Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Chapter 3: Death in the Desert

I was, as I have mentioned, a Boy Scout. This led me to some interesting adventures, whether it be nearly freezing in an icy mountain lake while attempting a swim test or running around half-naked at Indian Camp. Sundry meals have been eaten, countless activities and hikes attended. Injuries have been sustained, such as the time I played caveman baseball with my friend (which requires a tree branch, a rock and a hapless bystander to play). Eerily quiet nights have been spent under a blossom of stars that lit the night sky in the desert. Fish have been caught, canoes tipped over, sunburns accrued and guns and bows shot at hay-backed targets. Horses have been ridden and legs have bowed thusly. Searing hot campfires have been built and shoes melted on the edges of said fires, as have marshmallows and metal and God knows what else those kids put in the fire when the adults weren't looking.

So it's safe to assume I look back on my scouting days with fondness and affection. At the time, I'm sure I dealt with boredom and heat, but time has softened the edges of those sharp points down. I often bemoan the fact that it seems that kids are increasingly insulated from any kind of experience that might be less than ideal. The thought is not so much that they don't go outside, but that there's no danger or real adventure waiting them. Indian camp is a perfect example: how politically incorrect would it be to have it today? Kids running around in loincloths basically unsupervised for a week? I can't believe it would be allowed, unless it was completely sanitized. And moreso, I realize that my own experience was probably more bland than previous generations. I imagine them running around with guns in the woods, sleeping in moth-eaten, drab canvas covered tents with ditch latrines and I am envious.

I think I got my wish when I was twelve, then, when we were on our yearly outing to Fish Creek, which has neither fish nor any sort of water whatsoever, being located in the middle of the desert as it was. Millions of years ago it had been at the bottom of the ocean, however, and a riverbed wound it's way through tall canyons when you came into the campground. It was one of a number of weekend trips we made: leave Saturday morning; arrive in the afternoon; break camp in the afternoon the next day. There had been some excitement before: on the previous trip, it began sprinkling and then raining and then a sheeting downpour that grew less humorous and resulted in us rushing out of the campsite in the riverbed before it flooded and killed us all. So that was cool.

It was Sunday morning and nothing too interesting had happened. My patrol (a subdivision of the troop that numbered about 10 kids) had eaten our gourmet breakfast of little boxed cereals and milk and was lounging around the campsite when it was announced that there was a hike through the canyons and that we were being highly encouraged to attend, which meant that we were attending whether we liked it or not. This suited us, though, as the cliffs would shield us from the unrelenting sun, so we gathered our gear and headed out.

Our hike was one of relative obliviousness; we chatted amongst ourselves, pausing occassionally for a leader to point out some interesting feature of the terrain. The conversation was light and the pace was steady- there was no rush and the sun was still well-hidden behind the towering cliffs. We rounded bend after bend, travelling perhaps a half-mile, and then we rounded another bend and saw a lone camper sleeping under a heavy drape of blue and black blankets.

As we neared, we grew quiet- we didn't want to wake the sleeping guy, who was out here without any gear or vehicle. We moved closer and stared at the strange man, whose blankets were actually ropes and why would he be under..?

Oh, he's dead. Or dying. Well, shit.

It was obvious as we stood next to him. Our eyes darted upwards and saw the broken edge of the cliff where he had fallen from. His hat had somehow pulled itself over his face; a small blessing in light of the awkward angle of his legs and arms.

A note to anyone who's considering rapelling down a sandstone cliff: Don't. It's hazardous to your health, and to the mental health of the patrol of scouts that has to find your twisted, mangled body.

So, we stood there for a good minute or so; A gaggle of 12-year-olds and a couple of adults, one of who finally managed to yell, "Go get help!" So I ran. I ran faster than I ever have or probably ever will. Through the cliffs that we had strolled through and back to the camp, with the only thought in my mind being that if I wasn't fast enough, the guy would die. If he wasn't already dead. Chest heaving, I managed to spit out my message, eloquently- "Guy...cliff...dying...help." On second thought, it might have been slightly less coherent. Still, we called the ranger and drove back to the body and the gaggle of scouts and leaders. We hiked out, quietly talking about what we had seen. I had questions as well: what was the guy doing out there? Did he have a family? Kids?

It was odd and surreal, and happened in an instant, in a millenium.

It was real.


At 5:09 AM, Blogger ChickyBabe said...

Your memories are so vivid, detailed and you bring them to life with your eloquent words.

At 5:05 PM, Blogger Sherri said...

That's an amazing story. I think that would have haunted me forever.

At 7:11 PM, Blogger Knows It All said...

Yes.. good story. It's your own Stand By Me.

And they do have these adventure places, it's just made for delinquents. Older than you were, but roughing it to build character. I was watching Brat Camp, (yes, i can admit it), and they all got their "names". Now, they didn't call them "Indian" but Reluctant Bison Charging? Ummm... same thing.

At 10:16 AM, Blogger Mahd said...

Thank you ChickyBabe, Sherri and Knows it All. It was amazing when it was happening- I don't remember feeling much of anything, aside from a desire to help him if I could.

Would it make me a bad person to say that I'm glad it happened? Not that the man died: not ever that. But the lessons I learned about life that day are still with me.

At 10:43 PM, Blogger chica bonita said...

i don't think i'll know what to do if i were to be there. life is, indeed short.


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