Isaac stepped from the plane onto the tarmac in Blythe California. The heat beat in rhythmic waves from the yawning expanse of desert to the south of the airport. It was like a hot mouth breathing on him.
Though he could not entirely distinguish the thought, on some level he sensed he was spoken to or watched by the group of distant mountains that had caught his eye. He felt an impulse inviting him to let go of his bag right on the ground, and walk straight for them.
This was vastly different than Winnipeg. He closed his eyes and let the sun beat on his forehead, then removed his hat to expose his head. It felt good. He was leery from so much time in Winnipeg’s winters.
The hardened beauty of the place made Isaac forget that his grandparents were likely already waiting for him at the airport pickup. He also did not notice that the other 12 passengers from his flight moved undistracted along a walkway towards the tight group of low-rise buildings that made up the single terminal. He stood alone, still enthralled by the land beyond, distorted by profound distance and heat.
Isaac was transfixed. There was tough soil that splayed open into splendid vistas, but abundant plants as well and what he imagined were 100 other life forms teaming above and below the aching dry soil. He recognized some of these shrubs and cactus from pictures in books such as saguaro, but others he did not, like ocotillo and prickly pear and sagebrush.
He then noticed the crusted edge of asphalt tarmac, which died off precipitously to that endless desert beyond. A wall should have been here, he thought, constructed at the edge between the two places, they were so radically different from one another. The airport was limited and well understood; the desert was limitless and utterly mysterious. The asphalt, airplane and the small dust-hewn, tin-clad buildings were but a placeholder for the civilized, erected against the bright quartz, and fearsome, endless landscape that ended 10 or 100 miles distant, depending on which direction he looked.
His eyes saw perfectly, and thoughts wandered undisturbed. He forgot for the first instant since it happened that only last week he had stolen his parents car again, sped the highway north from Winnipeg at 120, flipped after skidding on a tiny patch of ice, and killed his three best friends, his girlfriend and himself.
“Excuse me,” he was interrupted by the steward from his flight. He had an easy southern drawl, “…But are you being picked up?”
“Where am I?” the boy idly responded and he dropped his small bag. He looked up at the friendly face from American Airlines.
“You’re in Blythe, California,” the starch-clean and handsome attendant responded. “Are you being picked up?” The boy did not answer right away, so then more concerned: “Is this where you intended to travel?”
“Yes, I am,” Isaac finally said. The steward gestured kindly: follow the others, the last of whom had already reached the doors to the terminal.
He shuffled up to the simple structure, into and then out of the cooled lobby of the airport, back into the heat at the taxi stand in the front. Just to his left, and the moment he walked out the doors, an engine turned over and Isaac’s grandparent’s white Chevy Impala swiftly slowed in front of him. He got in.
They started up the 50 miles of slow uphill to the western edge of Arizona from Blythe. Isaac was hungry, and as he, Etta and Wayne spoke, the boy distracted himself from his empty stomach with the windows of the car and the voices of his loved ones.
“We had rain last night,” Wayne stated enthusiastically but Isaac was unimpressed. “The wash behind our park almost filled,” grandpa followed up.
“It doesn’t rain here, Isaac. And it’s a flash flood,” Etta said. “It doesn’t happen much but when it does…”
“A flood, ok.”
Etta peered at him through the sun visor mirror. “You look hungry.” “Wayne, we should have stopped in Blythe and got into the Henry’s for some lunch.” It was an old ritual for the three of them. They had spent many a slow Sunday just chasing that same 84 Chevy Impala into the rural reaches of Indiana or Illinois on afternoons just like this to get to a good country restaurant.
“Didn’t you eat Isaac? Don’t they give them food on the plane?” Wayne replied, in a wining, loving tone.
“No,” the boy said. “The ride to Chicago didn’t have anything cause it’s only an hour, then it was only two and a half hours to LA. So nothing, I guess.”
“Ill make us something when we get to the trailer.” Etta said. “Should we call your mother and tell her you’ve arrived?”
“We are going to have to tell someone,” Etta said to Wayne.
“Don’t. Please,” said the boy.
