The Middle-Aged Hiker

Interlude: Chapter Fourteen

Canyon Dreamsicles

I am in my sleeping bag. The sleeping bag is inside my tent. Next to my feet but just out of easy kicking distance is the Cuisinart. The nearest electrical outlet, which would make this a useful and desirable appliance, is 27 miles away. In a cabin. A moose head hangs over the front door. It was purchased in 1968 by Nanling Ibsen of Frankfurt, Kentucky who, by the oddest of coincidences, will mistakenly receive my lymph glands when I experience out-of-the-body apoplexy at a New Year's Eve soirée in 1996.

According to my wristwatch, it is nine in the morning. I meant to get up an hour ago but was afraid I might accidentally kick over the Cuisinart in the darkness. Except that it wasn't actually dark; I merely was looking for an excuse to stay prone and snug. But now plenty of light streams through the tent flap. There is no longer any reason to remain bag-ridden.

I sit up and stretch, kicking over the Cuisinart. At arm's reach is my backpack. In it is packed five day's worth of meticulously selected food: freeze-dried this, dehydrated that, haddock jerky, a ton of pastries, and a packet of powdery white lumps which, when added to water, turns into a powdery white beverage called Klim. Breakfast is just around the corner.

This morning's entrée was selected long ago, well before I even left on this First Occasional Hike-Off. According to precise dietary calculations, I shall now eat pound cake and ice cream, which will hopefully have weathered yesterday's 90-degree temperatures without too much loss of natural texture and flavor. A week has passed since I carefully packed this meal selection in plastic wrap and aluminum foil, then crammed it into the innermost recesses of the sleeping bag. I am relying solely on the extraordinary insular properties of Hollofil to keep the contents refreshingly cool and tasty.

The Klim, while traditionally used to slake thirsts, will serve a different function this day. By mixing double strength and gently lathering it over my body, I will test its capacity to prevent warts.

For six weeks prior to leaving, I solicited for a camping partner, but had been rebuffed by all save the director of a sanitarium who, I later learned, was interested only in committing my lymph glands to an organ donor card.

I drift off to sleep and have a vision. It is very powerful. I am an Indian mystic but still read the New York Times Business Section. A former disciple telephones, apprising me of unusual stock market movement. He also cautions me to avoid hoofed animals, lest I suffer an abrupt glandular dysfunction.

It is now nine-thirty, time to be up and away. But still I sleep and dream. I dream of pastoral pleasantries and gently susurrant ocean breezes. On a deserted beach I wade through the foamy surf. It sticks gelatinously to my toes. I bend down to wipe it off but it sticks to my fingers, too. It smells sweet, like ice cream.

I am instantly awake. Half of my breakfast is, indeed, sticking gelatinously to my toes and fingers. I right the Cuisinart, dump in some damp Klim lumps, and follow with my feet. Even lacking proper electrical power, the appliance makes for an acceptable jacuzzi.

Soon, my feet are clean enough for stockings and shoes, and in they go. But before I can purge the stickiness from my hands, I fall asleep again.

I have yet another vision. I am out-of-the-body, watching almost courteously as the rest of me drifts towards unconsciousness. I am somnolently cognizant of the tent unstaking itself, apparently of its own volition. Even with me stretched voluminously out inside, it proceeds to fold up and then slip into its own little stuff sack. The sack measures surely no more than eighteen inches by six inches. If I weren't so incapacitatingly sleepy, not to mention out-of-the-body, I'd think this was a ludicrous thing for a tent to do.

Time passes. I'm still asleep, working on another vision. A face looms before me. It's familiar, but distorted. If I knew to whom the face belonged, perhaps I'd understand the significance of the distortion. I begin thumbing through a dictionary, hoping a word will trigger the memory. But after reaching only the ALGs, I become disenchanted and give up. Fortunately, I also wake up.

It is ten o'clock. Within minutes I have thoroughly rinsed, dressed, and eaten the cake. Then, without assistance, I fold up the tent, sleeping bag, and Cuisinart and stuff them into the backpack. At last I am ready to hit the trail.

The trail is in southern Utah, in a place called Goblin Valley, on the eastern edge of something known as the San Rafael Reef. It is the middle of nowhere. Or at least as close to being the middle of nowhere and still being somewhere as is possible. Coincidentally, the cabin with the moose head over the door and the Cuisinart- activating power outlet is also in the middle of nowhere. But it's not, as I thought, 27 foot-weary miles away. In fact it's not far away at all. It's just five miles to the south. Not only that, the route of today's hike--again planned many days ago--will take me to within a hundred yards of the front door. But I'll be on the wrong side of a small, craggy hill and walk right by it, completely unaware.

