It was a late summer morning, the air was crisp—it was early in the day—but with a strong hint of warmth blowing up from the south. A faint cool breeze also rose from the gorge below us, as a fading counterpoint and last gasp of opposition to the overpowering heat we all expected would be our companion for the days ahead. Our small group had gathered at the trailhead and we chatted amongst ourselves as we waited for stragglers to arrive. We were novice hikers at best, about to enter a difficult and dangerous wilderness for a two-week excursion, hoping to get through the adventure alive, and also to make a few good memories along the way.
Everyone was cordial, none of us knew the others in the group very well, most of us meeting the others here, at the trailhead, for the first time. A nervous anticipation made several members of our entourage extra talkative; a young couple sitting inside the open hatch of their Subaru were speaking loudly, and rapidly to the mother of a mother-son-daughter trio, telling them all about their recent trip whitewater rafting. The mother listened attentively while sipping her coffee, nodding affirmation and approval as they told their tale, while her teens stared vacantly at our surroundings—bored already.
Before embarking on our journey, the two leaders of our excursion called us all together, to gather around in a circle for formal introductions, as a first step towards building the all-important community that we would need in order to make the trip a success—for fun and for safety, and for survival. They introduced themselves—Heather, and Tom—and confirmed our hopes and expectations; that they both had many years of experience in guiding tours through the backcountry. They were both very amiable and exuded confidence, and set the proper tone of fun, measured with wisdom. The group fed on their charisma, and folks were pumped-up, and ready to rock!
Everyone gathered up their things: donning backpacks, adjusting straps—tightening down tents and sleeping bags which had been packed atop or below their bags—we checked our water-bottles and re-tied our shoelaces. One or two of us ran back quickly to our cars, to get something they had forgotten, or to make sure they had locked their doors. Heather led the group down the trail, and Tom brought up the rear; we started off at a brisk pace. “The wilderness won’t wait for us forever.” he said, “It’s time to make our mark, and conquer our fears!” We cheered at his brief but inspiring exhortation, as we marched along, and the cool dust filled our nostrils, and the sun rose higher over our heads, up into the blue and open sky.
We stopped several hours later, mid-morning, for a rest and to drink some water, before continuing on. As we sat scattered within a small area—some of us in little groups, with our backs leaning up against the cliff-face, which we had been following for most of the morning—Heather gave us a foretaste of our itinerary for the day. We’d be continuing up the gorge for the rest of the morning, and then stopping for lunch at a beautiful overlook, which provided vast panoramic views of the surrounding mesas, the crawling river down below, and the dark mountains far-off in the distance. Tom interjected when some of us expressed surprise, and concern, at the name of the overlook—Rattlesnake Ridge. “Ha! That’s just an old name, nothing to worry about. There haven’t been snakes there for years,” he comforted us. He went on to explain how the climate in the area had been changing and there was no longer enough water up there—or moisture even—on that ridge, to sustain life; so, without water, there’s no prey, and without prey there’s no snakes. One in our group raised a small objection, noting that it had been an unusually wet summer so far, and wondered, could they have come back? No, he then assured us compassionately, it doesn’t work like that, these kinds of changes happen over long periods of time, and a few simple rains won’t change anything. He chuckled, to set us all at ease, and said we’d be about as likely to see a snake up there as we would to see Bigfoot or the Abominable Snowman. And we all laughed.
The morning hike was beautiful, but already getting hot. Between the searing reds of the surrounding rock, the deep blues of the sky overhead, and the pure whites of the passing clouds it felt as though we had been dropped in the midst of a great, undulating American flag. The river, far below us—sparkling—reflected the bright summer sunlight so that, those of us without sunglasses, had to turn our heads, or squint and blink to keep our eyes from shedding tears. Everything was light, everything was bright, and by the time the sun passed directly overhead, there were no shadows. Not long after that, we reached Rattlesnake Ridge.
With sighs of relief we pulled our heavy backpacks from our shoulders and let them slide down to the ground. Again, we all found a spot to sit, some of us on boulders, some simply on the dirt. Our guides were absolutely right, the views from this spot were breathtaking. Cameras and cell-phones emerged and photos abounded; one young lady getting a bit too close to the edge as she snapped the perfect selfie, but she was caught just in time, and pulled back onto solid ground by our guide, Heather, before anything terrible happened. We ate our lunch, enjoying the scenery, and it was about the same time, when Tom had announced we’d be moving along soon, when one of the older men in the group, Mitch, made a commotion from his spot on a low ledge just off from the main group.
He leapt into the air, cursing, and jumped down from the ledge. To his right and to his left several small creatures slithered off the ledge rapidly and quickly disappeared into the dark crags which abounded in the vicinity; and one large rattlesnake followed directly in his wake. It came right after him, and looked to be attacking. Before he could catch his balance completely, or could find his legs beneath him, the darned thing struck. It hit his left boot and bounced off; and looked to have gotten its nose smushed against the hard leather. Stunned for a brief moment, but long enough for Mitch to gather his wits, Mitch then struck back—as the snake tried to gather its own wits—and, raising his very same boot in the air, Mitch brought it down decisively upon the creature’s slithery head. That was the final act in their battle; the long muscular body writhing and twirling for several moments, before going limp.
The onlookers had mixed feelings. Several gasped, one turned away unable to watch, and two smiled surreptitiously and winked at one another, while shaking their heads in disbelief. After a moment, a collective sigh let out, apparently nobody had been breathing throughout this altercation. And then the reactions came: Man! I can’t believe it came after you like that!…How dare you, how could you kill it?!…It was coming right at me, it was him or me!…That snake didn’t have any choice, poor thing, it’s just living by instinct, but you had a choice, you should be ashamed!…Boy, those are some good boots you’ve got!…I think I’m going to be sick!…I can’t believe he crushed its head, that was disgusting, hee-hee!…What choice did he have?!…Well, I guess we’d better be looking out for Bigfoot now!
