For some reason, when I heard the car door shut, I knew I was screwed. It was 4 a.m., January. I was perched high on the lip of Muley Point, Utah, and the wind was howling. Somewhere in the dark, far below this wind-riven promontory, the San Juan River flowed with ice. I was naked and my car doors were locked tight.
It began with the search for a new car, an SUV. After 20 years of tired, worn-out Subarus, I needed a real four-wheel-drive; something that would get me where I needed to go; and something I could sleep in. With a new job and the regular paycheck that came with it, I went looking for an SUV — not too big, but not too small either.
The car salesman winced when I asked if they came without running boards. “How’s your little lady gonna git in?” he inquired with a wolfish grin. “Well,” I drawled back, not to be outdone, “I don’t know any ladies that can’t pull themselves into a car. Most of ’em drive trucks.” He looked puzzled when I insisted on laying the back seats down and became visibly rattled when I crawled in to lie down. I lay there for several minutes, silently staring at the ceiling, just to fuck with him. He emitted an audible sigh of relief when I finally announced that I’d take it.
That was early fall and I finally got a break in January. It was time to try out my sparkly new SUV with some quality car camping. The best place I knew of for that was Muley Point, high on the southwest rim of Cedar Mesa in the southern part of the Beehive State.
I left Colorado in a blizzard that didn’t let up until Paradox Valley. Upon arriving in the late afternoon, I got out to traverse the rim and sat to watch the play of light across Monument Valley, 50 miles to the south. What a relief to be away from work and family holiday duties! After the final glow faded from Navajo Mountain and the San Juan River canyon was shrouded in darkness, I turned to dinner and the set-up of my new home. As I went through the ritual of spreading my pad and sleeping bag, it dawned on me that I could sit back there and eat! Damn! … no wind and sheltered from the rapidly plunging temperatures. Congratulating myself, I celebrated with another beer and finally, after reading by headlamp through several hours of early-winter darkness, it was time to sleep.
While the car rocked in wind that originated somewhere in Nevada, I slept — and what a cozy, comfortable sleep it was. Until 3:30, when I had to pee. I lay there for what seemed like hours, trying to will it away, but it was inevitable.
I sat up wrapped in my bag. OK — real quick — no screwing around. I threw off the sleeping bag, rolled toward the door, pulled the handle, kicked it open into a bitter wind and stumbled out. In hindsight, I should have paid closer attention to that clicking noise as I got out. But it was a new car and I had yet to appreciate its “features.” As I hurriedly pushed into the wind, trying to gauge which direction to pee, the door blew shut and my learning curve for these “features” steepened. I had rolled over the lock button on the keys and was now, quite literally, out in the cold. 4 a.m. — dark, windy and a temperature far south of 32°.
It was time to think and act quickly.
The frigid wind on my bare ass was disconcerting, as I hastily surveyed my surroundings, quite aware that I could die, or at least become really uncomfortable. The ground all around me was smooth, but I remembered a campfire ring along the rim — surely there were some big rocks, but I couldn’t be certain. I shuffled carefully towards the darkened rim, fearful of sharp rocks and cactus in the night.
There it was — a circle of boulders, each as big as my head, and heavy. I lugged one back to the car where I began to assess the price of SUV windows. Damn! They were all big and, no doubt, expensive. I settled on the back door window, the one that had blown shut. It was, in a certain sense, revenge. It was a difficult (and long) 15 seconds. Shiny new car — great big rock — it just wasn’t right.
But desperate times call for drastic measures.
Determined, I reared back with both hands wrapped firmly around the boulder and hit the window. The rock recoiled violently against my bare, cold chest. Shit! I pulled myself up off the ground as I cursed into the dark. Adrenaline surged as I gripped the rock and again struck the window, more forceful this time. It bounced back again, but this time I was braced. Now I was freezing and pissed. “Fucking windows are rubber!” I screeched into the wind.
Finally, after several more attempts, I wound up and slammed the window, catching it with a sharp edge of the boulder. The window exploded into a million tiny fragments. My arms followed the rock through the jagged hole — hands clamped tightly around it in anticipation of another rebound.
Well, I thought, that was cool. I threw the rock over behind me, reached through the hole to open the door, and realized my hand was wet and sticky. I was bleeding profusely, as a shard had left a long, streak-like slash on my left hand. “A mere flesh wound,” I muttered, smiling at both my wit and success. I recovered the offending key chain, unlocked all the doors and dressed, all while wrapping my hand in an old T-shirt. It was good to realize that I could multi-task when absolutely necessary.
I threw all the front-seat detritus in back with the glass shards, jumped in and pressed on with a cold ride down the seemingly endless switchbacks to the desert floor.
I entered the town of Bluff in growing light. My hand throbbed. Bad news, but I expected as much. No clinic, no doctor — the folks in Recapture Lodge pointed east — go to Montezuma Creek. I snagged a complimentary cup of coffee to ward off dehydration and to make up for the blood loss, rewrapped my hand with fresh paper towels, and headed toward the rising sun.
Upon arriving in Montezuma Creek, a dusty oil town bordering the Navajo Reservation, I pulled in front of the clearly marked clinic, which was just opening for the day. After the basic clinic formalities, a very polite Navajo doctor ushered me into a sterile room and quietly sewed me up. I tried in vain to explain what had happened. He smiled politely and sent me on my way. This trip was over — almost.
The drive home was uneventful, if you can call Lizard Head Pass in a raging blizzard with one window missing uneventful.
The final “bright spot” of the trip didn’t come until a week later, as I sat at my desk on a Monday morning recounting the bizarre sequence of events to the anthropologist from the adjacent office.
“Fillmore, you’re an idiot,” he said, shaking his head. It was time to set the hook … and finish the story.
“Well,” I challenged, “I bet you’ve never been healed by a Navajo medicine man.” His eyes narrowed as I held up my bandaged hand. He peered at it closely, intensely interested as I slowly unwound the bandage. He placed his reading glasses on the end of his nose, and squinted as he bent even closer. I had him.
He snorted. “Those are stitches,” he exclaimed with scorn. “Where did you find this medicine man?”
“The Montezuma Creek Tribal Clinic,” I answered, grinning triumphantly. That single moment damn near made the whole thing worth it.
The deep scars of this experience remain — I don’t mean the physical kind, although there are those. I’m talking mental scars. To this day, even several years later, I feel an involuntary twitch and a cold shiver when I push the “lock” button on the key chain of my well-used and no-longer-so-shiny SUV. I have, however, learned all about those “features.”
Robert Fillmore is a professor of geology at Western State College in Gunnison, Colo.