Life on the Road: Run-ins with Peace Officers and Real Mountain Cops

Not everyone can pull off “Fire on the Mountain,” be it in sound or action. Peace Officer learned its lesson from real mountain cops.

Not long after the hip-hop/reggae/dub crew formed in 2007, the artists stretched beyond their socially conscious vocab by playing with fire.

After a gig in Estes Park with a guest trumpet player, the Fort Collins-based crew proceeded to its comped resort suite. Around 3 a.m., they noticed the trumpet player and his young, loud pal had disappeared, something that relieved more than worried them — until the fire alarm went off.

“The player and his friend ran into our room with terrified looks on their faces, which were also covered in a gray powder,” said MC, guitarist and self-proclaimed nice guy Andy Kromarek.

Seems they set off the fire extinguisher, not thinking it would trigger an alarm (and apparently not considering consequences of the thick powder that would cover the entire hallway, either).

“Not a good scene,” nice-and-innocent guy said. “It looked like smoke in the air, and with the alarm going off and it being 3:30 or so, the other guests in the place were starting to freak out.”

What exactly does a cozy mountain retreat scene gone bad look like?

One scared-out-of-his-wits, fire-extinguisher-curious pal who erupts into tears and admits he’s only 17, so please, no one tell his mother — to which the Peace Officers replied, “We won’t, if you won’t tell her where you got the beer”.

One pissed-off mom of said 17-year-old in her pajamas (that’s all the description you want on this one) screaming she’s suing the resort because she tweaked her ankle in the mad rush to fresh mountain air,

One Honda with a trumpet in the back, squealing outta Estes as fast as it could, and

Just about every cop in Estes on site. (They may not have seen this much action since Stephen King insisted the second and more true-to-his book version of “The Shining” be filmed at the Stanley Hotel).

“At this point, things looked dire for the band, and with a few policemen striding toward us, we didn’t know what to expect,” Kromarek said. “Turns out they were amused by the whole thing — I guess Estes Park is generally a pretty boring place for a cop.” Still, the stickler cops wanted the name of the trumpet player. When the musicians claimed they didn’t know (“it was 4 a.m., and we were drunk, so that seemed like a good idea,” the MC said), the cops threatened them with paying for every guests’ hotel room — as well as the by-now-decidedly broken ankle in PJs. So they ratted their horn player out (once, not twice, for the Mountain Gazette world to read).

It seems cops come pre-cut with the urge to always get the last word in before letting young people loose; they are the smart-ass sages of safety. For me, it started at age 16 when I raced my neighbor-boy home (launching my parent’s Oldsmobile over a huge bump in the middle of a bridge, which resulted in a very large dent in the bottom of the gas tank). The cop who pulled me over left me with the resounding words: “Remember, a car is not a toy.” About a decade later, a Dillon, Colo., police officer pulled me over after I rolled through a stop sign (after, uh, speeding). When I told him I didn’t have my driver’s license on me because I was going skiing, he said, “Do you have your ski pass?” — to which I enthusiastically replied affirmatively and whipped it out, hoping it would give him the necessary clue he needed to confirm my nice-girl identity.

“You need a ski pass to ski, right?” he asked, looking me deeply in the eyes. I nodded. “Well, you need a driver’s license to drive.”

Needless to say, I missed that powder morning.

So what did the Estes Park cops leave the Peace Officers with?

“You know, you guys aren’t Led Zeppelin. You probably shouldn’t go around trashing hotels just yet.”

Though Westword magazine just nominated the crew the best hip-hop in Denver and Peace Officer is playing larger festivals like Soul Rebel Festival in Denver and venues like Boulder’s Fox Theater these days, they’re not singing, or playing with, Fire on the Mountain.

To catch Peace Officers, sans alarms, in the next two months, check out Star Bar in Park City, Utah Aug. 18 or Snake River Saloon in Keystone, Colo., Sept. 9-10. 

Kimberly Nicoletti is the entertainment editor for the Summit Daily News. She lives in Silverthorne, Colo. 

Books: Shipton anthology, Homewaters and podcasts

Books: “The Six Mountain-Travel Books,” by Eric Shipton

The Six Moutain-Travel Books by Eric ShiptonBritish explorer and mountaineer Eric Shipton was a tireless adventurer, known for the first ascent of Kamat, then the highest peak ever climbed in the world, and early Mount Everest reconnaissance that discovered the route over the Khumbu icefall. Shipton’s world travels, exploration and climbs were detailed in six books, long out of print, but re-released in a hardcover edition in 1997. Mountaineers Books has released “The Six Mountain-Travel Books” in one 800-page paperback edition: “Nanda Devi,” “Blank on the Map,” “Upon that Mountain,” “Mountains of Tartary,” “Mt. Everest Reconnaissance Expedition 1951” and “Land of Tempest.” $34.95
mountaineersbooks.com

Podcast: Off Belay Podcast with Chris Kalous and Jamie Lynn Miller

Chris Kalous and Jamie Lynn Miller have a lot to say about climbing, and almost none of it is about sponsored athletes, the newest, flashiest gear or news in the world of climbing, The Off Belay Podcast is a candid discussion of the important stuff. How candid? Well, maybe your dog doesn’t belong at the crag. Or your kid. Maybe you should stop bitching when you show up at Indian Creek, the most famous crag in Colorado (oh, it’s in Utah?), and there are dozens of other people there. Chris and Jamie have had a few guests on the show, but the highlight is their own banter — whether it’s about online climbing forums, guns, hung draws or whatever. Between the two of them, Chris and Jamie have written for Climbing, Rock and Ice, Elevation Outdoors, Women’s Adventure, 303 Magazine, Men’s Health, the Snowmass Sun and others. And oh yeah, the Mountain Gazette, where Chris was the gear editor for a number of years. Jamie Lynn is also an on-air personality at Aspen Public Radio’s Sonic Byways. The Off Belay Podcast might be the most fun you’ll have listening to two people you don’t know talk about climbing you haven’t done. offbelaypodcast.com

Radio: ClimbTalk Radio with Mike Brooks and Dave McAllister

ClimbTalk RadioFor a couple non-college students running a radio show late on Thursday nights from a college radio station, Mike Brooks and Dave McAllister have convinced an incredible number of huge names in the climbing world to come on their show, which is 60 minutes of fairly organized fun. Brooks, of frontrangebouldering.com, and McAllister of pumpfactoryroad.com, have brought in a laundry list of who’s whos in the three years of ClimbTalk: John Bachar, Royal Robbins, John Long, Pat Ament, Jim Bridwell, Jim Erickson, Heidi Wirtz, Dave Graham, John Sherman, Jason Kehl, Peter Beal, Robyn Erbesfield and more. Brooks and McAllister keep the entire 60 minutes interesting, with their combined climbing knowledge, Brooks’ conversational instinct and McAllister’s bouncing-off-the-walls energy. ClimbTalk began in 2008 as a climbing TV show on the Boulder cable-access channel, then a radio show on KGNU and is now at its current home in KVCU, the radio station on the bottom floor of the UMC at the campus of the University of Colorado. The show airs at 10 p.m. MST every Thursday night, and can be streamed at that time from radio1190.org. Past shows are stored at archive.org/details/climbtalk. I plan to talk McAllister and Brooks into making the show into a podcast by the end of summer 2011, as well, so keep your eye on the iTunes.

Books: “Home Waters: A Year of Recompense on the Provo River,” by George B. Handley

Handley, a literary critic and professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, masterfully intertwines nature, the Mormon responsibility to take care of the environment, spirituality and family over a year of exploring the Provo River watershed. As a Hemingway fan and student of old-school newspaper journalism, I appreciate Handley’s ability to write about his environment, not with the over-the-top flowery adjectives and endless lists of flora and fauna used by many a nature essayist, but with the language of a writer who knows how to draw a scene using only the right words. Handley has the literary tact to make this book accessible to non-LDS readers, making the faith part of the story, not the story. “Home Waters” will get you thinking about what’s in your own backyard, and whether you need to travel far, or at all, to ponder and understand nature. $25, uofupress.com

Brendan Leonard is a writer, climber and urban cyclist living in Denver. More of his writing can be found at www.semi-rad.com. His blog, Semi-Rad, can be found at mountaingazette.com.

Letters #181

We’re in the market for decorative envelopes to help beautify our Letters pages. If you’ve got an artistic envelope bent, pull out your weapons-of-choice, decorate an envelope with our snail mail address on it, mail the resultant envelope to us, and, if we print it, we’ll give you a year’s subscription to the Mountain Gazette. And don’t worry about spelling “Gazette” correctly.

Oar snobbery

Dear Sirs, I examined the cover of the Mountain Gazette River Issue (#178) with interest. Could the picture be of any of the Old Boatmen I had worked with over the years? Could it be based on Catfish from the Taos Box? Bill from our first Dolores trip? Or maybe Skip from the Animas?

Upon closer examination, I was taken aback. It was certainly not one of my old comrades. The Boatman was using Oar For Sures on a pair of blue plastic oars. Why not give him pins and clips and be done with it?

I have always said, “Real Boatmen use wooden oars.” As for myself: I would never leave shore without my hands wrapped around a shapely piece of ash.

Michael Black
Durango, CO

River Right

Mr. Fayhee: I read Rob Marin’s story (“River Family,” MG #178) with ever-growing recollections of a river trip fatality while I was a whitewater river guide on the Ottawa River, between the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, in Canada. I then got to thinking that every river probably has a similar story to tell, so I submit my tale, and perhaps this will lead to a collection of stories along this theme, although it may be a macabre proposal.

It was in the early ’80s, and I was working my second season as a whitewater river guide for a commercial company on the Ottawa River near Pembroke, Ontario. Death was not a new thing to us on the river; just the previous season, another company lost a customer over the side of a raft in a rapid during the high-water portion of the season. He did not surface for over a month until after the waters subsided. But, in my case, the story Rob Marin told was hauntingly familiar.

