Son of Man
Lacking an equation, I believe it is possible to deduce the relationships between points on a graph by determining first the constants of the system in which they are placed, and then by systematically testing various sets of rules that connect the points. It is a trial and error process until it works. Right now, I am taking a break from the rules: Doctor’s Orders. In lieu of figuring, I am back to mapping points, casting these eyes like a pair of dice over the landscape, seeking either point of origin or a lucky break.

Day One. I did not take the 78 to the dirt road marked with signs for Ghost Mountain and I did not head immediately to the Visitor’s Center to pay an eight-dollar day-use fee, as directed, before finding the clearly marked signs to the trailhead. That would have been a few miles out and back, only a scratch against the sun’s trajectory. Even when I factored in the drive, it would be hardly enough to fill the hours of incessant daylight that I had before me. Instead, I took a tour along the southeast perimeter, aiming to keep an eye towards the opening of caves. I didn’t realize when I set out, how many there would be. Usually I wrote these things down, but this time I was going on memory. Hidden Cove, that was where the boy went missing. He was 18, more man than boy but the news reports in the last day—when things were reaching a crisis point—featured interviews with The Father, and The Father had said, with great calm, I Must Find My Boy. I Know He Is Out There.

I parked near the trailhead of Scissors Crossing and headed south along the Pacific Crest Trail towards Blair Valley. There were more direct routes, but I thought I might take the long way, in case I might manage to cross paths with the young man who had gone missing, for whom a search party had been organized earlier in the week, which was now, it seemed, hunting for a body. He could be alive, it wasn’t out of the question. It was simply unlikely. I think the father that spoke on the news about keeping the faith did a remarkable job of keeping a lid on what must have been a growing awareness of the endless ways that his boy might yet be living, just out of reach and almost found.

Night is coming now , and I will not be home for dinner and I cannot call. I need to find a place to sleep.

One place seems as good as the next, out here. I did not bring a sleeping bag and I did not bring a pad, but I always carry an emergency blanket, and now, for the first time, I can use it. I could have parked along SR-2, just south of Ocotillo Wells. From there it would have been an easy 2.3 miles to the boulder, and from there I could have snapped a series of comfortable pictures of pictographs and petroglyphs, to add to a growing collection of similar photographs taken at various points of interest. Five or six apiece would do it, as far as making records were concerned. Throw in one for good measure, taken by a handy stranger—if I could find anyone nearby—of myself beside the object of my trip. “Anza-Borrego Petroglyphs” could be the title of a particular collection, and this collection would be only one among many particular albums in my highly particular path, to be documented in the space beyond the click of a mouse, over a single word: Photos. I could, by such procedures, amass a small record of my experiences in this place. I suppose that to have done any of this, I would have had to a different sort of man, and I know without thinking, that I was not was not such a man when I began this walk.

What if. I could be home, satisfied with myself, putting my feet up as I sip a beer and update my profile page. I was there, each photo would proclaim for all posterity, beside the markings of once prepubescent Kumeyaay, now nearly extinct. Look at what they etched there, I would write to my online friends. See the shades of ochre, blue, and yellow—according, some anthropologists speculate, to the sex and age of the artist—and see the way I stand beside them, in my hat and my comfortable smile.

I know well how handy pictures are supposed to be, for preserving points of reference. If I were a believer in their promise, I could have said of this trip, later: Look at the light, the long sleeves. It was winter. It was morning. I was thirty-three and it was the year of strange weather. And each of these statements would be leant the credibility that can only come from having a photographic record. And I would have the credibility of a man in the flesh, who had made it back. But I have seen much in photographs, and none of the images have helped me to fix the kind of locus that I am looking for when I am looking for what others casually refer to as a point of reference. I have sought a different breed of proof and I suspect that the instinct is kin to the one bent on framing the present with a telephoto lens. If nothing else, I know enough by now to understand that my cause is not likely to be furthered by the capture of images in megapixels. Now what.

The doctor, who was not without valid points, had explained that disorientation was common in Cases Like This, but he did not elaborate, except by listing a variety of words that seemed to me to be synonymous with disorientation, and just as empty. Confusion, dizziness, he said, fatigue, insomnia. Yes doctor, I thought but did not say. And?

