A Villainous Desert

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SAN LUIS POTOSI to MEXICO CITY -- Not far south of San Luis Potosi, the Mexican authorities reveal their presence for the first time, with the most haphazard checkpoint I have ever seen. Cars pass through at sixty miles per hour, which is too fast even to read the sign that says the federales are stopping vehicles to search for "contraband, weapons, and explosives."


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When Graham Greene took this journey, he looked at the desert scrub around him with a distinctly modern English eye, counting its pristine barrenness for nothing and its inhospitality strongly against it. "Nature appalls me when unemployed or unemployable," he wrote, and the desert here is "as villainous a tract as the world contains," capable of supporting only the maguey or Century Plant in its desiccated cracks.

To me these rural portions of the drive contain an improbable peace and calm -- perhaps lawless, as he claimed, but also without need of laws, since so much appears uncultivated and void of human life. Beyond some of the small rocky hills in the distance there may be a village or a house. There may also be nothing, just a desert moonscape, as silent now as it was a thousand years ago. England a thousand years ago looked totally different from today: rabbits had not been introduced, and had not yet gnawed away the glades in the English meadows where wildflowers, birds, and butterflies now flourish. I suppose it is harder to find tranquility in a changeless landscape when your native habitat's beauty owes everything to change.

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Photo by flickr user cristalcosmico under a Creative Commons license.

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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

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