We set out for the five-hour trip on a non-descript sunny day with the usual compliment of eight paddle rafts. Each raft was crewed by a dozen or less customers propelling the 22-foot-long Salmon rafts, guides positioned in the back of the raft for steerage with oversized paddles. We headed toward the first of five rapids, McCoy’s Chute. Company policy was to beach half the rafts so the customers could enjoy watching the other half go through, and the landed guides provided lifelines to any paddlers who were ejected from the raft, in conjunction to the rescue kayaker that accompanied each trip. Those who went through first beached their rafts at the bottom and the process repeated. The first rapid was running at about class 4 and was a good jump into the day’s adventure. After successfully negotiating the rapid, the mini-flotilla set off for a 15-to-20 minute paddle to the Lorne rapids.

This rapid consisted of a hydraulic at the top of the run, followed by a series of standing waves and another hydraulic almost 50 yards downstream of the first one. The key to this rapid is to stay river right lest you send the raft to its destruction into the Greyhound Bus Eater, which extends the width of most of the bottom of this rapid, and out of which the customers would not fair too well either. At either end of the Greyhound Bus Eater is a chute. As an added precaution, this rapid was always run with a minimum of two guides, the extra guide being positioned in the front to absolutely ensure the raft stayed river right. It was time for our run, and we were anticipating the lunch stop immediately after the rapid. I wish I could remember the name of the guide who was running with me, but I am glad it was he because I would be calling on his leadership in a few moments. We caromed through he first big wave and executed a textbook run, achieving maximum splash and riding the roller coaster waves down to the safe exodus of the rapid. It was then the lady immediately to my right looked back at me and gave the understatement of the day, alerting me that the man immediately in front of her, and who was leaning back against her, must not be feeling well. By now, we were out of the waves and into the frothy aftermath of the rapid. I called up to the guide in the front to take over steering and to get us ashore. I turned my attention to the middle-aged fellow who was now convulsing. My only previous exposure to this kind of symptom was a friend who was prone to epilepsy. I had by now got the man lying down on the raft tube and was unfastening his May West and asking out in general to the rest of the customers if anyone knew about this man’s medical history. The answer came to my eyes just as a lady’s soft-spoken voice confirmed what I saw. This man, her husband, had had heart surgery within the previous six months, she told us. We were now within earshot of the shore lunch party, which had driven the lunch down to the lunch spot on a very primitive road (I know this, I helped “build” it).

By now, the general manager, who had come in by road for whatever reason, was trying to organize the lunch van to take this cardiac situation to the hospital. I countermanded his instructions and told the other guide to get on the radio to base. That year, there was a new twist for the customers. A freelance helicopter pilot had rented a corner of cornfield near the company offices and would give paying customers an aerial view of the rapids. In exchange for word-of-mouth advertising, he had given a handful of us guides a free ride, which is where I came to understand his skills with his flying machine and how I came up with the next development in this unfolding saga.

As we were performing CPR (two nurses had been identified on the trip), I called to the guide to raise the base on the radio and contact the pilot. As chance would have it, the pilot was in the office having a cup of coffee when the call came in. By now, I was in a pissing match (arguing) with the general manager over how we should best get the victim out to help. The pilot, meanwhile, understanding what I had in mind, had made it to his aircraft and had thrown one door off his bird and was in the air in short order. As I predicted, he came screaming in low and landed his craft on a submerged sand bar in the bay where the lunch spot was. Now with the man with the cardiac problem secured to a backboard, my life jacket under his neck to straighten the airway, we hustled him over to the helicopter where the pilot had just jettisoned the other door. The nurses accompanied the victim as they headed to the local hospital. His wife rode out in the lunch van.

With a diminished and somber crew, the remaining rapids presented an additional challenge in that, if our hearts and shoulders weren’t into the trip, there could well be another fatality. With that announcement, the crew came to life, and we managed the remaining rapids and concluded the trip.

Back at the base, one of the nurses caught up with me and handed me back my puked-on life vest. She recounted the trip to the hospital stating that she only looked out of the window once, and that was enough. I had seen the helicopter depart, but not realized how radical the pilot’s plan was. In order to make distance over altitude, he flew back up the river channel while gaining altitude. The nurse told me that when she looked out forward, as the waves of the rapid broke, the spray was splashing on the windshield of the helicopter. The pilot had called ahead to the hospital and arranged to be met in the parking lot. I am told he came to a sliding stop there and the man with the heart problem was whisked into the hospital. Twenty or so minutes later, he was pronounced dead.

Several weeks later, I received an unexpected letter from his wife. Her husband’s aorta had come away from his heart. The thing that stuck with me from that letter was her assertion that the time it took to get her husband to the hospital was faster than would have happened in the metropolitan city where she lived.

This all happened some 30 years ago, and some of the names and specifics elude me, but the events of this day are etched into my memory for life.

Peter Bowen

Duck, Fayhee, Duck!

Sir: As a resident of Rabun County GA and a past professional whitewater guide, I find your article (“Deliverance,” Smoke Signals, MG #178) reprehensible. There are not even 17,000 residents of Rabun County, the Chattooga River is not lined with houses or even one house, and I, having lived here nearly 20 years, have never met anyone named Clem. I have worked on many river rescues from deaths due to foot entrapment or body entrapment to lost hikers and or boaters. Most of these people were either attempting wilderness travel via river or on foot without proper skills or with inferior “guides.” Maybe this article is not your fault, but the fault of this Adventure Orgy guy, as you call him. Either way, you have perpetuated the thinking of the less informed in their perception that all Southerners are ignorant, moonshine drinking, possum eating, tobacco chewing and inbred.

In some ways, this myth is perfectly acceptable, because it keeps urban-dwelling adrenaline-seeking pussies like yourself from coming to these sacred mountains of southern Appalachia to get their thrills, then leave their granola wrappers, boutique beer bottles and drive their Subaru back to their favorite Starbucks. While we who live here wait for them to leave so that we can clean up their campsite, rescue the unfortunate and try to enjoy what we can of the natural beauty of this area before we are again over run with the hordes.

Don’t be mistaken — all here, including myself, are still very patriotic and relatively conservative Americans. We will be the last Americans left, I would think. You should consider yourself lucky that I am probably the only Rabun County resident who subscribes to your magazine (although that may change when my renewal comes due), because I can think of a few people — they aren’t named Clem, just simple names like Mike, Gary or William — who would just as well shoot you as look at you based upon your attitude and perception.

Maybe next time you look me up and I will explain and show you these mountains and people in a different light — or if you prefer you just continue with your opinions and then next time you look in a mirror ask yourself who is the ignorant one.

Capt. George W. Custer,
Master & Managing Partner
Charter Yacht Freedom

Fayhee responds: As I made abundantly clear in “Deliverance,” I am not an “adrenaline-seeking” pussy but, rather, and adrenaline-avoiding pussy, that being the nature of pussiness and all.

My Uncle’s Scar

John: Regards “Scar Tissue” (Smoke Signals, Mountain Gazette #179): The wound I got didn’t leave a scar. All it left is a memory of an abrasion, a 3×7-inch raspberry on the inside of my right forearm. It was a mess for a while, it scabbed over and went away. It was the result of the second-to-last time I approached a curve way too fast on my bicycle. The last time I did this, my left knee took the beating. The scab that resulted was large and thick enough to serve as a cast. A shower would soften it up and then whatever angle my knee was in as it dried would determine how I would walk until the next shower. I learned to let it set up with my knee straight. I smarted up after that crash.

The arm abrasion only served as but an introduction to scabs. This wound came during a ride on a day off from a summer job at a camp. The camp was relatively primitive; we cooked over wood fires and lived in tents. Electricity started and ended at the water pump. Clean-up for the 20 of us amounted to standing by the pump, flipping the switch, then waiting three seconds to get hit with 50-degree water shooting from a two-inch pipe. Communication with the outside was via a battery-operated, two-way radio mounted in the dash of a ’50s-era Willys Jeep. The radio was declared off limits, as if all our girlfriends had two-way radios and we would drain the battery talking to them.

My day-off-ride/crash: downhill, way too steep and way too fast, barely into the curve, down into the ditch, up and around the hillside, back into the ditch — all with wheels down — a launch up and out of the ditch and back over the road air-borne, still with wheels down but not exactly centered, contact with the road, a brief, hopeless struggle for control and then the road rushing up to meet my face. I managed to position my right forearm in front of me before I hit and then went sliding along on it, my body rigidly held up at an angle to the road.

Sliding along, watching the road pass by under my arm, it occurred to me that, if I didn’t duck my shoulder and roll, my arm would be ground off. So I ducked and rolled, got tangled up with the bike, tried to steer my slide to the side of the road in case any cars were coming. I got back on and started for home, figuring the time to get back would coincide with the time I had before the pain really set in. It worked out pretty close.

My dad dug the gravel out of my back, bandaged my arm and I was back at camp the next day with an oozing, gummy wound that soaked right through his bandage and any of the others I contrived.

The camp’s flies, which had previously only pestered me at meals, went after that wet bandage relentlessly like it was a piece of raw meat. The familiar buzz of their tiny wings changed into an urgent, high-pitched snarl. While changing bandages, the exposed wound put them in a complete frenzy. They didn’t just try to land on it; they went for it, hit it hard and hung on. Waving them off didn’t work. I had to swipe them off. They had gone Kamikaze, fearless with determination to lay eggs in me.

I’ve had deer flies tangled up in my hair like so many sticky raisins while they bit into my scalp. I’ve been peppered with ticks and coated with mosquitoes. I’ve come out of the water leeched. Lousy experiences that keep occurring, but I’ve learned to accept them by understanding my place in the food chain. Contemplating maggots crawling out of me after being attacked by frantic egg layers, that was too creepy and it stayed with me. The rest of the guys at camp couldn’t let it go either. My nickname became “Wormy”.

Sometime later, I was lazing around with my dad and my uncle, just shooting the breeze. I don’t recall what we were talking about, but I decided to bring up the manliest story I had at the time, my most-recent crash, the scab, the flies and all that. While it was a rehash for my dad, my uncle was a new audience.

