Up early to write, dopey from lack of sleep, I stagger from bed and careen headfirst into the wall. A little commotion but not enough to wake the codgernauts. Later, as we head down to breakfast, I seem unable to traverse a straight line. I feel unbalanced, as if my head was an unhinged gyroscope spinning madly out of control. “Whatever you do today,” I tell my companions, “keep me away from cliffs.”
In retrospect, it seemed the obvious thing to ask considering my odd discombobulation, and all the more laughable in light of our destination.
Our foibles are rarely a match for our infantile fantasies. Our vision of ourselves has little bearing on reality except for when we’re waylaid by full-length mirrors and the truth bares itself in merciless Technicolor. Of course Technicolor is as dead as Kodachrome but the abstraction persists at least for another generation, after which our glorious language will devolve into chaos without punctuation, capitalization, hyphenation or even rudimentary spelling. Mirrors are another matter. Within our humble home I no longer harbor mirrors of any kind except for the small medicine chest in the bathroom. There might be another under the sink but it’s a no-man’s-land I eschew at all costs, left to my significant other. Admittedly the lack of reflective surfaces is more denial than panacea but at my age I take whatever measures I can to forestall the inevitable, sensing an ever-tightening noose of strangled options. I’ve tried adopting a gruff what-you-see-is-what-you-get but there’s that unrelenting matter of how I envision myself, thirty pounds lighter around the waist, fit and trim and smarter than I think I am. Recently I came across an old photo of me taken by a hiking friend in the Never Summer Range, my flat stomach and muscled legs reminders of a former self. I almost wept with self-pity.
When we’re faced with so many conflicting images it’s damnably difficult figuring out who we really are. Nor does it help that in our minds we’ve barely aged past our twenties, with a voice and an outlook to match. There’s also that on-again, off-again forgetfulness that stymies me at every turn. I long for unforgetfulness even as I long for its opposite and the disremembrance of dreams.
What bothers me the most about the next leg of our journey was that forgetfulness had nothing to do with what happened beneath Comb Ridge. We set out from the vehicle with only a rough idea of where we were going, with almost no idea how to get there, and with barely enough supplies for a very brief sojourn under optimal conditions. But this wasn’t a stroll in the manicured park—it was a trek across ankle-deep sand with the consistency of flour and the remainder stark stone, most of it vertical, with a storm brewing to the north where the jagged spine of the ridge sawed at the clouds. We downplayed the danger as if we were oblivious to the potential cost associated from one slip, one turned ankle, one drop. There were secondary costs debited to our unwitting enterprise, pocket change perhaps but expensive nonetheless. Branded into my soul is the memory of clinging to a cliff while bitterly castigating myself for breaking every rule in the book, and knowing with implacable certainty that I would die because of it.
Every trip has a defining moment. Comb Ridge set the stage for all that would follow, perhaps in ways we’ll never decipher but forever guess at. We went in as a group and exited as something else, disjointed and in some ways broken. That inner reflection of a fit, trim man who knew the desert and its ways was painstakingly deconstructed on the sandy floor of Butler Wash, reduced to splintered shards trailing behind like breadcrumbs or the crimson splashes of blood dripping from my hand.
It wasn’t planned. Nor was it part of the itinerary, but merely something casually tossed out beforehand to fill our overactive minds with visions of possibilities.
Jim was the instigator, forwarding a website about Anasazi ruins tucked away in the crevices below a 50-mile-long ridge just west of Bluff, Utah. The images were stunning, not merely for the ruins themselves but for the sweeping soot-streaked overhangs. A photograph taken from the opposite side of the canyon showed a “shortcut” to the ruins, dubious at best in that it required an almost perpendicular descent. For days I pored over the picture looking for other routes. If we hugged the rim of a branching canyon it looked like a more gradual decline, and there was another to the west that might be even more feasible.
Let’s go, I wrote to Jim.
No, he replied.
He was adamant: Butler Wash was out of the question. Mesa Verde was where we needed to focus our attention. And when that fell through, and morning came and we were adrift with only a vague idea of what could fill the vacuum, Butler Wash again reared its head. It was a familiar area to Chod for he’d backpacked near there years before, and only an hour’s drive away. We could pack up and leave Cortez, spend the day around Bluff and be in Farmington by nightfall. There was the added bonus of it being new territory for Jim and I, and we were almost guaranteed to have the place to ourselves.
We ate huddled over the map. Within minutes we had a route selected. Thirty minutes later we were on the road heading into the Colorado Plateau.
(To be continued)