The mountains in this whole area are huge piles of gray granite, great bursts of stone that jab up out of sand and more stone. Manzanita, Pinyon Pine, desperate sprouts of life grow out of crevices in granite.
It was a good road until it started going through washes, then it got radical. People had filled in spots where they’d gotten stuck, and Scott noted it was the same style of fill all the way on this road. Branches had been broken off the local fauna, then rocks on top of it, then filling it all in with dirt, a meticulous method that we didn’t see at the slide or anywhere else.
It turned out to be a lot further than I remembered. The ridges grew close and sheer, the rocks carved and etched with an alien hand, eerie, unearthly. Unexplainable cuts that looked like beehive honeycombs made by mutant bees after a nuclear attack marred walls of stone that went up four stories. We grew quiet with the effort of walking, and the world around us got quiet too.
Throughout the area are large dead trees, bigger than anything’s that’s alive out there, hanging on in impossible places, their limbs gnarled, twisted extremities that point in every direction. I’d always figured there’d been a fire that had burned all the older Pinyon Pines, the new smaller trees taking their place, and someday being as large.
“Those aren’t Pines,” Scott argued. “See, they’ve got more than one central limb.” He made the effort to climb to one just off the road. “It’s not burned, either,” he announced. He scratched at his beard. “They’re just dead.” He pulled his pocketknife and picked at a limb. “This is hardwood.”
Scott’s degree is in environmental biology. He got it back in the seventies when things like that were taken seriously. He never applied it to a line of work, being a courier for the major HMO paying much better than anything in his field, but he’s always a wealth of information as well as observation.
We continued on, the twisted dead trees above and around us now an even deeper mystery.
“What do you think of my new boots?” Jon announced. I looked down. He had a brand new pair of Hi-Tek tennies appropriately colored brown that I’d seen marketed as ‘Trail Boots’. A quick calculation in my head grudgingly admitted they were suitable for anything we intended to do on this trip, especially for someone afraid of heights; light0-weight, hard tread, hopefully enough ankle support. No cross-country backpacking trips for him in those, but they’d do here.
Jon smirked. I fought the urge to check my fly.
“Got them for fifteen dollars at Sportmart. Yep,” he made a smacking sound and sighed, “I’m cheap, a real penny-pincher. How much did you pay for your boots, Scott?”
Scott’s Danner boots cost him about a hundred and fifty bucks, and I’d score my Vasque’s on sale at REI for ninety-eight dollars, the only thing wrong with them being I’d never be satisfied with anything else again.
Please don’t bring up your frickin’ Geo, the one that gets fifty miles to the gallon, the one we drove to the gun show in Pamona, just you and me, fifty-five miles an hour listening to the Best of Paul Harvey, shows I found out later you’d already heard, since you never miss Rush Limbaugh, Paul Harvey and Roger Hedgecock. All the while you telling me how much money we were saving for taking your damn Ge. oWe could’ve got better, Jon. I could’ve run alongside and pushed. Then he didn’t buy anything at the gun show, which was probably a good thing since there was no room in his Geo if he had.
I pointed to the North.
“Check out the view.”
“You can see the Badlands,” Scott exclaimed. “Dave, you can see the Badlands from here. You never I’ve never actually been in the Badlands.”
I glanced over at Jon. His smirk was righteous triumph.
We got to the camp spot, the metal ring marking it as a place officialdom considered apropos. The view seemed to intensify, the walls of the sheer granite walls around us closing in, the ground suddenly turning from sand to a wall of stone that suddenly dropped away into a three hundred-foot fall.
I hopped up a flight of rocks.
“See?” I stood in the middle of a square marked carefully with rocks.
To me, this was a major discovery of human nature. Somebody, it could have been yesterday or thirty years ago, had flattened this spot against the ridge, then laid stones to mark where, what looked to me, a tent was to be pitched. It just felt to me that there was some hidden truth in this desolate place on the nature of humans.
Scott seemed unimpressed. The view caught his eye, and the large Pinyon that shaded the eastern side of the camp.
“That Pine looks like its coming right out that rock.”