Lost to me was the fact that I was in the company of two men, both from large families, whose fathers had died while they were kids. They went out to find work during the Depression and followed that up with combat in World War II. I respected them, but to me they were just two harmless old farts and I thought I could impress them with my scab story. I knew my dad as a scale mechanic and my uncle as a city bus driver who walked with a slight limp and who was usually rubbing his thigh. I was a candy-ass and I really didn’t know who they were.

When I began to talk about the aggressive flies and my brush with maggots, my uncle’s expression underwent a subtle change. His lips pursed a little, his chin and eyebrows came up a little, all very slight and simultaneous. Watching his responses, I had the satisfying impression that my story was making an impact on him and I remember the event for that reason.

Only much later, after he was dead, did I realize that what I saw on his face was his reaction to a memory.

I only know bits and pieces of their involvement in the war. The stories came to me from other relatives over a period of years, let slip like secrets accidentally revealed, never to be repeated. Most of what happened to my uncle came to me from widely separated comments from his sister, my mom.

My dad mixed it up with the Japanese in New Guinea in ’42. My uncle was in the D-Day invasion in ’44. My dad came out of it alright and was in for the duration. On the day of the invasion, my uncle had no more than stepped out of his landing craft when the war ended for him.

Something knocked him face down in the sand. He turned his head and saw someone’s foot next to his face. “That’s my foot,” he thought. And it was. Whatever knocked him down had nearly severed his leg at the thigh. His leg, twisted at a crazy angle, brought his foot up next to his head.

At that instant, my uncle became just one in the invasion’s overwhelming flood of wounded whose treatment decisions were governed by pitiless triage. His gaping, complicated wound was treated only for blood loss and given a cursory debridement. The wound was left open, but before the medics moved on, they packed it with maggots. For my uncle and the other untold wounded, the medical corps had brought maggots for the detail work. I was told that my uncle didn’t mind having maggots in his wound so much. The ones that got out and crawled around in his bed were the ones that really bothered him.

Mil-Spec, medical maggots. I’ve tried to think of how maggots could be supplied in a scale to accommodate the number of casualties from an invasion. Were there jars of maggots? Cans of them? In preparation for the invasion, did someone win a government contract to breed pallet loads of maggots?

Through it all, my uncle’s leg was saved. It never was completely right though. He always had that limp, but was lucky enough to get a job where he could remain seated, driving the bus. For the rest of his life, bits of bone kept coming up through the skin of his thigh.

My silly scab story and my uncle’s memory of war. He didn’t say a word, didn’t interrupt me, didn’t say, “Shut up, you inexperienced lightweight and listen to me.” He could have knocked me out of the ring with a few words, but he didn’t. I wish he would have. He was a man with memories of war and he let me go on and on about the bicycle crash that happened to me on a day off from a summer job. I came away thinking that my story was significant enough to take its place among the memorable events in his life.

I never saw my uncle’s scar. While he was alive, I never knew he had it.

Charles Green
Boise, ID

Mountain Gazette welcomes letters. Please email your incendiary verbiage to: mjfayhee@mountaingazette.com.

Bob Chamberlain’s Mountain Vision #181

Bob Chamberlain: Nude, Wade Gulch, Lake City, 1994
Nude. Wade Gulch, Lake City, 1994

 

After walking to the top of this rocky Thirteener, looking, as usual, for skiable terrain, I signed the summit register, for the first time ever. It was partly because I had never seen one before, anywhere, and had no ida that to actually do about it, but I signed the date, ace my name, and appended my affiliation with the “Eleventh Mountain Division,” the “Disrespectful Sons of the Tenth,” of Aspen, Colorado.

That done, I scrabbled down, over some monstrous scree, to welcome groves of Aspen, bordering the main forest thick green Spruce and Fir. It began to rain, harder, harder and harder, until I was reduced to hunkering down completely under my pancho, waiting for it to pass, or at least let up some. When it didn’t do either one, I had to get up and move anyway, on the forceful advice from the rain-soaked Indian scout in my imagination, and my father in his military presence, as well.

Finally the rain moved on, and left me facing groves of Aspen, interspersed with small open “parks,” meadows of grass and wildflowers. Navigating from one to the other, I suddenly entered one in which someone had made a campsite. The tent was zippered tight against the rain, and everything looked to be in order except for a lone item hanging from an improvised clothesline, on the opposite side of the clearing. Coming closer revealed it to be an inexplicable item of swimwear, hanging by itself, in the middle of nowhere, with no one in sight. The sensuous shape it had assumed immediately suggested to me that there was some girl running around out here in these woods without her swimsuit! A nude on the loose! In the rain, too! Ahhh, Magic strikes!

I fiddled around with my Nikon as long as I could, hoping someone would show up with an explanation, but it was not to be. I finally found a path leading out of the clearing, and reluctantly went on my way. I followed the path until it came to a small stream, which, on close inspection, seemed to have an uncanny resemblance, bordering on identity, with a spot on Conundrum Creek where I had photographed many years ago.

No sooner had I recoiled from pondering the identity over time and through space of this event of recognition, than, only a few yards more along the trail, I encountered two young girls with backpacks, trailing a small black kitten. Well, of course! Doesn’t everyone? They had just come down from a Fourteener, which one they didn’t say, and yes, the kitten had walked all the way to the summit.

I recited my experience with the empty swimsuit, and confessed to having made a photograph of it because it looked like a Nude on-the-loose, but they didn’t respond. Well, I joked, the worse that could happen would be that someday they might see the swimsuit hanging on the wall of a gallery somewhere. Still no comment, Oh, well they’re probably too tired to think about any more activity of a physical kind today, anyway!

Come to think of it, I’ll just limp on down the trail myself.

Senior correspondent Bob Chamberlain lives with his dog at 8,000 feet in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley. 

New River, Arizona: Three Glimpses

New River, Arizona: Three GlimpsesRanch

It’s late July on the north edge of the Valley of the Sun, and things are dreamy as the roosters crow at false dawn. I’ve got beery memories of crystal meth cowboys hitting the glass pipe before furiously hammering together a tack room in an old wooden shed … white light white heat instead of ye olde white lightning, Metallica instead of Willie and Waylon, but cowboy hats and boots all the same. I was drunk and trying to help but ended up on my back in the desert dirt watching night lightning explode silently beyond the jagged black outline of thirsty mountains north, west, and east. Not a drop of rain though. Not for 100 days or more.

The cowboys are still hammering away. I can hear them loud and clear from my cave in the back of my truck, where I’m sweaty and covered with flies fresh off the manure pile. I’d sleep in my Dad’s trailer if I could, but need a few hours respite from the permanent clouds of cigarette smoke that have gradually stained EVERYTHING — ceiling, can opener, framed photos, false teeth, curtains — a yellowish brown color. He’s in there right now, finishing up his morning prayer and getting ready to light his first smoke and pour the day’s first shot of gin at 6 in the morning. No savings, no retirement, nothing but lost years, a disability check and an ancient trailer to house his broken body. A youth spent riding bulls and whores now just riding it out — hard living and a long decline punctuated by a monthly trip to Safeway and the daily ritual of cranking Hendrix and the swamp cooler up to full blast round about 10 a.m.

The sun rises from behind the Mazatzal Range, instantly nudging the thermometer into the mid-90s and forcing me out of my sanctuary. I slip on pants and shoes and crawl out of my truck, ready to kick the rooster that attacks me every morning, but he’s nowhere to be seen. I relax and piss in the gravel between a mound of old tires and the remains of two vintage satellite dishes. Such wreckage is everywhere: Pickup trucks without engines, engines without trucks, piles of pipe and fence posts, bent bicycles and broken toys, rusted horseshoes and barbed wire, bullet shells and beer cans, and tumbleweeds impaled upon the perimeter fence line. Not to mention the scrapped singlewides at the edge of the property, windows shot out, chock full of black widows and bad memories.

The brand-new doublewide (only one window busted out) right next to Dad’s place is all closed up, but the television is blaring already. It’s probably been on all night. In a little while, that trailer door will open and a toothless tweaker grandma will stand on the rickety stairs and holler endlessly in the most-grizzled and raspy voice imaginable: “GODDAMN IT PEANUT, GET BACK HERE PEANUT, GODDAMN IT PEANUT” — Peanut being the family Chihuahua who’s yipping at a rattlesnake coiled beneath the monster truck in the driveway.

But, for now, things are peaceful, and other than the hum of distant traffic on I-17, I hear nothing but the sounds of animals: the coos of mourning doves, chickens clucking as they peck at scraps thrown from all the front doors, packs of cattle dogs stretching and scratching fleas, a few dozen cattle staggering toward feed troughs and the snorts and whinnies of horses demanding to be fed. I wave to a tiny Guatemalan woman as she steps out of her windowless shack along with her three young children, all of whom quickly begin filling water barrels, distributing hay and oats and grooming the horses like they’ve been doing it all their lives. Maybe they have been. Her husband was swept up by La Migra three months ago when they raided the racetrack where he cleans the stalls of thoroughbreds and nobody knows when he’ll be back. But the folks who own this place (a pious Mormon wife and a beer-swilling Jack Mormon husband) are kind to everybody who’s found refuge out here. They’ll feed and shelter the family until El Padre is able to make the long walk across the border and through the desert. Again.

Desert

High noon. 105 degrees or so, supposed to top out around 113. A morning of sharing his stroke-and-gin-slurred rodeo and racetrack stories has tired Dad, so he settles into the easy chair for a nap. I open the trailer door and am hit by an oven blast of heat, then down the steps to the driveway, across the cattle guard and into the desert.

People say they love the desert, and they probably do … at Thanksgiving when they’re visiting family in Tucson and walking around in sandals; in winter when they’re fleeing Midwestern blizzards to ride mountain bikes in Las Cruces; in springtime when they’re snapping photos of El-Niño-year wildflowers in Death Valley. Few would claim to love the desert now, during a July that is slated to be the driest on record, just as the sun reaches its apex.

The intense heat is exhilarating, but I’m only hiking a few miles today, on mostly flat ground, with plenty of water. Not long enough to feel the full force of the summer Sonoran desert sun. Not far enough to get disoriented by shimmering heat waves. Not thirsty enough to gauge my own love for the desert.

