We have been on this pilgrimage for two weeks already. My feet are sore and raw, my skin nut-brown and three inches thick with grime. I stop to wipe the sweat from my face and taste salt. Sandstone hoodoos dance at the edge of my vision, nodding their mushroom-cloud heads like drunken men. Before me, the river of people moves sluggishly, scraping dusty paths through the gutted canyon. At first, there was laughter and music, but we are all silent now. The ground we have already traveled is littered with metal and plastic, palm pilots and ipods that ooze slightly in the heat—all the things we have abandoned because they are too heavy to carry.
We stop twice to rest, once at dusk and once at noon, when we press ourselves into the sandstone shadows and sleep. Often, it is too hot and we can only sit and blink at the sun traversing its zenith. After a time, there are always speeches. White-robed and pale-skinned, our leaders materialize mirage-like from the shimmering horizon. Look where we will be, They cry. Look where we are going. They wave fervently at the grey pillars, the white columns of smoke that mark the electric blue sky. The words echo in our uncomprehending ears. Endless power. Clean energy. Plutonium. Atomic age. Nuclear future. We stare dumbly at our distant Mecca, silently thrusting steam into the air. The old man behind me expels an angry breath. I think I hear the word, Chernobyl, and wonder if it’s a twentieth century curse. I don’t ask.
I remember learning about the atom as a child. A saccharine-voiced teacher stands before us. “Now, who can tell me what this is?” she beams at us in vacant expectation. The projected model that hovers behind her hums gently in the stale air. “Nucleus,” we say back dutifully. “Proton. Neutron. Electron.”
We learn about fusion and fission. How to break an atom apart and put it together again like some child’s toy. We stare, entranced, at the model, splitting and reforming before us, glowing neon orange and ember red as energy is lost and gained, lost and gained. We are only children and it is just a game. We laugh—all but one boy in the back who begins to cry. His parents are biochemists and told him once that all things are made from atoms, even humans. He has nightmares of being pierced by flying neutrons and shattering into atomic fragments.
Our textbook confirms his fears. All matter is comprised of atoms. This is the epiphany of the new millennium, proclaim our teachers and politicians, the beauty of the atomic age. Now everything is uniform. Now everything is understandable and definable, reduced to its lowest common denominator. We no longer need myths and legends to explain the world to us. We no longer need (the idea of) God.
The noontime speeches continue. They grow in force, becoming almost feverish. For forty days and forty nights we have crossed this barren desert, this vast wasteland without water or beauty, but do not despair! The future is bright! Our journey is ending! In the sun, the words feel threadbare and wrinkled, secondhand and shopworn. I look at the landscape They dismiss so thoroughly. Towering monoliths, flattened by the endless space, throw their shadows against the hot stone. Ossified spears thrust from the cracked earth and impale the sky. A ribbon of ochre and rust ripples through the granular rock, winding its way through crevices and gullies. The dust here is the colour of dried blood.
I think of the fossil I found the other day, lying at the foot of an adamant shelf. It was flat in the cool moonlight, like a flinty scale sloughed from some giant primordial snake. I picked it up to feel its sandpaper smoothness beneath my blistered fingers and found instead the imprint of a prehistoric crab. I cradle it now, gently, in my hands, its concave stomach turned to the sky, limbs frozen in frenzied motion. For the first time on this journey, I am in awe. We learned about these creatures in high-school biology. How they roamed the earth millions of years before us, discovering its secrets when our vertebrate ancestors still breathed water. I think of the layers of canyon that surround me, built from the petrified skeletons of all those living things that came before, rich with a hundred worlds that no longer exist. In my mind I see ghostly trilobites combing the Cambrian landscape, scuttling to and fro in the velvet dark of a Silurian night.
I slip the rock into my pocket. Soon we will begin to walk again. The speeches are over. The men who lead us have disappeared once more. The rest of us unfold our bodies from the ground and turn towards our future, rising like a tower of Babel over the jagged skyline.