I worked my way over rocks, around brush until I reached the base of the boulder. It took a little scrambling but I rose up the stone and fell into a crevice, like a hallway; six feet high and four feet wide. The trunk of the tree emanated from a split in the solid stone floor of the hallway.
How many years had the rock walls protected the sapling from the shimmering brutality of the summer sun, collected the meager rain that fell here and siphoned it down to this un-gnarled tree, until it finally raised itself above the stone and started shading it?
‘This is one big tree,’ I shouted out of the hallway.
“Where’d he go?” I heard Jon ask.
“Head south along the boulder,” I shouted. The stone opened up and dropped down to sand, a thin walkway rising up the right side stone. Beyond the sand was another wall of stone, sealing the southern end. The opening reminded me of our old condo’s backyard garden. This small, deep crevice had all the qualities of a secret garden, hidden from the casual eye, a discovery that seemed at the time the highest of precious gifts.
Several cactii hugged the wall of the sheer boulders, and a baby Pine tree actually grew out of the dirt, perhaps the first one I’d seen actually alive and not growing from a crevice. It looked almost landscaped.
Jon rose unsteadily at the far end, the fence of this yard.
I bounded by him and around the side of the boulder.
The towering granite around us left only a wedge of sky above, showing a swirling world of scudding clouds, all sorts of grays and whites moving by like a kaleidoscope. The boulders we had slipped into seemed the most perfect of labyrinths, a maze with a new discovery at every turn. I peered around the boulder, and though it was the same view as the other side, I paused and admired.
“Hey!” Jon cried. He worked east across a small break and started climbing. I moved a few feet, and the maze was gone. We were out in the open again, with a view of a hundred yards in three directions.
Jon scaled the sheer cliffs to the east, then walked through the entrance to a wall built of carefully stacked stone.
I had to pause and accept this new sight. Obviously man-made, the wall stretched from one boulder to another three-story boulder, rising as a backdrop.
I ran up to the wall. There was no apparent path, yet behind the wall it was excavated flat. It was too small for a tent, and it seemed to me the wind would whip hell through here.
“Geez, Scott, wha’d’ya think?”
Scott had moved around the labyrinth of stone and Pine tree, and now started slowly up the hill, picking his way around obstructions, working his way toward us. He didn’t answer my question.
“Look, Dave. Someone cut a path.”
Jon pointed north along the face of the three-story boulder we were up against. A Manzanita bush grew out of the face of the rock, and someone had cut it away from the rock to facilitate a path along a set of footholds. I dance out this path, slipping past the cut, the boulder becoming five sotries tall as the ground dropped away below me. The footholds came to an end on the north-facing side of the boulder. There I stood, hugging this giant rock, admiring the view from its third story with an inch-wide floor, looking out across a multi-acre field of boulders and nothing else until it all dropped off another thousand feet, wondering why the heck anybody would cut a path that went nowhere.
“Dave!” Jon shouted. Irritated, I worked back far enough to see Jon.
Past the rock wall and clearing, Jon stood in another doorway. Someone had stacked stone like bricks, or maybe Legos, up to just below Jon’s shoulder, at the entrance of a cave.
Now I rushed back.
Scott still hadn’t made the first wall. I didn’t wait, but charged after Jon.
The cave beyond the new wall was cut from a single two-story boulder, up until a new chamber opened to the left, where the next sheer boulder opened a crevice above, a perfect chimney.
“you could rig a fire right here, and no one could see it,” I exclaimed.
There was a rear exit. I climbed toward it, slipped out the back, struggled up a rocky rise, and came up over to look down a dizzying drop.
And it was green. Not spots of green, but rocks disappearing under lush green plants, down to a split that flowed to the north.
Scott slipped up to us.
“What a view.”
My heart skipped.
“Hey, Scott, glass the bottom there.”
Scott squinted as he got out his little pocket binoculars.
“What am I looking for?”
I might was well have said “the Lord Jesus”: life itself.
It glistened blue down there, reflecting the sun up through struggling pint-sized trees with iridescent leaves. It fell over rocks and frothed, at least in my eye. It pooled deep enough to be blue.
“Yeah, sure enough.” Scott lowered his binoculars. “Water.”
