"Grandeur-er" appeared in ECOTHEO in April 2023, but slipped by my notice! Go here.
Sunday, August 6, 2023
Saturday, August 5, 2023
"This Is The Trip" originally appeared in the print journal CAMAS, Summer 2021. You can order that issue, now only in pdf form, for $5, here.
It happens, of course, on flat ground. After hiking two and a half miles down into the canyon off Black Mesa, across narrow sandstone ledges and through rock holes and crevasses, and hiking downstream another three miles through no definite trail, up and down benches, crawling through brush, after she'd decides to make the push all the way down to the the Colorado River that night, while walking over some marshy ground, with the weight of her backpack, including seven quarts of water, her right ankle rolls with a stick one way, and her body goes the other, and down, falling on her left side, sharp tearing pain, nausea shooting up her stomach.
She lays there. This can't be good.
She rolls her right foot around, flexing and curling toes. No pain. She moves her right leg, back and forth at the knee. Again, nothing. A vague soreness.
No one there to even see her spectacular fall. She tentatively pushes herself up to standing, wobbling for balance with her pack. Yeah, a little pain with weight. Well, maybe she just twisted it. Walk it off. The old joke her kinda creepy high school soccer coach used to half-kidding say: Are you hurt, or injured?
She walks. Ugh. Pain. But, not shooting pain. Walk some more. Um. I don't know. She puts her feet together. Even with the straps of her sandals stopping the swelling, her right ankle looks like a golf ball. —Shit.
She walks off-trail over to the creek she's been paralleling and crossing all day. Mostly shallow and trickly, but by luck she walks right up to a pool deep enough to soak her foot. She takes off her pack, sits, takes off her sandals and slips both feet in. All she can think about is people blaming her for wearing sandals instead of boots. Despite decades of hiking in sandals. —Fuck. I guess I'm not going to make it to the Colorado today.
A voice in her head said, Tara.
She looks up at the huge red-rock canyon walls, still glowing in late-afternoon sun. It had been a great day, coming down on her mission into the canyon, a Utah-esque BLM wilderness area hidden next to a popular national monument: trickling small stream the whole time, cottonwood and aspens and sage. Ravens and hawks circling up near the edges. Little lizards. Water striders checking out her legs. The creek not very cold—the one time when she could really use that, but feels good. —I gotta get this fucker elevated.
Her mission: To pour her Aunt Jo's ashes in the Colorado River. She could have done it in Vail Pass, at the headwaters, or in Grand Junction, where Jo Jo lived. Used to live. But to backpack into the wilderness, like Jo Jo had taken her when she was twelve, and almost every year since, Tara wanted to make her proud, to make herself proud, she supposed. To show her aunt what a seasoned (as Jo Jo liked to call herself) "outdoorswoman" she had become. Was. With her aunt's help.
Visions and thoughts and plan Bs running through her brain. I'll just stay in camp tomorrow and rest. I'll be fine in 24 hours and can hike back up to Truckie. Or maybe reverse course, slow hike out just in case, camp at the base of the trail up. Or, I'll be fine tomorrow. I'll be fine. Goddammit I'll be fine!
Tara. Lie down.
She looks around and sees a clear sandy spot downstream fifty feet. She stands, pain shooting up her right leg. Shit! Grabbing her sandals in her right hand and her pack in her left, she limp-drags it down to the clearing, a spot where she would have wanted to camp anyways, near the creek, with rocks for burble-sound, but near the now-showing trail in case someone comes. No one will come. No one knows about this place, with no real trail, on a weekday. Not that she would ask for help. She is Tara King and she does not ask anyone for help ever. Ever.
This was supposed to be easy. This is not the Grand Canyon. She's done the Grand Canyon twice with her aunt, and the Grand Canyon is hard. Mee Canyon? Who the hell ever heard of Mee Canyon? Ok, when she bought a map in Grand Junction the bookstore owner said that someone died here a couple weeks ago. But that was up on the hard part, the trail down. Falling off a ledge. She did the hard part.
Not only would people blame her for her sandals, but they would blame her for hiking alone. Her mom especially. She hated that, that people wouldn't ever blame a man for hiking alone and dying. Not that she was going to die. She had water and two days' food. The question was could she get out on schedule before her mom called Search & Rescue. Because fuck Search & Rescue. That's for pussies. Maybe if she broke her leg. This is a sprain. This is fine.
