Stepping through a forest of teenage trees, tall gangly eucalyptus with leaves like waving fingers, beckoning us in.
There is no danger here.
I left the path, entranced by something I cannot now remember. "Stay on the path!" Tom yelled.
So, I came back like a scolded child. Slipping in mud like wet soap, walking like a Geisha Girl.
Big noise in the distance. Explosion. The breath vacuumed from my lungs. The others paused for a moment, then walked on. But the path was glued to the soles of my feet. Felt it might be best just to crouch in the slick red mud and wait for their return. Another explosion, and I am quivering, mouth dry as paper. The fear senseless. It is not near.
Four days since the blast at Pleiku, and with a distant boom it is all right there again. I expect to find bodies at Khe Sanh.
Our local guide, Tran, saw the fear on my face. I believe he half enjoyed it. "Dynamiting," he said. "Gravel for the road."
That should have relieved my jitterbugging heart.
Afraid to take another step that might send me into a red mist. "Tuyen," I called, choking back my terror, "you stay by me. I walk only where you walk."
I didn't care if he laughed at me.
Elephant grass reached out and snatched at my bare legs. It was all so picturesque. And so deadly. The others strung out along the trail. Pits like open graves between the trees. Where bombs landed? Where scrap metal searchers have dug? I was not listening. I wished for x-ray eyes.
Camp Carroll is no more. It is a broken and burned canteen lying amid dead leaves. Tran points out sights of interest; but to me it is all the same, a ruined and beautiful landscape. I was glad to leave that forest of sleeping danger.
Back out in the open, we picnicked by the monument. A stone Marine's face in a silent scream. Tran waved expansively down the valley toward Khe Sanh as cows grazed in oblivion. "You want picture?" he said to me, laden with cameras. "I show you best place."
I followed him so close I bumped into him every time he stopped. Peter had asked for pictures of Camp Carroll. It was the only thing that kept me moving.
"This where Carroll was killed," Tran says, pointing to a clump of grass.
I look at it in doubt. How to tell one clump of grass from another?
We drove that road, Route 9, toward Khe Sanh. Elephant grass undulated in the dry wind. Kudzu vines glittered with reflected sunlight. Moun- tains stood watch on either side of the narrow road. It was the very defin- ition of wild. Wild and spectacular.
The Dakrong River flowed turquoise. I searched for imaginary campsites on its banks, dreamed of playing in its swirls and eddies. Under the watchful eye of the Bru, invisible in the jungle.
The Rockpile rose up on the right, like a jagged and menacing gateway, pointing the way to Khe Sanh.
In its twists, the road stretched thinner, sheer drops to the left, crowding jungle to the right. The Ghost Patrol had disappeared along that road. My eyes bored into the wilderness, wondering where. Then, Mr. Poilane's old coffee plantation, there as he left it. Waiting for him as he died on Khe Sanh's runway.
Khe Sanh Combat Base. Red as rare steak. Stretching out like a seared moonscape, still surrounded, only by empty jungle and jagged peaks. A ghostly landscape, the color of Hell.
Walk a careful path between hillocks and pits. Do not stray from the path. Silent warnings left in the fine dirt, like pulverized brick. A mine. A pile of unexploded mortars. If the diggers have not touched it, don't you. Tangled barbed wire, an intact jungle boot.
I knelt in the dust, creeping with my camera close to the ordnance, wondering where my Camp Carroll fear had gone. Still careful. A bullet imprinted itself into my knee.
I wondered whose bunker had been beneath my feet. Stared out at those hills as others had long before. Hill 950 in the distance. How to tell which were which? I imagined young men, red steeped right into their skin, dirty and gaunt, staring out at those dangerous hills. Then coming back, twenty-seven years later, staring out at those harmless hills.
There was a silence at Khe Sanh. A vast graveyard. If you listened hard you might still hear the shouts and the whistles of incoming. To one side a grave, newly dug. Final resting place of a scrap metal seeker who'd tried to eek out a living on Khe Sanh's deadly harvest. They plan to retake Khe Sanh with coffee trees.
I walked the airstrip. Played kick with a rusted metal part. Tried to imagine the mayhem, planes coming in under fire, shells bursting all around, the ammo dump erupting. I asked Mr. Tran where the mortar battery had been so I could place Peter in this landscape. Mr. Tran said he, too, had been in the siege at Khe Sanh, showed me his ID card.
But he did not know who Colonel Lownds was, claimed there was no artillery at Khe Sanh. I tried to keep my eyebrows from shooting up. Answered questions with his back turned, so the hot wind caught his words and carried them away. It seemed no great loss.
Snapshot by the monument. It seemed so small, engulfed by the vast and powerful wasteland. A tall, slim man with a mustache and sunglasses walked toward me. Startled me. I thought for a moment I knew him. But he was someone else, back at Khe Sanh to remember and reflect.
I walked back to the van, singed by the sun. A boy chased me down, offering up dogtags and bullets. "Madame, you buy?"
I touched the lucky bullet worn round my neck, on its second trip to Khe Sanh.
"Sorry," I said. "Got one already."