Another thing I thought but did not say: Dear Doctor, You have been very kind, but I am leaving and I do not expect to return to your hospital. Please understand that this is not a referendum on the adequacy of your care, but on adequacy as a state of mind. We took out the needles and we took out the tubes and in the outage in the storm we took out the wires from my head and there was a moment of silence and everything was black and no machines beeping, and it was just me and Selie there . She squeezed my hand. After awhile, a nurse came around to tell us everything would be okay, and after awhile it was shift change and we thought, maybe to ourselves and maybe out loud—I don’t remember—what would happen if we... just? It was a gamble better than any table bet in Reno or Vegas and a hell of a lot better than any 30-year fixed, which wasn’t going to be ours again anyway, not even close. We walked out, and it was just me and Selie again—Us against the World. After a few weeks, I just needed a little space and I told her and she didn’t ask because she didn’t have to, why I had elected to hike to the petroglyphs and maybe while I was at it, find the boy. It had been a few weeks, and certain things had been occurring to me that I no longer wished to have occurring to me with such frequency.

There is no cell phone signal; that much was planned correctly. Bed down, review coordinates. Elevation of Granite Mountain: 5,630 feet. Location of snow line: approximately 4,000 feet. Distance from mountaintop to Pacific Ocean: 116 miles, as the crow flies. Miles from Pacific Crest trailhead off of 78: 8.7. Hike down: easy. Temperature on desert floor: in the mid-sixties at midday. Backcountry camping permitted: yes. Facilities available outside of the visitor’s center: No. Location of family campsite from which boy went missing on New Year’s day: below the southeast face of the mountain, between the peak and the Little Blair campground, near the pictograph site. Possible routes that boy may have taken into nearby caves: unknown. Location of nearby caves: also unknown.

Day 2: Gather senses. Self-correction only works if the self remains lucid. Breathe, look, walk. Stop regularly to examine the map. Do not overheat. At noon, find shade, and remain calm. Do anything: go over notes, study the map but not obsessively. Think, but don’t overdo it. Pace yourself.

I came here to march towards some destination. At the point upon which I was impaled when I set out, I didn’t care if I was making up a reason to go somewhere and selling it to myself. If there are limits to what can be known, there must also be some limits to how much unknowing a body can endure before being compelled to choose between being a body imploding on itself like a collapsed star, and a body of flesh and blood in motion. The idea of hiking to the petroglyphs had just sort of hitched itself to the corner of this mind, the way ideas tended to do since I had started to observe them more closely. They buzzed like gnats, which has never been a problem on a small scale, but in a manner that was fast becoming what I deemed to be a major infestation of a larger insect. The things flew and crawled in every direction, day and night, and when Selie was in bed sleeping I sometimes used to lay there watching her but there always came a time when I couldn’t be still anymore. What about the petroglyphs? was among these, but it moved across the stage more slowly, possessed as it seemed to be of some reptilian weight. I had been reading about the ancient Kumeyaay markings after being reminded of their existence in a reference some reporter had made when he was covering the story of the lost boy. Maybe there was something there. There was a considerable distance to hike: long enough to occupy a day but not so long that a man could not make camp comfortably in the hours before nightfall, if need be. My plan had been to leave before evening, to surprise Selie back at home with the face of a man that was suntanned and placid with a day’s journey, whose eyes did not float in a pool of sallow skin, as if uncertain of their purpose in looking.

Now I am lost somewhere between the first possible route of exploration, on the southeast side of Granite mountain, and the point from which I was going to retrace my steps before investigating the next. I estimate that I have been approximately seven to ten hours in looking, if you add the hours between my initial misstep and nightfall to the hours I have spent searching this morning. No, not lost, because the first rule in these sorts of situations is to remain calm. Breathe, take stock, give the mind something to do, other than panic. Which: Must Not Happen, Ever. Something has changed the look of the mountain above me; I am no longer certain that it is Granite to the Northwest of me. To the southeast there is another peak. Whale mountain perhaps, but I cannot be sure.

