Giving it a Try…
Is this a lyric essay? Too long? Too short? Not enough images? Oh, there is so much to learn!
Canyonlonds, The Needles District, 1999
This was a long time ago—I was twenty and on spring break—and everyone thought that going to Utah made sense. Canyonlands, we had said. Six days out and back, a college-sponsored trip through the Outing Program. It’ll be perfect.
But 36 hours and twelve miles in, perfection turned sour when, just before lunch (it would have been summer sausage with sweaty cheddar on rye), we stumbled across a man giving CPR to this other man, whose face was blood and flesh and oh, we knew right away, dead.
He had sent a third man out two hours ago, six miles to the nearest trailhead and no promising he’d find a ranger, a car, a cell phone. He was tired and there was the decision to make. He wanted to know, could we all administer CPR, breathing and pumping in shifts, until the rescuers arrived?
Instead, we gave him permission to stop breathing false air for his dead friend.
I looked down, deep, deeper into the crevasse the dead man had tried to jump across. An empty Aquafina bottle lay trapped in the red rock jaws below and I wondered if the last sensation he felt was that of the bottle slipping from his hands, or of his neck as it snapped back when he misjudged the distance, hooking himself on the lip of the crevasse and breaking his own spine. After that, there would have been no sound—only the soft slumping of his body as it settling onto the rocks below, gushing and crumpled as a bird flown too soon from its nest.
Lunch passed and soon it would have been time for dinner but no one was eating. Or talking. Or crying. Someone suggested a Quaker ritual. We gave the surviving man what little shade and privacy there was, then pulled every piece of bright tent fabric and clothing out of our packs to wave as a signal if the rescuers came. Sun-baked and weary, we covered the body and waited for the sounds of the chopper to break our silence.
When at dusk a helicopter finally rounded the canyon and hovered like a mechanical angel come to take the body away, it was just like the movies. Uniformed men and women jumped from the cavity of the chopper and held onto their hats, running low and shouting commands. After the blades stopped moving, we passed his body hand over hand above our heads to the only opening in the crevasse, then rested it politely on the stretcher. We’d covered his body with a sleeping bag but once, a rigamorted arm flopped free from the straps and dangled at my side, his cold skin touching my own with icicle precision.
For days, I would touch the patch of skin on my arm where his death had rubbed, the injustice of his accident like a scar tethering me to a sense of powerlessness, the absurdity of faith, the swiftness of a God if there was one.
One wrong step. Now one dead man, a 27 year-old schoolteacher from Texas, we’d learned. They flew away and made it all look so easy. We covered the blood with slickrock dust, burying death so it couldn’t snap back at one of us. I tried to hook the Aquafina bottle and rescue it from the cool underbelly of rocks below, but I couldn’t reach. Then, we held hands and hopped across the same crevasse the dead man misjudged.
Later, no one slept.
The easiest part was feeling lucky to be alive. The hardest part was feeling guilty. But three miles into our fourth day out, Johnny and Iz insisted on taking up the rear and smoked a joint to ease their pain. Within the hour, they’d taken a wrong turn and were hiking bore-headed and breakneck down an old, miss-marked trail.
Nate called it first, They’re Missing, he’d said, from somewhere behind me on the trail, and a plague of panic spread, compelling us to immediately walk off the trail in all directions, breathless already, stupid with fear. Within two minutes none of us could see each other and a voice clawed in the back of my mind that said No, Stop, that this was over the edge, that we’d all lost it. But Nate called again, this time from behind a huge boulder just ahead of me: Everybody stop moving! Walk back to a cairn and wait until we’re all together again so no one else gets lost. In one year he’d be overseas, a college dropout and fresh recruit for the U.S. Army, lost himself amongst a crowd of young soldiers.
We regrouped, pulled out our topos, and no one said what we were all thinking. There was no shade, each minute scarring our skin a deeper bronze, sucking water from our cells, small colonies of salt on our foreheads where our sweat had cooked away. Four of us stayed put, Nate and Griswold tracked our lost boys by the telltale Reebock logo on Johhny’s shoes, the same shoes we’d been making fun of all week since they were for basketball, not backpacking. “Come on guys, cut me some slack,” he’d joked, “I’m just a jock trying to fit in with you hiking hippies.” The same shoes, now, that would tell us he and Iz had headed down the wrong canyon, a canyon that didn’t end for 40 miles and only then, at a dead end.
The rest of us waited during the hottest hours of the day, hiding ourselves under tarps, long sleeves, anything to escape direct sunlight. We would sit for four hours, as promised, and Nate and Griswold would be back by then, whether they found Johnny and Iz or not. If they returned empty handed, we’d all hike out together—ten more miles—for help.
One wrong step, the foolish confidence of dope smokers, and here we were again only this time righteously pissed and scared shitless. What would we tell their parents? The college? What had they been thinking screwing around on a trip like this, the park still in the throes of a drought, the temperature dropping into the 30’s at night, and danger licking our heels since the get-go?
A fly buzzed, circled, teased my hairline and landed on my forearm. I raised my right hand and slapped hard, marking my own skin and startling the rest of the group.
The fly flattened, rolled off my forearm, and settled onto the slickrock at my feet. We watched it kick and die, and I wished for a breeze to blow its body away, away, my hand the mundane God, reacting for no just reason.
Kristen looked at me sharply and spoke, the first voice in a long time: “He didn’t deserve to die.”