At four in the morning a phalanx of black silhouettes set out across the desert: three people and a donkey headed west on a sinuous dustbowl trail. The yogurt bow of the moon had slipped behind the Earth an hour earlier, and the trail wound invisibly through thick predawn dark that arced toward the horizon. All was still. To the south, the Big Dipper scooped out the mountains I could just skylight against the spongy, star-bejeweled March night.
Amanullah led the way. He skirted the spines of cousinia and the diaphanous spheres of calligonum only he could pick out, hopped the cape hare burrows he alone knew about, sidestepped the boulders he alone remembered. He never changed pace. He never bent down to check for sheep spoor. He never looked up: he didn’t navigate by stars, didn’t know their names, didn’t recognize the constellations. What for? Stars were unreliable beacons, nomads that moved about the heavens at will, like the Turkoman forefathers. Have you never seen one suddenly tear off from its roost and streak across the black, looking for a new home? Amanullah walked the trail by heart, steering from a memory that wasn’t even his own but had double-helixed down the bloodstream of generations of men who had traveled this footpath perhaps for millenia. A memory that was the very essence of peregrination, a flawless distillation of our ancestral restlessness.