Wayne shook his head to himself, then zeroed into the tiny side mirror to pass a slow moving truck. Etta pressed her husband: “Don’t you think so?” His foot accelerated the car and it jumped down into second gear. Wayne focused on the road for a moment, without answering: “Wayne…” Etta repeated.
The car kicked back up into third, then Wayne responded: “If he doesn’t want to tell anyone, we don’t need to. It’s up to him.”
They reached the trailer. The boy was famished. The Chevy took full grip of the loose earth for a moment and stopped at the side of his grandparent’s home. Isaac noticed that the trailer park, like the airport in Blythe, was right on the edge of the desert, with nothing to separate the two. Weary, the boy got up to get out of the car.
“Why did you leave, Winnipeg, Isaac?” Wayne asked.
Then Etta right away, “Why did you have to quit your school year?”
“It doesn’t matter,” and he reached for the handle to open the door.
“It does,” Wayne said, piercing into the back seat out the rearview mirror. “It does. Now you’re going to be a year behind. And what happened with your girlfriend?”
“Forget it,” Isaac whispered and he left the confine of the back seat, skirting the conversation for now. He didn’t have the heart to tell them that their grandson Isaac was dead. He wondered if they already knew.
He ascended the three-step porch behind his grandparents. Once inside, which was cooled by a swamp cooler, they sat together and thought about what to eat, and continued their conversation.
“We saw scorpions this morning- on the porch,” Etta said.
“Oh,” the boy said back. He peered out the main window of the trailer to the landscape beyond. The profound remoteness and silence of the landscape around the trailer seemed to grow and shrink in time with impish breezes that passed by loudly with payloads of rock and soil against the aluminum sides of the abode, like rushed couriers in a city street with no time to stop. Some of these breezes built into more formidable gusts that would have easily pushed him over. Some even became full-fledged dust devils, 50 or 100 feet high. Then, silence.
He snapped back into the conversation. “Isaac. Isaac? Are you listening to us? What do you say? What are you going to do about your school year?” Wayne said.
“Yes,” the boy responded, absently, still looking outside. His anxiety peaked for a moment, as he again thought he noticed an intelligent force in the desert outside and the way the breeze seemed to move. Not malevolent, but instead almost humorous. A pushy prankster, also lost in this place, but who wanted Isaac for a playmate.
They had dinner, watched TV, and Isaac went to bed in the small motor home-turned-guesthouse right next to the main abode.
It was the busiest time of year in the otherwise tiny village of 6,000, which became home to 20 times that size for a brief time in the winter when roaming caravans of sellers came from across North America who bunked here and sold their goods.
Isaac kicked the sheets down to his ankles after not sleeping well at all. There was no one to play with.
“Why don’t you walk over to Mike and Simon’s,” grandma said as the boy rubbed his head and walked into their trailer. They were family friends and itinerant jewelry makers from Florida, who attended caravans through the south. “They love company,” Etta insisted, “and I’ve told them all about you for years.”
He didn’t need any more convincing. With some water, a couple of apples, and 5 bucks, he set about the 3-mile walk to the other side of town.
The desert is a chronic insomniac who never slept. Isaac walked a windy overpass at 8 am that was shaking each time trucks passed underneath, mostly going west. He smiled when another oil tanker, grain hauler or container transport zoomed beneath him. At the other side of the overpass, he turned east onto the main street.
He slowed his pace to take in the central avenue of the town just waking itself up. The permanent businesses stood like fire resistant cardboard buildings to the biting desert sun, just now peeking over a ridge of mountains.
He counted five gas stations, three motels, a truck stop bigger than many airports, where tractor trailers ceaselessly growled cantankerously in and out. There was a breakfast joint to Isaac’s right, with about 6 customers. Then a mechanic, and a little further along, a small brick building- the town’s civic- historical center, which was closed at this time of day.
Isaac wandered over to this building. As he did, the breeze picked up and he became aware of the same indefinable sense of humor, which drew him and seemed to speak. As he reached the glass doors and saw his reflection, he scolded himself for thinking that way. “There’s nothing talking out there in the desert,” he said to himself. Besides, it would have seemed stupid to say out loud.
He took two concrete steps down, closer. A small pristine American flag sat motionless on a wooden pole, anchored to the brick wall.