Then someone offered the suggestion, that maybe we should pack up and get out of there, because there are an awful lot of creepy holes everywhere, and maybe there are more snakes where these came from. Another person reminded everyone of the other snakes which we had all seen just moments ago, slithering off into the holes just over there; what if they come back? This caused a general commotion, and a flurry of activity, as folks hoisted their bags onto their backs, with some hikers starting off quickly down the trail without even strapping their bags in place.
Our group regained a semblance of order several hundred yards further on; Heather retook the lead and Tom brought up the rear once again. We walked in single-file to avoid any accidents, as the trail became very narrow, with a precipitous drop on our left-hand side. From the general conversation it was clear that the snake episode had done little to foster a sense of unity among us, but had rather acted more like a wedge in the midst of our fledgling community. Several members whispered amongst themselves that they had some doubts about leader Tom’s authority; others were appalled by old-man Mitch’s heartless cruelty. Barbara’s teenage son however, for the first time all day, was animated as he recounted the viper’s death scene in all its gory detail to his reluctant sister, who covered both ears with her hands, and sang at the top of her lungs to drown out his oration.
By evening, as we set up camp and ate our dinner, it seemed that folks had come around to the recognition that we are all in this together—for the next two weeks anyway—so we should make the best of it, and try to get along. Expert Tom never brought up his mistake about Rattlesnake Ridge, so we let the incident go without further reflection. After a good meal followed up by smores, we retired to our tents under a moonless night, as the dysphonic cackle of coyotes rose in the distance.
The next morning Heather called us together to give us the upcoming itinerary, with an important caveat that we’d be leaving the river late in the day, and cutting across open territory for the next twenty-four hours or so; with little opportunity for fresh water; so, when we get down to the river—which we’d be doing soon, in a few hours—we all should be sure to fill our water bottles to the brim, and plan on conserving. By morning of the day after tomorrow, we’d be back to the river’s edge, with all the water we can drink. One final thing, the water in this area isn’t safe to drink without treatment—it is filled with bacteria—so everyone should use the water-filters that either she or Tom had brought along with them—unless you want a bad case of the runs; which she wouldn’t recommend…since there’s no laundry service out here, and she doubts anyone packed enough underwear with them. We all laughed.
The second day was hotter than the first. The cool air from the nighttime lingered briefly but soon burned off entirely, and by lunchtime we all were baking; and any exposed skin was beginning to turn as red as the surrounding rocks. Thankfully we had finally reached the river, and most of us took a dip to cool off. Heather and Tom pulled out their water-filters. Old-man Mitch, along with his newly formed cohort—Steve, another old-timer, and a couple in their fifties, Trina & Randy—sat together at the river’s edge watching the rest of us floating and splashing. They weren’t interested in getting wet, or disrobing, and were happy just watching. Beckett and Samantha, or Sam as she preferred to be called—the young, nervous couple from the back of the Subaru—were hovering not far from Heather, in hopes of being first in line to use one of the water-filters. They looked a bit haggard from the heat, but the anxiety which showed in their eyes also enlivened them in a strange, beleaguered way, giving them both the appearance of insomniacs.
As folks were drying themselves off, a shriek and then an ensuing argument broke the relative quiet: Heather looked incredulously at Tom and asked him, “Why on earth would you just drop your pack there, on the other side of that rock, without looking first?! You dropped it right on the water-filter…you probably broke it!” To which Tom retorted, “Well, why the heck would you put the filter back there, hiding, where nobody can see it?!”
“To keep it safe, you moron!” She answered, rolling her eyes and throwing both arms up in the air, whipping her hands with a short flick and spreading her fingers for emphasis. She leaned over the rock and pushed the pack to the side, and pulled out the filter from underneath. Examining it closely, she shook her head quickly from side to side, as she tried to pull the handle up to release the plunger from the filter-body. She grimaced as she pulled harder on the handle, and the shaft came partly out before stopping again. She pushed and pulled several times, shaking it between attempts, before finally throwing it down, in disgust, against the rock—inadvertently, in her anger, making absolutely certain that it was broken. Tom, looked on coolly, with feigned nonchalance and drooping eyes, and asked her slowly, “Was that the best idea?” Beckett and Sam took several steps backward and looked at one another anxiously, and Beckett let out a nervous laugh. Heather closed her eyes and sighed deeply, letting her shoulders sag before answering, “No…no, that probably wasn’t.”
All eyes were on our guides and a hush had overtaken us, as we waited to see what would happen next. Tom stated the obvious, “Well, that filter is toast…but at least we still have mine.” He walked forward to his backpack and rummaged through it for a moment before pulling out the other water-filter. “Well folks!” He called out loudly, holding the filter up in the air and turning about in a circle. “We need to be very careful with this one, it’s all we’ve got!” Nobody laughed. But there were quite a few nervous glances between hikers, before Heather gave us an impromptu pep-talk:
“It’s okay, we’re going to be alright, better than alright…we’re gonna be great! These are the best filters on the market, and one can easily handle the demands of our entire group—and then some! It will only take a little longer with one filter than with two, but we’ve got time, so let’s line up and get going! Sooner we get our bottles filled up, the sooner we can get back on the trail!” No further mention was made about her unfortunate outburst, or Tom’s unfortunate carelessness. We all supposed it was just water under the bridge; if our leaders didn’t feel any further need to address it, then why should we?
As the members of our group were taking turns using the filter, old-man Mitch and his friends stayed seated were they were. Tom called out to them, saying they should bring their bottles over, to which Mitch answered that no, they were good, they didn’t need the filter, they were using Steve’s iodine tablets to disinfect their water.
