It kills, of course, but practically everything in the desert does that. No, there’s a unique goal to the ancient course, a special kind of immortality, swathed in solitude. It takes a singular kind of prey to fall into this trap. A desert rat.
The glint of something through the needles and limbs of the three Pinyon Pines below flashed again.
“Can you see it?”
Sam lowered the small binoculars from his eyes, but continued to squint down through the labyrinth of boulders.
“Doug, if I could see it, I’d say so.”
Doug lowered his own binoculars. Just like that, it was gone.
“Right in there, below the trees.”
“Well, what’s it look like?”
“Like a sheet of stainless steel.”
“I thought you said it looked like water.”
Doug shifted his focus to his fellow desert rat, whose white beard split with a teasing smile, his grey eyes dancing mischievously. Normally the barrel-chested loan officer would comb his thinning hair over his bald spot, but out camping, usually with a hat on, he’d let it shoot out in all directions. Without his hat, he reminded Doug of either a mad scientist or Ernest Hemingway.
“I’m telling you, I see water down there. I’ve seen it before, too. Y’have t’be in th’right place at the right time, and the right time of year, and you can see it.” Doug continued to stare down into the rocky desert bowl. “Standing water.”
Sam chortled and shook his head.
“Its mid-July, it hasn’t gotten below a hundred degrees t’day. Any guzzler that might be in these rocks dried up a month ago, let alone a standing pool.”
“Which means it’s gotta be a year-round spring,” Doug concluded.
“Why? Because Injuns use’ta live in these caves?” Sam motioned back at the tumbled boulders they'd come through to get to the overlook.
Doug didn’t take his eyes off the rocky barrier before him.
The gorge was no more than a thousand feet wide, towering over their heads on both sides, plunging three hundred feet down, with Pinyon Pines growing precariously off the sides. Maybe two thousand feet long, it was an impenetrable bowl of house-sized granite boulders, Laurel Sumac and Desert Mahogany somehow burst through and around the boulders, almost all the way down. From this overlook, Doug could see the Yuha desert beyond the bowl, crystal clear. What was at the bottom of the bowl was unrecognizable, except for the three Pinyon Pines rising above the lowest boulders. It was probably in his imagination, but Doug thought he could smell pine sap on the sweltering desert breeze.
Sam tugged at Doug’s T-shirt.
“Come on, kid. Time t’get back t’camp.”
“They had water here, Sam,” Doug continued to argue as they wove their way through the natural tunnels. Both pictographs and petroglyphs were etched on stones they worked their way around, moving back through the caves. At several points the granite boulders were stained black with centuries of camp fires.
“And what do I keep telling you?” The two men pushed past the last of the boulders, where someone, who knows how many epochs ago, had carefully stacked stones along the edge of the natural caves, closing them in, blocking out the wind, going so far as to stack rock along the edge, as if to mark out a path.
“This place is getting drier.” The old man, his knobby knees exposed by his shorts with cargo pockets, pointed west. “The Lagunas are rising, an inch a year, they say. That’s a foot every twelve years, blocking out the rain from the ocean. More rain on the west side of the mountains, drier every year on this side. When was the last time these caves were inhabited, a hundred, hundred fifty years ago now? Old timers talk about this whole area being a Ponderosa Pine forest, burned out in the thirties and just never came back.”
“I thought you were an old timer,” Doug retorted.
The two descended to the floor of the valley they were camped in. Around them, rising out of the sand like ragged teeth, monoliths of solid stone, or massive piles of boulders rising up two, three hundred feet.
“Haven’t even touched on earthquake activity. One day there’s a spring, a little shake of the land, next day it’s gone, just like that spring that’s on the topo map, just up the road from camp.”
“You don’t know how long ago this area was inhabited,” Doug countered. “There was that one lady who wrote that book, darn, what was her name? She reported wild Indians living on her property as late as the thirty’s.”