“YES!” I exploded. Jon jumped away from me. Scott rolled his beard over his chin. “That’s where the horses get their water,” I added.
“Now,” Scott adjusted his weight. “How are you going to get to it?”
I stopped bouncing, stammered.
“You could find a way.”
“It’s a thousand feet down from here, Dave. No sure that’s the horses’ water anyway. If you want to be camping up here, you’ll spend most of the day just hauling water.”
I studied the problem. It didn’t matter. There was water here in this desolate place. Human life could survive here, without the Bronco II laden to the breaking point, a mechanical umbilical cord for the fundamentals of existence.
I turned and walked away without a word.
We inspected the cave a bit more, nothing more than the underside of a tumble of house-sized boulders, Jon and me getting into an argument, Jon espousing a drum barrel cut in half, with crossbars set just so, would suit for a fire ring in the one room, me arguing that a Weber would work just as well. I think about it now, and wonder why we couldn’t just make a rock ring and leave all the Webers and the like at home.
We started walking back along the road. Scott spotted another accessible dead tree, misshapen and bigger than most. He seemed fascinated by the hardwood. We all walked over to the tree and Scott picked up a hand-sized chunk of it.
“How long you figure it’s been dead?”
“Hard to say, out here in the desert ..” Scot paused, sniffed the wood. “Cedar.” He offered me the chip. I sniffed; pungent, clean, spicy. Scott looked around the mountains that surrounded us.
“The local weather climate is shifting, Dave, maybe within the last thirty years. This was once a whole lot wetter place, and now its getting drier. That’s what killed all these trees.”
We’d all paused and listened. Threatening clouds scudded overhead.
“This place is becoming less hospitable, Dave. It’ll probably get a whole lot worse. unliveable.”
Scott started off again, due north.
“I’m really looking forward to the stars tonight, “ I said. “Jon, you gotta see these stars.”
“Oh, well,” Jon started. “You should see the stars in Iowa…”
“No, no, you gotta see these stars. So thick…” Scott struggled.
“When we went backpacking the first time, between the wild horses fighting and the mosquitoes, I spent a lot of time awake,” I started, “and I kept seeing what I thought was a bonfire, y’know, flickering light, around this boulder we were camped up against. I figured there was some campers back there burning a forest. Finally I walked around the boulder, and there’s nothing there, so I asked Scott, “where’s that light coming from? And Scott says, “Dave, you idiot, that’s the stars.” I raised my hands motioning over my head. “They were pulsating, they were so bright.”
A funny look flashed across Jon’s face that seemed incorrect, a look of irritation, frustration, disbelief.
“Look, there the moon.” I pointed to the horizon just before a cloud blotted out the moon. I hoped the clouds won’t block the start tonight.”
“It’ll be fine.”
“If the moon sets early …”
“It will,” Scott offered softly. “We’ll see the stars tonight.”
“No we won’t!” Jon seemed to lunge toward us with his revelation. His fingers stabbed expertly at his watch. “No. The moon won’t set until two tomorrow morning.” He beamed triumphantly.
Scott seemed to catch himself, remained silent while we walked back to camp.
The campsite felt friendly, like home. Jon started getting ready to make dinner. Scott looked appalled when I announced, “John cooks, we clean.”
In fact, Jon had problems with it.
“There won’t be that much to clean. Besides, I like to cook…”
“No, Dave’s right,” Scott allowed. “There’s no women around, so…”
“This is the rule, guys,” I continued firmly. “Whoever cooks, the others clean. Its fair. “
“But, I like to cook…”
“Its okay, Dave's right…”
“Believe me, if Robin were here, you’d clean…”
Finally we got tired of arguing, and we all popped a Snapple.
It was a dry camp, no beer, no booze. I’d made the call. Scott claimed once-upon-a-time he had problems with alcohol, isn’t much of a drinker now, a beer or two to be sociable. Jon on the other hand had gone through detox for alcohol and drug abuse when he was sixteen. Diplomacy had driven me to claim that with all the essentials, there was no room for beer or wine. (Scott claims he’s allergic to grapes.)
Jon had given a mild protest.