The doctor had suggested, during our single consultation, that it might be helpful to use my notebooks and my time for a process that he called recapitulation. It’s a looking back, he said to me as if I was ignorant of the word. It can be helpful to return to your childhood, revisit early memories.

Where should I start, I had asked, more to humor him than to gather information. No sense letting him down with the fact that I’d been down that road before, and every dead-end road that left it, too. Well, you can start wherever it suits you, but if you like a system, I often say start at the beginning. Begin with the earliest thing you can remember, then go on from there. There’s no requirement that you get all details exactly in order, but some like to spend a few days in early childhood, then move on to later childhood, then adolescence, young adulthood and so on. It can give you a picture of where you’ve come from and help you understand where you may be going. Where you’d like to go.

Okay, doc. Here goes: In the maternity ward of the Montgomery County hospital, at an hour near midnight in the middle of a winter during which flocks of people would be immortalized in headlines around the country for setting fires to hometown warehouses, a child’s eyes, still moist with amniotic fluid, stared above him.

My father, I like to believe, once spent a moment staring at me  while I slept behind a window in those initial hours, a few days before he left for Okinawa. Since then, he came back and forth, but mostly he went forth, usually on his motorcycle. Perhaps because of the fleeting nature of his presence, he became a large-looming figure of legend and import. I was told not to take it personally, and generally I don’t. I was not told directly about the length of time spent gazing through the hospital window, but I like to think that it was significantly longer than most cable television programs. The scene of him gazing through the glass is one of those reliably fictionalized memories that I suppose most folks like to keep stowed in a pocket, to run fingers over when the present gets a little out of hand.

When the sun is lower, walk again. Be careful about pace. It is not hot, but the water is getting low.

Now I am crossing a gulch; I do not know if it is connected to the trail that I was on, or if it is part of another one. How could I have set the map down. The question seems like the relic of a former self. He was more competent somehow, or at least he managed to appear so to himself and others. It seems perfectly obvious, by now, that he could have set the map down for a moment and then managed to lose it, just as I have been losing things steadily for the past year. My job, the house, my belief that I will have a job. My belief in houses and homes.

But not my legs, not my ability to walk. Others have lost that, remember. Not my access to open space, Remember. Not my mind. Remember.

Back to the hospital, my father in the window and me the boy beneath his fixed stare. I like to picture it as a formative ritual, when he silently and deliberately held me in his gaze like a man performing telekinetic stunts, or praying, and that he thereby transmitted the litany of characteristics that he was bequeathing to his progeny, concluding some time later in the day with the laying on of hands that preceded his procession out of my life.

Religion: The Road, church of all bodies in motion, bent on submission to nothing greater or less than the laws of physics, beginning with inertia. A body at rest will stay at rest until acted upon by a force such as time. Once in motion, the body must remain in motion until acted upon by an equal and opposing force, which remains unnamed for me, as I think it must have been for him. Add to this: an amateur’s devotion to a small collection of books on time, space, concepts in modern mathematics, the histories of various equations, and emerging theories about the existence of black holes.

Politics: the kind understood without discussion or verbiage, as in handshakes and bullet wounds. Add to this: a strong belief that a man is not a man unless he exists however tenuously in spaces that are wide, open, and yet uncharted.

Class: dirt floor poor, with one rifle and five bullets in the chamber and a mama who handed it over - I’ve heard - to her three young boys saying, Dinner needs to be on the stove in two hours. Bring back four things.

Beneath all of this, the unwritten but clearly spoken knowledge that missing more than once was not an option.

Day 3. I spent the morning scaling what appeared to be one of two of the south-facing peaks, and now the map is gone. I took it out when I reached the peak, and this must have been the moment when I lost it. I think I was perched on a rock, taking in various views of life around me: above, below, north, south, east, west. I was beyond thirsty, but the the differences were still clear, regardless of the time of day. I threaded squinting eyes from map to landscape and back again, sewing myself in. There went its digital rendering: 3D to 2D and back, which I know from experience to be a dangerous proposition. Nevertheless, we work with what we have, until it’s gone.

