Onward. We alternated the leading position as paths revealed themselves or chimerically dissolved into quicksand, barbed thickets or vertical ascents. The stagnant stream curling toward our side of Butler Wash forced us into an ever-constricting tightrope balanced between implacable stone and impassable water. It seemed as if by crossing the entrance to the box canyon we’d trespassed into an area whose secrets could be unearthed only grudgingly and through hard labor and small victories won at great cost under the reluctant benediction of an unslumbering spirit.
Before us mystery lurked in every shadowed overhang beyond which beckoned the asphalt ribbon of the highway. A half mile separated us from escape but each step became more difficult, our every act unfolding in slow motion through air gone gelid and viscous. There was no trail except for that which we forged ourselves, erratic meanderings laced with frequent backtracking, more experimentation than determination.
If not for a glimpse of a second ruin we might have turned back. It was higher, tucked away in a shadowed nook accessible only by a scramble along a skewed slickrock ramp. Chod had the benefit of his hiking sticks while I had nothing but my own willpower and balance, both of which were fading. My attempt to follow him failed when a sudden case of vertigo spun the ground like a child’s top, leaving me breathless and dizzy.
Descending to the stream bed I pushed through an olive to a small clearing and emerged bloody for it. The rock wall was replaced by towering mounds of hardpacked dirt pebbled like an alligator hide and a central gully bisecting the halves. Beneath was a sandy waterfall that immediately claimed me to my lower shins. Each step upward subtracted two. A sensible man would have tried to circumnavigate the obstacle but the distance separating sand from dirt wasn’t great, and anyway whatever sensibility I’d possessed had long since fled.
I redoubled my efforts, feet pumping, thighs burning, until I’d clawed, crawled and swam to a lower shelf of more substantial firmament. Pulling myself to another ridge revealed a deep crevasse opening into a fathomless pit spanned by a yard-thick bridge of dried mud.
Don’t, the voice said.
I had no intentions of doing so. The bridge might support my weight and might not, and if not I’d likely be entombed. Nevertheless I studied the bridge with deep intent and longing before turning back.
Another angle of attack brought me almost to the top before the slope began crumbling. Chod’s face loomed over the ridge followed by the tip of a hiking stick, which I grasped and held onto as he hauled me up like a fish.
Muttering thanks, I dusted off, took a sip of water and returned to furiously chewing gum to extract the last molecule of moisture when a tooth shattered.
Since my first job at a candy warehouse my ivories have been held together by pins, prayers and professional reconstruction. That one chose this instant to disintegrate wasn’t a surprise as much as an annoyance, but the mental hit was debilitating. I cursed and swore and spat out chunks of amalgam and enamel and probed with my tongue the broken stub. First a cold and now this, I thought, and wondered not for the first time which god I had offended and how.
From our vantage it was evident that our path to the road was impossible. After photographing the ruin we turned back, but first I slipped my camera into its holster and slung it behind me. Doing so not only freed up one hand but declared my intent to leave without distraction.
But distraction would be the least of my worries. The “shortcut” from above as seen on the Internet looked promising from the base of the cliff, though the routes Chod and I picked were separated by a wide margin. Mine took me through a tangled thicket to a series of outthrust knobs that I clung to as I climbed. Chod fared better by clambering up like a mountain goat and soon was lost to sight. His absence left me feeling vulnerable and exposed and conscious again of the mistakes I’d made, compounded now by our splitting up. And then the knobs petered out leaving me an expanse of featureless rock.
Retracing my route only accentuated my vertigo. At the bottom I looked for Chod’s invisible path but finding nothing but featureless stone tried anyway and found myself once more fifty feet up and paralyzed. The second descent was worse than the first after which I sat on a rock and drank the last of my water and felt the first stab of fear. My brain felt smothered with cobwebs and sluggish with stupidity and my limbs followed suit but I knew there was no time to dally. My thirst would only grow and with it a lessening of abilities.
But I was so weary. I sat there hunched over in exhaustion watching blood trickling down my arm and hand and dripping into the thirsty sand, the inner voice haranguing and accusatory with a litany of mistakes I’d made whose compounding brought me to this desolate place. It wasn’t so much the predicament I was in but that I’d steadfastly refused to listen to my own reasoning, starting of course with my admonition to keep me away from cliffs. Alone, fatigued, dehydrated, giddy, surrounded by those selfsame cliffs, I teetered on the verge of hopelessness. The voice stilled and then, so faintly that it barely registered above the ringing in my ears, whispered, This is how you die.
I knew then that I had to find our initial route. Lumbering to my feet, I set off through the thickets and sandpits to find it. I passed the entrance to the box canyon and the first ruin and found the narrow shelf and began scaling the cliff without much thought other than to climb without hesitation and did so until I reached a dead end. Working my way over to a small projection I worked my way up another hundred feet or so until reaching a ledge that split to the right and left. Deciding between the two made me dizzy and I flattened against the stone and closed my eyes. I was unutterably weary.
When I opened my eyes Chod was above me waving to my left. By then I didn’t care whether I lived or died, only that I got off the face of the cliff. Seeing him gave me a burst of energy that sent me scrambling without hesitation, a journey largely forgotten if indeed ever imprinted upon a mind gone blank, so that my next memorable impression was of him handing me a bottle of water which I greedily drank. I could barely stand but followed him as he led me speechless and mute back to the vehicle.
(To be continued)