The dash-board clock said 3am. I pulled the parking break and opened a beer. Dust settled. In the headlights, the canyon pulled ahead of us. I watched the cliffs drop into a void that would eventually find the Colorado River. The eighteen Keystone Lights had barely lasted the four-hour drive between the two of us. I stood out of the car into the dirt parking lot at the end of the washboard road to have a piss on the trailhead marker. The desert is cool at night even in the summer. I could smell warm sage. Valarie belched from the passenger seat. She stepped out and lifted her skirt. I lost sight of her when she squatted. The automatic dome light shut off. I could hear her piss. I zipped up. I heard her stand and get clothes back together. She asked me why she let me talk her into hiking at night. I told her because it’s less hot. She clicked on a novelty black-light flashlight she bought at Love’s, the snakes and scorpions come out at night too, she said. In the beam end of the black-light, half a dozen tiny, purple lobster like bugs scuttled around her feet. Scorpions.
The cashier at Loves, a rugged woman, warned us that the canyon was dangerous and offered free advice on surviving the trip. She said, most people don’t think about it, but watch out for the sheep. They kick rocks off the walls. The lady at Love’s told us we’d find scorpions with the black-light.
Valarie groaned in the dark. She mocked, snakes come out at night. I said so do the owls and mice and everything else in the desert, and that’s because they know they have a better chance at surviving. She said I could stop trying to sell her on the trip, she said she’d already agreed to come. Then she said, I’m kinda drunk. She chuckled at the beer cans on the floor in front of the passenger seat. I had tossed my empties out the window.
We sat under the open hatchback and dressed for the trail. My backpack was old. It was a frame of aluminum tubing with backpack straps attached to the cross beams and a grease stained green nylon sack attached by copper rivets. I bought it at Goodwill for 12 dollars.
I had packed everything I would need for a week in the canyon. I had my tent and poles, a cast iron cooking pan and a dozen eggs in a soft thermos bag packed with dry ice, six Meals Ready to Eat that I had picked up at the surplus store on the way out of town, a package of bacon, a package of pork sausage, a coffee maker and coffee mug combo from the outdoor supply store with the bottle of iodine pills, and a baggy of small rolls with cheese and salami for the hike. I also packed several changes of socks, my sandals, two pairs of pants and three shirts. a rope hammock, some basic toiletries, four half-pints of Black Velvet and a half ounce of weed.
Valarie and I both bought new hiking shoes on the way out of town the afternoon before. We tossed the tissue paper over the back seats and laced the shoes onto our feet. I mentioned how comfortable my feet felt. She said she couldn’t wait to get on the trail. I opened my new folding pocket knife to carve some ‘triple As’ out of the plastic package. Valarie used hers to cut open a two pack of headlamps. When we got them on our heads, she looked at me to speak and I was blinded by the bright beam. Later, she shouted at me when I did the same to her while she packed her bag. She discovered a function on the head-lamps, a red bulb setting, it cast a less violating red bean. We both chose red.
She had borrowed a backpack from a guy she’d been seeing. It was a new model, a fancy sort of thing. Totally loaded it looked like Valarie was heading off to school. It was sleek and aerodynamic. The backpack was made from a material she said wouldn’t rip but was as light as a paper bag. There were pockets for everything: two on the shoulder straps where she put her pipe and a flask, one on each hip for an extra flashlight and a camera, a water bottle holster available to her right and left grasp, and a flap on the back to strap down a jacket for easy access. I asked why she didn’t borrow two. Valarie told me he doesn’t “super” like me. That was how she said it, she said he doesn’t super like you.
He was a sports guy. He wore football jerseys that hung loose over his pressed khaki shorts. He got a high and tight haircut every Tuesday, smoked cigars, and liked craft beers. I smoked cigs, listened to tapes recorded in basements, and drank cheap whiskey. My hair was usually held in place by half a tube of Elmer’s glue (although I had it pulled back and tied in a little bun for the hike). I had hustle. He had money. Valarie told me he liked it when she noticed his haircut, or if she asked about the brand of cigar. She said that he would pout if she didn’t hold his hand on a date.