The path is a cow path, a horse trail, a slinking coyote track, and it braids its way through this bone-dry floodplain, where the miles-long slope of the bajada — gravel and cobbles eroded from yonder mountains — meets the sandy bed of the New River. There are stones in the parched river bed that are pleasantly smooth. Nothing else here is pleasant or smooth. Mountains rise like the armored back of a Stegosaurus. Black chunks of basalt are sharp and baking hot beneath my boots. Turn one over and you might find a scorpion, angry and ready to strike. The bleached ribs of unlucky cattle are splintered and pointy. The rattlesnakes are poisonous and marked by angular patterns, the tarantulas hairy and as big as a man’s hand. The javelinas bristle with wiry hair and tusks — TUSKS! — and rabid packrats hunker down beneath an impenetrable midden of gathered thorns. Even the ghosts of life-giving waters — the same waters that caressed the river stones to smoothness — are rough and tumble: raging flash floods are far more common than the occasional placid spring flows.

There are animals all around me, but I am unlikely to see them today. Some have burrowed down into cool earth, or followed others who did the digging for them, and they won’t come out again until nightfall. Others have walked to scattered pockets of shade, or — like the Yavapai Indians of yore, or modern exurbanites rushing north to Flagstaff second homes — migrated upward to rest in the relative coolness and sip from the hidden springs of the Mogollon highlands. A handful — the vultures especially — are riding it out thousands of feet up in the sky, soaring for hours on thermal updrafts created by the very heat they seek to escape.

Clouds are piling up above the piney island of the Bradshaw Mountains — virginal white cumulus clouds signaling the annual arrival of moisture from torrid climes farther south. Everywhere else is arching blue sky and blinding sunlight, and the hopeful spring tide of plant life is ebbing.  Clumpy brown grasses are brittle and rattle in the occasional hot breeze. Parched shrubs crackle at the slightest touch. The succulent flesh of stout barrel cacti is wrinkled and pale. A few desiccated flowers cling forlornly

My feeble human brain is tempted to pity these suffering plants. This is a foolish notion. One misstep could send me reeling into a white mass of cholla cactus, and I would spend the next year yanking tiny Velcro-like spines out of my flesh while pondering the tenacity of desert flora. Unable to flee the merciless sun, these plants must endure it, and the hammers of drought and heat have crafted extreme adaptations that allow them to survive where little else will. Roots secrete poisons to keep other plants away from their patch of sporadically damp soil. Waxy stems seal in precious moisture. Many trees have no leaves at all — their green bark contains chlorophyll, which allows them to photosynthesize without transpiring water to the incessant suck of the greedy desert sun. Taproots plunge deep into the earth in search of reliable groundwater. Seeds lie dormant for decades at a time, waiting for conditions to become just right before germinating. And everywhere, on almost everything: THORNS, SPIKES, QUILLS AND NEEDLES parry the desperate nibbles of creatures yearning for a taste of succulent plant flesh.

I pause in the long shade of a centuries-old saguaro to sip water and wipe the sweat from my face. The once-exhilarating sunshine has become oppressive, but I know the end is near. Not for me, but for this particular chunk of Sonoran Desert. I see the survey stakes. I smell the diesel fumes. I hear the bulldozers. Just beyond the barbed wire, just beyond this doomed wash, the heavy machinery of civilization is transforming desert into something else entirely: The Phoenix.

Cement

I hop barbed wire and enter a lifeless war zone of churned gravel and black diesel smoke. Earthmovers versus Earth, steel Caterpillars versus actual caterpillars, dump trucks versus desert. The desert is losing, for now anyway, as these acres are bought and sold down the dry river, destined to become a Big Box overlooking a floodplain golf course. I stroll through the wreckage, dodging heavy equipment and men in hardhats, who seem not to see me, and step upon a sprawling expanse of fresh black asphalt that’s been sponging up solar radiation for many hours. The temperature quickly becomes unbearable, forcing me to make a beeline through acres of shiny new automobiles toward the gigantic stucco refuge of an OUTLET MALL.

In an instant, the harsh Arizona desert becomes scenic backdrop, and I’m strolling through the pastels of a shady Spanish villa, a haven of hanging flower gardens, singing fountains, cooling mists and flamenco music emanating from hidden speakers. My solitude is gone as well, for I’m surrounded by people: clean people in clean clothes braving infernal parking lots for a chance at a square deal on kitchenware or golf accessories. The door to the food court opens, releasing a gust of Arctic wind that swirls frigid for an instant before being swallowed up by the simmering afternoon air. I am tempted to enter, tempted to sit and relax for a moment in climate-controlled comfort, but force myself to keep walking. Must not taste the forbidden fruit of air conditioning, not this early in the day.

I leave the mall, cross another sun-blasted parking lot, blister my hands climbing a molten chain link fence, and find myself surrounded by a jumble of exit/entrance ramps, stoplights and a mad rush of plumbers, soccer moms and cement trucks rushing too and fro. To my surprise, there is a sidewalk, and I follow it across a freeway, the only pedestrian for miles around. Everyone else is sequestered away in boxes of steel and glass, windows sealed, air conditioning blasting away, denying the desert its due. Exhaust fumes fill my nostrils. Gritty sweat stings my eyes.  And then a mirage: twin white waterfalls cascading down miniature mountains into crystalline pools.

But it’s not a mirage — it’s ANTHEM BY DEL WEBB, an award-winning development by one of the planet’s largest land developers. Just five years ago, this was 20,000 acres of empty desert, home to roadrunners and a handful of half-wild cows. Four years ago, the first survey stakes appeared, and the saguaros (as per state law) were tagged and removed. Now, there are two new freeway exits and two new zip codes receiving J.Crew catalogs for upward of 20,000 people (slated, recession notwithstanding, to be 36,000). Instant city: just add water, and the barren desert sprouts Safeways, Walgreens, McDonalds, Starbucks, sports bars, Radio Shacks, dry cleaners, places of non-pagan worship, hundreds of miles of roads and thousands upon thousands of brown stucco homes marching up the hillsides — or as the billboard says: WE BUILD THE PLACE YOU BUILD THE LIFE.

I pass between the gateway waterfalls — one on each side of “Anthem Way” — and a long row of mini-malls toward the Welcome Center, where I rest in the shade of a 20-foot-tall aluminum golf ball and gaze through tall windows at a big map of the neighborhood. Five neighborhoods, actually, each tailored to a specific income bracket, plus three schools, two country clubs, and scattered pockets of “gated-access” communities. Street names seem to fall into four categories: community ethics (Prosperity Rd., Integrity Ln.), intrepid explorers (Kit Carson Pl., Lewis and Clark Circle), homage to recently displaced wildlife (Panther Run, Noble Hawk Dr.) and American literary icons (Whitman Dr., Thoreau Way).

And what would Henry David Thoreau do when the digital thermometer reads 115 degrees? Take a dip in his swimming pool behind his home on Walden Court, I’m sure, but since I lack keyed access to that side of town, I cross the street and head for the Community Park instead, eyes peeled for artificial water features. The park is green with well-tended grass, and indeed has a small lake and a couple of fountains. Nobody is around. I smell like I’ve been sleeping in a barn — right next to the barn actually — and I’d love nothing more than a swim. But signs inform me that the park is for Anthem residents only. And no swimming in the lake. And keep off the grass. And no wading in the fountains either.

Right on cue, a white pickup, SECURITY, rolls slowly down the deserted bike path, headed my way, so I turn my back on the life-giving waters and jaywalk across a busy feeder street to the supermarket parking lot. Car alarms howl. SUV doors open and slam shut. Horns honk as vehicles jockey for coveted parking spots close to the entryway — trying to minimize exposure to the long hot summer day.  I pause in front of the automatic doors, take a deep breath, then plunge into the confines of a mammoth Safeway store. 78 degrees: nearly 40 degrees cooler than the uncontrollable climate outside. I shiver my way to the beer aisle — 10 below zero surely — and ponder my options: I’ve got some loose change in my pocket, enough for a high-fallutin’ bomber of microbrew or 40 ounces of shitty beer. Feeling white trashy and thirsty, I purchase a 40 of Mickey’s and return to the uncontrolled climate outside.

A few minutes of air conditioning has ruined an entire day’s worth of hard-earned heat tolerance, and I feel like I’m standing too close to a bonfire. Fortunately, I’ve got a big bottle of rapidly warming beer and a good idea. Outta the shopping plaza. Pass through the brimstone parking lot. Ignore dead ends and cul-de-sacs. Deny beckoning iced coffees.  Overcome the fear of Neighborhood Watch.  It’s 3 in the afternoon, and the mercury is peaking, but I’ve got my eye on the prize. I trod the sidewalks back to the main arterial roadway, glory bound for the gateway oasis.

The pools reappear — aquamarine jewels beneath tumbling falls. Settled in the partial shade of manicured shrubbery, I uncap the bottle, take a big swig of malt liquor, and remove my boots. Traffic whooshes past.  Sirens wail. More beer and the stinky socks come off. Bulldozers grind away another acre of desert. The Welcome Center hands out another brochure. Another big guzzle and I’m down to the Fruit of the Looms. Scorpions crawl through cracks in cinder block walls and into barbeque backyards. Mountain lions slink down arroyos and into the exurbs. I finish the bottle, toss it into the xeriscaping, then strip off my underwear and slip into the lukewarm water. Floating on my back, arms outstretched, sweaty balls bobbing as the broiling sun inches its way towards the brown haze of the western horizon.

Charles Clayton, who grew up in Colorado’s Fraser Valley, is an upstanding citizen and pillar of his community in northern New Mexico. He no longer floats naked in suburban fountains. You can check out his blog, “Pagan Parenting,” at mountaingazette.com. 

Of Fire and Firewater: Canyoneering with a Dragon

Canyoneering with a DragonLet’s say, for the sake of argument, that someone has asked you if you would like to see him breathe fire.

And let’s say, also for the sake of argument, that this someone is not a trained circus performer.

Let’s further say that the propellant for said fire-breathing is Everclear.