“Woah! Wait a minute!” Heather exclaimed, and took a few steps towards the iodine contingent. “No! That’s not alright.” She emphasized the words as she looked around at the other members of our hiking community. “Folks, I want you all to know, iodine is not safe. That might have been something we used in the past, but you really should never resort to that means of disinfecting water anymore. Especially now that we have modern filtration which is far superior. At the very least, if you don’t have a filter, you should only use chlorine-dioxide tablets, they are safe, but never use iodine. It is extremely damaging to the thyroid.” She turned back towards Mitch and Steve, “I would really prefer it if you’d use the filter, I’m responsible for everyone here, and I just don’t want anyone to get hurt.” Steve looked as if he’d been caught with his hand in a cookie jar, but he quietly answered Heather, “I can understand that, I really do. But you know, I’ve been using iodine tablets to disinfect water since I was a kid, my dad always did it this way. And I’m fine, even after sixty years of it. Well, maybe I’m not fine, I’ll leave that up to others, but I feel fine!” Trina and Randy chuckled at this, and Trina added, “My grandfather used to take my brothers and I out on camping trips and he always used iodine too, and I turned out okay!”
Heather looked at Tom, and he shrugged. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and negotiated, “Since you’ve already used the tabs in your bottles, go ahead and use it this time, but after this one time, let’s all just use the filter in the future, okay? It is much safer. Science has come a long way since you were kids you know. And I mean no disrespect by that. We just should follow the best practices, so that everyone will be okay out here. You don’t want us to have to carry you out of here, do you? That wouldn’t be fair to anyone.”
Mitch nodded approval, and the others followed. “We can play along. We’ll be model citizens from now on! Only water-filters from now on!” Heather smiled, and the rest of us breathed a sigh of relief, somehow feeling that we had dodged a potentially lethal bullet, aimed at the heart of our community.
The afternoon heat intensified, with the rays of the sun pummeling our bodies and eroding our resolve, and sapping our energy, so that each additional step, taking us moment-by-moment deeper into that desert wilderness, also seemed to stultify our minds, rendering us all temporarily dim-witted. Heather worked hard from the front of the line to keep us engaged with our surroundings, calling our attention to particular details of interest: the adaptive strategies of the desert milkweed, the beautiful and strange markings found on the wide variety of lizards indigenous to this part of the desert, and the amazing sense of smell which leads turkey vultures, like the ones up ahead, to dead animals. About a half hour later we passed by the carcass of a dead mammal—probably a coyote, though maybe a fox, Heather said—with several vultures gathered around it, sharing the meal.
As the afternoon wore on, the sun began its descent, which brought relief from the focused intensity of its light; all day long it had felt as though we were under the beam of an enormous magnifying glass, directed upon us by some demented child in the sky, who now was finally called home for supper—but the air around us still remained infernal. We entered a labyrinthine landscape of narrow gorges, with trails leading helter-skelter in all directions. Heather stopped to examine her trail-map more closely. As Barbara looked on from several paces away—taking small comfort in the thin shade of a scrappy looking little desert tree, which to my eye appeared already dead—she commented to her new friend, Thadia, and to the Subaru kids, about how lucky we all are to have someone like Heather to lead the way. She’d hate to be out here all alone without someone like Heather to follow, she’d be sure to end up like that coyote we passed earlier. After a few moments Heather took a look around, seemingly perplexed, but recognizing that all eyes were upon her, she smiled confidently and raised her head defiantly, to set our minds at ease. Barbara and Thadia smiled at one another and watched Heather expectantly. I found it all unsettling however; the look of bewilderment in her eyes, coupled with the determined set of her jaw, together left me feeling apprehensive. Was it decisive confusion that I saw on her face; or was it confused certainty? Either way, it didn’t feel comforting. For the first time, Heather looked to me like the type of leader that could confidently make a colossal blunder. Glancing at the others in our group, I caught the eye of one or two, who seemed silently to express my same concern, but most everyone else didn’t seem perturbed one bit, and they were ready to follow wherever Heather might lead us.
After one or two more quick glances at her map, Heather resolutely pointed the way up one of the trails leading off to our right, and then strode off in that direction. “Come along! Compadres! We’re almost there, just an hour more and we’ll make camp for the night. There’s a beautiful little grove of Emory Oak trees that we can camp under, you’ll love it!”
“Sounds delightful!” exclaimed Thadia. “I’m all in!” added Barbara. And the rest of us fell in line, and we snaked our way up the trail, reinvigorated by hopes of a nice evening under the trees.
But two hours later, we still hadn’t arrived at the promised oak grove, and we were getting impatient. Our feet were hot and tired, and our legs ached. What’s worse, several of us began complaining of upset stomachs and intestinal pain. Heather and Tom encouraged us to keep going—the oak grove was a little farther than they had remembered it—but we’d be there soon and then we could rest, have a nice meal, and get some sleep. But even after another half-hour of hiking—there were no oak trees in sight; and when Barbara’s daughter doubled over and threw up on her shoes, Heather decided it would be better to stop where we were for the night, and abandon the oak grove. We pitched our tents in a cluster, surrounded by several Saguaro Cactus and numerous little scrubby shrubs, which Tom identified as Foothill Palo Verde.
Heather spent a lot of time with Barbara’s daughter, Maggie, getting her first to lie down and put her feet up, and then to drink more water. But slowly—just sips—because she most likely was suffering from a bit of heat-stroke and probably dehydration. Barbara, very concerned, watched on gratefully from just behind Heather’s shoulder, as Heather tended to her sick daughter—placing a cool towel on her forehead and also behind her neck. After dinner, several more in our group complained of nausea, which alarmed Tom. He wondered aloud if we all had eaten something that had gone bad, but nobody could think what it might be, since we had only eaten trail-mix, power bars, and dried meat, none of which really seemed likely to have caused our symptoms. He concluded, as Heather had, that it must be slight dehydration and some heat-stroke; with the course of treatment being more water—taken slowly—and rest. We all tried to sleep that night, with varying degrees of success. I, for one, didn’t have a great night, but counted myself fortunate because I neither had to get up to puke, nor to relieve my bowels repeatedly, like some of the others did.