He peered though the glass with hands folded over his eyes to shade the bright sky. Survey maps hung on the walls that scaped the desert around the town in black-pen drawings with altitude measurements in concentric oblongs. Notably, these topographic maps excluded the town in which Isaac stood, as if it did not even exist. They instead featured the desert.
Isaac did not know that many of these maps were drawn to assist gold and silver miners, whose hopeful and ravenous trips into the unrelenting desert for plunder, whose trials, rare success and fateful errors made it necessary and possible to produce geographic depictions of an area nearly uncharted by Western mapmakers prior to the 1900’s.
Photographs littered the walls. One in particular caught Isaac’s attention. It was of a group of miners hung behind the service counter and it’s tiny register. 10 men were arrayed before a camera, still geared up from a recent gold expedition. They smiled at the photographer’s lens, though the muscles in their faces were nearly exposed from exhaustion. Their heavy tools and boots seemed too big, and their countenances verged on exasperation or joyful relief. Something darker and unspeakable was present but ill defined. Something had happened to them that had nothing to do with gold, and this mystery somehow conveyed through the haunting photo.
A man whose hair was turned up into gold hairlicks and coils, held a brass banner: “Goldstrike, Hope, Arizona.” There was a date but Isaac could not read it.
He moved along to several large newspaper clippings hung on the same wall as the photo. These told a different kind of story that were much more common. The Phoenix Herald, headline: “Ten Years Later: MacDonald Mining Expedition Lost and Never Found.” The Yuma Post: “6 Men Search for Gold, Only 3 Return.” The Blythe Register: “How Many Miners Will It Take? Governor Issues Stern Warnings to Arizona’s Hopefuls.” Dozens of others spoke for themselves.
The boy tugged again lightly on the door hoping it might suddenly be open.
Had he been able to enter the building he could have found five complete four-drawer metal file cabinets, each cramped 3-feet deep with chronological evidence of many such stories about the joys and tragedies of crossing over into the desert. They were mostly tragedies, though, of people lost in and never returned by the desert.
He continued to walk. He had to cross back over the freeway to go south, along a road that shot straight south to Yuma. Isaac was hungry and his pace quickened across the bridge. On the other side, he stopped, drank and fed himself an apple, noticing how difficult it was to eat, his mouth had run so dry.
He easily found the entrance to the trailer park where Mike and Simon had their jewelry making display. There were sellers, buyers and makers of things. Trailers piled on top of one another organized into chaos. By the end of the day, travelers, hippies, leather makers, hustlers, addicts, jewelers, indigenous artists, children, and turned on smoking bar-b-ques would compete amongst one another.
The boy walked slowly. He was excited, and did not exactly know where in this hustle of activity Mike and Simon’s trailer was. The cool morning was over, and the sun blazed at 10 am. Sage burnt, sweetgrass was in the air and other scents from the nearly in-bloom winter desert were rising into his perception. He did not recognize these most of these smells.
Customers wandered between the overhangs of the motorhomes of the merchants. An even larger crowd- the sellers themselves- passed between each other’s places and picked up raw materials and other goods while they laughed and talked with one another like old friends.
Isaac stopped for a moment. A medium sized dog cantered by without an owner and Isaac followed it with his eyes as it turned a corner and disappeared, knowing exactly where it was going. A large man carrying a heavy box then nearly strode over the boy and briskly apologized without turning around. The boy was mesmerized and disoriented.
A hurly gust, laden with dust, sprinkled him with tiny stones from a space between some trailers to his right. He yawned and the wind pushed him to one side and he had to adjust his feet. Then, the gust died down. He again thought he noticed laughter in the source of this wind.
He looked over to a large bearded man sitting asleep on his chair with his arms folded across a crisp white t-shirt. Behind this man was a display full of weapons.
The boy noticed the guns. The case they were in was out of reach, right next to the big sleeping man. Isaac looked at him for a minute or even longer, taking him in, but only then did the boy realize that the man was anything but asleep. In fact he was looking right back at Isaac through tiny dark eyes from a face shrouded in black beard. Their eyes met and the man faintly nodded.
Isaac stared at the array of instruments beneath the glass. A series of nickel-plated revolvers, from a .22 caliber to a .357, shined up. “Can I see one?” Isaac asked, looking at a pocket sized four-bullet .32 caliber magnum.