“In Alpine, as I recall,” Sam answered. “Two things, Alpine is on THAT side of the Lagunas,”
Through the dead-still dry terrain, they had made it to the sandy road that wound back toward their camp, passing Century Plants and large dead Junipers as they went.
“And second of all, who all saw those Indians she spoke about?” The old man looked at Doug. “Just her private little band of savages.”
The road veered due south, and at that point the duo slipped down into a wash that wound roughly north-west.
“Break?” Sam gasped.
“Only a quarter mile t’camp,” Doug protested.
Sam turned and sat on a rock.
Sweat streamed down the old man’s face, twisted in agony. Doug felt it too. His blood was thick, dehydration, even with constant water drinking, simple reality. Though you might chat and debate, the Summer desert hiker never forgot his surroundings, never stopped measuring his own condition. Was he light-headed? Was he thirsty? When hiking in the desert in July, you could never take anything for granted. It was like walking a tightrope for miles, heat stroke never far away.
Old Sam whipped his backpack off, sat it on his lap and pulled something out. With a flick, the umbrella popped up and Sam hefted it over his head.
“There,” the old man sighed. “Instant shade.”
“A parasol,” Doug said.
“Shade,” Sam insisted. “You know how long it took me t’find an umbrella that wasn’t either black or covered with flowers or some kind’a weird design?”
“Months and months,” Doug answered.
“Months and months,” Sam stressed. He leaned back and gasped some more, now with relief. “Nice thick material, almost canvas, nice tan color. Reflects the sun. Shade is nice.”
“Why Sam,” Doug huffed. “We must accept the heat, embrace the agony!”
“Stop,” Sam panted.
“Acceptance, resignation,” Doug continued, doing his best Old Sam impersonation. “It’s not muscle, it might be endurance, it certainly isn’t intellectual, but somehow, this embracing the wilderness, accepting the way it is, wandering in the desert, makes you stronger.”
“Talk about words coming back to haunt me.”
Sam adjusted the position of the umbrella until some of the shade fell on Doug. Doug moved closer, and Sam glanced down on the boulder they perched on.
“Look at that! Damn, they’re everywhere!”
Doug looked where Sam pointed and sure enough, there was a Yoni, carefully shaped from a crack in the boulder.
“Crazed Injuns were obsessed!” Sam bellowed.
“This one is not quite as anatomically correct as the specimen in camp,” Doug sniffed.
It did seem an obsession. The local Indians never hesitated. If a crack in stone could be shaped, it was, into the unmistakable lines of a human vagina.
“Sacred symbol of fertility or ancient graffiti of adolescent lust, we’ll never know,” Sam said. He looked up and around at the rugged country they move through. “Besides,” he started, “Even if there’s water down there, how would they get to it?”
“There’d be a path,” Doug answered.
“How?” Sam asked incredulously. “You can’t hop from boulder t’boulder, they’re all too big! Rock climbing gear might help, but then you’d have t’slide down a boulder t’climb up the next boulder t’slide down to the next! I’m telling you, it’s just not practical.”
The stillness made both men speak near to whispers, and Doug searched around him. The sand, the rock, the Sumac, all silent as death.
“Bet’cha from down there, the trail is obvious,” Doug argued.
They made it to camp, and Sam wheezed as he pulled the Dutch Oven from the pit they’d made before they left. He knocked the ash off the top, wiping the liberal sweat from his brow all the while, then carefully lifted the lid. Gingerly he poked one of the potatoes in the bubbling brew.
“This is ready. How’s the rolls?”
Another Dutch Oven sat under a blanket in the shade of a two-story boulder that marked the south side of their camp. Doug looked inside the cast iron pot.
“Let me get some more of these out of the pit,” Sam grunted, scooping red-white coals out with his tri-shovel. Without another word, Doug brought the second Oven with the sourdough rolls over to the pit, waited for Sam to finish, then settled the pot with the distinctive flare-sided lid onto the remaining coals. Sam shoveled the coals he’d pulled out on top of the Oven.