“I don’t mind. I bought beer, six months ago. Sometimes I cook with it.” His face skewered up and looked vaguely like a smirk. ”There’s three left!”
That settled it for me. No booze.
The fire stoked, and Scott seemed a little irritated at how easily the avocado caught. I had scored a grill that fit the metal ring perfectly and the steaks that Jon had marinated for the day went on. Jon gasped and panted as he stood in the cloud of smoke that billowed up from the fire.
“Jon, try this side, upwind,” Scott suggested. Jon tried it, leaning over the fire. The relatively gentle breeze pushed across him and vacuumed the smoke back into his face. He kept jerking back away from the fire, his eyes watery. Robin had the same trouble when she’d cook, but not nearly as bad as Jon, and I tried to remember what she did.
“Come in lower, Jon. The smoke’s being sucked back on you.”
Jon went into a horse stance, ducking down, jabbing like a crab toward the fire, inspecting the steaks, beans and potatoes, still getting caught by the smoke.
Scott sighed with frustration as Jon backed away from the fire, did a circle to clear his eye sand went back into the vortex of fumes.
We finally ate. The steak was good. Jon went on about the particular cut of meat, went on about it since he’d bought it. He’d worked at a meat packing company once and knew quite a bit about dead flesh. I can’t remember the name of the cut, but his comment was repeated as often as the cut’s name; “It’s cheap – but…good.”
Real good. The beans were ranch-style and it oozed around the meat so you could sop it all up with a piece of bread. I’d made the bread, French with extra egg whites. Regrettably, while the potatoes were hot, they were still hard. On the other hand, nothing was going to dampen my spirits.
“Now this is camping!” I crowed.
“I dunno, Dave,” Scott countered. “I mean, steak? Potatoes? The beans are okay, but, I mean, where’s the roughing it?”
Fine Scott. My backpack over there is full of emergency MREs. Look,” I continued, “This is the Ron Smith school of camping. You are no here to suffer, nor to go without, but to commune with nature, bond with your fellow man. Ron, of course, would have a bottle of red wine, and if his wife were along, a red-checkered table clothe with real glass wine glasses. This is what got Robin to go camping, and this is why Robin loves to go camping, camping as romance and adventure, not suffering and misery.”
“Wel-l-l-l, okay,” Scott drawled, still sounding unconvinced, and went back to his steak. I kept waiting for him to wink or something, but he was dead serious.
“I wonder if I could get Amanda t’go camping,” Jon announced.
“Think romance,” I said. “Seduce the wife every day of your life.”
Scott stayed silent, staring at his metal plate, sopping slowly at his bean juice.
I don’t know why, but I lose my appetite when I go camping. Everything tastes great, but I’m just not as hungry out in the desert. So as not to offend Jon, I forced down everything, including the half-baked potato, but now I was full.
The sun had set, and I lit my propane lantern.
“I have a lantern, too,” Jon offered. “Should I get it out?”
“No, no,” Scott said quickly from his chair. I looked over to him, and his face frowned with disappointment. I couldn’t imagine what the problem was.
“Listen, before it gets too dark, I’m going to get on top of that rock, and see if I can snap a picture of the Elliot Mine. Back in a flash.”
“How do you do that?” Jon asked. “Climb like that?”
It was a silly question asked with complete sincerity. “You do it,” Would have been a totally accurate answer, but I was tired of being terse with Jon, I didn’t want to shut him down. Despite myself, I smiled and started faking it.
“Oh, yeah. Cindy.”
“Cind-A-Rama, Cind-A-Poppin’ –“
“Green,” Scott explained.
“Cind-A-Sinnin’. My favorite blonde-haired blue-eyed bimbette,” I continued. I pointed north to a hundred foot monolith that sprung up form the floor, splitting into two points, one jagged and pointy, the other one flat, with more giants’ childrens’ toys piled on top of it. The failing light contrasted every jagged details in black and gold.
“Cindy took a rock climbing class, and then she went camping with us. You see that rock at the base of that mountain? The two-story one with what looks like a walkway at the op? She went up that bare-handed, and yes, it’s sheer.”