The man, who had since looked away from his only customer, looked briefly back into Isaac’s face, and without a smile said, “Nope.”
The boy was slightly embarrassed for having asked. He looked up towards the next vendor, and a man and a woman standing side by side were also already looking at him. They had witnessed his exchange with the gun dealer. They smiled. Isaac got closer to them. He began to make out the items they had for display. As Isaac approached, the woman said hello.
“Hello,” Isaac replied. Ceramic bowls and plates of red sand mirrored the colors of the desert, hung without prices attached. Silver pictographic pendants and necklaces shone like crystal in the heat. There was a snake weaving up between storm clouds, lightning strikes, and stars in the sky. Without speaking, the woman opened the case and carefully grasped the one the boy was looking at, pulled it out and handed it to him.
He found it strange that she knew which one he was peering at. The piece felt good in his hand. He smiled and handed it back. As the woman placed it back Isaac then noticed several dolls in the corner of their wall display and he asked what they were.
“Katchina,” was the only thing the woman said. Her look became slightly more serious. He was not offered one.
Another gust of wind flit through the trailers to the left of the man and woman. “Do you like this place?” asked the woman.
He thought for a moment. He did not know if he was afraid or enthralled. “Yes.”
The man spoke up. “That desert is not for boys.”
Isaac did not understand. He awkwardly asked after Simon and Mike. “Of course,” said the woman. “Go down this lane make a right, and they will be right there. They usually have lots of people around.” Isaac thanked them and proceeded to walk, with the image of the doll floating through his head. “We’ll be by there later,” said the woman. “If you’re around for dinner.”
Five minutes later, the boy found himself at his destination. Mike was on a picnic table in front of a hut, busily making something from melted metal and turquoise. Simon was chatting with someone, but as the young man approached, Simon noticed and welcomed him in a large display of friendliness.
“Hello! What are you doing today?”
“Just walking,” Isaac replied. “I am the grandson of Etta and-“
Surprised, Isaac replied, “Yes… but..”
“Etta told us you were coming,” and he laughed, and for the first time Mike looked up and also laughed, and now Isaac could see that face of the boy who Simon was talking with. “This is Aaron.”
“Hey,” Isaac said.
“Aaron is 11 years old. He’s visiting from Sacramento,” said Simon.
“That’s cool. I’m from Winnipeg,” said Isaac.
“Winnipeg? Isn’t that way up north?” asked Aaron, and they all broke out laughing.
“I guess you’re right,” Isaac replied.
Simon chimed in. “Alright everyone, we were just about to eat. Isaac, you look like you’re about to double up and start moaning.” Aaron laughed and the boys looked at each other and smiled.
They sat and ate. “How was the flight Isaac? Etta tells me you are here for a couple of weeks?
“Yeah, I think its 13 days.”
Simon was showing off the things he knew about the young man….He had been looking forward to finally meeting him. “What sports do you play Isaac?”
“Oh, yes, lacrosse.” Simon turned to the rest of the table, “He’s one of the best players on his team.”
“He’s one of the best players in Winnipeg,” Mike chimed. “Aren’t you son?”
“I guess,” replied Isaac.
“That’s cool,” Aaron spoke, looking down into his lap as he did. He made himself part of the conversation by knocking his knees together or shaking a foot up and down. But he did not look up, reserving with his eyes his enthusiasm at meeting a boy near to his age.
“Do you play lacrosse?” asked Isaac, and Aaron shook his head.
“I used to play baseball, but I stopped,” said Aaron, shrugging his shoulders, maintaining his focus on his knees. “The field was too far away, and I had to take care of my little brother.”
Isaac smiled, “I love baseball.”
“So what are you boys going to do today?” Mike nearly demanded- they were going to have to get out and do something rather than sit around.
“I don’t know,” offered Aaron.
“Why don’t you boys take a hike or something,” Mike retorted immediately, nodding out towards the open vista behind their trailer.
“They’re not going off into that desert…” Simon responded, but caught his own parental tone.
“Sure… why not?” Mike insisted playfully.
Aaron: “Yeah why not?”