So I'll continue to lug the Cuisinart along, continue to hope for an opportunity to plug it in somewhere, continue to question the now-forgotten logic for having brought it along in the first place.

Although I'm on the edge of a reef, there is no profusion of coral deposits in the vicinity. Neither is there a significant amount of water nearby. Excluding the water in my canteen, that is. And that amounts to barely two quarts. I started the day with four gallons, but went sort of crazy washing off that stupid ice cream, and now I guess I'm living to regret it. So if rain doesn't fall pretty soon, or if I don't run across a stream or water fountain, or if I again refuse to pay the exorbitant prices which the Jack & Jill ice cream man charges for sodas, then I could quite possibly face the danger of dehydration. Not a pleasant prospect.

There was a time when I laughed at the perils with which the Desert Southwest intimidated other hikers. I laughed at everything in those days, though. It was a psychosomatic disorder called "le syndrome du gaz hilarant," or the Kretchmer Syndrome, named after the neurosurgeon who patented it, Jules Ibsen, coincidentally a cousin of the purchaser of the moose head still hanging over the front door from which I would pass not a hundred yards away later this morning.

I don't laugh very much any more. Not since I started backpacking. Nothing really very funny about it. All you do is hike along some trail till your feet ache, stop and rest a bit, gawk at the scenery, then head off again on that same trail, always wondering when the hell you'll find a damned electrical outlet.

Not that I'm complaining. It's a way of life. And I chose it. I could've bussed tables in a classy New York restaurant, or driven a limousine for a big-tipping Texas oilman, or even modeled fashionable liturgical garments for an impossibly wealthy Third World evangelist. But I didn't want all the hassles that went with that kind of life. I just wanted to head off down the trail. Without a damned Cuisinart.

It's almost noon now, and hot. Hotter, even, than yesterday. The sun beats down with a remorseless intensity. The sky is cloudless, the air still. Hallucinatory mirages are everywhere. But worst of all, down the road comes the Jack & Jill man, wheeling that damned ice cream cart, ringing that damned bell, and charging a buck and a half for a lousy 12 ounces of Coke! Which is mostly ice, at that! Well, I'll die in a parched hell before paying that price!

He slows as he approaches me, but I wave him curtly on. He'll have to find a different patsy this day! Doggedly, he turns to follow me, and I quicken my pace. He waves a colorful advertising flyer in front of me. It smells of oranges and whole milk, and I know I haven't the will power to ignore it. "TODAY'S SPECIAL," I read, "DREAMSICLES: ONLY 50 CENTS."

Dreamsicles! I'm hooked, but give no outward sign of interest. I just look straight ahead and continue hiking on the trail. My insides, though, are screaming for sympathy, and finally I have no choice. I come to a halt, fumble in my pocket for two quarters, and turn to the ice cream extortionist. But he's nowhere in sight. I'm all alone again. In the middle of nowhere.

Suddenly weary, I pick out the desert's equivalent of a shady knoll and sit down to rest. The shade is provided by a solitary juniper tree, standing gnarled and monolithic on the side of a small, craggy hill. Although in reality offering scant relief from the sun, the juniper's spindly shadow is cause for a flurry of activity by the tiny desert denizens who live nearby: members of an ant farm frantically dig labyrinthine tunnels to access their red rock condos; a couple of eight-legged grotesqueries from the local Beetles Auxiliary clasp pincers in a bug version of impassioned necking; a rare desert boot terrapin (Emydida chiropoda) struggles without success to eradicate the words "Souvenir Of Florida" from its carapace, a demeaning reminder of its three-week imprisonment in a Fort Lauderdale pet shop.

A gust of wind, hot and stifling, propels clumps of tumbleweed over the barren landscape, sets into dancing motion small eddies of arid topsoil. Tornadoes in miniature. I move out of the path of the worst of the dust and watch as an ant is sucked up into the funnel. "Toto, toto!" it screams.

My ears prick up. There is another sound. Mechanical. Electric. The sound of an automatic can opener. Or a vacuum cleaner. Or a hair dryer. After only a week's absence from high-tech civilization, I can no longer distinguish one from another. I pull the Cuisinart out of the pack and hold the plug in the air, like a divining rod. It points unhesitatingly towards the hill.