“Check your time.”
Doug looked at his watch.
“Six we’ll see if they’re ready.”
“Y’know, Sam,” Doug said, staring down at the coal-covered pot, “other people go camping, they bring a couple cans of chili, maybe some eggs for breakfast, and they do just fine.”
“Yes, poor deluded devils.” Sam’s voice trebled with disgust,
looking north to a four story monolith of stone with a Pinyon Pine sticking out from it’s side a third of the way up, “Probably drink light beer, too. Speaking of which.”
The old man stretched an arm out toward the coolers covered with wool blankets.
“We’re not hiking anywhere else today, are we?”
“No, we’re in for the night I think.”
“We’re getting a late start as it is.”
Doug hauled out two twenty-four ounce bottles of some weird Czech beer Sam had picked up at Trader Joe’s.
Sam grunted to his feet and walked over to their two fold-out chairs up against the south rock, where there was shade.
“Won’t get dark ‘til eight tonight,” Doug said.
“We’ll have a nice healthy buzz on by then.”
Doug shook his head as he eased down into his chair and handed the older man a chilly bottle.
“Can’t drink like that anymore, Sam.”
“Oh, please,” the old man countered, popped the cap and took a long pull on the molasses colored beverage. He smacked his lips. “Why the hell do you come to the desert in the middle of July? Do you come despite the triple digits, or because of it?”
“Thought we already covered that.”
“You come to the desert to be intoxicated,” Sam countered. “The shimmering heat sweats out your pores, purifies you, prepares you to receive the desert smells and tastes and essence that fill you with its drug, and you wallow in the solitude, as much an inebriant as a good stiff hit off a joint. Stay long enough and you graduate to hash, maybe coke, maybe even acid.” Sam took a long swallow, looked over at the younger man, shook his bottle. “The beer’s here to help you stay sober.”
“I’ll buy the solitude part,” Doug said, then looked up across the tumbled stone around them. He could see thirty miles to the north-west. “Me? I just can’t stay away.”
Doug looked back and studied his aged friend’s face, labored breath.
“You don’t look too good, Sam.”
The old man nodded, staring off, rested the beer against his chest and looked over to Doug.
“You could walk another dozen miles, couldn’t you?”
Doug laughed with a crooked smile, then knitted his brow, said nothing.
“Douglas, I’m too old to be out in the desert in July,” Sam said, still looking at the young man. “I’m stove in.”
“It didn’t get above a hundred five today.”
Sam snorted and grunted.
“Regular cold snap.”
Doug took a long pull on the bottle of weird Czech beer that for some reason seemed to be numbing his lips.
“Know how long I’ve been comin’ out here, Doug? Fifty some-odd years. Think about that. Came out with my family in the fifties, my buddies in the sixties, did ‘Nam, and came back out here in the seventies with new buddies.” Sam looked back at Doug. “I’ve seen active mining operations and been run off by old men with shotguns, people struggling to make ends meet out here on their homesteads, come back and find ‘em abandoned, pots and plates left in the cupboards, linen still on the kitchen table. Watched ‘em fall into ruin, mines collapse, disappear so thoroughly I couldn’t tell you where they were today.” Sam turned his eyes back to the monolith with the pine tree. “I can break my life down into segments, how I perceived the desert, bright and clean, and flat as a television screen, full of injuns and cowboys, looking for arrow heads and pottery shards with my dad, then full of wonder and curiosity and competition with my friends, testing our strength, challenging each other, learning about life, a dusty dirty thing.” Sam ran a hand across his chin as he kept staring off, “Then, rebelling against convention, corrupt values of a sick society, hiding in the desert to practice God-freed rituals, Pagan nights, potent pot and sweaty naked bodies dancing ‘round the campfire, lit by desert moonlight, slick flesh, jiggling breasts and swaying hips running through the rocks, cornering your giggling prey right where she wanted you, lustfully embracing amoral animal urges.”