“Yeah Simon, why not?” Mike chuckled, glaring humorously at the young men. “You boys know your way around, don’t you? Just be careful.”
“But where? Where would we go?” asked Isaac.
“I don’t know, Simon… where do you think they should they go?” Mike playfully asked his partner.
“Oh, why don’t they just walk up the hill behind Etta and Wayne’s park? That’s good enough isn’t it?”
Mike laughed. “Have you ever been up that hill Simon?”
“No,” he admitted, and Mike laughed again.
Mike got up, and waved a hand over the landscape beyond, now fully immersed in the sun. “That hill behind Etta’s place is too small! These boys need adventure. Something rare, something… adventurous, by god. Look where we are! They need to experience… that.” Mike splayed his arm out, presenting an object of wonder to an awe- inspired crowd.
“Adventure’s good,” replied Aaron, looking at Isaac as he did.
“Yeah it is,” said Isaac back. The boys both smiled.
“But they’ll wander off into this heat and get themselves lost,” added Simon, now futilely. His statement was followed by dense silence while they sat thinking.
“I know,” said Mike. “Why don’t they go down to palm canyon?”
The boy’s ears both peaked. Then, simultaneously: “What’s palm canyon?”
“Wayne didn’t tell you about it?” Mike stood up, “We’ve been a bunch of times… Let me show you.” The older man tugged the scruff of Isaac’s shirt, standing the boy up playfully. He put his arm around Isaac’s shoulder and they sauntered to the back of the trailer. “Here’s a better vantage point, Isaac. You’re looking due south into Sonora.” Mike’s smell was coffee, well-laundered clothes, and an expensive aftershave from yesterday’s trip up to the casino for dinner. Isaac was was eating it up. Mike’s hairy arm was thick and muscular and Isaac’s slim shoulder fit just beneath it. “Come over here Aaron.”
The other boy got up. Mike put his arm around him too and pointed into the distance towards a set of small mountains. “Those mountains come from the east there and end nearly at the highway south that goes to Yuma.”
“How far?” asked Aaron.
“60 miles,” said Mike, looking down and smiling at Aaron, who nodded his head as if it was nothing. But a small shiver ran up Isaac’s back. It was impossible. How could that be 60 miles? It looked so close.
Mike noticed. “Seems impossible, doesn’t it, Isaac?”
“The first time I came to Sonora,” Mike said, “I never wanted to leave. Hell I guess I found a way not to. It’s so beautiful.”
“Yes,” both boys agreed.
Mike continued. “But if you go don’t be fooled…This place has a 100 ways of tricking you… into thinking how nice it is….how pristine….how warm…. welcoming, that sort of thing. I won’t say much more. Do you understand?” The boys both nodded.
“Palm canyon is right in that little range, about 5 or 6 miles’ drive east of the highway. There’s a dirt road, then about a mile hike before you reach the bottom of the valley. It sounds complicated, but it’s hard to miss. The only dense bit of green in that whole valley of dry, quartz mountains.” Mike beamed with a smile.
“Ok,” replied Isaac, and tried to pull away but Mike tugged him back in with his burley forearm and pulled the boy’s chin so they were eye to eye. The older man’s eyes were focused and gamely.
“Whatever you do, don’t climb. Those cliffs are sheer and crumbly rock. You don’t want to end up out there ass-over-tea-kettle by yourselves. And look out for each other,” then let both boys go from his grip.
Aaron looked up at Isaac. “Come on lets go,” and Isaac nodded his head.
Simon helped them pack for the trip, which was only supposed to last several hours. Mike was already back to working on his pieces to sell by the time they started for the canteens, some food, and a blanket in case it cooled down.
Mike went back to work. “They’ll be fine,” Mike kept giggling to himself and when Isaac nervously looked up at him, Mike winked and smiled mischievously between the swift, expert movements of his craft.
“How are they getting there?” Simon asked Mike.
“They can take the Pony. You can drive, right Isaac?” Mike.
“Yessir,” he said. He had just got his license.
“See, they’ll take the Pony. Can you drive stick Isaac?”
“Yeah.” replied the young man steadily, but then under his breath to Aaron, “barely…”
“Yep. They’ll be good, Simon. Take the Pony, boys. Have yourselves a day.”