And finally, let’s say that the majority of this vile substance has already made its way into the convulsing liver of the person asking the question about fire-breathing, rendering the spongy matter within his cranium less than entirely functional.

Do not say, “Yes. Yes, I would like to see you breathe fire.” Or there will be trouble.

Summer of 2002. Girl gone, down the tubes of destiny, following some other poor fool whose life intertwined with ours just a bit too familiarly. But this breakup, like others, carries that one happy side effect: reunions with the free-wheeling folk who had hovered on the periphery of one’s perceived domestic bliss all the while, waiting patiently for the inevitable dissolution of a bond whose half-life is clear to all but the schmuck in the middle of it: nasty, brutish, short.

JC, beautiful crazy bum seraphim. Calls up out of the blue with pitch-perfect timing. Has been living in a pickup truck while working construction in Las Vegas; in the Yosemite Valley climbing and living on two bucks a day; in Thailand, clinging to wildly improbable 5.13 lines by day and doing some wildly improbable partying by night, possibly involving lines of another sort; in Soldotna, Alaska, homesteading on a patch of land purchased for a song. Back in Salt Lake for a bit.

“Hey, Phillips.” The comically laid-back stone drone. “Wanna go down south and do some canyoneering?”

A bolt from the bright blue. Perfect. Yes. “Hell yes. Where?”

“Elderly Canyon.”

We converge later, pore over maps, and I realize we’re talking about Eardley Canyon, in the southern part of the San Rafael Swell. Elderly Canyon sounds better, though, bringing to mind images of walker-rocking, stoop-shouldered, fearlessly rappelling octogenarians, so we stick with the moniker. Looks like a great ramble: Five raps — none too long — a couple pools, natural anchors and (sigh) bolts galore, and a nice walk through a gradually narrowing canyon to precede the technical bits. Top it off with a night of camping and drinking at the canyon’s exit and a slog back to the car in the summer heat — foregoing the recommended shuttling of cars — to burn out the hangover, and you’ve got a winner.

A few home-rolled cigarettes later and we’ve decided this trip won’t be complete without CW. Pure brawn, pure Jedi, total abandon meets total ability. Without a hint of hesitation, he agrees to join us on this walk through the sandstone of time. He’s busy, with many irons in many fires, but he’s down as always. Born down.

Three days later, and my poor, belabored 1991 Subaru is motoring due south down Highway 6, a metal mini-prairie schooner unsteadily hurtling toward the “San Rafael Reef,” named such by the pioneer navigators whose terminology had its roots in nautical frustration. Navigational hazard? Yes. Kick-ass geological wonder? Yes. Also a nice place to forget about the vagaries of a faded relationship never to have faded (“I do”), revel in the simple power of long friendships and the uncaring, unsparing, welcoming embrace of the bare wild desert.

Food? Got it. Went to Albertson’s pre-trip, loaded up on EZ Cheez (re-christened “ain’t got shit to do with cheese”), crackers, sardines, jerky, beans-in-can, Pringles and some kind of gummy substance in the shape of a foot. Backpacking food that ain’t got shit to do with freeze-drying. Also not light or remotely compact. Also damn tasty.

Water? Some, yes. Mostly water suspended in alcohol. How better to ensure the body’s smooth functioning under relentless skies the temperature of the sun?

We don packs, JC and I having opted to use dry bags with straps for the whole journey, since there are a few swims on the route. Trouble is, these dry bags have nothing but simple shoulder straps and have absolutely no back pad, so my backpacking stove is at risk of becoming part of my anatomy by about 20 minutes into the hike, sticking violently into my short ribs and spurring me like a mad cowboy with every step. CW strides confidently and athletically ahead, flask in hand, as JC and I strike uncomfortable bargains with our onerous and ill-balanced loads.

We start down the funnel into Eardley Canyon, dubbed Straight Wash. Straight Wash is pretty straight. But, step by wavering step, we pad further into the unfathomable stretch of geologic time, entering the contouring confines of Eardley. We peel back layers of the Earth’s wild chronological ride as we descend into the canyon’s belly. Touching the striations of the rock delivers a sensation not unlike plugging into a wall socket with one’s bare hand: there is an electric resonance to the desert, a buzz of sheer power that is palpable if one sees and hears its language of rock and blood. Ed Abbey’s bedrock and paradox: A desert is a place of essence, an oasis of pure life in its alternate yet simultaneous valences of short time and death and love.

Friends walking together down a canyon make a music surely the rock can hear. We joke, remembering crazy trips while creating another. We take breaks, washing down mountain ranges of ain’t got shit to do with cheese atop crackers with Jim Beam and, in saner moments, gulps of pure agua. Hand-rolled cigarettes complete the assault on our health. Yet the camaraderie and joie de vivre pulsing through us form a powerful antidote to this fusillade of chemicals.

As the canyon narrows more, we reach the first rappel. The pool into which the rappel leads seems pretty shallow, as does the angle of the pour-over. We hem and haw a bit, fussing with gear and donning wetsuits. JC begins to run rope through anchors, but CW gives us — and safety — the middle finger and slides down, wetsuit-clad-ass first, relying on the braking force of friction alone, and soon emerges from the pool’s far side, unscathed, beaming and hurling anatomically- and politically-incorrect insults at us for our prudent hesitation.

So we slide.

Note: Don’t bring a nice, expensive wetsuit on a canyoneering trip. Bring an old, sun-bleached, natty one, sold on eBay by shark-bit surfers and widows and widowers of overbold canyoneers. Or rent, making sure to practice a few times before its return the unknowing shoulder shrug indicating your lack of responsibility for the suit’s deteriorated condition.

A delightful — if frigid — series of pools ensues, and we follow the course of the canyon’s creator, water, as it slides, molecule by molecule, from pothole to pothole, caressing and carrying bits of sand inexorably down, sculpting a gravity-driven architecture of geomorphic chance.

“Christ, it’s cold,” I chatter, hip-deep in the third pool. The deep shiver — full-body, utterly involuntary — of the early stages of hypothermia is part and parcel of this oddball endeavor of following the meanderings of a slot canyon, come hell or high water. But we move steadily down, emerging eventually, gratefully, into a broad, sandy and sunlit wash.

Jubilation! We re-warm, laying out piles of gear, exposing it and ourselves to the desert sun’s desiccating touch. JC produces what remains of the alcohol: equal sloshings of Beam and Everclear. Plenty, as it turns out, to catalyze a fair bit of irresponsible backcountry behavior. A big-ass fire, for starters. True, we burn everything to ash and scatter the remains of the night into the next morning, but we scour the area of damn near half a cord of deadwood over the course of the evening.

It’s maybe 11 p.m. and we’ve predictably plowed straight through pleasant buzz and into ham-fisted, twisted drunk. In a moment of lull between truth-bending, one-upping tales of exploits both vertical and horizontal, we stare collectively into the Paleolithic television before us. That’s when a particular flame-tipped juniper bough catches JC’s attention. I can only imagine the 190-proof math going on in his head as he cast his gaze back to the near-spent bottle of distilled evil.

“Hey, guys, want to see me breathe fire?”

To which, as you have been informed, we answered in the affirmative.

A quick pull off the plastic jug and JC raises the flaming branch to his stubbled face. The ensuing arc of fire has impressive height and volume. These qualities are substantially enhanced by the mini-self-immolation CW and I are witnessing. Seems a fair bit of hooch dribbled down JC’s carpet of facial hair, igniting and taking full advantage of the extra fuel.

“Feels hot,” JC says, matter-of factly, sprawling into the sand and dousing the conflagration of follicle and epidermis.

Blistered up real quick. Sunscreenless seven-hour slog the next day didn’t help matters. JC’s attempt to impersonate a dragon hadn’t ended well. He was staying with his parents for the nonce, so, teenager-like, he invented a plausible story to save his mother from the reality of his desert debauchery. Upon hearing the story, she was ready to sue a certain maker of camp stoves that require priming, JC having pinned the rap on a cranky Optimus or Svea.

JC carries just the slightest of scars, amazingly, from his circus act at Eardley’s terminus. But it is there nonetheless. The scar traces a moment, written into flesh, acting as an exclamation point of experience: the fun and folly of a fire-lit dance with firewater.

And the best trips are the ones that leave scars and spin stories, don’t you think?

Aaron Phillips teaches Environmental Writing at the University of Utah. His last story, “Cumulus Dentatus, or Why I Believe in Winter Storm Warnings,” appeared in Mountain Gazette #176.  

A Spiritual Journey of 43 Steps

1

The airplane is not much bigger than a cigarette, and its wings appear to be fastened with staples, like an art project my kids would bring home from school, but we’re spiritual people, believers in the Great Journey, and so we cross the tarmac with our backpacks and bpa-free water bottles, heads bowed, as if in prayer. Jillian, the heiress, waddles like a penguin in black polypropylene. Charlotte, my old college friend, flip-flops, her toes pedicured cherry red. I am wearing Harley boots for courage and an amulet of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which I rub for luck whenever I fly. Up the wobbly steps we climb. Every seat is both window and aisle. We sit, squeezing our knees. The Xanax-coffee buzz I am nursing fills me with equal parts optimism and apathy. I no longer worry I will die in an airplane. I still worry I may die in a sweat lodge, but I am, as the cliché goes, living in the moment. Perhaps, already, I have absorbed a few lessons of Native American spirituality.

“Where’s Taliyah?” I ask.

Taliyah is the medicine woman who will lead us in Native American practices. Charlotte points ahead to a stocky woman with a blue down coat draped over her head, like a comforter thrown over a lamp.

“What’s she doing?” I ask.

Charlotte says: “She doesn’t like to fly.”

2

It was Charlotte’s idea to sign up for a women’s hiking trip run by a wilderness tour company with a Native American bent. Most of these “journeys” last a week, but we working mothers want Spiritual Enlightenment delivered over a four-day weekend. In the end, only three women signed up, perhaps because, at $1,400, the trip is expensive, a splurge by any definition. I swing the finances by getting a grant to write an essay about the trip. This is the academic version of singing for your supper.

