While the daggery brush held its color, evergreen and everbrown, cottonwoods leafed out above their heads, patterning yellow and occasional red against the sky. Ahead of G, impatient and unconcerned with minor scratches, A drank in sunlight as strong as bleach, trying to tell time. Ten a.m. at the leafy, dry confluence between Hackberry and Devil’s? Ten in the morning, and the obvious signs of place: campfire circles and cairns. Couldn’t the others move faster? A. Could. Not. Wait. But she found a sienna-dun bed of leaves and nestled herself until the rest of the group caught up. C came first, sitting on a rock, now that spot looks good too, unzippering trip directions from inside his pants. “Todd’s hiking guide says go right.” A closed her eyes.
B stomped through ankle-high weeds, sat between A and C and relaced his boots; one by one, E, G, and the others came into the clearing. A stood first, looking at the sky again. If she’d known them, she would have said Let’s go, but the group was B’s friends, not hers. She waited, shifting from boot to boot. “Gotta pee?” asked F.
B smiled, catching A’s eye. “Wasting daylight,” she answered, and when they started to hike again, she raced B, teasing his strength with her speed and waiting as E and G held the others close, patient, guiding through down climbs and route-finding along overgrown game trails and footpaths. A ignored their diligence; the sun worried her more than the people, and pushed out into the canyon mouth as weightless light dappled down to rustolivegoldoak overgrowth, where tiny spiders and insects unsmushed by her boots enjoyed exoskeletal warmth.
Alone, A stopped at the slick rock edge of the first pool, a ten or fifteen foot jump into water of unknown depth. She stripped off her long-sleeve nylon shirt and shoes, sat at the edge, and stared into the water, anxious about yellow rays filtered through atmosphere closer to their horizon than that of early morning. Eight minutes, ten minutes, twelve; B came. In the rosy warmth of noontime winter desert sun, surrounded by fall foliage and surrendered to lust, they jumped, hand-in-hand (she insisted), climbed back out, and kissed against a rock, B’s hands on her goosepimpled skin until noise broke them. Their bodies split, lips slackened; up came C. Then D, E and G. “Where’s F?” asked E, but then he came panting through the brush, bearing rope number two.
Five rappels plus seven people should have been an equation simple enough for them to calculate a time past twilight, the dangerous hour. Instead they, canyon-fevered alphabet people, tugged on wetsuits, zipped, sealed dry bags and jumped into the pool, swimming to the first rap. Twenty, thirty feet: the same process each time. Build webbing anchor, lock off ’biners, feed and throw rope, thread device, descend. Then wait. E watched F’s hands over the edge of the largest waterfall, about seventy feet. His first big rappel.
Below, A danced (joy, warmth), set up anchors, shivered and watched B, watching her.
Terrestrial rotation, diminution of light, continued until twilight’s first hints wrapped the canyon walls in shade. The temperature dropped. After the last long rap through a cold waterfall, G, B and E snacked, and G decided they should to skip a mile of brushy hiking downcanyon to the true end. A felt an urgent need to start back, and wondered how the others could still sit and chat in the bluing colors of late day light. Did they not feel it on their skin?
Minutes passed. C and D stacked rope. B scouted a possible bypass route. Two sides to the canyon; both steep scrambles up a scree slope toward the last remaining light, the deep, flat, rich blue of western daylight unbroken by storm. B told A to be careful of his delicate wetsuit, and she hated him for a second – his preciseness. Its absence made his kisses ortolan-rare, and rare was its absence. The published guide Oh Todd, terse hero prevailed. They chose canyoneer’s left. Stepped back into the messy landscape of drips and swabs no single adventurer’s hand could claim, control. One or two hundred feet up the scree and boulder-strewn gully, A, B, C, D, E, F and G faced the tops of the first set of obdurate cliffs walling off the canyon they’d descended. All appeared impassable. “Few more gullies, maybe,” G said.