Simon and the two young men walked beside the trailer where the white Hyundai Pony sat like it hadn’t moved in weeks. Simon got into it, turned it over and it started right up.
“Well I guess she must be happy with me today. Sometimes it takes a couple of tries,” Simon chuckled to himself.
Isaac was nearly as excited about getting to drive as he was about the trip. He got in, adjusted his seat, and Aaron got in beside him. They looked at one another and smiled. Behind the dashboard of a car, suddenly strangers no more.
Simon shut the door, and they drove off barely saying goodbye, out of the trailer park, towards the two-lane highway going south.
Isaac struggled on the first few turns, grinding the gear down into second, then back up into third, and Aaron laughed.
“I thought you said you could use a shifter,” Aaron joked.
“I can. I just don’t know this car.”
“Yeah sure,” Aaron retorted, and they both broke up laughing.
“It has been a while,” Isaac admitted.
“You like diggin them guts?” Aaron asked.
Aaron laughed again. “Eh? Eh? (chuckle) Girls. Pussy. You like fucking? I do. I got like three of them going right now, and I’m digging them guts, I’m tellin’ you.”
“Yeah,” Isaac replied, “of course.” Aaron started to talk about his exploits. He actually wouldn’t stop. He was telling Isaac about the friends he had in Sacramento, the girls he was fucking, and all of the weed they smoked. There was no other traffic on the road and as Aaron kept talking to Isaac about his real and imagined exploits, they came to like one another.
The turn off came for Palm Canyon, it was quite obvious just as Mike had promised. Isaac began down the five mile desert dirt road, with smoke-like-dust spewing out and up behind them, shielding what they were leaving behind for a relieving moment, the rearview was an oblivion of dust and questions.
The road ended in a small circle, where they got out, unpacked their stuff and started towards the well-walked trail that made its way between large boulders and up a slow incline to the base of the tiny range of mountains. Isaac looked on, but he could not make out palm trees or any greenery for that matter. Aaron noticed the look on Isaacs face. “This is fucked. Maybe we should go back.” The over confident 11 year old now politely obliging a more cautious tone. Isaac started up the trail without saying another word, and Aaron followed.
At the foot of the mountain, the boys stood in the splendor of the small valley. It was a thin, rare wedge of water-fed beauty, 150 feet wide and a mile deep. There were small palm trees everywhere. Isaac leaned back to see rock faces that rose 400 feet then seemed to pass away into the sky right where the sun was too bright to see.
They walked deeper, and they made out the faint sound of a creek. The air was luminous, with a noticeable humidity and scent of moisture, just as one finds in a greenhouse. The palm trees were maybe 5 feet high, like bonsai, stunted from hanging onto the rocky perches and sharp edges of the canyon walls. There were hundreds and hundreds of them.
“Palm canyon,” Arron said for both of them.
“Yes.” Isaac replied.
The trail that marked the middle of the canyon ended in a flat area where they could sit and decide what to do next. Various pathways led only up, and to the sides. At half-day, the canyon wall to the north made shade on them while the other half of the valley was bright and fully in the sun. The space had the quality of a large atrium.
They knew that they had to explore upwards- towards the top.
“Should we leave our backpacks here?” Isaac asked.
“No, we should bring them.”
Aaron started up one of the trails that seemed to exist between large outcroppings of rock and the other followed. Its pathway was like an invitation to continue to digress from the plan and advice not to climb. As they went on, Isaac noticed there were no perfect trails, and the footings were sometimes bad. Their feet slipped from under them, but that only slowed them down a little.
Isaac noticed his calf muscles and quads aching in a way they had not done since he last trained with his team… running stairs in the coach’s building. But the younger boy kept pressing ahead without complaint, so Isaac kept up behind.
About three quarters of the way up, a rock protrusion about 15 feet high presented itself on the path they were taking. There was no way around it. “We have to figure out how to climb it I guess,” said Aaron. “But we don’t have any climbing gear.”
“Yeah. We can probably do it though, it’s not that high.” Isaac said.
“Ok. You go first,” Aaron stated flatly and they both began to laugh.
