In the right country, writing the wrong book.
February 10, 2017
IT WAS A desolate landscape, a moonscape with mountains and a beauty that worked into your skin like a thorn. It stayed for a long time but never hurt.
We had left the road miles ago and were on foot, headed toward the hard-rock ledge that would overlook the South Rim, where, the old man said, you could see clear into day after tomorrow.
I didn’t doubt him for a minute.
Peter Koch paused on the old Apache war trail, reached down, and picked up a hand full of seashells.
“Bet you didn’t expect to find these out here,” he said.
He was right.
“Back when the world was covered with water, these mountains were the reefs,” he said. ‘That’s why there’s no two of them alike. Water shaped them. The winds have sculpted them. The seashells have never left them.”
No one knew the backcountry of Big Bend National Park like Peter Koch did. He had lived on the edge of the Great Chihuahua Desert for most of his life. He had walked every square mile of the Texas Outback.
The Big Bend gave Peter Koch its secrets.
He tried to give them to me.
“This country would make a great location for a book,” he said.
“It’s awfully isolated,” I said.
“That’s what gives the old Bend its mystique,” he said. “Lots of mysteries buried in the dirt around here. Lots of men came in and never left. Nobody knows what happened to him. They’re here one day and gone the next.”
“Maybe they just drove off.”
“Maybe they couldn’t leave at all.”
“Somebody kill them?”
“Why?” I wanted to know.
The grin widened.
“That’s what makes for a good book,” he said.
I couldn’t argue the point.
But I wasn’t interested.
“My novel’s set in the city,” I said.
“Cities are all alike,” he said. “The Bend is different.’
“Lots of interesting characters running loose in the city.”
“But they’re all alike, too.” Peter shrugged. “Out here, only the brave come. The weak don’t make it. And the cowards never start. Tough men live back in this country,” he said.
“I’m writing about a spy,” I said.
“Spies like beautiful women,” he said.
“We got beautiful women out here,” he said.
“They come out at night,” he said.
I said I would wait. I figured it would be a long wait.
“See that valley running down toward the Rio Grande,” Peter Koch said.
I told him I did.
“There’s a lost silver mine buried in there.”
“Got a map?”
“Don’t need one.”
“If you stand atop this peak on Easter morning, the first shaft of sunlight strikes the entrance to the mine.”
“Have you seen it?” I asked.
“Too cloudy,” he said. “But the story of the lost mine would make a great book. You ought to write it.”
“I don’t write Westerns,” I said.
“Wouldn’t be a Western,” he said.
“Sounds like a Western.”
“It’s a love story.”
“Where do you get a love story out of a lost mine?” I wanted to know.
“Every good book has a love story.”
“And a man with a gun.”
“You’ve got them both in the Big Bend,” he said. “Takes a gun to stay a alive and a beautiful woman to make the living worthwhile.” He stopped, and his gaze swept from mountain to mountain and fell down toward the river that separated two nations.
“We’ve got ninety mountains out here more than a mile high,” he said.
“My story works better in the city,” I said.
“We’re standing within a stone’s throw of Mexico,” he said.
“My story deals with German spies,” I said.
“We got a lot of drug smugglers,” he said.
“My spies are stealing secrets to the Atom bomb,” I said.
“You can’t find country more rugged and beautiful than this,” he said. “That’s the kind of backdrop a good book needs.”
“I write thrillers,” I said. “My book needs a city.”
“Then that’s your problem,” he said.
“What is?” I liked.
“You’re writing the wrong book,” he said.
Maybe he’s right, I thought as the sun dipped down below the rock formation known as the Window, and the sky faded into a ghostly shade of blue.