From “Fine Disturbances,” The New Yorker

United States Border Patrol operations above the Texas stretch of the Rio Grande often begin with a single agent on foot, staring at the earth. In the Border Patrol, tracking is called cutting sign. ‘Cutting’ is looking; ‘sign’ is evidence. No technology is involved. Trackers look for tread designs printed in the soil and any incidental turbulence from a footfall or moving body. They notice the scuff insignia of milling hesitation at a fence, the sudden absence of spider webs between mesquite branches, and the lugubrious residue of leaked moisture at the base of broken cactus spines (the dry time is a stopwatch). The best trackers know whether scatterings of limestone pebbles have come off human feet or deer hooves. They particularly value shininess—a foot will compress the earth in one direction, which makes it shine, and wind quickly unsettles this uniformity, so high-shining groups are irresistible…


Cutting sign is overwhelmingly hushed and uneventful, but the screen of the ground shows action. Trackers find bits of skin and sock on the fishhook spines of horse-crippler cactus and watch the stride transformation and inexorable decline in mobility as the injury worsens. They watch as groups exhaust themselves and start resting more frequently and as disoriented or fractious groups splinter. The day after a moonless night, the ground shows walkers equivocally chafing their way through mesquite thickets.

Agents watch as weak people stop so that everyone else can go on, and as they later stand up and try to keep going or give up and try to get caught. Very occasionally, in summer, the ground leads Brackettville agents to corpses. Death in the brush is notable for the attempts dying people make to undress: a dehydrated, overheated body swells as death approaches, so the dying remove their shirts and shoes and socks and unbuckle their belts. They seem to find comfort in order, folding items of clothing and arranging belongings. They prefer to die under the boughs of trees, on their backs.

After a few nights of sleeping in the brush, people emanate an odor of campfire smoke and sweat that can float for hours over an abandoned campsite. In wetter weather the smell of canned sardines persists for a day. Cutting trails, agents step over shit and piss and blood and spit. They find handkerchiefs and pocket bibles and bottles of Pert Plus and photographs of daughters with notes on the back (Te extrano. Regresa a casa pronto. Te Amo, Isela). They find message-board graffiti on water tanks (23/2/03 Por Aqui Paso Costa Chelo Felipe L. Miguel) and the roasted remains of emus, doves, jackrabbits, and javelinas. The great majority of illegal immigrants are adult men, but sometimes trackers find diapers and tampons and tiny shoes.

As trackers move through diffuse fields of abandoned objects, fixing the age of the sign, they assure themselves that they’re walking through a group’s recent past. They want to walk right into its present. They want the sign to turn into its authors. On live trails the metamorphosis feels imminent, because it always could be. Groups stop unpredictably; if your group lays up at the right time you’ll find yourself disconcertingly deep in a marginal trail yet two minutes from an arroyo filled with snoring. The immigrants you’re chasing might appear on the other side of every rise you crest.

From “Santiago’s Brain,” Rolling Stone


Santiago Gonzalez, thirteen years old and a full-time student at the Colorado School of Mines, wakes up at 5:30am every morning during the academic semester so that he can spend an hour and twenty minutes developing iPad and iPhone applications in a programming language called Objective C, which he learned from a textbook when he was nine. That textbook and eighty-six similar volumes—Applied Finite Mathematics, Infinity in Your Pocket, Programming in C++, Dictionary of Physics—sit in a glass-fronted bookcase opposite his bed. A dozen stuffed animals—purple dragons, Donald Duck, a hangdog hound named Patrick, Shamu—reside permanently at the foot of the bed.

Sometimes after Santiago gets up he consults a notepad on his bedside cabinet: useful ideas come to him in the night. 'It might sound a little bit strange,' he told me when I visited him last spring, 'but I program in my dreams. I have a bug and the solution occurs to me and I jot it down.' The notepad is generally covered in lines of notional code ('M inherits from physics body with gravity etc.') and schematics of computer hardware: Santiago can visualize the activity his code kindles inside a machine. But sometimes a whimsical invention shows up on the notepad—an electronic knitting device called the 'Knittingator,' for example. Santiago sketched the complete unit, its subunits and its component parts ('guider,' 'spooler,' 'controller,' 'feed boom,' 'knitboard,' 'rail'), with both side and overhead views. He rendered the diagrams in three dimensions—Santiago can’t remember ever drawing a solid object two-dimensionally—so they made apparent the texture of thread layering itself in ranked diagonals around automated spools.