This is not fine.
She lays out her tarp and sleeping pad, placing sandals and water bottles along the edges, using her sleeping bag to elevate her foot, while lying down on the pad with her head propped on the backpack. She moved her foot again, flexing and releasing, curling the toes, tilting it left or right. Left hurts. Not searing tearing pain. Extreme soreness. But the whole foot swollen to the size of a man's. Or of Sasquatch's. Where's a Sasquatch when you need one, to walk quietly out of the trees with some miracle compress which would heal me overnight.
She reaches back over her head into her 'brain'—the top pouch of the backpack—and withdraws the Magic Bottle containing a small collection of random anti-inflamatories and painkillers. She finds a blessed codeine pill left over from her pulled wisdom teeth and gulps it down. She's never used her magic bottle for herself on a trip, only a couple times for others. On hard hikes.
While her brain is open, she pulls out the small metal can, an old looseleaf tea container, and gives a small shake. —Jo Jo, I'm so sorry.
Don't worry about me, Tar Tar. Take care of yourself. I'm not going anywhere.
She pulls out the map. Looking around at the canyon wall formations, she determines where she probably is—closer to the Colorado River than back upstream. Maybe she could hobble down there, catch a ride with a rafting party, and get dropped off on the other side of the river, near a road, which would be sort of close to I-70. But would there be rafters? This early in the year? Would her, or anyone's phone, work out there, in No Woman's Land at the Colorado/Utah border? But according to the map, the next pull-out with a road was eleven miles down, in Utah. Eleven miles by raft was a long-ass day. An OHV area seems to be right across from where Mee Canyon feeds into the Colorado River. Maybe she could get ferried over there by rafters, then get a ride from an ATVer out to the parking area. Yeah, that wasn't to happen. Not like she knew anybody in Grand Junction either—her friends and her mom were all back in Boulder.
After a half-hour of elevation, she gets up to test her foot again. And to pee. Her foot still hurts if she puts too much weight on it. Peeing is a problem. She can't squat. Not even a crouched air drop feels very good. She hops over to, and sits on, an old juniper log by the trail. Number Two also comes. Please don't let anyone come right now. I'm sorry about pooping by the trail.
And she left her toilet paper in her pack. Shit. Literally shit. Time for the sacrifice of a bandana. Wilderness gods—Artemis, Diana, Minerva—forgive me.
She hobbles to the creek for another soak, feeling fuzzy. Codeine, I love you. What's the Gillian Welch song? —You should have seen / me and my codeine / when we used to go dancing / in the war / swept me right off the floor.
Or was it morphine?
You're going to need something to help you get out of here.
—More like a crutch. A cane for the old woman I've become.
Tar Tar, you can't even imagine what you're going to be like when you're old.
—I should have bought some of those ski pole things.
Those are for pussies.
Well, those pussies aren't going to die in the wilderness.
You're not dying. You're hurt real bad, but you're not dying.
—Is that a quote from Reservoir Dogs?
Every good witch needs her staff.
She eyes an aspen sapling next to her and pulls out her Leatherman, unfolding the small saw. —So much for Leave No Trace. Sorry, tree. But thank you.
She saws the base, the wood softer than she thought. Halfway through it leans over under its own weight. —Timber!
She cuts through the rest of the bent fibers and stands, leaning on the tree. —If not a Sasquatch, then an Ent would be nice. But you're too small to be an Ent. It's ok, size doesn't matter. Ha. That's what she said. B-dump-ching! Holy fuck I love codeine.
She leans on the tree back to her spot, leaves shaking. Which seems to help. She spends the rest of the evening trimming the branches and cutting off the top for a shoulder-height staff. She practices hobbling again, then raises her staff above her head. —I am Gandalf! Hear me roar! Ow. That hurt.
Rest, Tar Tar.
—Jo Jo, what am I going to do?!
You're doing it.
—Remember that time we ate shrooms in the Vasquez Wilderness?
Your mom would have killed him. She'd still kill me.
Well, she can't now.
She'd take my ashes back and feed them to her cats.
—Hey! Boots and Scarlett are nice cats!
They'd still eat your eyeballs if you died alone in your house.
Jo Jo! Stop! I might die out here!