By morning, the mysterious malady had affected almost everyone, though some had begun to recover, while others looked to be getting worse. Conspicuously, a small contingent were unaffected—Steve, old-man Mitch, Trina and Randy all were as healthy as ever. Again, nobody else seemed interested in this fact, though it piqued my curiosity and led me to theorize upon the potential benefits of the much-maligned iodine tablet as an effective water treatment. And this caused me to question the preferred, modern and superior water-filter which Heather had advocated. But not wanting to cause any friction, I kept my thoughts to myself. However, I did quietly ask Tom if I could take a look at the filter, just out of curiosity, wondering how the remarkable thing worked. He handed it to me cautiously, reminding me to be very careful with it, and then he returned to his horizontal position, moaning a little as he lay there. Upon close inspection, it did appear that the filter casing had been damaged, with the screw-on cover slightly pulled-apart on one side. With a little effort I was able to unscrew the top and take a look at the insides. “Tom.” I whispered. “I’m no expert about these things, but this doesn’t look right to me. Here, inside this filter—take a look.” I said, and reached out to hand the opened filter back to him. He wasn’t pleased that I had disturbed him, and was upset that I had taken the top of the filter off, but when he peered inside, he gave a low whistle and shook his head. “Not good. This thing is definitely busted. See that tear in that membrane, water is going straight through it without getting filtered. This thing is toast!” He said out loud, and then more quietly, as he covered it under his sleeping bag, and looked around to make sure nobody had heard him. He called Heather over and showed her the filter. After her initial alarm, and after the two of them realized the source of our collective illness, she knew what had to be done. We needed good water after all.
Heather walked over to talk privately with Steve and old-man Mitch. I saw her gesturing and then Steve reached into his bag, and procured two large bottles while nodding to Heather. Next, she turned to face the group of tents and called out for everyone to gather around. Once we had dragged ourselves from our bags and were all within earshot she began: “Okay everyone, it seems we have some problems with our water. I’m not exactly sure what happened, but we need to refrain from using the filter. Now, don’t worry. It’s going to be just fine. It’s okay. Steve has iodine tablets and we’re going to treat everyone’s water using that. It’s going to be just fine. We’re going to get through this!”
“But wait,” Samantha spoke up. “You said iodine is dangerous and we shouldn’t use it.”
“Iodine is completely safe,” Heather reassured everyone. “No, you must have misunderstood me. Iodine is safe when taken for short periods of time, and in limited quantities. There is nothing at all to fear about using iodine to disinfect our water.” After some confusion, and perplexed looks on the part of many of us, we gathered up our water-bottles and let Steve drop the tablets in, one by one, as prescribed.
“Thank goodness Heather and Tom figured that out!” Commented Barbara; Thadia nodded in agreement. “I guess we were a little confused about using iodine,” she added, with obvious relief spreading across her face, “But I’m glad Heather clarified that, and told us we can use it now. That will really help us. What would we do without Heather?!”
Yes, that was an excellent question, I thought. I was beginning to think we might fare rather well without her. However, I know nothing about the desert, and for better or worse, Heather has more experience out here than we do. Surely, there are better leaders to be found, but Heather and Tom are the leadership we’ve got; so, in the words of Stephen Stills, adapted somewhat, “If you can’t be with the one you trust, honey; trust the one you’re with.” Maybe my standards are too high, after all, and a few mistakes with snakes and water-filters is to be expected when on an adventure in the desert wilderness. Additionally, nobody has died yet, so what am I complaining about? Yes, thanks to their best intentions—or in spite of them—we’ve fared fairly well thus far; and both Barbara and Thadia are clearly enamored by Heather, despite any perceived setbacks. The heat and the iodine must have begun to take a toll on me—why should I worry—just enjoy the journey I told myself; and yet, I felt a foreboding and slightly ominous cloud hanging over our community now, an uneasy and sticky feeling, like the sweat-drenched shirt clinging to my back, and I couldn’t shake it or ignore it, even in the midst of my growing delirium.
The next morning we broke camp and continued up the trail in hopes of meeting with the river again by the end of the day. Most of the sick were feeling better again, although several of us were still weak from having lost too many bodily fluids. We hiked slowly today. Even so, some stragglers still fell behind, and our numbers spread haphazardly across the barren and undulating desert floor. Heather, indefatigably, continued calling out to us and offering encouragement. Optimistically, we returned her call, giving the thumbs up, while gazing down at our tired feet trodding across the dusty landscape, carrying us further into the unknown. We stopped for lunch at a rocky outcropping, which provided minimal shade from the summer sun. Beckett and Sam weren’t looking too good, but by comparison they appeared the picture of health, when viewed with Barbara’s teenage daughter Maggie, who sat beside them on the rocks. Her brother Sean, had given up teasing her with gory stories of vipers slain. Instead, he looked worriedly at her out of the corner of his eye, while pretending to adjust his headphones, which appeared to be a permanent appendage upon his head.
The long afternoon passed slowly, and the wild sun seemed unwilling to leave the desert sky. I imagined that I could actually see solar flares flaming, and radiating outward from that violent orb, as it stood vibrant, silently protesting against the pale blue sky. I recalled to memory my thoughts when I had originally booked my place in this adventure, the excitement and anticipation I had of immersing myself—though safely guided—within the strangeness and innocent danger of the desert environs. This remembrance spurred me to gratitude as I hiked now, inspiring my emotions, and stimulating my senses to reach out to my surroundings, to allow the spare beauty of this empty land to embrace me. It was an indifferent and sterile embrace however, the desert didn’t seem to know I was there, or it knew but just didn’t care. I smiled to myself, to hide the terror I felt rising within me, from the knowledge that this world was indifferent to me and to my existence. Thankfully, I was not alone. I looked around me at the others sharing in this adventure—a rag-tag, motley assemblage of humanity, all bowed and hunched, and laid low by the bitter heat which pressed down on us, and from the sour water which had depleted us. Even so, we marched onward, even poor Maggie.
