[Feature photo: Steve Schroeder]

Sometimes our best writing can come from those places we wish never to visit again. They are the places in which we find pain and loss and that moment when one realizes there is no way to escape. The lands of no return can be physical places – you watch as the last boat of your river trip spins past you while you’re trapped on shore after a flip; you lie in a hospital bed, no nurse responding to your ring for help; you find yourself in a dark back alley and can’t remember how you got there.

Sometimes the lands are within you: the ache as you wait for the lost lover to call; the heat rising in your body as you suspect that your parents were right and you are hopeless; the chill when you look at the half inch of Captain Morgan’s in the bottle and know it won’t help the despair. I lived in my Land of No Return in the Mojave Desert. I was helpless as the desert and knowledge burned away any hope I had that love would be renewed. I had nothing but the desert – and the writing. So I wrote.

* * *

Come with me to the Land of No Return.

Voices shimmer on dust radio, specks of mica blown up from the desert floor by a hard wind. I’m crouched on a basalt ledge twenty feet above shattered beer bottles, a stained Queen-size mattress and a door-less refrigerator with a lip-sticked message on its side: Dorice, if you and Jimmy get out here, call us at the motel.

My breath burns in my throat. My chest aches. If I hadn’t learned as much as I have in the eight years since I first heard Dust Radio, I’d think I was in the heart of the Land of No Return. I’d believe I’d brought myself to As Hard As It Gets, the air here sharp as ozone, the sun dropping toward the horizon a raw wound.

A tiny bird startles out of the creosote bush next to me. It flies in front of my face, a whirr along my cheekbones, soft static on dust radio.

This is not the heart of the Land of No Return. There is an outpost. There is a map – dry watercourses, heat lightning in the north, my footsteps ending at the base of the climb to the basalt ledge.

Walk it with the father
Talk it with the son
Baby got vision child
Like a loaded gun
She use my body
Like carrion crow
Doing our transmission thing
On dust radio
Baby call the number
Nobody left in town…

—Chris Whitley, Dust Radio

Rock and roll in the Land of No Return

It’s your turn. Have you found yourself in the Land of No Return? The box canyon that pinched off as the monsoon storms were slamming down on the desert? A beloved looking hard into your eyes and saying, “It’s cancer. Stage Four.” The sight of a lover’s car, someone snuggled next to the driver. The nurse grinning, “Congratulations, you’re pregnant.”

Write from that place. Spare nothing. Spare no-one.

(MatadorU students, submit it to our weekly Labs for faculty feedback.)