You're not going to die.
Still. Something would eat me. Coyotes maybe.
You never talked this much to me in real life. I should've kept you on codeine all the time.
Hey! That's not true!
She has not been hungry, still isn't, but opts for her planned dessert, because fuck it, this is a special occasion. She nibbles four Fig Newman's, idly reading the package. —Fuck! Corn syrup?! Paul, what the serious fuck?
She nestles into her sleeping bag in the cooling evening air and sage scent, moving her pack around to elevate her feet, going over the scenarios again, staring up at the sky, bats circling. If she doesn't head out tomorrow, and just rests here, then she either hikes the whole way out the day after, which she doesn't want to do, or she becomes a day, or two, late, and misses work, which she also doesn't want to do. Well, if she's only worried about being a day late, things can't be that bad. She wonders if she can hobble three or four miles upcanyon tomorrow and camp there. Big if.
—Goodnight, Jo Jo.
Goodnight, Tar Tar.
One last crow caw. Warblers warbling good night. On any other night this would be heaven. It still is. She knows wilderness is a human concept, but she likes the wild. This little BLM Wilderness Area more beautiful than the National Monument it butts up against, which gets a million visitors a year. Here, nobody. That's part of its beauty. Or its necessaryness, its needfulness to her, and she creates the beauty of it after. And yes, the danger, though she admits she never thought, really, that the danger would happen to her. This was not part of the plan. I've ruined the trip.
Tara, this is the trip.
She sighs. —I'm not gonna die. It's just gonna be a painful walk out. Right? Right?
Temp cooling more. Smells good—sage and sand and water. Clear sky. She lies in Figure 4 Pose to keep her foot elevated and scribbles in her notebook. Stars coming out. That first time she went backpacking with her aunt had been, in Sedona, Arizona, which these canyon walls remind her of. She's been in wilderness for fun, and sometimes for work, back a few years when she was a wildland firefighter, and she's never suffered an injury, and yet here she is suffering.
You're not suffering.
—But I am. A little.
You're feeling sorry for yourself.
—Hey! Well, maybe a little.
Actually, right now, laying still as the air and rocks, she isn't. She falls asleep, waking a long time later thinking it's morning but no: the full moon has come across the canyon. I still have more luscious sleep to go.
In the real morning, the swelling in the foot seems to have gone down a little. Not golfball-sized anyway. She hobbles with her staff over to the creek to soak it while the water is still cold—the sun hasn't risen over the canyon walls yet. Still hurts. A sore hurt—not a sharp one—to put weight on it.
A goldfinch observes her. A hummingbird zooms in to a nearby cluster of red flowers.
Well Tar Tar, what's the plan?
She sighs. —Hike hike back to the base of the trail up. Tomorrow will only be 2.5 miles back to Truckie. Uphill, climbing rocks and traversing rock ledges, but still.
She takes an Ibuprofen 800. No more codeine, alas. She dumps all her water. She has a filter. Usually in a Wilderness area she just drinks the pure water, but this creek is a little murky. She should have dumped her water yesterday when she made it down into the canyon, but she kept it so as to have to avoid pumping it and clogging her filter. If she hadn't....
—Alright. But, I can't bring you to the Colorado!
It's fine, Tara.
—Will you stay with me for the rest of the trip?
She suddenly sniffles, tears bubbling down her cheecks.—I miss you so much, Jo Jo.
Oh little Tar Tar. It's alright. I'm here. I always will be.
She sniffs. —Really?
Really. Let's take care of you. Remember R.I.C.E. You need some compression on that ankle.
She rubs her nose. —I don't have any fucking shoes.
Use your bandanas.
She takes her two remaining bandanas out of her brain and wraps them around her ankle.
How's that feel?
—Good. If only psychologically. I guess more stable.
After everything is packed back up, she pops some ibuprofens and raises the pack onto her shoulders, slowly. Mild tender pain. She grabs her staff and bows slightly, like her aunt taught her. Thanks spot. You were a good spot.
And she begins. —Baby steps, Tara, baby steps.