I stood, this morning, at at the peak of what I had determined to be Granite Mountain, and calculated my coordinates to be close to those I had etched on the map. Thirty-three degrees, three minutes, four seconds North; one-hundred sixteen degrees, twenty-eight minutes, and fourteen seconds West. Without owning a GPS tracker, I had nothing to compare these coordinates to, and I thought that this did not at all diminish the satisfaction I take from reciting the numbers.

Now, without the map, it is getting difficult to keep up these pretenses of security. I don’t know how far I am from the road because I am no longer at the peak and there seems to be a thin strip of asphalt on the horizon in two opposing directions. The other views are blocked by unknown slopes of granite and shale. When the sun moves lower, I will know West again with a certainty that seems dubious when determined only by compass. For now, I’ll find shade. Rest, recapitulate, anything.

I think of other treks, across deserts I had not elected to visit in the first place but returned to anyway, though not alone, for a second tour and then a third. And then, this. There are no orders and the threat of IEDs is ostensibly gone. No tanks or Humvees patrol the horizon, and the air is still except for the occasional cry of a hawk, and thunder of a procession of helicopters heading east. Gone are the rapid-fire monologues of distraught friendly’s missing their sons or their mothers or their children, the strange tongue firing like the chatter of M-16s. No, no, Slowdown. Wait, Wait. Tell him I Don’t Know, to the translator. Tell him, Clear Out. Tell him, There is No One Here, The Others Have All Left. Tell him Not To Go Back In There. Move.

I have wanted to be a maker of connections, but I am left with so many broken points, conjoined only by an equation I imagine exists just beyond my peripheral. Finally, at the bottom, in the corner, scribbled as if by a hand about to drop the pen, the Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which has come to be my favorite despite my love of things that stand still.

An electron is a wave until you look, and then it seems to pause, appearing solid and frozen in space and time, offering up the relative coordinates of its location. It’s the ultimate wrench in Newtonian calculations, developed to explain why and how, in certain situations, they break down, especially when the observer’s lens has zoomed towards the most infinitesimal proportions. To see a world in a grain of sand, and eternity in an hour.

I wish I had the origin of those words; they sound vaguely Biblical, but I’ve been fooled before when it comes to verses I think I know. At times like this, I have wished for the kind of history that would make me the sort of man to handily procure biblical verses appropriate to a given situation. I met a guy like that on the first tour—he had one of those double names—Joe Bob or Jimmy Lee, something—but everybody took to calling him Rev on account of the fact that he would be reading aloud from his Bible every night in his bunk, and even after he put it away, he’d be staring at the ceiling, lips moving over what everyone assumed were more prayers. I rode with him on Humvee patrol near Kabul—he was behind me, and as we scanned the spaces beyond the windows for roadside bombs we were still and silent until he said aloud in a voice appropriate for giving a report, I will not fear, though the earth be moved, though the hills be carried into the midst of the sea. There were other words, too, but I can’t recall. I hope that he could when he needed them, because I heard he was hit in a barn later that week, by an IED soaked in the offal of animals, which lodged the countless pieces of its aftermath in the tissues of a body that by standards that were being made rapidly obsolete by the advances of science and medicine—would be ordinarily considered too mangled to live.

I have never been a religious man, but I did accompany Selie once, to the church on the corner during the first week of our escape. We need something, she said to me softly, and it’s not doctors. The way she said it, I couldn’t have agreed more, and so I held her hand and listened to Father Don. I had been up the night before, though there were only a few slight pencil markings on the back of the pantry door, nothing major—but because I felt something was still right there, waiting to be grasped, I had taken along my little pocket notebook. I’m glad I did, because it allowed me to catch the second complete line of scripture that I can recite, and I keep it here on the back page, behind various lists and notes. Here it is. Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have their nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head. Below this a list of numbers of apartment complexes, which was unfortunately juxtaposed by way of necessity and not irony.