“Is it a gully,” B said, “Yeah, let’s go that way. Try it.” A stepped ahead of them, topped a boulder, calling, “This way?” over her shoulder. G paused, breaking the news in delicate file that a steep, prickly climb lay ahead.
A waited then, posing next to a cactus while B clicked off a photo: girl, plant, sky.
Single-file, the group moved up to a rocky ridge and traversed high above the canyon instead of dropping back into its hardened, cascading heart. They passed two more ravines whose rocky slopes sheered out: twenty, forty foot cliffs above the creek. None could deny the panic of night: the sky darkened drop by drop. Headlamps flickered, red, then white. How do I? Oh, stop blinking. There.
Faces set, voices low with talk of which gully, not if gully, they hiked up and down rocky game trails in the dimming light. A, G, and E pushed forward to find out if the widest would cliff out, or allow access to the sandy bottom. Behind, the others moved arm, then leg, limb by limb.
Out of voice contact, the groups had no inkling, no instinct of each other’s gains and losses. (Later B would tell A that F badly misjudged a boulder, inexperience, that he, B, had barely been able to step out of the swath cut by rockfall the size of a refrigerator. ROCK! Had she heard a cry? No, none. A had no idea, barreling ahead. Even in safety, later, when B kissed away his residual fear on her willing lips, she would fail to understand. She would enjoy it, a misstep.) Having ranged, when it happened, far ahead of the rockfall line, A felt only steadfast determination, and the fury of worry. She scouted eastish, found another forty or fifty-foot cliff. Rope? she wondered. A natural anchor? But that seemed desperate. Despite her ambition it was E, scouting the opposite direction, who found a reasonable downclimb right to the riverbed. A hustled to see, and with G, she stood in wait, watching B, D and F’s headlamps drop the slope. At the canyon bottom, even though they had several hours of night hiking ahead, they hugged and high-fived in relief in the dark; shared bars, spoke in scatters – then planned their hike out. F insisted. We stay together, she said.
They moved as would a centipede, in sinuous, measured curves and lines. A pack. Foot placement, hand position, points of contact three against ground and rock, from A to G, they had to work as a team and from head to tail all of them abided. Inside the flesh there could be constant twists and turns, as this body strained to work through a mess of cat-claw or that one to negotiate boulders, but the surface of their movement displayed unity and calm. Even A’s inner chaos, rage, felt the nibbles of harmony – each body had to keep moving forward so the centipede could progress, step by step, closer to the cars and safety and rest. To the neon lights of a gas station. To bags of potato chips, to sodas. To the weak stream of water from a low-pressure Phoenix shower. To beds shared, to beds slept in alone. The safety of those briefly-renounced entrails seemed distant and their morale must have wavered. Yet aside from a brief murmur here and there, no one spoke out in despair. The faith that every single person would exit the canyon in good health and without injury slid as inchoate and relic as their formation, holding them high against the threat.
Darkness changed every subtle landscape tone into symphonic obsidians and midnights and deep cerulean and onyxes; sounds distinguished themselves more than color until their inner landscapes went still and silent. A lost footing, overrode a glimmer of pain, lifting her foot out of a calf-high nest of branches and leaves before her muscles had the chance to constrict. Together they inched back to civilization with skin, enclosed organs (brain, heart) intact.
Gleaming moonlight on steel. Thump of a pack set down. Engine’s hum.
Safely broken up with B, A looks through photos and writes about the adventure in her journal. In every picture she sees her body in motion away from him, face looking back while the rest of her twists forward into leaf and branch, heart drawn to sun and sky. From the distance of his lens she looks happy, her slate wiped clean. A beautiful girl in a beautiful place.
Lisa Levine’s fiction roots anchor to LAT 32.2546522 LONG -110.9447027. She earned her MFA from the University of Arizona. Her work has been published by Bird’s Thumb and CutBank. She writes eco-adventure and hyperrealistic fiction. Follow her blog at http://cargocollective.com/