“I’m not even exaggerating. Now the trip before, I’d gotten to the split right there, but I couldn’t get to the very top. That flat top there. Tried everything, and the thing is, if you fall, you fall into the crevice between the two points, and I think anyone falling is going to be wedged pretty permanently into it, so, it’s scary. Cindy, Mark and me get to that spot, and Cindy turns her back to the wall, sticks her butt into a depression,” I stuck my ass out, “and shimmies up, one hand-hold against a rock. We all got up that way, it was good.”
“Was that the same trip that she – uh…” Scott trailed off with a grin both wicked and nervous. I returned the grin. Jon waited.
“It was hot,” I started. “At least a hundred degrees. Cindy decides it’s bathing suit time. Remember, the wife is with us. Another thing, Cindy goes through men like men go through socks, two at a time. One old boyfriend gave her like fifty bucks a month just to buy new lingerie. She’s hinted around that she’s got a leather basket over her bed. Look for the hook, she says.”
“Basket?” Jon asked.
“You’re asking for details I don’t know, but believe me, she was much more detailed in her description, but back to the camping trip, she gets in her bikini, which is cool, and we start target shooting, naturally she’s got her P-9 –“
“CZ-75 clone from Springfield Armory,” Jon rattled off.
“Right. She’s got two spare mags, nowhere to put them…”
“Why not the ammo can, where her ammo is?”
“That – that’s not Cindy’s stream of logic. She sticks them into her bikini bottom, picture this,” I slid a thumb down my hip, as if wedging something into my underwear. “One on this side – one on this side.”
Jon’s breath shivered out in a moan.
“Yeah, right, I took pictures, but regrettably with her camera. She won’t let us see them.”
“I think she thinks she looks fat. Back in a flash.”
I grabbed my camera, began my ascent.
I’d forgotten about the split at the very top that had to be negotiated to get to the flat part. In the dusk it took longer than I wanted it to, and the yawing darkness of crevices and splits filled with menace. Telling the Cindy story had eaten up precious minutes. I think that would please Cindy, three guys sitting around talking about her.
Then, too, the exercise of the day had started settling in. My legs and arms began to stiffen up.
At the top, there wasn’t enough light for the camera, a flash couldn’t reach any of the peaks around us. The clouds still threatened. From the vantage point I could se they swirled counter-clockwise, coming from the west on the other side of the border, across the south, over the west, spinning to a central core a little bit to our north, gathering tightly over Carrizo Gorge to the northwest.
The moon peaked out occasionally, big and bright and blotting out any stars that might have been there. To the south the mouth of the Elliot Mine yawed open. There wasn’t another soul in the entire valley. We were alone in an alien world. I shivered, the sweat drying on me as I cooled down. I figured I’d better get back.
I was actually scared going through the crevice, fear with no name. The desert at dusk smells like ancient spices, sad long-forgotten deaths. You lose yourself in the desert, yet you get all wrapped up in yourself.
I got past the crevice, up to the last bad part, then the drop I’d come to think of as ‘The Slide”, and it never crossed my mind that made two slides. It wasn’t sheer, and there was a wall of rock on the left that I placed my hand against. I sat down and in a moment I was digging holes in my pants. Exhaustion or inability to measure in the darkness, I let myself go too fast. I threw my shoulder into the wall before I hit the bottom. An outcropping of rock caught my shoulder and smacked it against my ear. I hit the bottom and gasped.
For a moment I figured I’d dislocated my shoulder. I paused and let all the pains settle into where they wanted to go. A moment’s careful inspection, and I was relieved to realize I hadn’t ruined the weekend. Carefully I continued my descent.
I got back to the camp. Despite the fire the cold continued to grip me.
“Scott went to the bushes,” Jon explained as I sat down. “Shovel work.”
“Consistent that way. You could set a clock to his bowel movements.”
“Say,” Jon started. “Do you know any campfire stories?”
I paused and thought.
“No. No I don’t think I know any campfire stories that wouldn’t be – stupid. What do you mean campfire stories?”
I’d pulled my pack out, and was pulling on my heavy jacket.
Jon seemed a little confused as he stammered forward.
