We were exhausted the following morning having arrived home filthy and mud-crusted around 1:30 a.m. My brother Reece, never an early riser, nevertheless showed up on our doorstep at a reasonably early hour for our return trip to the Ojito Wilderness. Though there were two opposing theories about the timing of our return—later in the day would allow the road to dry harder, but it could also put us into a second helping of monsoons—our weariness was the deciding factor. We had only so much energy left to expend, so the earlier the attempt, the better.
There were other factors to consider, imponderables and unanswerable questions that could only be resolved after the fact. What if we walked back to the abandoned truck and found the road impassable in both directions? Our only recourse would be to walk back out and have someone make a third 85-mile drive from Albuquerque to retrieve us. Nor was waiting for us an option for it might be six hours before we met pavement if we were forced to go out the far side.
Without trying to decipher the intangible differences between optimism and delusion, my father dropped off Reece and I at the entrance to the wilderness. We weren’t sure of the road’s condition and didn’t want to take a chance on getting stuck, so felt this was our best alternative.
It wasn’t, as we discovered within a hundred yards. From outward appearances not a drop of rain had fallen the previous day; the road was hard-packed and dusty, the soil extending to the horizons sandy and seemingly dry as a bone.
“Oh, man,” my brother groaned as we passed a construction site a half-mile up the road. “This sucks.”
Indeed it did. But hey, we were on an adventure and this could only add to it.
Except that my right calf started aching and my stamina evaporated and I knew I had done a really stupid thing. There was nothing to do but continue, step by step by dusty step, hoping for a miracle—a lift to the arroyo.
When it came, a mile and a half in, maybe two miles, we were shocked to see Myron’s smiling face peering out the window. In the back were Christian and Levi, his nephew and son, and Will at the wheel. “Hop in,” Will said, and off we went in a plume of dust.
We didn’t have time to formulate a plan for navigating the washed out area, but we agreed that the last thing we wanted was to drive across the bad spot in the bed of a truck. If the roadway sheared off, the truck would undoubtedly flip upside down to plunge 15 feet into the muck. Anybody riding in back would be killed outright or drowned in liquid mud. But before we could protest Will drove over the narrow shelf as if it were as solid as the main highway through San Ysidro, the wheels skirting the edges on both sides of the eroded surface. Only then did he stop to inspect the road.
It didn’t look good. The upstream side was undercut about a foot and the opposite side about three feet, leaving only two feet on stable ground. It could collapse at any second, and probably would if enough weight were pressed on it.
Will walked it back and forth, stepped out onto one of the battered metal culverts to peer into the gaping darkness under the top layer of gravel amalgam, and declared it safe. Maybe.
It struck me that these Native Americans were so trusting when I would have been utterly positive of certain death. And when Will drove back across and Myron followed, we could only do the same. Uppermost in my mind was the idea that their vehicles had weakened whatever minuscule structural integrity the remaining roadway possessed and now we would finish it off.
“Line up your wheels and goose it,” I told Reece, and he did, and we crossed without breathing.
Will walked back to the narrow spot and grimaced. The road had split down the center under the weight of Myron’s truck, but had held for our lighter vehicle. The next vehicle might not be so lucky, he said.
After they left, we dragged a waterlogged tree trunk onto the center of the road in the hope of alerting drivers of the danger. It was all we could do, and perhaps not enough, for as we walked away another foot of the downstream side caved off into the mud below. There was a wet splash as muck sprayed into the air, and then unbroken silence.
We had driven about three miles when we came across a truck hauling a heavy water tank. Our mad waves were met with stony stares from the three passengers who proceeded around us without slowing. Reece and I looked at each other and then at the truck as it labored up a sharp grade and disappeared over the crest. The dust of its passage rose in a diaphanous golden cloud that hung in the air like a shimmering veil. After a few long moments of indecision Reece put the truck in gear and headed for pavement.