The desert holds no one’s footprints for very long.
April 10, 2015
I FOLLOWED PETER KOCH across the desert.
It was his land.
It did not belong to him.
But the desert and he were old companions.
The terrain was flat, sandy, devoid of any vegetation other than cactus, and the horizon was a straight line in the sky.
The sun beat down like a hammer.
No clouds had arrived.
Rain was only a faint rumor.
We walked across the sand while the wind erased our footprints, and I looked around me for landmarks.
There were none.
Distant mountains lay around me in the early morning mist without shape or form.
We had gone three miles, give or take a few hundred yards, and Peter stopped.
Only he knew when to stop.
No one knew or ever understood the desert like Peter Koch.
He had journeyed to the Big Bend in 1935 as a photographer for the Cincinnati Enquirer.
“Shoot the national park,” the editor said, “then come on home.”
Peter Koch shot the desert.
He never left.
The landscape had not changed, but the unbroken sands, as far as I could see or imagine, were thick with arrowheads and spear points fashioned from rocks spewed out by ancient lava flows.
He knelt down beside a fallen tree trunk lined with a row of perfect arrowheads. “Good,” Peter said. “Nobody has bothered them.” He grinned. “The last time I was here,” he continued, “I photographed them.”
“When was that?” I asked.
He frowned in thought, then said, “It must have been twenty-five years ago.”
Only Peter Koch knew where the ancient arrowheads and spear points were lying untouched.
Only he could find his way back in.
Those who tried it on their own might never find their way back out.
The grounds of the Plains Indians were his secret.
It was one he did not tell.
I might have well been tempted to write the directions, but I had no idea what they were.