Excerpt from Prologue
A BARTENDER at a crossroads tavern once passionately argued that this state is not a state at all. It is simply a space one must cross to reach other destinations: a highway; a road; a two-track across a sage and short-grass prairie; a space left by the erosion of wind; a frozen tundra and chalk-dry desert; a land for all that is damned, lonesome and hollow.
This vacuum comforted Hanna as she traversed the spine of a ridge, which she followed to stay away from the mud in the basin. She stopped and stared off across the space that was quickly turning white, as snow collected on sagebrush. She was anxious at the speed and intensity of the storm. “Ten minutes,” she said to the falling snow. “What’s ten or 20 minutes more?” The horizon appeared vaguely out of the grey sky and ran past her, up to the foothills, and then disappeared into the clouds. The ground was warm enough to melt the May snow; however, snow still collected on the leafy sage, and made the world appear black and white against the descending sky. If she were to die at this point in time, it would be a while before anyone found her. Coyotes and turkey vultures might eat parts of her. She was glad that such a place existed.
This area was at the extreme edge of the survey line, but she came here because she wanted to see if it was still here—where she had hidden it during the preliminary survey last year.
In the windless silence, she could hear the snow pelting her parka. It was odd that there was no wind with the sudden spring squall. There was always wind, but now the large, heavy flakes fell straight and fast from the sky, impossibly heavy, as if no cloud ever could have held them, quarter-sized plates of slush spattering loudly against the hood of her jacket.
She reached the large stack of granite boulders on the shoulder of the ancient moraine out here in the sage prairie, where the glaciers had come to die. The boulders sat upon the ridge, out of place, demanding the credence of geology, stating that megalithic events had occurred, and hundreds of feet of ice had made these ridges and then retreated back to a scanty few acres of dirty, crusty ice hidden deep in the mountains. She walked around to the south side of the moraine and went beneath the overhang of the largest boulder. It was evident that animals sought shelter here from time to time, leaving footprints and scat. They rested here in the warmth of the spring sun as the wind raked its way across the plains. In the center of the alcove’s floor there was a flat stone. She turned it over, brushed away some sand, and picked up the Clovis spear point that lay beneath it, remembering Tim’s words.
“I’d leave it,” he had said, annoyed to have left his survey transit down below, after she had waved and called him up to the site.
“What do you mean you’d leave it? This is huge!”
Tim watched the wind buffet her short blonde hair as she asked him to concur with her blue eyes. He wanted to agree, but settled for the truth. “I know. I’d leave it—and hide it,” he said, handing it back with an uneasy awe.
“You’re serious?” she asked, staring hard at him.
“Well, you’re the archeologist, but I’d bury it right where you found it—either that, or write it up and submit it to be archived on a shelf in a university basement. I’d say it belongs here,” he said, before striding back down the hill to collect the transit.
Hanna knew the Clovis would still be there. It wasn’t even a matter of faith. It was like swinging one’s feet out of bed in the morning, knowing that they would land firmly on the floor. Like the day she found it, when she saw the tiny alcove from the basin floor. She looked up and knew that there was something there, and she needed to see it. She was so certain that it was almost no surprise to find the long, perfect Clovis point that had waited there for thousands of years. It occupied the entire palm of her hand and had a vertical, central flute, which allowed it to be more securely hafted to the shaft of what was most likely the large arrow-like dart launched from a an atlatl throwing stick.
When she stooped inside the alcove and saw the shimmering black obsidian protruding from the sand, she knew that this was what she had come to see. She knew that this would make the entire day worthwhile. She knew that someone had sat here in the sun, or had perhaps come in out of the spring snow, and left her this beautiful, black obsidian Clovis. Perhaps it was when the glaciers were still on the other side of the moraine, plowing south, or when a theoretical, altithermal period baked the land for a few millennia. An ancient person had sat here and crafted this projectile point for her. He, or she, or they, had crafted many tools, as was evident from the multitude of obsidian and chert flakes littering the alcove’s floor. The material told her that these people had traveled from far away. The nearest quarry for black obsidian was hundreds of miles to the north. Maybe they walked? Maybe they traded?
Hanna imagined two groups of ancient people meeting on the vast, empty plains, squatting on their heels, trading pieces of stone, jerked meat, pemmican, perhaps furs. However, other than the rare stone, there was very little that each group couldn’t obtain on their own. There weren’t even horses in North America yet, and wouldn’t be for several thousand years. The modern bison had not yet evolved down from the giant, ancient ones; perhaps there were still a few mammoths left on the continent. There were not yet pyramids in Egypt, or large cities in Mesopotamia or in China. Sodom and Gomorrah had not yet been built or destroyed, nor had the Old Testament God yet created the Earth.
Hanna held the point in her hand. It was perfect; it was entire and unbroken. She believed that it had never been used. Did the ancient one who created it leave it here to be found at another time? In a world largely without possessions, people didn’t simply forget a fine survival tool made from valuable stone. She looked south from beneath the overhang. The storm had intensified so that the exact horizon was uncertain. The worm of fear began to twist in her guts.
The dusty sand of the alcove clung to her wherever her wet hands and clothes came in contact with it. She put the point back in its place, sifted a little sand over it and then returned the flat stone. As she left the overhang she lightly brushed away her footprints from the sand, which was still dry and dusty, below the boulders.
Work was over for the day, and perhaps the next few days, as the storm seemed to promise much more than a quick squall. Outside, the translucent sleet was now sticking to the ground. She hurried along the ridge slipping here and there on large, slush-covered cobbles. She feared that the roads would be turning to gumbo, becoming too slick and muddy to negotiate. They were already in questionable condition after a winter’s freezing and a spring’s thawing, and it was a good ten miles to the highway.
She sighed with relief once she had started the truck and turned on the heat. After a few miles on the two-track road, she had to get out and physically lock the hubs of the front axle into four-wheel drive. The clay road was deteriorating quickly as it sucked up moisture. Mud clung thickly to the tires, sticking to the inside of the wheel wells and undercarriage. The miles went by slowly and driving demanded her full attention. If she got stuck now, she would be spending the night, or even days, in her truck unless a rancher came along, which was highly unlikely. The snow came in heavy waves like sheets of rain. At times the windshield wipers couldn’t keep up with both the snow and the flying mud.
When she reached the paved highway, she gave a celebratory hoot. Weather conditions were nearing whiteout, but now she would be safe. She looked back where she had come from. The foothills, the buttes, and moraines were all gone, except for two muddy ruts crawling out of the whiteness. She sat in the warmth of the truck for a moment before stepping into the swirling storm to unlock the mud-caked hubs out of four-wheel drive. Brown muddy sludge dripped from the truck onto the untracked snow. She walked out into the middle of the road and looked up and down. In one direction the road disappeared at the top of a hill. In the other, it disappeared at an uncertain point on a grey horizon, and she stared down the white, abandoned highway, wondering if there was anyone left on Earth. Snow stacked quickly upon her shoulders. In the quiet, morose beauty of the afternoon, she felt reluctant to drive away. Then she pricked up her ears at the sound of a distant rumble, and returned to her truck. She put on a baseball cap, and slouched down in the seat. A black pickup appeared, speeding out of the storm. She pulled a canister of Mace from between the seats and tucked it under her thigh. The truck roared past, too fast for the slushy road.