The girl was in bad shape. I could see that every step was difficult for her, but she was brave, and she summoned that inner strength that humans are known for, to meet the challenge. There comes a point, where even the bravest can go no further, but we hadn’t reached that point yet. We still had recourse to humor, that mainstay and bulwark against oppression, which gives one hope in the face of helplessness. As we are beaten down, irony rises up; and laughter in the face of defeat can heal us. Few things bind us together more closely—strengthening the bonds of brother and sisterhood—than a shared laugh in times of great trials. Taking these thoughts as inspiration, I began to sing for tired Maggie:
“Happy Trails…to you!…Until, we meet, again!…Who cares that there’s no clouds when we’re together; just sing a song and bring more sunny weather!!!” She cracked a smile; she knew irony—like we needed any more sun! I smiled, and sang a little more loudly for the others in our group, and a few joined in:
“Some trails are happy; and some are blue!…It’s the way you ride the trails that counts, this one’s for you!…Happy Trails to you!…until we meet again!!!”
Everyone laughed. I may be wrong, but it seemed that Maggie stepped more lively after that; and eventually—finally—the sun gave up for the day, and reluctantly began to set. A cooling breeze blew directly into our faces, and Heather declared that just ahead we’d reach the rim of the gorge, just there where the trail hooked sharply to the right, and from there we would be able to look down to the river. It would then be only a short descent, not longer than twenty minutes, to bring us to the water’s edge, where we would camp for the night, after a refreshing swim of course. It is hard to overestimate the relief her words provided to us then, as we each reveled in our private vision of those healing waters. What happened next however, is inestimable, the demoralizing effect it had on all of us, as the scene we encountered at the edge of the world, utterly deflated our hopes and blew up our inner visions of paradise.
We came up to the edge of the gorge, each in our own time, one-by-one, each of us adding our own particular brand of surprise, anguish, bewilderment, or disorientation to the collective response, as we all gazed down searchingly into the canyon, down to its dry and arid bottom—a dusty and windswept channel where the river was supposed to be flowing.
“Motherfu****!” exclaimed Mitch. “Where is the river?!” cried Samantha, with Beckett feebly echoing her—but in an empty and droning soft little voice, devoid of all emotion, or rather, filled with the emotion of utter defeat.
Heather quickly pulled out her map and scanned it, craning her neck forward to get a closer look in the dwindling light. She then looked up again from her map, and scanned the canyon—searching desperately to the left and then to the right—then back down at the map, and then back into the gorge again; apparently she was trying to conjure up a river, magically, by sheer will and hope, with the help of her trusty map. But her powers failed her, and the river continued to be not there. Often, in deserts, people see mirages, hopeful oases of lush foliage and refreshing waters, that aren’t truly there. But ours was the opposite, we only saw desert dryness in the place where water had been promised. Was it a lie? Or only a mistake? Another mistake in the desert, where we should come to expect mistakes; isn’t that correct? This one stung more than most; most of us were out of water by now, or very close. The last known source of water was a day, perhaps two days behind us, possibly even further, now that we were already so tired and dehydrated. It was not difficult to interpret the meanings of the expressions on the faces of our group members. For a long time nobody spoke, we stood in shocked silence, our bodies frozen and unable to move, though our minds were racing, and our thoughts were spinning wildly. It was no longer time to sing “Happy Trails”. No, we were now well past that point.
A tremendous gnashing of teeth ensued, not of the otherworldly disembodied type, like that spoken of in scripture; but of the worldly type, with choice expletives of a very earthy sort, with blame and accusations, and the pointing of fingers. Certainly our party’s bonhomie had been shattered; and even Barbara’s and Thadia’s unflinching devotion to Heather’s and Tom’s leadership appeared to have suffered a few cracks—manifesting silently and without overt demonstration—displayed only through their embarrassed aversion of the eyes and by their downcast glances. There were wide and disparate views on what—or who—exactly, got us into this mess, and everyone aired their opinions openly, with increasingly loud and strident tones of voice. Yet, underneath our clashing argumentation, there quietly arose a consensus experience among us—thirst—and extreme thirst; I first noticed it affecting the most vocal members of our community: the licking of lips, the smacking and clicking of the tongue, and abrupt, sudden silences of immense introspection—not brought about by clever repartee or witty rebuttals, but by the primal argument of a body with too little moisture inside.
I’m certain our bickering would have continued much longer, had it not been the end of a very long and very hot day; and had we not already been suffering from dehydration. Our complaints died down as each person one-by-one succumbed to their weariness, some of us collapsing to the earth and hanging our heads between our legs dejectedly, others of us leaning against a rock or a fellow hiker. In the waning light and shared silence, Heather meekly suggested that we should get down the trail soon, so we could set up camp before it became too dark. A dissenting voice questioned—why even hike to the bottom of the gorge at all? Since there wasn’t any water down there. Most agreed it was too far to go, and it would be better to set-up camp where we were, try to get some sleep tonight, and then in the morning decide what to do next.