And, she can move. Her ankle throbs dully, but not sharply, unless for some reason she steps at a random angle, when a tearing pain shoots up her legs. Doesn't happen all the time. The staff helps, again maybe psychologically, but also to brace herself on rocks, or crossing the stream. Or going downhill: Going downhill is painful. Fortunately she's going upcanyon. She follows a trail she didn't take down, on the other side of the creek, which leads to a split, two canyons seemingly the same size. She doesn't remember this on her way down. The already sketchy trail is non-existent here. One of these is a big side canyon and she does not want to waste time and energy getting lost.
—Jo Jo, which way?
To the right. You were on the other side of the creek for this last section.
She soon comes on a section of trail she remembers. —Yes!
What, you didn't believe me?
—Well, you are an inanimate voice in my head.
I'm you're Aunt Jo Jo. Remember I always used to say that this is the good thing about being in the wild: the potential to be lost. Even if getting lost sounds awful right now. If you were in the National Monument, there'd be signs everywhere, and an established trail. And people. Ugh.
—Yeah. People do suck.
You must be feeling ok if you're complaining about people. Remember that difficult situations in the Real World, difficult people especially, aren't so difficult after putting yourself in the wild. This is what wilderness is for. To make you think. To make you learn to trust yourself. To teach you to survive.
—Now who's talking a lot?
The sun comes over the canyon edges, making the redrock and creek water glow. Birdsong everywhere. A hawk swoops past and climbs to a cliff. But she can't look, she has to concentrate on her footing, watching every placement of her right foot. One sandstone ledge bordering the creek is agony, the slight angle of it.
But, she's moving. Slowly, and surprisingly not super slow—she had feared having to rest after every step, but there's mostly only the dull pain, and once moving she can absorb it—adrenaline maybe. On flat ground she lifts her staff and takes steps without it. No change. —This will work.
All you, Tar Tar.
She stops to rest and pop more ibus in a still-shady section of sandstone creek, on a short ledge. A hummingbird lands on a juniper and eyes her, or her red outer longsleeve shirt for sun protection. Crows caw up on the rim. Some kind of robin, but with a tufted mohawk hairdo drops down for a drink from a pool. Her foot throbs vaguely. She doesn't know what time it is, blessedly not having a watch and her phone is buried in her brain. Back in the city it feels the other way around.
Her ankle has stiffened during the pause, but loosens up as she moves again. She crashes through brush, gets sucked into a mud bog, but also breaks out into lightly shady openings of cottonwoods. Or she rock-hops straight up the creek when the 'path' vanishes, though her rock-hopping is less hopping than leaning from one to the other with the staff, even rolling her body up and over big ones.
She makes good time, and arrives with the sun high in the sky at the base of the trail up, where a cave or large underhang welcomes her to shade, carved out by the creek. Here the trail becomes established because a quarter-mile upstream the stream flows through an even larger 'cathedral' cave—the destination of day-hikers. This smaller cave has a fire ring and logs for benches, on sand. She was here only yesterday, her lunch spot. Seems like a week. Still early afternoon, but she'll camp here. She doesn't want to try the climb out and end up hurt again as night falls. Besides, she's actually still on schedule: tomorrow was when she was going to climb out anyways.
Let's light a fire!
Jo Jo! I'm shocked and appalled!
They never did this when backpacking. Aunt Jo never liked leaving a scar, or risking a wildfire, but this is an established ring, and it gives her something to do that doesn't require walking. With more than a few pages from her notebook, and sticks and dry leaves from nearby, and a lighter (which she does always carry in case of emergency) she gets a flame going and puts on some larger pieces already gathered by someone. The fire feels surprisingly comforting, the heat good in the cool cave, though sunshine shines twenty feet away.
Ok. Let's soak that ankle again.
—The creek's too shallow.
Build a little damn.
Tara limps over to the creek and sits, stacking rocks and scooping mud, which always keeps her occupied while resting. The water is slightly cooler here in the cave.
How's the foot?
Does it hurt?
—A constant low throb, I guess. Which is better than I thought.
Take more drugs.
Next to the fire, she lays out her tarp and sleeping pad, taking a prescription Tylenol from her magic bottle, elevating her feet on her pack, and takes a long deep nap.
When she wakes, she builds up the fire, putting on two larger logs.
You seem better.
—I feel better! The hike out will be fine. I'm even thinking about the pizza I'm gonna eat in GJ.
Garlic onions and spinach.