Fiona, the company’s founder, is traveling with us. She’s a petite woman with wild brown hair and a soft voice and the biggest watch I have ever seen. She looks like she’s about to cry even when she’s smiling. Like Charlotte and me, Fiona is originally from Connecticut, but has washed up in the Midwest. Born near an Indian reservation, Fiona has recently embraced Native American spirituality. Around her neck, she wears a small leather pouch, like she’s going to pay for our gas with trading beads.

The plan is to fly into Cortez, Colorado, and drive to Canyonlands National Park in Utah, where we will camp and hike and learn cool stuff from Taliyah and come back liking our lives, our husbands and ourselves, a great deal more than we do right now. The best part of the trip is that I have not had to plan it. I haven’t even looked at a map. A mother can get like this. Most days, mothers operate like high-speed modems. Has the wet laundry moved to the dryer? Can Madeline spell paleontologist? Did Lincoln wipe his butt? Most days, I am so tired, I don’t want to know anything about anything. Lucky for me, I am a college professor.

3

The day before leaving Indiana, I got into a fight with my husband. Sometimes I wish Peter would have an affair or lose our life savings in a Ponzi scheme, if only to create fresh drama. Instead, we fight the same fight: I accuse him of not doing enough around the house and he says I do a lot compared to most men and I say but I do more, and he says You need to relax and I say I could relax if you would do more. Here’s what set it off: It was nine o’clock at night and I was helping Madeline with her spelling and Peter had been away for three days and I was exhausted, my eyes raccoon-like, and Peter was lying in bed, on the bed, ankles crossed, reading about Tutankhamen, the Egyptian boy prince. The way I see it, if my husband really loved me he would say: “Darling, let me take over. Take an aromatherapy bath. Pick out a sweater from the Sundance catalogue. Pour yourself a glass of Chardonnay.” That he didn’t say any of this made me feel unloved. When I feel unloved, I become unlovable, petulant, a shrew, slamming around the house muttering: No one picks up anything but me. Peter shouts easily, but recovers just as fast. I simmer, like a pot of black beans. Long after we made up, his last cutting blast hovered over my head like a toxic inversion. “You need to get away. Just go. Get out of here.”

4

Another, far more serious thing, happened right before I left Indiana. Near Sedona, Arizona, three people died in a sweat lodge during a “Spiritual Warrior” retreat led by New Age guru James Arthur Ray. Armed with his motto, “Create Harmonic Wealth in All Areas of Your Life,” Ray built a self-help empire so successful followers paid $9,000 to attend his retreat in Angel Valley, a Sedona center offering vortex experiences, angel connections and crystal skull meditation. Earlier that week, Ray dispatched followers into the desert for a “vision quest,” a 36-hour solo without food or water. When the exhausted travelers returned, they crammed into a small wooden structure covered with blankets and plastic while Ray’s “Dream Team” hauled in steaming rocks. People vomited and fainted in the heat. A few crawled to safety. Ray, meanwhile, sat outside in the shade, periodically rousing himself to exhort his disciples: “You’re not going to die. You may think you are, but you’re not.” But three people did. James Shore, 40, and Kirby Brown, 38, lost consciousness and could not be revived. Liz Neuman, 49, fell into a coma and died nine days later. That this supposedly religious ceremony ended in three fatalities was not only tragic, but ironic. The goal of a sweat lodge, according to Ray, is for participants to experience spiritual rebirth.

5

Our toy plane has Tourette’s. Hipishly, we twitch 25,000 feet over the Rockies, quivering above snow-covered ridges that shine in the sun like diamonds or chrome. This is the view I imagine God sees, the heavenly vantage point that reassures him he is an artist of divine proportion. I debate a second Xanax, but decide it will be hard to hike if I am sleeping. Over the engine roar, we chat about our relative fitness and how Jillian and I will keep up with Charlotte, whose personal trainer calls her “the machine.”

“I’ve been in training,” Jillian says. “I can do plank pose for a minute.”

Charlotte does her best to look impressed.

Jillian adds: “I count fast.”

Jillian is a dozen years older than Charlotte and me. She’s 57. Her graying hair is buzzed into a crew cut and she wears thick black glasses and the largest watch I have ever seen before I saw Fiona’s. She’s tall and thin, twitchy like a broom. Her patent-leather black sneakers have a separate compartment for her big toe, like mittens for your feet. I like Jillian right away because I gravitate toward people who complain, exaggerate and prefer chocolate to hiking.

Jillian extracts something from her gear. “Ladies. I brought my eyebrow tweezers for the trip home in case we need some fluffing. A few plucks can make you feel like a princess.”

6

During the flight, we trade family news. Charlotte tells us her in-laws are getting divorced because her father-in-law had an affair.

“How old is he?” I ask. It seems wrong for couples to divorce past 60.

Charlotte rolls her eyes. “Seventy-one.”

“You’d think he’d have given up on affairs.”

Jillian chimes in. “Some people do. I have a male friend who is 75. One day he told me: ‘You know, Jillian. I’ve outlived my dick.’”

7

As we fly past long stretches of brick-colored rock, I do not miss my children, but I think of my children. I remember, with some satisfaction, that, while Peter was lying in bed  — on the bed — I taught Madeline that the geological formation that I am now admiring is not spelled Plato.

8

In Cortez, we met Chance, our guide, our cook. Chance is 36, but looks 26. He’s thin and tan wears a hand-knit hat with dangling ties. Chance says a lot with his hands. What Chance says with his hands is that nothing matters much or rather everything matters, but we’re not going to get upset about any one particular thing. Chance conveys this easiness by turning his hands, palms ups, palms down, like he’s cooking a grilled cheese sandwich that will taste good no matter which side lands on top. It’s easy to look at Chance and believe you’re wasting your life.

Chance asks if anyone needs anything before we head into the wilderness.

“Breath mints,” Jillian says.

Chance nods, poker-faced. He is, I can see, a professional.

“Breath mints. OK. Anything else?”

9

Chance drives his truck. The women climb into a rented SUV. Fiona drives, mom-like, up front with Taliyah. The paying customers, the kids in carpool, are stuffed in back.

“Fiona,” Jillian calls up. “Will we see wildlife?”

“Sure,” Fiona says. She wants her clients to be happy.

“Rattlesnakes?”

“Too cold.”

“Mountain lion?”

Fiona smiles into the rearview mirror. “That’s doubtful.”

Taliyah weighs in. Her deep voice carries the authority of a grandfather clock. “Be careful what you ask for. Be very, very careful.”

“OK,” Jillian says. “We will be precise. We will ask to see a mountain lion at 30 yards, heading the opposite direction, but still offering us a full frontal view.”

Jillian changes subjects: “Did you hear the governor of Texas wants to secede? I say ‘Go for it.’ Take the Bushes and the border guards.”

Charlotte gazes out the window. “That would be great.”

10

We drive past fields of mustard-colored grasses and purple hills, past silos and grain elevators and dead sunflowers that look like charred bodies from a war. The sky is doing that big-sky thing like it’s a huge bowl over our heads, the color of washed-out denim. It’s October and the cottonwoods are golden chandeliers, shimmering in the breeze. In the distance loom red-rock formations, plateaus and buttes. We pull off at Indian Creek, a Mecca for crack-rock climbing. Climbers scale a sheer six-story face of Wingate sandstone. They cling, in various stages of ascent, neon, bug-like, dangling, debating where to place their foot, a hand. We stare transfixed. We are watching ourselves.

11

Fiona stops for lunch at Newspaper Rock, a collection of Anasazi Indian paintings engraved on a 10-foot blackened boulder. Taliyah points out The Four Winds, the serpent, the medicine wheel, the ladder to the spiritual world, the robot-looking man whose antennae show he has attained a high state of spiritual awareness.

Taliyah says she’s from the bear tribe, but she reminds me of a badger. She has a crew and a long braid that reaches down her back. Her skin is the color of coffee with cream, and her eyes are small and watchful. She moves slowly and wears a lot of clothes. It is hard to imagine her being a girl, skinny and running. She likes to laugh, although I don’t pick up on this until later because most people I know with a sense of humor don’t whisper, while admiring petroglyphs , “Oh my God. There is a God. The Great Mystery.”

I want to ask Taliyah about her life, but am too shy. Next to her, I feel spoiled and white and worry I’m going to say something stupid and reveal my inner Pocahontas.

On the back of his truck, Chance spreads out lunch: organic chips, tomatoes, cheese, vegetarian baloney.

“Where’s Taliyah?” I ask.

We spot her blue down coat. She appears to be singing to the toilets.

“She is collecting seeds,” Fiona says.

I nod, as if I had been contemplating a similar harvest.

We stand in the parking-lot sunshine, happyhappyhappy to have made our escape. We’re in the Southwest. We are independent women. We can do the plank pose for a minute. I look into the fields of sage and piñon and soak up the emptiness. Taliyah reappears, saying: “If you see me spacing out, I’m focusing on the rocks and listening to the old ones.”

And I think: If you see me spacing out, I’m spacing out.

12

We camp beneath giant rocks that look like mushrooms. The scenery is stunning but we’re equally excited about the Port-o-Potty. It’s 4 o’clock and we rush to set up tents. Jillian can’t wait to decorate. Charlotte can’t wait to play Kumbaya on her guitar. Taliyah stares at the ground and says, “You can’t tell me where to camp. I need to feel it.”

13

When the tents are up, Taliyah shows us her seeds. Fiona asks how she will know how to plant them. “We will listen to them and they will tell me,” Taliyah says. “The knowledge is in the hands of all that went before.”

Such earnestness makes me feel squeamish, like a teenager watching a sexy movie with her parents. We never went to church when I was a kid, and I never gave religion much thought until my mother’s breast cancer returned for the third time. We were living in Spain and I started to drop into empty churches and gaze up at the Virgin Mary, imagining my prayers rising into the heavens like cigarette smoke. All over Spain, I tossed Euros in fountains, lit candles, pleaded my case. It didn’t do much good. My mother still died at age 68. She was a healthy woman, a practicing lawyer, an ocean swimmer. She was not ready to go. My nieces, good Episcopalians, worry they won’t see Gran in heaven because she didn’t believe in God. My Dad, now in his seventh decade, is suddenly curious about religion. “I’m waiting for you to take the first step,” he says. He keeps asking me if I’ve thought about going to that nice stone church on the corner. Whenever I walk by it, I debate going in, but the doors are locked, and I don’t have much interest in sitting through a Sunday sermon. I just want to sit.