The coyotes’ crazed cackling provided a deranged serenade as we tried to sleep that night—tossing and turning in our bags, or stretching a leg out the tent flap trying to cool off, some of us finally giving up the horizontal position altogether, and preferring to wander upright, near and far in the half-moonlight, like specters in the desert, silhouettes against the starry night sky. We formed a nocturnal confederacy with the cacti; was it the liminal moonlight or delirium brought on by lack of water—something, opened the windows onto eternity, and it seemed that we were able to see into our far distant past, and see visions of our future. The sun rose, and then set. Was that a day; was it today? Or was it another day from long ago? I couldn’t be certain, and the others who wandered with me, seemed equally perplexed at the passage of time. How was it that my parents had joined the group; when had they arrived? How could they have? I wondered. They both had passed away long ago, or so I thought, but there they sat now, by the fire, enjoying themselves—toasting life, raising glasses with whoever else would join them. I smiled as I watched them, so happy to see them again, and so satisfied that they were enjoying themselves out here in the desert with us. Somebody popped a bottle of champagne and passed it around. It was the last bottle; we had drunk all the rest—dry—and there were no more. I remember someone saying we should conserve this bottle—be careful, and drink it slowly—it has to last us who knows how long, and the party is far from over. But there were more bottles back at the restaurant, only a day away; someone should run back and get some more and save the party. Yes! Get more champagne, and save the party! I cheered; and others cheered with me. Steve would go, and so would Sean, that boy with the funny antlers on his head; they were strong, so we gave them our empty bottles to return. Another guy went with them, there were so many bottles to take back, too many for only two men to carry alone. We wished them well and to hurry back. We all were thirsty, we needed more champagne.
I noticed the sun had risen. Again? How many times had it risen; it was too difficult to determine. Someone handed me the bottle of champagne, it was warm now, drink it slowly, and not too much. I nearly spit it out, it tasted like water, and maybe it was water…maybe it wasn’t champagne after all, maybe there wasn’t any champagne. I worried about my parents, I hadn’t seen them since the campfire that one night, and the desert is a dangerous place. I wanted to look for them, but I felt so tired; I decided to look for them later. I slept. When I awoke it was dark; the night had descended upon us again. And our party had revived; Steve and Sean had returned with the new bottles and everyone was drinking. There was quite a celebration: Tom and Thadia were singing, and Beckett sang along, while Randy and Trina danced around the fire, tripping and nearly falling into the flames. Tom and Samantha clapped along, and everyone kept drinking; some of us drank too fast and too much. Maggie, poor thing, threw up again; as did several others, including myself. It was like a dream, a vision from out of the deepest and darkest sleep—coming and then going. Again, I slept. When I awoke, it was light again; another morning had dawned.
The air was already thick and heavy with the heat of the coming day. It was hot, but I felt surprisingly refreshed. The delirium of the past, how many days?—had lifted; I felt clear-headed again. Looking around at the others dismantling their tents, and packing their bags with alacrity, it seemed that we all were restored to our previous state, before lack of water had taken its toll on us. Tom called and gathered us around, and Heather informed us of a change of plan: instead of going further on this trail, we’d backtrack to the river and follow it out for a few days, and then turn around and return back to the trailhead, instead of making a round-trip as had been the original idea. Retracing our steps across the undulating desert floor was somehow comforting. Heather pointed out familiar rock formations and we nodded in recognition. Everyone seemed renewed in spirit as well as in body; embracing life with renewed vigor, having come through a close brush with death and survived. Had we nearly died back there? It was hard to say for certain. I for one was having trouble recalling the details of what had befallen us. Beckett and Samantha were giddy and talkative, nervously hopeful that the worst was behind them. Heather was back to calling out encouragements optimistically with gusto; and our group fell in line, raising arms in unison to give her our thumbs-up, as we marched across the parched landscape. New alliances had been formed through our collectively experienced trials. Steve nudged Sean and threw him off-balance as they hiked side-by-side; and they laughed together. For the first time, Sean’s electronic headgear was missing, presumably stashed into his backpack; so that he could actually hear and engage with his immediate surroundings. The change suited him. He smiled happily; that vacant stare with which he had begun our outing back at the trailhead now replaced with a joyful twinkle. Old-man Mitch had apparently earned Barbara’s respect and admiration—and vicariously, her friend Thadia’s approbation as well. Old-man Mitch had doted over Maggie, in her darkest hours, and thereby had gained this new-found status with her mother and her mother’s friend. Maggie herself had seemed to fall in love with this crusty old patriarch, and now followed close upon his steps, and clung to his every syllable; laughing at his purposely archaic turns of phrase and his acerbic wit, not to mention, his foul mouth, which shocked and amused her. Tom brought up the rear and yelled out a reminder, to keep hydrated, people, because it was going to be another hot one—perhaps the hottest day we’ve had so far.
Tom was right, the heat of the day was infernal. The air was stagnant, and dead still; nothing moved in the world around us. Our desert world seemed to be holding its breath—too hot to inhale, and too tired to exhale. I breathed the arid heat and it filled my lungs, searing my mucus membranes and my throat as it flowed in, and I wet my lips with just a little water from my bottle. It evaporated as quickly as I poured it in, leaving my lips drier than before. The ground was cracked and broken, and small puffs of dust swirled around my boots as I took each step. I looked up and saw two people up ahead, both bound from head to toe in bedsheets—as Bedouin nomads might look—with fabric layered in swirls around their heads and flowing down their backs, and wrapped around their torsos. But these two figures halted and stumbled as they went, bumping into one another, and staggering, so that they each looked more like mummies escaped from the tomb than adept desert tribesmen. A sheet fell to the ground and revealed their arms wrapped around one another’s waists as they walked; they held each other tight. I watched as they went, and it seemed as though one was carrying the other, but then afterward, it appeared that they reversed roles with the first being carried by the second. It was a strange and touching scene. Their movements were anything but efficient, as they leaned and careened forward, though their embrace also expressed a desperate, shared love which sheltered them from the careless and violent surroundings.