It certainly wasn’t the most comforting of lines, except by way of offering a kind of knowing company to the insomnia that had fast been becoming a habit. I liked the way Father Don read that passage, with a kind of tired knowing. The church was across the street from us then, and I took note that Father Don had a habit of walking slowly around the block during the hour before the sun rose, puffing deeply on a cigarette. I didn’t plan on returning to mass anytime soon, and I’ve never smoked, but I used to think about taking up the habit, just so I could have a reason in the hours before I fell asleep after a long night, to go up and ask him, Hey Father could you spare one? It would be a tangible request. I guess that I wondered if we got to talking, if he might see, by some divine interference, some hole in my private equations, and offer a Newtonian apple kind of insight, the sort that makes the thing that is so close you can almost see it but not quite, suddenly come in to view. We moved a month later and I never did ask.

Water left: two ounces. Food: a half-eaten energy bar, chocolate chip. Flashlight: still working. Compass: yes. Map: still gone. Sun: lower now. Walk slowly.

To the doctor, at least, I would like to have been able to make myself clear. It has something to do with scale, I would liked to have articulated, if I had felt more confident in my ability to elaborate. Given the cocktail of pills I had been handed upon arrival, I was mistrusting my capacity to form basic sentences. Otherwise, I might have tried to explain to him by way of illustration, removing from my wallet a photo that had been from a waiting room magazine and folded into eighths. The caption called The Hubble Ultra Deep Field Image “The most massive photo ever taken”. This feat had been accomplished by eight-hundred exposures which took place over four-hundred orbits. On the back of the photo, I had scratched pertinent facts about its contents in pencil, over an ad for bread and butter pickles. Here it is, in the pocket where my map should still be. Facts recorded:

Ten thousand galaxies.

Each galaxy: From ten million to one trillion stars

Size of average star: Earth times one million.

AND YET. Triple underline here.

Percent of space that is apparently empty: ninety.

If the universe were the oceans of the world, one scientist had said, this photograph was a tablespoon of water. I had not needed to write that down.

My back is now cool with fresh wind, and evaporating sweat. The pack is not there anymore, and I must count the moment of its disappearance among other missing points on a line that I suspect to be more wavelike than particular, which I am nevertheless compelled to graph. If I can fix certain points, holding them still before they retreat like solutions almost grasped, I can begin the trial-and-error process of determining the laws of their connections.

I grit against sharp grains of sand between my back teeth. A finer film of silt coats my tongue and I hold it there like a eucharist, as its metallic taste commingling with the iron of my blood. I feel around until I find the gash on my lower lip, more evidence without origin.

Now comes a long, low moan, moving closer. Now an oceanic crash, spraying gravel across this desert floor. A loud, low horn like that of a ship. It can’t be. The hush of a door opening, the low thud as it closes. Crunching of footsteps on gravel—left right, left right—at the pace of a funereal procession. I open one eye to watch a long shadow extending and widening across the earth upon which the plane of my forehead rests. Bracing with my hands against the coarse grains, I push up and turn to face the source.

It must be late afternoon now, because the sunlight framing the head of the figure above me is partially impaled on a mountain to the west. I think it is a man’s head, wearing a trucker’s hat, but I cannot see the face or the hat except in silhouette. He pauses a few paces away, his body a channel from sun to earth, at a point that almost intersects the line—coordinates still undetermined—upon which I seem to have fallen.

Now there is a low cough, a clearing of the throat. Another step crunches gravel, and now a voice.

“Hey,” calls the man, “Hey. You alright?”

Among the theories I have yet to sufficiently grasp is this one: a body traveling for long enough in a straight line will eventually return to its point of origin. Or this: in order to determine a location of a body no larger than an elementary particle, one must factor for uncertainty, as such particles display tendencies to appear at fixed points only when observed, which at other times act as waves.

An answer is expected. I look, and recognize the outline of a hand on his left, fingers slightly splayed as if about to grasp some instrument in the air between us.
STACEY JOHNSON is a mother, writer, and teacher in San Diego County.  She studied English Literature and Creative Writing at The College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA.  In 2004, she became an English teacher at Mount Miguel High School in Spring Valley, CA, and now enjoys working with young people who challenge her to regularly reconsider what matters most.  She is currently working on a novel based on characters in "Son of Man".  She is the proud mother of Grace, a three-year-old wonder. 
WINNER of the 2012 Fulton Prize