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 Sam were giddy and talkative, 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. 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.
(to be continued)