I peer off in that direction, my senses whetted. But the sand swirls in my face with even greater intensity. I can't even squint. Not exactly a friendly invitation to further exploration. Cursing under, over, and through my breath, I repack the Cuisinart, hoist it onto my back, and plod off again down the trail.

Abruptly, the sound dies on the wind. I repress the sense of discouragement, concentrate on the more immediate concern of licking grit from my lips. In fact, it hadn't been a mechanical sound at all. Not electric, either. It was the sound of a moose head tearing free from a nail over the front door of a nearby cabin, falling to the ground, and smashing.

I pass a sign:

You have just left the San Rafael Reef Vacation & Recreation Area. Please hurry back!
Using the last bits of sand in my mouth as ballast, I launch a big wet one at the sign.

The lay of the land gradually becomes more appealing, to both eyes and feet. Twisted hoodoos rear up out of bedrock, thrusting skyward in a mocking salute. An unmistakable gesture, emanating from His Satanic Majesty's own public relations department. Quite appealing, actually, both aesthetically and visually. The trail surface itself softens: mauve-mottled lichens squeeze out of tiny seeps, provide a welcome cushion from the tediously unyielding rock. Time soon for another rest break.

Ahead looms a box canyon. Vermillion eloquence in the afternoon sun. Just another twenty minutes and I'll be in the shade of the easternmost palisades.

I'm suddenly aware of an escort. Ravens and lammergeiers, ill-will ambassadors from the aforementioned public relations department, circle above me, squawking Machiavellian greetings. Hoping, no doubt, that I'll drop in for dinner. One of them decides to take a closer look, swoops down and grazes my head with its wing. It feels like suede, if suede can be virulent and fecal. I swat at it, but it's already high overhead, circling, watching. No, I won't daunt it that way. But perhaps I can trick it.

I unshoulder my pack, lie down, and feign disinterest in life. My hand, however, is deep inside the pack, seeking out the blade eject button on the Cuisinart. A twist, a turn, and it's free in my hand: the razor-sharp juliennizer. An honest to God raven deterrent!

I try to relax, shutting one eye, then the other. Experimentally, I shut them both. A mistake. I am instantly and unwittingly asleep. I have an action dream, wherein the subconscious mind elicits participation from the unconscious and normally passive body, in order to add realism to an otherwise ordinary phantasmagory.

It is not a pleasant dream. I am lying spread-eagle in the desert, not of my own volition. A large, leather-winged demon--a capon gone to hell--is sitting on my stomach, studying me through snow-white, suppurating eyes. It's not necessarily a premeditatingly evil creature, but I know that it intends to tear out my heart with its talons and great beak. It leans forward, its mouth agape, its breath nauseating. It smells of fire and brimstone, masked ineffectually by a Certs. Time for action. I thrash about, but my arms are pinned underneath the damned Cuisinart, which is itself wedged in a crevasse. I pummel the air with my legs, but only manage to kick the tent, which collapses, folds up, and slips into its stuff sack. I am in no position to bargain with this creature, but try anyway. However what comes out of my mouth is an unintelligible babble, not the offer of fish and riches I'd hoped to propose.

Still, it does its job and awakens me with a start. With good reason. A large, leather-winged demon is indeed squatting on my stomach, its mouth open, its breath foul. But the backpack isn't hopelessly wedged after all. With all my strength, I slam down upon the terrible bird's head my free hand. With the Cuisinart attached. I don't know what happened to the juliennizer blade I'd been clutching, but the big food processor works equally well. And I no longer feel compelled to locate a damned electrical outlet to justify having lugged it along.

Brushing aside the still twitchy carcass, I get to my feet, repack the Cuisinart, and hoist it onto my back. Above me, the remaining vultures squawk their regrets to their ex-comrade, prepare for a change in their dinner plans. Then I begin walking again towards the cliffs, shade, and dinner. My dinner.

Walk, rest, walk, eat, walk, gawk, walk, sleep. A hopelessly dull routine, it would seem to the uninitiated. And they'd be right. In fact, only the eating part rescues the Hike-Off from a fate of utter monotony.

Let's see...what gastronomic delight is scheduled for this evening? Aha, freeze-dried pigeon on a stick: squab-kabob.

When I began menu planning for this trek, I had no idea of the cuisine limitations which were necessarily imposed for the sake of portability. No room for normal meat 'n' potatoes here; I suddenly found myself thrust into a world of make-believe foods. Protein cakes made from the spoor of barnacles; evil-foaming soup broths I wouldn't drown a slug in; artificially crystallized beverages, the constituents of which are welcome in fertilizers. Monotonous, no; however, voluntary starvation abruptly becomes a force with which to be reckoned.