Sometimes, I think I’ve founded my own religion, one that has no organization. I take a trip. Stuff happens. I write down what people say. Usually I find a bit of God buried in the words, like a palimpsest, writing under the writing, meaning under the words. When I travel, I see things more clearly, feel things more deeply. It’s like I take my heart out of my chest and let it breathe.

14

Chance fixes dinner. Having a man in coveralls cook for us gives us an erotic charge. Before dinner is even served, we all have crushes.

15

As the sun sets, I walk out to the gravel road and admire the vastness of the desert. The quiet is stunning. The ground is crusted. The rocks are not moving. The rocks have never moved. The rocks will have the last word. The sun drops below the hills. The air thickens. The red earth glows. Jillian and Charlotte approach on the road.

“You almost expect to see dinosaurs,” Charlotte says. “The earth has gone through so many changes. We’re just a blip, a nanosecond.”

Jillian looks grim. “But think of all the terrible things we’ve done to the planet.”

“Yet, ultimately, I feel hopeful,” Charlotte says. “At least in our lifetimes, our children’s lifetimes, this will all still be here.”

Jillian sets her chin against the cold air. “So long as we get rid of Texas.

16

Charlotte and I have been friends since college. Both of our mothers died of breast cancer. We both weathered infertility, although I got off easier than Charlotte, who lost two six-month-old babies in utero before having two beautiful children through a surrogate mother. We were supposed to go to our 20th college reunion together, but Charlotte went into rehab instead. I should have seen it coming. Her father drank himself to death. Those last years, he holed up on Cape Cod, a widower, dying of cancer of the esophagus, shooting bourbon into his feeding tube. Charlotte’s youngest sister, on more than one occasion, discovered him collapsed in his own excrement and vomit.

Such horror is hard to fathom when I look at Charlotte, with her bright blond hair and blue eyes. Charlotte is a feminist and a terrific mother and fierce competitor and I would go anywhere with her — except possibly on vacation — because I am looking at four days of camping without a drink. This bothers me more than it should. Most nights, when the kids are bickering and the pasta starts to boil, I pour a glass of wine, and stop at that, but I’d rather climb in the bottle and swim laps. Packing for the trip, I debated stashing mini-bottles in my duffle, but didn’t, because smuggling booze on a Native American retreat would confirm I have a drinking problem or am a complete asshole.

While Charlotte plays guitar, Chance gives us a tip for keeping warm at night: Don’t hold your pee. Otherwise your body wastes energy warming your urine, energy that could be better spent heating your body.

I wonder how many other ways I have wasted my energy. And, if I hadn’t, how warm I might be.

17

Taliyah rolls her eyes when someone brings up the horrors of Sedona. What she doesn’t say, but what I sense, is that the New Age movement is just another form of white exploitation. Now that we’ve taken Indian land, we covet their religion, pervert it into a caricature for a profit. As if you could learn Native American spirituality from a white guy with a website and a mansion in Beverly Hills.

The oddest part of the Angel Valley story was the ages of victims: 38, 40, 49. They were not young and foolish. They were not old and frail. They were middle-aged. Our age. The age when you should know better. You could dismiss their seeking as just another mid-life crisis, but I bet this shorthand doesn’t do them justice. I imagine they wanted to test their mettle. They wanted to better understand themselves. They wanted to have a spiritual experience, to feel just a little bit happier.

Over appetizers, Taliyah teaches us our first Native American expression: “Giwabna,” which means: “Who’s to say?”

I try it out different ways. “Who’s to say?” “Who is to say?” The phrase grows on me. It seems to concede how little we know. It also feels democratic, like anyone could be God, but it’s probably not your turn today. Taliyah tramps around the campsite, staring into the sand. “I can tell my ancestors walked this land.” This is such a great expression I can’t wait to use it the next time I am Greenwich, Connecticut.

18

We picnic in the dark. I’m wearing so many layers, my elbows no longer bend. Taliyah gives us a sweat-lodge primer. The sweat lodge, she says, is a symbol of the womb, a place of rebirth. The four doors represent the four directions. The fire is the Grandmother and represents the breath of life. There are four rounds, one for each sacred herb: tobacco, sage, cedar and sweet grass. Native people sprinkle tobacco as a way to give thanks. You put tobacco down to express gratitude to the elders and the earth. Pick a flower, put tobacco down. Pick up firewood, put tobacco down. I’ve been awake since 4 a.m. and Taliyah’s monotone makes me sleepy. Her words blur together, something about the stomach being the center of intuition. Something about the sweat lodge being a time to listen to the small, still voice within.

Ever practical, I ask how long the sweat lodge will last.

Taliyah says it will last as long as it needs to last.

This is not what I wanted to hear. I imagine myself, sweating in my Speedo, dizzy, claustrophobic, wet, crawling into a sleeping bag shaped like a coffin.

Charlotte’s face flickers in the firelight.

Taliyah pauses, and Charlotte says: “I’m in.”

19

After dinner, to warm up, we walk down a road going nowhere. Nylon swishes between our thighs. The stars are bright and scattered. Jillian keeps bumping into me in a way I find reassuring. We’re talking sweat lodges. Jillian says: “I would hate to have you two come back and say ‘It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever done in my life.’”

Charlotte says: “She had me with the small quiet voice within.”

Jillian says: “I like to be respectful of other traditions, but I do not like to be cold.”

As usual, I am ambivalent. Maybe something amazing would happen, a vision, a purge. “Maybe we can wrap it up in a half hour?”

“Maybe.” Jillian glares at Charlotte. “If some of us can keep our prayers short.”

20

I can’t sleep. When Yahoo weather said it would be 40 degrees at night in Utah, it didn’t seem so bad. Indiana was 40 degrees at night. What I’d forgotten is that when it’s 40 degrees in Indiana, we sleep in a house. Charlotte snores. Jillian thrashes. It occurs to me a bed is a beautiful thing. Perhaps this sort of gratitude is holy. I debate taking a Xanax. I dream of mini-bottles. I hoard my urine, then drag myself up to pee in the grass. (The Port-o-Potty is so far away, it might as well be in Texas.) A million stars stare down at me, whispering in the cold: Who are you? What are you worth?

21

In the morning, we compare notes.

Taliyah says: “I smelled wild urine around my tent.”

Jillian says: “That was Charlotte.”

22

As the sun rises over the rocks, Charlotte does odd stretches she calls pelvis tippers. Jillian complains about her IT bands. I have no idea what either one of them is talking about. In Indiana, we don’t have as many names for the things that ail us. We don’t have as many cures either. Charlotte has a personal trainer, a guitar teacher, a nanny, a yoga teacher, a house cleaner, a life coach, and her AA meetings. I have white wine.

23

We ready for the hike. Taliyah stays home because her chest feels tight. Chance puts on his Virgin of Guadalupe cap. This ups his coolness factor exponentially. Jillian wears four layers topped off with a black puffer. She’s still cold. Chance’s poop kit hangs on the line, untouched. Charlotte asks if we know how pelicans die. We don’t. She says they go blind by diving. I say I don’t get it. Charlotte says they can’t see the fish and starve to death. And I say, I see.

24

The sun is up. Everything gleams. Jillian rubs sunblock on her ears. She takes a breath mint, rearranges her gloves and dickey. Her backpack is full of clothing. “Let’s face it, ladies. We have no idea what nature has in store for us.” I look up. The sky is a perfect blue. Jillian says: “Now a drink of water, and I will reveal a new layer.”

25

We set out on an 11-mile hike. The land stretches before us, a million shades of ochre and rust. “The machine” is soon out of sight, and we break off into two groups. I will catch up with Charlotte. Jillian, Chance and Fiona will pick up the rear. We will meet at Confluence Overlook, where the Green and Colorado rivers join. With each step, the rocky landscape turns more surreal. There are rocks like pinball bumpers and rocks like wedding cakes. There are Whoopie Pie rocks and drip-castle rocks. The rocks start to feel like people. The rocks start to feel like God. This is not a new idea. The practice of worshipping rocks is as old as Stonehenge. Even my mother, the good Yankee, used to worship rocks up in Maine, bending down after her swims to collect gray rocks with white rings around them. She believed ringed rocks were lucky.

We walk. Time slows. This always happens when I travel and I never understood why until I heard this piece on NPR. Basically, the brain has to work harder to remember new experiences. The smell of a Paris bakery. The sunset at Key West. In new places, your perceptions are more layered and startling and rich, which makes time seem to pass more slowly. This explanation scientifically confirmed the paradox I’ve long intuitively felt: the best way to slow time is to keep moving.

26

When we arrive at the overlook, the Green River is green and the Colorado River is brown and they join together 1,000 feet below us in a paisley swirl like desert sauces on a fancy plate. When Jillian crests the ridge, we clap. She says it’s a good thing she has a body like a gazelle. She says she’s “yummy tired.” Chance makes lunch, then sits on his haunches, like a cricket, and cleans our bowls with dirt. We coo about how delicious everything is. Chance says hunger is the best sauce.

Jillian yawns. “I hope I can stay up tonight for Kumbaya.”

27

The way back, Charlotte and I use our walking sticks like ski poles and slalom over the rocks. We feel light and strong and free. It seems a safe place to confess my worries about drinking. Charlotte ticks off warning signs. If you make rules for yourself, like I will only drink on weekends. (Yes, I do this.) If you can’t imagine doing certain activities without drinking (English Department parties, check. Mother-in-law visits, check, check). If you experience negative consequences, like a blackout or DUI, but keep drinking. (Thank God, not yet.) “You’re probably OK,” Charlotte says. “You’re probably just a stressed-out mother.”

28

Charlotte and I bask on a limestone boulder waiting for the others. A half-hour later, Jillian’s grinning face appears on the horizon.