Having considered any relevant ideas on his notepad, Santiago walks over to his desk and picks up either his MacBook Air or MacBook Pro, depending on the morning’s programming task. He may glance up at a framed periodic table above the desk. He has cherished periodic tables since he was little, but a few years ago they acquired a fresh allure for him: physicists, he learned, had been trying to populate the table's 'sea of instability' by fashioning new elements with 'double magic' nuclei.

The house at that hour is dark and silent. Santiago’s parents, Yago and Vanessa, his little sister, Andrea, and his Boston terrier, Leo, are still asleep. Santiago likes the quiet; it helps him concentrate. In flannel pajamas—one of the tops in his rotation has a big black-and-grey snowplow on it—Santiago walks in a shortest-line path from his bedroom to the living room, where he sits cross-legged ('crisscross applesauce,' in his words) on the couch. He forgoes food, water and light. When the room is chilly he ignores the thermostat, although he has permission to turn up the heat. He does not bother to cover himself with a blanket, because fetching one would consume time and energy, and there are throw pillows within reach. He encircles himself with the pillows in a dubious effort to preserve body heat.

Motionless except for his fingers, lit primarily by his MacBook, Santiago sits and programs. He is a slim kid with a long oval face and luxuriant eyelashes and full, dark, grievously earnest eyes. He wears his short soft brown hair combed neatly forward, unparted; wispy incidental bangs curl at the edges of forehead. He works on a digital metronome app, or a multiplayer slide puzzle app, or an app for viewing the Mandelbrot Set fractal. He recently stopped working on an app that would create multiple coexisting desktops (for clutter avoidance) when he learned that developers at Apple had independently come up with the same idea.

Before his parents’ alarm goes off, Santiago walks upstairs and snuggles with them for twenty minutes. Then everyone gets up and Santiago brushes his teeth and gets dressed and eats breakfast, and Vanessa drops him off at the Colorado School of Mines campus in Golden, which is about thirty minutes from their home in the Denver suburb of Littleton.

From “The Great Centralia Coal Fire,” Harper's

Centralia Stop.jpg

In 1962, outside Centralia, Pennsylvania, remnant coal in an exhausted mine tunnel caught fire. Centralia was an Appalachian valley town of 1,100 people. It had a streetcar, convent, dance hall and VFW post, and the minor idiosyncratic shops of a tailor, shoemaker, electrician, druggist and general practitioner. It was unimaginable at the time that the infant coal fire—a half-mile away, eminently slothful, and bound by natural barriers—would, ultimately, destroy Centralia.

Today fourteen vestigial residents live in eight listingly narrow row houses dispersed across the vast, vaguely numinous vacancy opened up by the devastation of everything else. Greenbriar and mountain laurel and wintergreen have overgrown the faint remains of Centralia’s homes and buildings. Stone curbs and concrete-cast front steps and the long-clotted mouths of storm drains are occasionally visible through a clamor of shock-troop vegetation. Dandelion and clover have colonized and expanded a median strip: the granular asphalt on either side now narrowly borders a lane of bloodroot and dogtooth violet and honeysuckle. Centralia’s valley is moist and nearly silent and framed by oak-black ridges; the streets that oriented its buildings all eventually dead-end in an onrush of new trees. Every year or so a bear runs through town.

The people in Centralia’s estranged row houses were raised there; so were their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. They all want to die there. Established in 1866 in the anthracite region of eastern Pennsylvania, Centralia was a town of miners descended from immigrant Polish and Welsh and Ukrainian and Irish and Russian miners. Hundreds of two-story wooden row houses, each twelve feet wide, rose up the hillsides in parallel lines. The town had five churches, three Catholic and two Russian Orthodox, with plump, gilded domes. There was a polka dance hall.

Centralia’s houses and lawns, amid the greened ruins, are in mint condition. Every winter the Hynoski brothers, Steve and Tommy, who own a coal hauling business, plow the necessary streets. During Christmas they light a fir tree and illuminate a manger scene at the town’s former main intersection. On Labor Day weekend, they host a party in the low, ersatz-modernist municipal building, whose ubiquitous twenty-year-old mildew can be felt in the lungs. The party is attended by everyone in town and many former residents heartbroken by their exile. The Hynoskis hire a polka DJ and the older people dance. Sometimes the floor fills with people doing the chicken polka (you flap your arms). Women cook blinis and pierogies; children play musical chairs.

At monthly town council meetings, which last less than fifteen minutes and concern the payment of tiny fees, Mayor Lamar Mervine—eighty-seven, hearing impaired, occupying his post by default and with extreme reluctance, and having for two decades ignored the diagonal parking only sign in front of his unflanked row house—remains mute until he is asked to give the mayor’s report. When he understands the question, he says, ‘No report.’