Sam furtively glanced over at Doug.
“Never told you this, boy but I married one a’those girls, so we gotta be careful.
“Gloria?” Doug gasped with a smile.
“Not another word,” Sam warned sternly, straightened up. “All that before I ever met you.”
“Stuck in a wash,” Doug continued.
“In a Ford Escort buried up to its hub caps, four miles from the nearest paved road.”
“It had front wheel drive,” Doug protested.
Sam rolled his eyes and stared once more into shimmering heat, moving his foot back into the shifting shade, the sun moving west.
“Twenty-three years ago, Doug.”
Doug swallowed more of his beverage, wondered about the alcoholic content of Czech beer.
“Started out quite full of myself, caring for the green newbie, fascinated by the desert.”
“I liked getting the wife out here,” Doug sighed. Without looking at him, Sam held up an open palm
“I don’t wanna hear about your sex life.”
“You told me about yours.”
“Can’t possibly be as good as mine, so stuff it.”
Doug paused, then turned to Sam.
“I can show you right where Mike was conceived. Right up the road here a piece.”
“Then I found you a challenge,” Sam continued, “Proving my old-man strength by keeping up with you.”
“We were just trying to stay warm,” Doug continued. “I bet it dropped below freezing. You and George were camped in that wash beyond, down below the wind. Remember old George? What ever happened to him?”
“But now,” Sam continued, “I have to face the simple, painful reality. I can’t keep up any more. I’m getting old, and one by one, I can see the things I love to do are going to drop by the wayside. I’m starting another epoch. I can remember everything I’ve seen here in the desert, they come back to me in pleasant moments of seclusion, but someday soon, I’ll die, and all my memories, all that is me will be nothing but dust. The desert has not changed, not really, only a mite drier, the Lagunas five feet taller than when I started. My presence here, my life, won’t be forgotten. It never was noticed.”
“We made love all night,” Doug whispered, staring up the road. “Over and over again.”
“I will cease to exist as thoroughly as anything I know,” Sam said. “All I can do now is pray to God that He really exists.” The old man looked over to Doug. “And, ya’ know, that He’s still into that forgiveness thing.”
“What do you want us t’do with your ashes?” Doug asked bluntly.
Sam shifted his weight and looked back out.
“Um, did you hear about that guy who had his ashes blown out of a cannon? Some kind of journalist.”
“That works for me, only blow me out,” Sam swept his free hand over the landscape they had before them, “from like, from the Desert View Tower.”
“You mean over Interstate 8?”
“Well, uh, sure.”
Doug thought about that.
“I don’t have a cannon. What if I loaded you up into some twelve gauge shotgun husks.”
“Do what you can, but the immediate death to be dealt with now is,” Sam looked back over to Doug, “I can’t do this desert in July shit anymore.”
Doug studied the old man’s ashen face, and knew it was true. He said nothing, but swallowed long and hard from the Czech beer bottle, discovering most of his face was now numb.
“I’m pulling out tomorrow morning before it gets too hot,” Sam continued. “Got a ton of honeydews t’do. What’s your call?”
“I’m cleared to stay here another six days,” Doug answered instantly. “Might move camp down to Carrizo Wash, but I want to get to the overlook and paint it before I leave here.”
“Well, if you’re not here --”
Sam nodded for a while.
“Paint the bowl with the water at the bottom?”
“Nono.” Doug looked over at Sam. “The Yuha overlook. With Pinto Wash and Davies Valley down below. Two thousand foot drop.”
“Oh, yeah.” Sam lifted the bottle and studied the small writing on the label. “Think you can get all your painting gear down there?”
“No problem, just takes a little effort.” Doug watched Sam study the beer bottle. “What are you doing?”
“Checking out the ingredients.” Sam pulled back and critically examined the mouth of the beer bottle. “Just wondering if there’s something like Novocaine in this shit’r somethin’.