain.

Dave pulled out his camera and took a shot of their tent, neatly set up in a New Mexico canyon, so far from where they had started their journey. The friends had come a long way—about twenty seven hundred miles in only six days. They felt as if they were still racing down the highway whenever they closed their eyes to sleep. All that distance felt like quite an accomplishment. And there was still plenty more country to come. Tomorrow they'd get to see the caves, then head over to the Grand Canyon—wonders of nature they knew they'd remember for the rest of their lives. And there was California, which they'd make by Saturday. But thoughts of seeing the Pacific wore a wistful lace: that would quite literally be the end of the road, and they were old enough not to have many illusions. Their friendship as they had known it for the last few years would almost certainly be radically diluted by distance, time, and life's new courses. Oh, they'd promise to keep in touch, maybe even talk about taking another trip in the future or seeing each other over Christmas, but odds were that they'd never spend so much time together again.

As the sky blued into black, they chatted and passed the Gatorade bottle back and forth, finishing it off as the Milky Way pooled bright above them, bridging the gap between the shadowy canyon walls with impossible clarity.

After I finished reading Journal of the Dead, I wondered what the book might have been like in Normal Mailer or Tom Wolfe’s hands. As presented, Journal of the Dead is absorbing, somewhat strange, and light on insight.

Steve Hopkins, October 28, 2003

 

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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the November 2003 issue of Executive Times

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