The strangest sight was a young man who had stripped to his underwear. He wore his backpack on his bare back and looked like a partially de-shelled crab, with red lanky limbs flailing in the stale air; or like a dehydrated tortoise as he craned his neck forward and up towards the sky, stretching and grimacing under the weight of his baggage. The extreme heat permeated my body, it consumed all of us, how could it not?—with nowhere to shelter. I felt myself baking in the depths of my being, and it bemused me. I no longer had any argument against the heat, I gave myself completely to it. The clarity of mind I had experienced earlier in the morning had long since vanished; it likely was an illusion or a mirage to begin with—it too evaporated in the heat—and I had no more use for it. I accepted my fate, and I too raised my face up to the sky, just as I saw that skinny, naked human-terrapin had done, and I let the sun scald my skin. We stumbled forward, into the desert day, and the cooling night remained far-off and remote; a distant expectation, or a faint memory.
Finally, we came to the edge of the earth, and the entrance to its bowels. The trail descended sharply down into a labyrinth of narrow gorges. The trail splintered into numerous directions, flanked on all sides by broken rocks, fallen boulders, and ragged-topped stony ruins—beaten by the sun and decaying—shattered by the millennia. Each path seemed as good as any other, or as evil. Heather chose one direction and we followed her, picking our way over fallen rocks; and burning our hands upon their jagged surfaces, as we groped our way along, and as we supported ourselves from falling under the weight of our bags. Tom suddenly suggested we turn, and descend to the left, away from the sun, and most certainly the way to the river. Heather bristled at his interference and countered that the way up to the right was the correct way forward. She reminded everyone that she was the guide with years of experience out here, to which he replied, that the last time he checked, he too was an experienced guide. In reply, Heather launched into a lengthy description in support of the direction she had chosen; to which, Tom expounded on the superior reasons he had for going the opposite way. For my part, I had great difficulty following either side’s argument, my mind having become thoroughly muddled by the extreme heat. I caught a few pieces of Heather’s reasoning: something about the degree of slope which the trail took up ahead, and the angle of the sun, all of which must have been very convincing, because I remember seeing many of our group nodding in approval. However, Tom’s logic also included some important facts about sedimentary rock, erosion, and the earth’s curvature, which was apparently equally compelling, because the same members in our group also nodded enthusiastically in support of Tom.
For a while we stood in silence, staring vacantly at the surrounding cliffs or up at the sky, waiting to hear what we should do. What was the final verdict? Nobody seemed to know. Somebody suggested flipping a coin. Heather broke the silence by refusing to go in Tom’s direction, calling it utter stupidity, saying we should only go that way if we wanted to die of thirst. Tom woke up from a short nap he’d been taking standing up, slumped against a large rock—certainly brought on by the heat, I could surely relate—and countered that there was no way in hell he’d ever go the way Heather was suggesting, and with all due respect, she was an idiot to even think that way. Certainly the heat must be getting to her, and befuddling her reason, he said with a shrug. If anyone was dumb enough to believe her they were fine to go her way, but it was time to get a move on and he was going down to the left. Everyone agreed it was best to stick together and not to split up; but after a little further arguing, about half of us followed Heather and the other half followed Tom. I’m not sure who I followed, I just stuck close to Steve. Because I remembered that he carried the iodine tablets that we needed to disinfect our water.
The surrounding cliffs shielded the sun, which cast long, dark shadows down their faces and across our path. But the heat persisted, stubbornly refusing to dissipate, or to subside in order to bring us relief. Every surface radiated and returned to the air all the warmth they had accepted throughout the long, sunbaked day. I reached for my water bottle and held it up to the sky to observe its contents; there was not much left, it seemed. I couldn’t remember when I had drunk last, or how it came to be drained as it was. Heavy condensation on its inner surface obscured my view into the vessel, but I could feel it weighing gently in my hand, and it was much too light. I decided to save what was left. Nobody knew how much longer it would be until we reached the river. It was wise to conserve, I told myself, so you can imagine how disheartened I became, when in the next moment I greedily, inexplicably, opened my bottle and emptied its contents down my damaged throat. The water burned as it went down, and then it disappeared, presumably soaked up by my throat’s desiccated lining before ever a drop reached my stomach. I reached into the bottle with my finger extended, and swiped the insides, and then pulled it back out and licked it hopefully; but my tongue stuck to my finger, and I had to pull it off with my other hand. I looked down the darkened trail and it swayed from side to side. As the path lurched to the left I strode to the right, and when it swung back to the right I compensated by leaning back to my left. I made my way forward in this manner until the constant rocking made me nauseous and I fell forward, first landing briefly on my knees, and then my face planting into the dirt. My diaphragm convulsed, and I gagged upon nothing but my raw mucus membranes, choking and hacking until I grew too tired. I felt a hand on my back and someone helped me into a sitting position; and then I drank. Water. Just a little, not too fast, not too much, take it easy, that’s good. A little while later I was back on my feet again, propped up by a kindly neighbor, and walking slowly down the middle of the trail.
The night was suddenly overtaking us, as the sun finally set somewhere over the backside of the cliffs. I heard someone say that we hadn’t found the river yet; and it was beginning to get too dark to safely go much further. In the dim light just ahead I could see old-man Mitch, yes it was him, I could tell by his hat, and he was carrying something large in his arms. No, not something, it was someone; he was carrying a person. “We’re almost there, Maggie, you’re going to be fine, girl.” I heard him say soothingly.
Sometime later, perhaps an hour, perhaps two, though maybe only several minutes—I’m not certain—we came to an impasse, and our group had to stop. Just up ahead, the trail ended in a cataract of fallen rock which had covered the way entirely. Standing at the base of the tower of rock rising high in front of us, we were perplexed. With cliffs to our left and to our right, some members of our group turned around, and looked back up the trail that we had just traversed; and I could see them silently assessing the merits of a retreat. Others looked up, the only other way possible. I looked up along with them, into the darkening sky, but without any real thoughts formulating in my mind, but just a generalized awareness. I noticed vultures passing overhead, one or two coming briefly into view, sailing across the dusky sky. They vanished behind the cliffs, momentarily, and then they returned and crossed back the other way. They returned again, gliding beautifully amidst a gathering field of stars. Pretty things. I smiled as I watched, as they faded and vanished into the night sky.