The rocks were more daunting once the boys were on it. The red stone was like granite but softer. The possibility of failure did not enter the boys minds. The secure shelter of the canyon blocked them from thinking about the expanse of unimaginable difficulty offered by the coarse unsettled desert above, which would be their only option for leaving this place if they could not make it back down. They pushed on, past where one would have given credit to two boys from cities, houses, cars and parents.
In a way, the desert was playing prankster. It invited them along without displaying it’s shrewder intentions. It was lonely for company at all times. Adventurous young men were among its favourite guests.
They were steadily escaping the cool shadows cast over them. were The weight of the sun on rock, dust and the unprotected skin of the young men was sudden.
They moved towards the top without conversation as if they knew a pinnacle existed that might inform them to turn around. Aarons feet were beginning to hurt and his mind seriously considered ending this hike out of hunger and inexperience. The craggy rock and blatant heat had whittled down his cockiness and unearned bravado to almost nothing. Isaac’s shadow slanted towards the top, and that’s what he was following.
Isaac’s mind cranked out the worn phrases of his lacrosse coach in rhythm to this steps upwards. Don’t stop. Its right there if you want it. Your goals lie just beyond when you want to stop. Don’t stop. Keep going. Don’t stop. Not for anything, or anybody.
Slam. The sound of the Buick hitting the post that instantly stopped it and killed him and his friends. Don’t stop. Be crystal clear. What do you want? Figure it out and do it. But this was nothing like his coach said it was. Did he ever mention death?
Aaron stopped. He had nearly had enough. His legs were drawing near to actual fatigue and failure. He turned to Isaac and simply begged with his eyes, and Isaac could not resist. They stopped.
They were lucky to be near to a miniature plateau, a flat of about 10 square yards to sit and eat and rest and look up to decide if moving on was an option for them. The setting of friends and family and dinner at the trailer park loomed above their desire to climb to the top. So did the brief clear warnings of Mike, the Navajo couple selling the katchika, and the reports displayed in the city office that Isaac had passed on his way through town this morning.
Here, words meant less. The value of verbal exchange really had to compete with the desert. Words punctuated the nearly perfect language of the desert: silence. Words did nothing to dispel heat. Nor did they add to the endless stone and prancing light shows playing across the distant mountains. The boys ate, drank and then decided to move on. The sky above won out. The air pulled them in. The desert let out a chuckle and a gust picked up that cooled them off a little.
Isaac moved slowly. Each hand grasp was surer than the last. Each foothold established the next. Each good move made the next move easier. The boy below became a man above. By rock, sand, sweat, the thrilling qualities of muscle against doubt and stubbornness against possible failure or death. At some point past afternoon, Isaac reached the rim.
He laid his hands flat on the top of the canyon wall and used his arms to curl his lower body up and over as well. And then he looked down.
Aaron stood 35 feet below looking up. The two boys’ eyes met and they stared at each other, with understanding. With humour. With wisdom. And with love. Isaac would move on, Aaron would turn around.
Isaac rubbed his eyes. Newly christened by the climb and days events, an understanding had reached him. It made him so grateful. It was a small gift and a single message. Isaac stood up looked beyond his situation. The gaping space of the desert disturbed him, but it was softer. What he thought should be there was not; what he did not expect, presented. His weary gaze flit and flirted with the sight of this immense, beautiful and misunderstood land.
Desirous only of rest, the young man wandered on- into the expanse cast before him, which now openly invited the boy on with gusts and breezes and what Isaac thought he heard out of the silence, someone said the word, “welcome.”
For a few minutes, he resisted. But then he came around. The elements be damned he thought. He moved on, towards the deep purple mountains waiting for him at the horizon, just as the sun gave signs of beginning to set.
* * * *
Aaron struggled back down the cliff side as carefully as he could. He made it back to the car, managed to get it into gear, and drive the way back to Mike and Simon’s trailer. There, dinner was just being served. Etta and Wayne had stopped by, along with the couple from the Navajo craft stand, Mary and John, with their two children. The group was laughing and drinking when Aaron pulled up.
He rushed out of the white Hyundai Pony and into the arms of Simon, weeping. “Isaac’s gone.”
“We know,” Simon responded, and the boy sat at the table. After a few moments, someone poured him a drink from behind, and they each raised their glasses and smiled.