“Well, like, when I was at sixth-grade camp. My teacher told how, when he was working his way through college, he was a guard at a mental hospital. He went to school back east somewhere and, neaugh – he was working this one night, see? And he had this regular route, and he peaked through the observation window on this one old man, and the old man was sitting his chair – in front of his table, and beyond the table in the corner was his bed. “
Jon’s hands were up, as if he was working the story out on that table with blocks.
“So, he comes by a little later, and looks in, and – the old man…th-the bed is on the other side of the room, and the old man and the chair and the table are now on the other side of the room. So he comes by a little later, like an hour later, and looks in, and the bed…all this furniture is real heavy, and the old man couldn’t move it, so but now the old man is sitting in the middle of the room and the bed is back where it was first, only pointing in the opposite direction and the table is where the bed was last time.”
I nodded. I mean, all you can hope is the story will end, right? So nod and lets get this over with so I can find my nice warm face mask, my ears are getting cold.
“So now, like an hour later, he walks by and looks in and, everything is gone! The old man, the furniture, so he – my teacher, math teacher, although he’s not a teacher yet, opens the door and goes in, and in the corner of the room that he couldn’t see from outside, the old, the furniture is all stacked on top of each other and the old man is standing there, and my teacher, the guard asks, “Is everything all right? And – it’s midnight – and the old man says … “Nooooooo!”
Jon swung his leg as he said ‘no’
“Well, my teacher was standing next to a trash can, and he kicked it just then as …”
“Oh,” I offered, and turned my attention to my backpack, pulling out gloves and other items of warmth. “Okay. No, I can’t say I know any stories like that.”
Scott walked back in camp.
“A new man,” Scott sighed.
“Well," Jon answered, his voice swelling with their pregnancy. “Time for the short wave.”
I looked at Scott.
“He’s got this little short wave radio. Wanna hear the unvarnished news? BBC, things like that.”
Jon started fiddling with a box about the size of a transistor radio. Voices whirred by in the growing darkness, a couple of dozen languages, Chinese, Spanish, French, Arabic, the ultimate channel surfing.
“Hear that?” Jon asked. “That’s Russian. Hey, this sounds weird. That’s not Spanish is it? It’s gotta be Spanish.”
I sighed. A little of this went a long way.
“Portuguese,” I announced.
“Yeah, sure, absolutely. Listen for a while and I bet they say something about Brazil.”
So we sat there for a while, listening for a single word. Finally even Jon got bored and spun the dial.
“Y’know,” Scott started, “I wonder what the night here sounds like.”
Jon was too lost in his labors to hear as he sailed through the distant calls for attention. A twangy voice in English came up and the phrase “New World Order” flashed through. Jon sat down on this channel.
It was some minister in Texas, preaching against one world government, the Shadow Government and the Trilateral Commission. We listened for about half an hour, and it struck me as appropriate in such an alien place that you listen to something as foreboding as the science fiction-like stories of real pod people coming for you homes, your children, your civil liberties.
“I agree with most of what he says,” Jon announced. “Yep, (smack, sharp sigh) I’m a conservative. I’d tear Clinton and her husband right out of the White House, march ‘em back to Arkansas.”
“I’m an anarchist,” Scott countered. “I’d lock ‘em in the White House and just burn it down around them.”
Scott couldn’t’ve gotten more of a response if he’d mooned Jon. Jon bolted upright, his head skewered, his eyes bugged out. He also seemed speechless.
“I’m a Christian Conservative Libertarian,” I said. “I’d charge them rent and pray for them.”
I couldn’t top Scott. Jon was just about comatose.
When the minister signed off, Scott and I sighed and relaxed. I’d pulled my face mask down over my face, I had pulled wool gloves over cotton under-gloves, a BDU cami shirt under a mostly wool sweater under my new heavy jacket I got for Christmas. Underneath my cami pants I had thermals. I’m a true believer in staying warm instead of getting warm. Mind you, it was cold and getting colder. A scathing wind howled over our heads. We edged closer to the fire, and the lantern became redundant.
Jon twirled the dial.
“Listen to that wind, Jon,” Scott said. The moon burned through clouds that no longer threatened.
An American-sounding male voice came up. It was the Voice of Norway.
