William deBuys, who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for River of Traps, explores the power of place and how it both impacts and reveals people. A resident of New Mexico for 26 years, deBuys has remained on the same farm where he married and raised his children between Santa Fe and Taos. Located near the small village of El Valle, in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, deBuys' farm covers an area of land that boasts pines, brush and a small swimming hole; he shares the area with elk, turkeys, horses and the occasional neighbor. The Southwestern land is deBuys' anchor. When the land has historically been scorched by wildfire, deBuys' soul has felt it.
As we enter The Walk, deBuys reveals that his marriage has dissipated; his children have left home; a very close friend has died. What remains? What steadfast entity allows deBuys to progress through the turmoil of life--especially when the turmoil seems to happen somewhat simultaneously? The Walk explores a possible response to these questions, though not in outright fashion. Instead, deBuys seeks the land in order to seek himself.
He continues to go on a walk that he has gone on since he first bought the farmland. He describes each step of the journey--the river he perennially encounters, the way his horse responds and reacts, the peeled trees, the vistas and the dangers. In describing these images of Southwestern beauty, tenderness and strength, deBuys finds the heart of himself: He sometimes rides his horse, Smokey, and sometimes saunters along his path alone, but always he continues, believing that his communion with the land near El Valle is a way of facing himself, dealing with his deepest wounds and somehow bringing healing.
In his reflections on this characteristic of the land, the author reveals his most capable status as a writer: He is able to describe the land around him while actually elucidating humanity. He writes, "People call (the land) fragile, a term that gets used too freely across the Southwest, as though to say it were the land's fault that it comes unglued under the assault of truck tires, munching herds and armies of 'users.' But seen another way, the land is a marvel of tenacity."
It seems that as deBuys shares this realization and belief about the land, he affirms it also for his own self, especially in the face of the loss of his marriage and the death of his friend.
He is at his strongest when he uses his prose to paint pictures--revealing to his readers a landscape that is not static, but constantly alive, active and able to influence our own lives. He writes, "The mountains rise not like a thing, but like the spirit beyond things, or like spiritedness itself. They rise like meaning. They rise with purpose and clarity. They rise like a promise of understanding in an ambiguous and paradoxical world. They rise not like hope itself, but like the promise that something as grand as hope might exist."
Using these similes, deBuys is able to describe a sense of what the mountains are for him, yet we can still feel that he is reaching for more words to adequately share what they mean. In sections like these, readers can embrace a sense of awe regarding what deBuys accomplishes in The Walk. He sees the land in order to see himself, and he is hardly the same after his journey.
Though deBuys describes a walk he has completed thousands of times before, this account is fresh and real for us as readers. He constantly seeks out something new, and his eyes find much to encounter. For anyone who appreciates the soul of the land or the soul of the self, The Walk is a love letter to these two things, full of steady, quiet language that creeps rather than forces its way inside of us.