Valarieknew the girl I had been seeing, she knew it wasn’t serious. I had told Valarie once that if I was looking for a serious thing then she would be the kind of girl I was looking for.She laughed as though we were both laughing, so I laughed too. Valarie told me once that she didn’t know how serious she was about the sports guy. There had been others before him. They were like him. She was in to guys like that, guys that needed her more than she needed them. She was more like me in that regard. I told her once I thought she was in it for his money and she punched me in my chin. One of my front teeth chipped. I always think of her when I run my tongue over the jagged edge.
Valarie opened two beers and lit two cigarettes while I finished cinching down the stuff that didn’t fit in my bag with bungee cords. She said I looked like a gold digger. I laughed but didn’t tell her why. We sat on the hood of the car and smoked a little pot. We drank the beers quickly. Her hair lifted off her shoulders on a warm breeze. She was beautiful. She was beautiful with her hair like that, and the scent of the desert, and the dim light glancing across her features.
Suddenly, there was a sound like a wooden whistle, the kind they sell in souvenir shops in rusty boom towns. The sound was like that, only deeper and intentional as if an adult were playing with the toy. The short bursts of sound were followed by a cracking silence. And then a fwoosh like a parachute opening. There was a drunk streak in the moonlight for a moment. An almost imperceptible squeak. and then it was over. The desert returned to its own brand of quiet.
Valarie was excited. She kept saying, I can’t believe we just saw that. That was the coolest thing I’ve ever fucking seen. And she kept asking me if I’d seen it. I wasn’t sure what it was I had seen. She, slapping her forehead, said it was an owl hunting for dinner. I lit one last smoke before the seven-mile hike. She wandered into the dark with the black-light. I found myself alone thinking about the owl. More accurately, I was thinking about whichever animal the owl had killed and was now eating. This was a dangerous killer, a predator invisible in the dark, and I was comfortably swigging whiskey and smoking a cigarette, unmoved, until the moment the owl overtook my thoughts, silently.
Valarie reappeared. She told me to check the time. I told her. She said, three hours until dawn. I guessed we could find a campsite by then. I felt crippled by my pack. Valarie seemed very comfortable. She slapped the trail-head sign on her way past it. We both entered the canyon on a rocky flood wash. Our map assured us it would let out at the foot of the Hoover Dam a fistful of miles away. There was no moon-light in the canyon. We were swallowed by blackness. Underfoot, the many sizes of round river rock became shadow-less in the direct red beam.
Already a little drunk, I stumbled and jerked my way forward. Valarie was doing the same. Where the trail wasn’t rocky, there was deep sand. Valarie started complaining that her shoes didn’t fit right in the first mile. After the second mile, we stopped to have a snack and a beer. Valarie lit two cigarettes. I tugged two of the sandwiches free from the top of my pack. I said, eat as many as you want, my bag is too heavy. We both emptied a small pile of sand from our shoes. She told me she couldn’t wait to dip her feet into the hot springs. I checked my watch. We got moving again. We flicked our butts into the sand. We had only walked another few hundred yards when Valarie stopped. She said, Gordon?
When I caught up I saw that the canyon opened up and the trail stopped. Out ahead was cool fresh air. The narrow canyon rose on both sides, the sandy floor dropped off ahead. I felt like I was standing at the mouth of a cave staring outward into an abyss. She interrupted my awe. She asked, what the fuck do we do? I asked her for the map. We took off our packs. I felt a foot taller.
The map didn’t seem to show any abysmal cave cliffs. I stared at the flat sheet of paper trying to imagine a third dimension and guess which point on the page represented our location. The map showed a trail leading directly from the parking lot to the river. No big deal. That’s what the man at the outdoor store said when he sold me the map. He said, no big deal. I smoked, and Valarie smoked. I paced for a bit, I uncapped my first half-pint. Valarie took the map back.
