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—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 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.
(to be continued)