On the afternoon of March 14, 2007, I sat in the small den of the house on R Street that I’d lived in for almost thirty-seven years, surrounded by empty moving boxes I could not quite begin to fill. My children had arranged to move me into a far-too-sleek apartment five blocks from the White House, but the movers were not due for another few days, and I was procrastinating. Clara had been dead for ten months and six days, the house had been sold in January, and I was left to pick through the remnants of my four productive decades in Washington: six books, nine television documentaries, and more than seventy articles in National Geographic, for which I’d worked since what is so quaintly referred to as the Summer of Love. In truth, it had been some years since I’d last been offered an assignment by the magazine.
The coming of spring lifted my spirits. I’d been downcast throughout the winter, ever since that first Christmas I had to endure without my wife. I was sixty-eight years old and insofar as I knew, in good health and clear mind, and I was just then beginning to think of treading down the same path as many of my colleagues before me. I was just then thinking of writing a traditional Washington journalist’s memoir instead of the work you now hold in your hands.
But I was admittedly dawdling and not filling boxes, as I’d promised Liz, my daughter, and Chan, my son. Distractedly, almost without a reason for it, I reached over to the small pile of magazines that some weeks before, Liz had asked me to look at so that together we might gather ideas for furnishing the condominium into which I was going to move. In so downsizing yet upgrading my diminished surroundings, I’d make a clean break from the home I’d shared with Clara, and perhaps some of the fog I’d been in would lift. Or so went the theory.
There were smart reasons to move, some of them psychological, but the primary one was that after a lifetime as a writer, it turned out my single greatest financial asset was the house across from Dumbarton Oaks that Clara and I had bought in 1969. It now was so incredibly overvalued that I could sell it, buy a two-bedroom apartment in a fancy building with a view of the Capitol and the National Mall, and never have another financial worry for as long as I lived.
I think it was the day my offer on the condo was accepted that Liz had shown up on her way to her shift at Georgetown Hospital, carrying the stack of magazines—Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, and something called Nest. Newsprint, it is alleged, is dying, the Internet is king, but these magazines—Tom Wolfe called the genre plutography—were still fat with ads.
Liz instructed me not to read the copy and, as was my habit with all modern magazines, critique the sloppy and often pretentious writing. I was to look at photo spreads and see if any item—lamp or rug, sink or sofa—caught my eye. We were, Liz had firmly told me, going to sell or give away as much of Clara’s and my old furniture as we could and reassemble the pared-down artifacts of my life in my new cliff-top dwelling, high above the city. Abandoning possessions and moving to a new life was the hallmark of ruins I’d spent the better part of my career writing about, and more than most, I understood the impulse.
I will admit I actually liked the idea of shedding our sagging sofa, our chipped dining room table bought in a roadside barn in the Shenandoah Valley, and the cheap lamps we’d picked up one Sunday while wandering around Old Town. I looked forward to taking Liz up on her offer of going to those new stores along M Street with their furniture from such exotic places as Brazil and Portland, Maine, and choosing a whole new me to move into. I looked forward to it even though, from what I’d seen, these stores seemed not so much stocked as curated. It offended me to have to think about how I should dress before going furniture shopping.
But Liz, a doctor with a busy husband and far busier children, had not been able to go shopping with me, though Mark, my son-in-law, had had the decorator from his flagship restaurant nicely order furniture for me I had not yet seen. (I would find his choices preassembled and prepositioned in my new apartment when I got there the following Monday.)
The magazines had sat in my den, untouched, until out of restlessness and a strong desire to keep from having to load those boxes with my precious books, I’d reached over and picked one up. And that’s when I saw, for the first time since the week after Martin Luther King was killed, the Pueblo III-era jar Wesley Channing and I had discovered along a stone shelf deep in the recesses of Blood House, in Skinned Knee Canyon, Utah, a forty-mile trek from Mexican Hat. It was the jar I’d described in “The Ransacked Ruin,” in the October 1968 issue of National Geographic.
“It was,” I’d written, “shaped like a soccer ball atop a solid base, with a thin neck that rose straight up from its body. A perfectly symmetrical jar, probably used as a canteen to bring water from the valley floor up to the cliff dwellings, its belly had a filled-in half moon painted in black. By the time my flashlight illuminated it in the back of the room, it had probably been sitting there, untouched and unseen, for seven centuries.”
When I wrote those words some forty years ago, already the jar had disappeared. It was stolen from Blood House between the moment we had “discovered” it and our return nearly seven weeks later with an archaeologist from Arizona State University and most important, the acting deputy assistant secretary of the Interior Department, whom I had hoped to enlist in getting a national monument designation for Blood House.
We’d first explored the ruin on April 8, 1968. When we returned on June 4, nearly all of the most valuable artifacts we’d found those weeks before were gone. Plundered. And now, forty years later, I saw a photograph in a shelter magazine of what was unmistakably the same large spherical jar with the half-moon decoration, only this time, rather than sitting deep in the back of an Ancestral Puebloan ruin, it was on a bookshelf in a hedge fund manager’s beautiful apartment in Manhattan.
A thirty-one-year-old hedge fund manager whose name I recognized, though I dearly wished I hadn’t.
I’m not the first person to have been stopped in his tracks by a photo in a magazine. Still, that at this late moment a small detail in an image could change the very trajectory of my life seems, on its face, absurd. And of course I say this with all the respect for the photojournalist’s craft required of someone whose career was spent at National Geographic.
Though it was my job to write copy that often was not read—words I so carefully labored over, even as I knew they would take the subordinate position to the photos—I’ve never resented the power of an image in a glossy magazine. I know there are horrors that only a photograph can expose, reality to be captured in Kodachrome, history to be preserved in the black and white of silver halide, not typeset ink. I’m not talking about that.
Since March 2007, I’ve come to believe there are images that each of us would be better off having never seen. It’s not that I’m squeamish. Were Clara to have died without my watching it happen, without my watching her breath grow short, her passing wouldn’t have been any less painful to me. Seeing the cancer take her from me was brutal. But I wouldn’t have traded a moment of being with her for a gauzier memory free from the reality of her final days. I got to spend all those precious hours with her as her life unspooled, a canister of unexposed film carelessly opened in bright light.
I have no problem witnessing actual tragedy, and I’m not saying people should be protected from reality. But because of all that has happened, I am haunted by the idea that a single glimpse of an image could change one’s life, as this one changed mine.If only on that warm March day five years ago I had been spared seeing that photograph, I could have lived out my days in what is, in fact, a lovely apartment with a view directly over the National Archives toward the Museum of the American Indian. (And how ironic is that?) Each evening, I could have sat on my small deck and watched the sun set over Arlington Cemetery while line-editing the straightforward story of my life as a popularizer and yes, explorer-discoverer of ruins in the United States, Mexico, and Peru.
Instead, it’s my life itself that’s now a ruin. Wes Channing is dead, some might consider me a murderer, and it’s all because I flipped a page and glanced at what should have been brushed out or better, taken out of the picture before the photo session began.
All because I saw something I should not have seen, something that brought me back to the events of April 1968, when the city was in flames and the world was in tumult, and it had seemed like the greatest place on earth to hide was an obscure canyon in the Southwest, two days’ walk from the nearest place that qualifies as human habitation.