Valarie muttered, what’s that rope? She walked over to the cliff and looked down. She switched her light to the full white beam. It was like turning on daylight. She said, oh, fuck. She said, we gotta climb down. I moved to see what she saw. Looking down, there was a fifteen foot drop to a sandy basin in a new, lower, canyon. Valarie had found the thick rope, limp in the dirt, dangling over the edge and into the void. It was tied off someplace in the dark behind us. There was no clear, easy way to make the climb. Valarie suggested we tie the bags on and lower them first. The weight of the bags at the bottom of the cliff held the rope in place. My hands burned from the dry, rough old weave. Once I had made it Valarie started down. In the moon-light, I could see her figure, I watched her dance effortlessly down the wall with the rope wrapped skillfully around her shoulder and through her legs under her butt like a seat.
Where I had hung like a fly in a web, Valarie leaned out and walked backward, horizontally. The moon began to peek over a high, black, canyon wall. I nursed two skinned knees with my bandanna and a little whiskey. She took my bottle from me and swallowed more than I would have parted with. Along the path, there were three more drop offs. By the third I was better at mimicking Valarie’s style. The sun had peeked out onto the desert and the canyon too was opening itself to the rising light. I tossed the empty glass bottle against the pink wall. It fell unbroken.
Where we rested, cool water drained from the wall, steadily. It ran the consistency of water and the color of rust. Valarie filled her cupped hands and splashed her head. I expected to see her face and hair dyed red. It didn’t. Ahead, the canyon felt cool. I said I know we’re getting close. Valarie took her shoes off. Her socks were bloodstained in a ring around her ankles. I watched her tie them together by the laces and loop them through a strap on her sports guy’s pack. She said, fuck these shoes, they better take them back. I wasn’t sure they would. She soaked the socks in the muddy water and hung them from the pack, too.
I offered the first aid kit. She said she’d wait until we got there. She hiked barefoot. A Big-Horn Sheep strode up a far wall. She looked at the animal and said, imbecile. The canyon bent twice more, the ground was sandy. Around the second bend the sand hardened and the canyon spread wide. It could have been an ancient battle arena, the high cliffs would have offered a perfect and full view. We stood at the edge and took it in. The sun had made its way to the top of the sky. Small bushes we didn’t know the names of cast no shadow in any direction.
This is the spot, I said to Valarie, this is where we camp. There were half a dozen pools a little larger than a standard hot tub. None any deeper that a couple of feet. They steamed despite the late summer, mid-day heat. At the far end, and slightly south, the canyon narrowed and bent toward the Colorado river. The map showed only a short walk. We both off-loaded our packs. I’m not packing all that crap out, Valarie was assertive on the subject. I didn’t argue. Valarie found a nice spot on a rise in the land. The main thing, warned the cashier at Love’s, is to pitch camp up high so you don’t get killed if there’s a flood.
I found the half-pint and opened it with my teeth. I took a small drink. I tucked it in the back pocket of my sweaty cutoff blue jeans. I took off my shirt and slapped it against a hot rock so it was spread flat. Valarie stuffed both our bags against the wall and sat with the first aid kit for a while until her ankles were clean and wrapped skillfully. She added a layer of waterproof tape. She removed her clothes, without warning, down to her bare ass and slapped them on the rock with my shirt. I tried not to stare. I tried not to want her. No hang-ups in the canyon, she said loudly and to herself more than to me. I was seeing her naked for the first time.
She asked if I was going to come soak with her. I wanted to. I told her I’d set up camp first, and started unloading my heavy bag. She turned and I couldn’t help but watch her walk away. I had nearly finished setting up the tent when she reappeared complaining that it was too hot to sit in a hot spring. Her hair was dripping and her skin was shiny. I said maybe tonight after the sun goes down, these canyons are always cooler at night. Once our camp was set up she urged me to get naked. That’s what the place is for, she implored.