The birds have flown away, and I am again alone with the desert. Maybe I've been out in the sun too long, but I've developed a theory about this place. The desert is sentient! It has feelings. It shows emotion. It can hear, and see, and smell. It has allergies. It doesn't like organic life to get the upper hand for very long. And in the end, it usually triumphs.

I figure I have another four days, tops, before I start to get on its nerves.

Halfway into the box canyon now. Relief from the sun is only a few steps away. Even before I enter the shade I can smell the temperature difference, which I conservatively estimate to be 30 degrees. Instinctively my lymph glands swell up, throbbing painfully. I decide to have them examined some day soon.

The trail follows a dry stream bed, which meanders to the base of the cliff. Still no water. At least not on the ground. But ten feet above me on a precariously jutting ledge, I can see a veritable profusion of plant life. How then to reach it? The wall is impossibly steep and there are no footholds. There is, however, an old wooden ladder laying nearby, just ten feet long. I prop it against the cliff face and gingerly test it. Applying only half my weight--say, 85 pounds, including Cuisinart--the bottom rung snaps.

But I'm more thirsty than I am concerned about bodily harm. Thinking only the sort of thoughts that would make Norman Peale beam, I scramble up the ladder. Three rungs snap; three don't. Just enough to get me onto the ledge.

I am apparently not the first human to sit up here. Dreamsicle wrappers are everywhere. So are toads, but mostly they're clustered around a tiny, algae-covered pool, crooning amphibial serenades. A perfect opportunity to field-test the Klim! My thirst temporarily slaked by scientific inquiry, I mix the white lumps double strength as planned and gently lather it over my body. Then, taking a handful of unresisting toads, I drop them onto me. Their consciousnesses disturbed, they proceed to hop and croak and engage in all those toadlike activities which medical research has proven cause warts. But will the Klim protect me? I'll know soon enough.

Suddenly, another sound, a tintinnabulation, familiar but absurdly out of place in this wilderness. I peer over the ledge and there, following the same stream bed trail, is the Jack & Jill man. The wrappers strewn before me are the final impetus. This time I must have a Dreamsicle. I open my mouth to call out to him, but at that instant a toad--actually, a frog--jumps into my mouth, lodges in my throat. Coughing and wheezing, I spit out the wretched creature, taking pleasure in simultaneously decapitating it. But when I next look down, the ice cream salesman/extortionist is nowhere to be seen.

I began to sense something wrong in my relationship with the Dreamsicle man.

On the cliff face above me is a six-inch high petroglyph, possibly centuries old. It is the image of a man-beast, a fearsome biped with fur, fangs, and trousers. I stretch up on my tiptoes to examine it more closely and determine that it's actually a woman-beast. The trousers are part of a pants suit. Nevertheless, the image seems to radiate an enormous power. Already I feel dizzy and one of my feet has fallen asleep.

The dizziness intensifies, turns into another wretched vision. I'm encased in a sleeping bag made of shrink wrap. As I struggle to extricate myself the bag constricts, compressing me. Soon I am the size of the petroglyph, which comes to life. The she-beast approaches me, squats down, and performs a strange knuckle dance. Via charades, she tells me her name rhymes with orange, and that she used to work in a sanitarium. The she withdraws a sheet of paper from a rucksack and brandishes it at me. It's an organ donor form. Even if I wanted to sign it, I couldn't. My hands have turned to stone and I am unable to hold the pen. Somehow, this seems to make everyone happy, and I wake up refreshed. Still, the countenance of the petroglyph has changed; the feral eyes now follow my every movement, focusing, I am sure, on my lymph glands.

Even higher above on the sheer cliff sits an aerie, out of which unfurls a pair of shiny black wings, an eerie silhouette against the crimson sky. Simultaneously, something is flung out of the nest. It flutters ambagiously down, landing eventually at my feet. It is a crumpled wrapper from a frozen confection. Then a prehensile beak takes what can only be the leftover Dreamsicle stick, jams it into the side of the nest.

I pull out a map to orient myself. I figure I'm an inch and a half north of Arizona. It's only a rough estimate, though, because I seem to be right on the map's crease line. That, together with a distance scale of 1" = 120 miles, makes my precise location merely speculative. At best I know that I'm pretty much where I've been for the last five days: in the middle of nowhere.

The Middle-Aged Hiker is Copyright ©1993-97,2002 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz and David Gunn. All rights reserved.

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