“Did you see any animals?” Charlotte asks.

“We saw a squirrel.” Jillian turns to me. “How’s the essay?”

I shrug. I have no ideas about an essay. Jillian says: “I hope there is someone in the essay who had a lot of clothing, and then one day didn’t bring it all, and everyone thought she was hearty and stalwart.”

And I say: “I’m sure there’s room for a character like that.”

29

Chance cooks Mexican food. We eat like wolves. After dinner, we build a fire and Taliyah leads a prayer meditation where we pass around a clay pipe and share the thoughts that lie close to our hearts. I babble something about how great it is to spend time with Charlotte. Jillian says her light grows dim when she doesn’t get out in nature. Charlotte talks about finding her inner voice. Fiona confides that her husband doesn’t understand her need to journey and build her business. The funny thing is that I grew up in Connecticut and Charlotte grew up in Connecticut and Fiona grew up in Connecticut. I wonder if women from Connecticut spend their lives trying to fill an emptiness they cannot name.

Taliyah reminds us there is no right way or wrong way to enter the sweat, so long as your intention is pure. Then she drops the bomb: Men and women generally don’t share a sweat lodge, she says, because they are often so moved they orgasm.

30

After dinner, we take our ritual walk. We look like padded robots. Our breath is visible. We’re talking sweat lodges.

Jillian says: “I don’t want to feel like a voyeur. This is important to her, but it’s not important to me.”

I say: “I don’t know who I would be praying to. My ancestors? Her ancestors? Her ancestors don’t want to hear from a white girl from Connecticut.” What I don’t say, but what I also worry about, is that my intentions are not sufficiently pure. For this same reason, I never take Communion. The truth is that I don’t know if my intentions will ever be pure enough to join someone else’s religion.

Charlotte says: “We’re going to have to say something.”

“Maybe we could do a mini-version?” I suggest. “Like, change the entire Native American tradition to meet our needs.”

Jillian nods: “Right, after we get rid of Texas.

Charlotte says, “We’ll just be honest.”

“How?” I ask. I loathe confrontation and will endure almost anything to avoid it.

Charlotte says, “I’ll talk to Fiona.”

“Oh my God.” I grab Charlotte’s arm, suddenly remembering something. “You remember Jack?”

“Your old boyfriend?”

“Right. I’d completely forgotten. His stepfather died in a sweat lodge.”

31

My tent is crisp in the cold and smells like sweat. From the blackness, Jillian screams.

“There’s a spider in my tent!”

“Kill it,” Charlotte yells back.

“How?”

“A book.”

“I want to read the book.”

“A shoe.”

“Yes, but . . . “ Frantic slaps. Silence.

Jillian’s voice rises through the dark: “I have killed an innocent.”

32

In the morning, Charlotte talks to Chance who talks to Fiona. The sweat lodge is canceled. While this is a relief — no death, no orgasm — there’s also little chance for a religious epiphany. This confirms what I have long suspected: Faith is just more hard work you have to muddle through on your own.

33

We replace the sweat lodge with a marathon hike. Charlotte maps 12 miles. She wants to do more, but looks at me and says: “Don’t let me be the person I am.” Chance will come with us. The rest plan a shorter hike. We’ll meet at 5:30, before the rain is expected to start. At the entrance of the trailhead parking lot, a sign explains the amazing geological formations. “The needles were formed by a series of fractures in the rock surface causing movement along a deep underlying layer of salt. Erosion by rain, water, and snow along the fracture lines resulted in a row of columnar rocks . . .”

“I don’t get it,” I pout. I resent how even basic science eludes me.

Jillian peers into my face, calm as Buddha. “Don’t worry. I don’t get it either. You don’t have to get it.”

34

After 20 minutes, Charlotte debates leaving her jacket hidden behind a rock for the trip back. “Guide Rule #2,” Chance says. “Never get separated from your gear.”

“What’s Guide Rule #1?” I ask.

“Carry everything. No, Guide Rule #1 is smile.”

As we walk, we ply Chance for guiding war stories. Mostly, he’s too nice to oblige: “The bad news makes the headlines.” We press harder. He concedes he’s had difficult clients, but “I try to see those moments as opportunities for compassion.”

I turn around and roll my eyes.

Chance laughs. Finally, he shares one of his favorite rescue stories about a guy who banged his knee up badly in Greenland. Chance floated him up with painkillers. At a resting point, Chance asked the blitzed-out man how he was doing. The guy replied: “Man, I can only hear you when I take my sunglasses off.”

35

For lunch, Chance pops a can of kippers. I plant the oily fish on a Wasa cracker and taste the earth. Chance says: “I have another can of kippers if they change your life.”

I look up. A fish rock is swimming over a mountain.

I say: “I’m glad we’re not rushing back for the sweat lodge.”

Chance says: “This is enough religion for me.”

36

All day, we walk. I like the simplicity of this mission. We are not multi-tasking. I am not trying to be a teacher and a writer and a mom and a housewife and a vixen. We pass a chef’s-hat rock, a Dutch-wooden-shoe rock and a rock that looks like a little boy’s penis. I am getting tired, delirious, but don’t complain because Chance runs these trails. Chance once ran across the Grand Canyon, rim-to-rim, 44 miles, 11,000 feet of gain. Temperatures topped 102 degrees.

“I like to think it was pretty worthy,” he says. “But I don’t believe in bragging rights. Don’t tell me about the crazy thing you did. Tell me how much fun you had.”

37

Charlotte disappears again, but Chance sticks with me. I have warned him I have no sense of direction. He says: “I am going to powder my nose. If you get lost, sit down.”

“Sit down?”

“Guide Rule #3.”

The path splits. I take the high road. I decide to take a pee and weave off the path. Suddenly there is no path. I pee, start walking, feel lost, sit down.

Ten minutes later, Chance finds me.

“I don’t want to lead,” I tell him. “I just want to follow.”

We pass a decapitated-Cinderella rock.

Chance says, “The Hopi say every step is a prayer.”

38

The day passes. My feet hurt. My back hurts. My bunion is throbbing. I feel righteous. I feel holy. I need to take a shit. This need to take a shit soon replaces all thoughts of poetry or God. We’re on our eighth mile and I am a desert zombie. I need a breath mint. I’m thirsty but don’t dare drink because if I pee other things may emerge that I am unprepared to deal with. I see giant faces with cracked patrician noses and cursed plants and the oncoming grayness of nighttime. We are running late. Chance picks up the pace. At this moment, I realize the most humble of truths: the grand challenge of my journey is not whether I will die in a sweat lodge, but whether I will poop in my pants. My eyes are fixed on the back of Chance’s calves. His muscles pump, his veins pump. I am not sure why I don’t fall or even why I am here, in the middle of my life, in the middle of the desert. I wanted to test my mettle. I wanted to better understand myself. I wanted to have a spiritual experience, to feel just a little bit happier. Voices circle my head like hawks. Don’t let me be the person I am. I will take a drink of water and reveal a new layer. Keep your prayers short. You don’t have to get it. Carry everything. No, smile. I can only hear you when I take my sunglasses off. Every step is a prayer. If you get lost, sit down. When they can’t see the fish, the pelican starve. This is enough religion for me.

39

From a bluff, we see a road. Then, a car. Then Jillian, dressed in black tights and what appears to be a yarmulke. We whoop. They wave. I see a Port-o-Potty, but it might be a mirage.

40

On the drive home, Jillian reports: “We saw a whole gaggle of Germans, a dead cow carcass and a squirrel. I wouldn’t call it an abundance of wildlife, but it’s something.”

Chance says: “Call National Geographic.”

The moon is fattening up. The sunset is a pink puff.

Jillian says: “If it rains, we’re all getting in the truck with Chance.”

Chance says: “That’s a different fee entirely.”

41

The last night, we hang out in a cave. Now that we’ve gotten the hang of outdoor living, no one wants to leave. I haven’t showered in three days and no longer care. It’s my turn to wash dishes. Squatting, I scrub plates, but the smoke makes me cry, and my tears loosen my sun block, which makes me cry more, and I am laughing and crying and I remember one of Chance’s mountaineering sayings: Do it wrong, do it twice. I decide this is my new motto for marriage. Fiona says we lucked out on the weather. Jillian looks into the starless sky and says: “It’s raining somewhere.”

42

Taliyah asks what we will take with us from our journey. Fiona says she has learned she needs to be true to herself. Jillian says her dim light is shining brighter. Charlotte says that things happen the way they are supposed to if you don’t clutch or panic. I say I’ll have to think about it. There are so many things. Taliyah says, “Being in the hands of the blessed one, I am at peace.”

An hour later, I think of what I should have said: Giwabna.

Who’s to say?

43

The next morning, we pack up, feeling chummy and wistful. As we drive out of the campsite, something feels wrong. My notebook is full. We’ve taken from the land, but given nothing back. I realize this is the one lesson of Native American spirituality I can take with me, a gift from Taliyah, a treasure I will keep in my pocket like a ringed stone from the beach. I say to Fiona, “Before we go, we should put some tobacco down.” Fiona stops the car. We climb out. Fiona taps tobacco from her pouch into our palms. We stand on the dirt road. The air smells like sage. We squint into the hard sun, and everything looks gold and shimmery, like visions, like heat, and I think of my ancestors, my mother, my grandmother, and I think of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and wonder if she sees me, and I think about what it means to be a mother, a woman, trying to have a job, raise a family, keep a husband, build an inner life, and how the bottle won’t do and the sweat lodge won’t do and how we have to improvise, leave home —  Just go. Get out of here — find our truths in the desert. The sun is so bright I can barely see. I release a dusting of tobacco, watch it float away on the warm, dry breeze. It feels like sprinkling fairy dust. It feels like spreading ashes. My heart burns. I smile at my friends. We are women, putting tobacco down, living on the edge of magic.

Lili Wright’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek and literary journals like The Normal School, The Florida Review and Cream City Review. Author of the memoir, “Learning to Float,” Wright teaches creative writing at DePauw University in Indiana. This is her first story for the Gazette.