She laughed at my long pubic hair. I pointed out that we can’t all take the time to maintain a landing strip. She slapped my arm and told me to stop staring. The Colorado River wasn’t far. It was a light, naked stroll around the next bend. We brought the last couple beers, some cigarettes, and a little weed in Valarie’s backpack. We also grabbed the sleeping pads from the tent, some food, and a half-pint. I was tired. Valarie walked ahead, barefoot. The narrow canyon veered left, then right and back to the left. I tried to imagine the stream that carved it, the slightest trickle that became a trauma. I tried to open the subject with Valarie. She interrupted me, she asked you aren’t going to try that tired cliché about water and stone? I guessed I was, but I stopped talking.
There was a small climb over some jagged rocks. Valarie needed a boost. For a moment her naked body was pressed against mine. After, I took the lead eager to reach the cold river.
All at once, the little canyon with its high cliffs converged on the Colorado River which had carved deeper into a higher canyon. I took a few steps beyond the confining walls of the small slot canyon. I stood on a sandy beach and looked out. No ocean had ever made me feel as small. The cliffs rose directly out of the river. They bore rings of color that matched on either side of the wide river.
I had to crane my neck to see the highest rings. Valarie saw another sheep, she pointed at him. I followed her finger to my left. Just beyond the ridge with the sheep the river ended at a cul-de-sac where the hoover dam sloped steeply upward almost matching the height of the cliffs. We had driven over the Hoover Dam. On one side, there was a lake whose wakes sploshed the tops of the manmade concrete shore. On the other side a sheer, khaki cliff. It’s imposingly ugly, inspiring, and horrifying to see from its foot. Somewhere on the other side of the million gallons of manmade lake, held back by an impressively diminutive wall of concrete, a hundred miles away, past two deserts and a thousand unexplored side canyons, crags, caves, and dunes, is the Grand Canyon. One of eight wonders.
I sat down and unlaced my shoes. A kayak floated past, close to the wall, with a man and a woman paddling in unison. I waved. The woman waved back. The man glared at me, then he smiled at Valarie. The slow current took them away. The river was too cold for a long swim. A fast dip was refreshing. We drank cheap whiskey.
I draped one of the pads over a flat rock on a sort on natural, tiny, jetty a few yards from the sandy inlet. I laid down. I closed my eyes. I woke up sunburned. Valarie was asleep beside me. I tried not to notice her bare nipples. I sat up and lit a cigarette. I was wet. I figured the water was what woke me up. My feet were in the river. I was confused. I guessed I had slipped.
But I hadn’t slipped. The water was rising. It was rising quickly. I set my cig down a few inches above the rising shoreline, within a minute it was washed away. I tapped Valarie on the shoulder and told her the tide was coming in. She told me I was stupid before she opened her eyes. When she did she giggled, I guess we’ll have to swim back.
We moved our things closer together and climbed higher. I set a cigarette butt on the rock a few feet below as a precaution. I kept my eye on it. She spread our pads one on top of the other. I hoped quietly that the water would stop rising. I asked, why is there a tide here? She pointed at the dam and lit her smoke. She pointed at the island. She said, I’m not worried, see that line where the rock is lighter? She was right, the rock had high water mark, it was like a bathtub ring. We were seated above it. Let me get a drag, I lost mine in the river. She lit a fresh one for me instead. She took another drink from the small bottle. I said, hey, you feel like fucking? I meant it as a joke, so when she said, yeah, sure, I gagged on the whiskey, forced it down, and felt the cold tears fill my eyes. It was impossible to hide my erection. She spit on her hand and reached forward to touched it. I felt my breathing begin to stutter.
