Near the Trinity site in central New Mexico, there is an empty place in a forgotten canyon. A wash comes down from steep, sandy hills and at the bottom there is an old dry river bed, a tangle of barbed wire and a pile of rubble. It was a house once, a small one, one of the last homesteads parceled out by the Stock Raising Act of 1916. A couple lived there until the late 1940s. Their name was Ratliff.
I drove out to search for that empty place. The first time I looked for it, I could not find it down the narrow dirt roads and among the unfamiliar geography of the canyon. But the second time, armed with an old map from the Atomic Energy Commission, I went slowly, checking the ridges of the canyon walls and the sloping arroyos that carved troughs between them against the undulating lines on a topographic map. And then I found it.
I walked among the rubble, shifting stones from a collapsed wall, poking among the litter on the earth. There was broken glass, rusted motor oil cans, half of a door: the remains of lives disappearing into the desert.
I came here to explore an absence. As I enter middle age, I find that there are many absences in my life. People who are gone. Places that, once important, have changed to mean nothing to me. A forest in Houston, mowed down and filled with houses; friends who disappeared from my life; a sister that I do not speak to; my father, who died in bed on a Friday morning in April. Holes in the fabric of my understanding of the world.
These absences ache, and the world is full of them, for everyone. We hurtle along the knife-edge of the present above an endless chasm of all that is no more. I want to believe that the things and people that are gone meant something.
The absences in thi