“Mitch. My sister isn’t looking good.” I overheard Sean whisper to the old-man. “I seriously don’t know if she’ll make it through the night. We’ve got to get her out of here.”
The old man was silent for a while as he stared down at his boots. He looked about at the others in our group, and over at me, as I lay with my back propped up against a rock. “She’s not the only one in a bad way.” And then he looked intently back at the boy. “You still got that hand-crank charger I’ve seen you’ve been using? You keeping that cell phone of yours charged?”
“Of course,” Sean replied.
“We need to get some help.” Mitch said as he scanned the cliffs. He pointed to a spot over my left shoulder, suggesting they might climb up that way, where the cliff wasn’t so steep. If they could get up there to the top, maybe they could call for help.
Next, something seemingly miraculous happened; almost as if Mitch had conjured it up with the right combination of words, or simply by the asking with a pure heart and pure intent. We heard, right then as Mitch asked for help, voices in the distance coming towards us. Someone in our group called out to them, and they replied. Our spirits rose. It seemed the cavalry was finally coming at the most dramatic moment, upon the climax of our need, just like they often did in the western movies. We could see beams of light from their flashlights as they surveyed the cliffs. They were coming towards us from the other side of the cavalcade of rocks strewn across the trail; we could only see the light as it was cast upon the uppermost reaches of the surrounding rocks, and could only hear their voices muffled behind the tower of fallen stone. We told them we needed help; which, they did too. And that we were short on water; but, so were they. And we were looking for the way to the river but got lost along the way; and, so were they. Slowly, a sickening realization descended upon all of us and our hearts sank. “Heather, is that you?!” was asked from one side of the ruins. “Tom?!…shit!” was heard from behind the other side.
A sullen silence reigned, for quite some time after that, on both sides of the rocky ruins. Meanwhile, Mitch quickly recovered from the disappointment, and he coaxed Sean to get a move on, as they both gathered up a few things and then began their ascent of the nearby cliff, in hopes of making a call for help. Shortly after they left, I fell asleep.
In the night, rain began to fall—large, heavy drops which made a splash when they hit. I opened my mouth and let them cover my tongue, and trickle down my throat. They rolled off my forehead, and dripped into my ears. I felt them land on my eyelids, and I breathed in their freshness. They smelled like sweetness, and like life. Early in the morning, as light began to dawn, I looked up into a cloud-filled sky. It was a soft, light gray, though tinged with dark tones. Sharp light flashed across the summer sky, crashing against the cliff faces, and illuminating the depths where we dwelt; followed by baritone groans, and bass grumblings, which seemed to shake the sky above, and the earth below us. The vultures returned and appeared to be watching us as they circled. Round and round they went; I watched them through half-closed eyes. There were more of them now, it seemed to me. They looked like large, black blades, cutting circles through the white, cloudy sky. And they brought thunder in their wings—a loud, incessant thumping sound, slapping the air around us, repeatedly.
I closed my eyes, and still, I could hear them—flapping, thumping. And they wouldn’t go away. I suspected that I must be dying, and I remembered the carcass of that desert fox, or coyote that we had seen many days earlier. I shuddered to think of myself in the same predicament now, with the vultures gathering around to dine upon me. Exhaustion overtook me as I formed this repulsive image, and I gratefully drifted off, someplace between waking and slumber, and I floated there for a long while. I felt the vultures come for me. I felt them peck and pull at me, grabbing at my slack skin. And then I felt them carrying me, lifting me, raising me into the sky. But…strange. Do they actually do that? I forced my weary eyes open, as I floated up towards their frenetic circling orbits—black vultures, swirling rapidly in the summer sky.
In the midst of my stupor I could feel something foreign pierce my arm, and then the flow of a cool, invigorating fluid flowing up my arm, and then throughout my body. I turned my head to the side, from the place where I now lay, and gazed out through an open doorway at the cloudy sky beyond. Rain was falling, and splashing on the sill of the door, making tiny puddles on the floor of our aircraft suspended high above the desert floor. Clear fluid dripped from a bag hung above me, and it filled the tube which entered my arm. Beside me, within touching distance, someone else was lying, also with a tube in her arm, and a peaceful look of incomprehension on her face. Her eyes closed and she looked at peace—her soft features, softening even further. I gazed at her youthful face for quite some time; it brought me comfort. She looked like an angel.
She opened her eyes, taking some time to focus. I saw her eyes roll up, to the left, and to the right, as she attempted to take in our new accommodations; she tried to lift her head, but the weight appeared to be too much, and she gave up. I recognized her, but couldn’t remember how I knew her. She looked at me, staring into my eyes for a long time, without any apparent thought, emotion or recognition behind her gaze. And then she smiled a slight smile, while keeping her eyes locked upon mine. She tried to speak, opening her mouth only a sliver, and then resting, taking a shallow breath before closing her eyes again. I continued to watch her and thought she had fallen asleep. Then she opened her eyes, and smiled once more, while gazing intently into my own. This time she spoke—she sang actually—in a soft, faint voice, sweet and gently playful: “Happy trails…to us.”
Ah yes, I remembered now. Maggie. She was Maggie. Sweet girl, brave girl. Tenacious Maggie, with the ironic sense of humor. She was still looking at me after she had sung her line; and she was waiting. I couldn’t disappoint her. I sang for her, as best I could: “Who cares about the clouds when we’re together. Just sing a song and bring the sunny weather.” She smiled broadly—and nearly laughed—and then she joined me; and together we finished: “Happy trails to you…until we meet, again!”
* * *