There was only one good position on our rock island. I sat with my legs extended, she climbed into my lap with her back to me. I held her back against my chest, I could feel her fingers lightly rhythmically tapping my balls while she masturbated. She whispered, don’t come inside me. Those words sent a cool jolt down my spine to my groin. The whiskey helped me hold back. Eventually she finished me with her hand. I came on her belly. She rolled into the river to clean up. When she was done, she sat cross legged in front of me in between my outstretched legs. She was facing me. She opened her legs and put them over mine leaning backward. I stared at the thin strip of hair.
The moment had been so casual. She was still aloof. I wanted her to know I wanted her. I didn’t just want her sex. I wanted her. I really wasn’t sure what to say, I stammered, listen, like, that was pretty nice. I heard myself and hated what I sounded like, but I continued yammering on about maybe, possibly, we can date. I sounded insecure, I sounded like I needed her. I did need her. I needed her more than she needed me. She smiled and asked if I had any water.
The sun was glaring at a steep angle from a neon sky. It was mid-afternoon. She asked about water again. I said look around. She rolled her eyes and dug out the iodine pills. I watched, amazed by how much more resourceful she was than me as she pulled a bandanna tight over the lip of the empty bottle. The bottle filled, and the bandanna strained the sediment stirred up by the water pouring from the dam. I uncapped another half-pint and took a long drink of the warm liquor.
I stared at a cloud. From down the river I heard a shout. Valarie jerked back and stood quickly. Are you seeing this? Valarie looked at me urgently. I was struggling trying to learn her bandanna trick. What the fuck are you doing? Help me. She was stuffing our things into her sleek pack. The kayak was heading back. As it got closer I could see that there were still two passengers. One was badly hurt. What happened I asked. The bleeding man looked stern, the woman said a rock fell. His eyes were blue. His right shoulder was funny looking. It had rolled two inches below where it belonged, and what was inside was peeking out. His face was streaked with drying blood and fresh tracks glowed over the surface. Valarie helped the woman pull the boat toward the inlet of the smaller canyon away from our tiny island. I pushed the boat and tugged our gear then helped to run the boat up onto the sandy shore. The woman was busy speaking calmly into a walkie-talkie. In response, the walkie squawked instructions. As we were told, Valarie and I pulled the man off his boat onto the shore and let him stretch out on the pads. The woman did what she could with her own first aid kit. The bleeding was hard to stop. Wrapping his shoulder was a chore but an easier one that dressing his head. Blood was streaming from a long gash under his hair above his forehead. The flesh on his face was swelling. His eyes were being forced shut. We would wash it away and more blood would roll out. Finally, the woman pushed me out of the way and pressed her hand, filled with a sandy substance, against the wound. The man stopped bleeding.
It was an hour before a small green motorized boat found us.
To me, the man looked dead. The driver of the boat, in his uniform, said he thought the man would be okay. The woman looked relieved. He took our information in case he needed a statement and asked when we’d be out of the canyon. Valarie looked at me and said we were drunk and wouldn’t be hiking out until morning. I corrected her, we had planned to stay the week. He told Valarie he’d leave a message. After the boat had pulled away I found a purple cigarette lighter on the ground next to our bloody sleeping pads. I flicked it. It lit. I chuckled and said to Valarie, it’s a dead man’s lighter. She stared through me. I dug my bottle from Valarie’s bag and uncapped it. The gulp didn’t make it past my tongue. I vomited where I sat. We were both bare assed, there was a man’s blood on my skin. The sun’s going down, I said, how about we go back to camp. I caught her rolling her eyes. She would not speak to me.
I sat in the shallow hot pool and hand scrubbed my skin in the moonlight. Valarie did the same. I let the spring casually wash the floating pads. I asked if she wanted to fuck again. She wouldn’t look at me. She didn’t speak. We didn’t speak. Our clothes were still flat against a rock somewhere in the dark. I drank and smoked, watching her. She smoked and stared at the red cone emitting from her head lamp through the steam.