Joe Moyer, a retired miner with a truculent silver crewcut who generally spends his mornings training homing pigeons for racing and his afternoons breathing oxygen from a tank, has appointed himself town constable. He patrols Centralia in a black Mercury. Several years ago Moyer noticed Bernie Darragh reclining motionless in his easy chair in front of his living-room window. Darragh, a widower, had died in the presence of no one. Among Moyer’s self-assumed duties is seeking out the unnoticed dead.

Moyer also takes care of the thousands of interred, unlocking the gates of Centralia’s biggest cemetery, St. Ignatius, every morning, and locking them at night. When Moyer is away gambling with his girlfriend in Atlantic City, John Lokitis, who lives a block away on West Park Street, becomes the gatekeeper. Lokitis fanatically grooms the accidental shrine opposite his house: a broad park lawn and American Legion Veterans’ memorial. Lokitis is thirty-three. He grew up on East Park, amid four generations of his family. Now, like Joe Moyer, he is the only person living on his street. Bernie Darragh was his final neighbor.

From “Whiteclay,” The New England Review

Whiteclay exists because the residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation drink a lot of beer. It’s against federal law to sell alcohol on the reservation, but the adult alcoholism rate there is sixty-five percent. The reservation’s alcohol-related death rate is nine times the national average, and twice the average on Indian reservations. Its unemployment rate is seventy-three percent. It occupies Shannon County, which, with an average family income of $3,700, is the poorest in the country. In 2010, Whiteclay’s four package stores sold 4,900,000 cans of beer—13,000 per day—and grossed $3,000,000.

Tumbleweeds regularly revolve through Whiteclay, which has an official population of fourteen. The town consists of a few stores along a nameless two-block strip of threadbare blacktop that runs north to the reservation and fades to fine, wind-stirred dirt at its edges. Eight abandoned buildings front the street; a multiacre cluster of junked cars that sickened on the reservation dominates the north end of town. The stores are decrepit wood-frame buildings with the high false fronts and porch roofs of frontier towns, or utilitarian structures of cinderblock and corrugated sheet metal with small barred windows. The current of decay in Whiteclay is almost perceptible, like the rate of a clock’s minute hand. The town has two car repair shops, a fried-food restaurant, a pawn shop, and two incongruously well-maintained groceries. Four package stores specialize in cheap beer: Mike’s Pioneer Service, the Arrowhead Inn, the Jumping Eagle Inn, and the H&M Inn.

At pretty much all hours, people from the reservation loiter in Whiteclay: they sit against buildings, or stand around drinking and talking, or lie passed out on the porch of the abandoned post office. They also fight with fists or broken bottles or knives or hatchets or guns, commit suicide, freeze to death, and prostitute themselves in the back seats of junked cars for beer money. Indians often arrive early in the day, drink, pass out, regain consciousness, drink more, and pass out again, the second loss of consciousness melding into nighttime sleep, which is frequently taken outdoors, in surrendered cars or abandoned buildings—drinkers keep caches of sleeping bags and blankets around town. Most of the empty real estate bears signs of congregations: kerosene stains, shoelaces, dusty excrement, pint cans of Ice 800 Malt Liquor, panties, the brittle residue of small fires. Some Whiteclay drinkers go home to their families at night and then commute back to town in the morning. Along the road between Whiteclay and Pine Ridge, foot traffic—figures holding onto or bumping into one another, angled against the wind—is regular.

When I drove into Whiteclay and pulled over—I could park anywhere: the sheriff was an hour away and covered the entire 2,500-square-mile county, and no municipal regulations, or services, existed—I’d often notice a figure I hadn’t seen at first because of its insensate stillness. Sometimes I’d see men standing at the edge of the main street and pissing right out into it, as if it were a river.

Disorientingly, Whiteclay is surrounded by beauty for millions of acres on all sides. The country is mainly ranchland, both on the reservation and off, with cattle so thinly dispersed it’s possible to think of them as wild. From dirt roads prairie grassland pays out for many miles, in gradual rises and shallow bowls, until it’s broken by buttes covered in pine trees. There are coyotes and elk and deer and antelope and wild turkey and grouse and pheasants and geese. Many watercourses lined with elms and cottonwoods cut the prairie, and in them—in Medicine Root Creek and the White River and Black Tail Creek and the Niobrara River and Bear in the Lodge Creek—swim pike and bass and perch and catfish and trout.