Did you know there’s two villages in Norway named America? That there’s a professor teaching English at the University of Norway who’s student believe he’s moved his office to the local pub?
“More of an annex to my office,” the professor explained.
Finally, the Voice of Norway signed off. Scott and I waited expectantly, but no, even Jon was sated. With a look of great satisfaction and a flourish he kneaded the radio back into his backpack.
“Want another Snapple?”
“Think they’re cold enough?” I asked. Jon seemed confused.
“Oh, I’d think so.”
We popped the ice-cold beverage open, sucked them down and listened to the night. The wind would have been rough if it weren’t for our boulders. We paused and let the Snapple cool our insides while the desert worked to chill our butts.
“Well, what’re we going to do tomorrow?” Jon asked.
“Let’s hit the mine first,” I said. “On the way, though, we can pass where that one structure was supposed to be, and maybe check out where the water once was.”
Scott made a sighing, groaning noise.
“What’s the mine like?” Jon asked.
“Since the quake I don’t know, but it was dug doing the Cold War when the feds wanted to stockpile essential metals. When the tungsten played out, they just walked away.
“Isn’t the wood bracing kind’a old?”
“No bracing, it’s solid rock, pretty much. That whole mountain is just honey-combed. You’ll see.”
“We go inside?”
“You bet’cha,” I assured him.
I made a point of sounding especially excited about going inside.
“then we could go and retrace our last backpacking trip.”
“We can show Jon that first spot we camped at. That’s some neat rocks.”
“And where the horses rioted.”
“Rioted?” Jon echoed.
“Well, first we heard them just outside camp,” Scott started. “Just sniffing around. I think we’d bedded down in a favored spot, but then later on that night, all hell broke loose. Moonless night…”
“…It sounded like a war…”
“…screaming and crashing, shrieking…”
“…wild horses don’t sound like normal horses…”
“…like satanic thunder…”
“And it just went on and on. All I can figure is two stallions were battling it out.” Scott shook his head. “Finally we pulled out our flashlights and there had to be twenty horses out there, outside our camp…”
“The dust they’d kicked up filled the whole valley, like fog at chest level. I guess our light ruined the moment, ‘cause they quieted down.”
“It was worth the whole rotten trip just for that moment,” Scott said. “Something else.”
The look on Jon’s face was inscrutable. I read doubt, maybe a curious irritation, but nothing I’d swear to. Jon offered no comment, so I prodded Scott to tell of his ill-spent youth as a banker for a former classmate and smalltime drug dealer and dope ring back in the sixties.
When Scott first told me his youth, I’d known him for a long time, and it seemed to me that these stories were confessions. He told them furtively, always watching me to see my reaction, if my opinion of him soured.
Now he told them with animation, with a storyteller’s zeal. It’d happened twenty-five years ago, after all, who cares? They’d metamorphosized into adventures of a long-ago season, comical more often than challenges to morality.
Someday I’ll write these stories down with Scott, a picture of growing up in San Diego during the Viet Nam War, the Love generation in the trenches of Tijuana and the Border.
Jon looked disgusted, probably the very look Scott feared from me he now relished from Jon.
I gotta say one thing, between Scott’s first diffident telling of these stories to me and all the time I’ve heard them since, they’ve never changed, never got embellished, never expanded. He’s just gotten into it.
It was plenty cold, the fire a mystic revelation of warmth and light against the dark. One of the things that irked me on the first trip Scott and I took out here was that we could hear the semis grinding up Devil’s Canyon, the four thousand foot climb from the desert floor to the pass two miles to our north, I-8. The aircraft overhead had filled the sky all night long, low and noisy, until we concluded we must be on a flight path.
But now, only a short distance west, from our last camping spot, there was no noise from the freeway, and I saw few lights moving methodically through he skies.
I suddenly had the urge to tell my secret, the one Robin and I had sworn we wouldn’t tell until we couldn’t hide it anymore.
“I’d say its time to go to bed,” I volunteered instead. “Get an early start.”
“Sure, although its not even nine yet,” Jon responded looking at his watch.
Scott unzipped the tent as I pulled off my shoes. It took a moment to undress, although I didn’t pull my thermals, face mask or under-gloves off.