But then just sitting and watching the fire and scribbling in her notebook, she moves her foot and a jolt of pain shoots up. Maybe the meds are wearing off. —Oh codeine!
When the sun passes beyond the canyon wall she rolls out her bag and, surprisingly, just goes to sleep again, early, which feels wonderful.
Up with the birds in the morning, unusually.
Good morning, Tara. You usually like to sleep late on trips.
—I'm worried about the hike out. I just want to just get it over with, whatever happens. Maybe the earlier I hurts myself again, the earlier someone will find me.
What?! I'm joking!
She packs, pops ibu, tightens her bandanas around her bigfoot foot, and starts up the canyon wall.
Just take it easy when you get to the crazy shit.
—Um, I think the whole climb out is the crazy shit.
All the big rocks she slid down she now has to climb up, made crazier by not being able to use one foot. So, scraping knees and elbows. But she can use her hands and arms here, the staff not so useful for this section.
She rests at the really crazy part: the narrow ledge fifteen feet above, accesible by a short narrow chimney to the right, which she'd basically almost jumped down on the descent.
—I can't do it.
Yes you can.
—Not with my pack. Maybe with both feet working, but not now.
So take off your pack.
I'm not leaving my pack!
Well, that for sure means you're not dying. I dying person would leave their pack.
I'm not leaving my pack!
I didn't tell you to. What did I teach you to always carry?
—I don't know. Lots of things. Oh.
So she gets out some 'p-cord'—thing nylon rope which weighs nothing, and ties one end to her pack, unfurling the rest and putting tying the other end to a belt loop. She tosses her staff up and over. In the chimney she has to do more pulling than pushing, not using her right foot at all, worming her way up to the ledge, about a foot wide and ten feet long. Holding the p-cord, she inches across, not sure if her ankle won't give out at the wrong time and cause her to lose balance. But she makes it and pulls her pack up, the nylon burning her hands a little.
See? Sin problema!
More scrambling, the staff an annoyance more than anything, because she wants to use her hands to lean into the rock.
Don't toss it.
—Ugh. Why not?!
You'll need it later.
Another ledge to a hole in the wall she has to crawl through, pulling her pack after. Finally to the Navaho ladder—the one human-made section, built by the BLM because otherwise the way up would be out and over on a narrow rock fin. The ladder used to be bolted to the rock, but the bolts have worn loose. Coming down with a full pack felt like if she'd just leaned back an inch her center of gravity would have carried the whole thing over. Better with a light pack, though still loose. The one place so far where the bum ankle is not a problem, though once up, she has another narrow ledge—not so bad in the scariness, but it tilts up to her right, which puts her foot at a painful angle. Plus she thinks she wrapped the bandanas too tight this morning—her whole foot throbbing, more as she gets up on top of the mesa—out of the redrock onto the sage and juniper and cryptobiotic soil (with cow prints—thank you BLM and ranchers) but still a slog uphill along an old two-track.
You got this now, Tar Tar.
—Why does this hurt more?!
Slower and slower, her foot now really throbbing. She wants to tear off the damn bandanas, but thinks she's almost there, except she's not almost there until, finally, she is there, at the trailhead, and Truckie. She shakes off her pack and leans against the hot metal and cries.
Tar Tar. Pobrecita. You did it! I'm so proud of you.
—But I didn't get you to the river.
Oh who cares about that. That was your idea anyways. This is the best present I could have.
—Maybe I'm crying because I have to say goodbye.
—Maybe I take you on the next one.
I'd like that. But you don't need my ashes to do it.
—What do you mean?
I mean you don't have to carry around a can full of ashes for the rest of your life.
—You mean you want me to dump them here?! In the parking lot?
This all drains down into the Colorado eventually anyways.
It's fine! Todo bien!
—Not todo bien!
But she took the can out of her brain. —Really?
—I'll do it over here.
She walked to a juniper and opened the can, taking a deep breath.
Just kidding. Go ahead.
—Jesus christ, Jo Jo.
She took another breath and poured. Grey chunks and powder tumbled out. A breeze appeared and blew some of the powdery parts into the juniper branches.
This is nice. But call your mom now and tell her you're ok. I'll see you on the next trip!
Of course! I mean, you still have to drive out of here in a stick shift, but hey.
It was all you. Tell your mom I said hello.
The last of the dust trickled out of the can.