Alan was rappelling down the rock cliff, letting the line slide through his hands when a boulder slipped under his foot and rolled his ankle. He knew immediately he’d sprained it. Same ankle he’d injured half a dozen times before. Still, he tried to ignore the pain. Which failed. Then he tried flexing and bending it, hoping it might work out the tension. When it didn’t, he hopped down the sheer wall on one leg and landed roughly on rocky ground. He’d practice such maneuvers a dozen times at least on lesser cliffs—not once ending in injury.
Around him, the red sandstone walls rose a hundred feet, at least, on both sides. Too high to pull himself back up. Not after his body aged from lean to skinny. He’d have to be Batman walking up the sides of a skyscraper. The only way out was to follow the stream that trickled between the walls and disappeared around a bend.
Overhead, a bird sang in a percussive clatter that could have been a car failing to start, a reminder of his isolation from technology and civilization. In a day of walking, he’d met no people, seen no footprints, and come across not even a rock cairn to suggest others had preceded him, which is how he’d planned this trip—an obscure canyon in the wilds of Escalante, the most desolate region of a desert known for its sparseness. A challenge to scout a new path—no trails or pitons to assist. An attempt to recapture the athleticism of his youth, decades past, despite an iffy back and balky knees that also required bracing. A pushback against the constriction of his life. His body was a chain of weak links—worn down by sixty years of abuse. Nothing the doctors could do, they said. The effects of aging. Better to accept his limits.
He checked the map and tried to pinpoint his location. It teemed with names of torment—Hole in the Rock, Devil’s Gulch, Hell’s Backbone—a fact he’d overlooked while plotting the trip. Difficult to orient in a space without hills or valleys as landmarks. The topo showed a steep cliff about a quarter of the way into the canyon. Likely where he sat, leaving many more miles. Even at the end of the narrows, he’d have to find a way back to his car. He’d planned to hitchhike, but as he drove in over the dusty washboard road, he realized no one else would see him for hours. He could walk it just as fast. Could have. Not now.
His wilderness guide advised staying put after an injury and waiting for a rescue, but that presupposed someone knew where he was or might follow the same trail—both unlikely in that remote sector of the desert. Despite precautions from the rangers, he hadn’t told his ex-wife nor his adult children where he was going. They would have said he was too old and infirm and questioned why he wanted to take the risk. None understood the need to test himself.
What was he to do? Turn back on the first day of his trip? Give up on an adventure he’d spent months planning? In anger, he yanked the rope down after him, which landed on his head and pinged his helmet, then lay all about him, limp and useless as a flaccid penis. He wouldn’t give in to the pain. He’d sprained an ankle, nothing more. When it was over, he’d have a good story to share with friends.
The joint swelled and tightened like an overinflated bladder. His doctors told him that rest, ice, and ibuprofen cured all sports injuries, but he had none on hand, and that approach had never fixed the problem before. He opened his pack, rummaged to the bottom for an ace bandage, and crisscrossed it over, which relieved none of the pain but added to the pressure.
He raised himself with two walking sticks, then balanced on one leg like a crane and slowly added weight onto the bad ankle. Even a small fraction of normal hurt, and that was with the other shoe on the ground. No way he could stride foot to foot like that. He sat again, rewrapped the ankle so tightly it cut off circulation, and hobbled forward, ignoring the pinch that came with every step.
He stayed on the sandy sediment beside the stream, which proved the smoothest and most cushioned, but the band disappeared wherever the canyon pinched inward, forcing him to cross the water repeatedly. At first, he tried to keep his feet dry using stepping stones, but when one gave way, bending his ankle and soaking his shoe, he realized the futility, gave up, and waded through the bed, which rose as high as his calf. The water made the bandage feel both dense and rough, chafing his skin. It had been a wet winter, feeding the spring with a steady snow melt. A reminder of how this slot had formed: through centuries of flash floods that split the rocks and carved a chasm.
Stop. Worry was making him cowardly. If he wanted to turn around, he should have done so before. He was committed now, his life reduced to a tunnel with only one exit.
The shadow of the high walls made it cool and still. It hid the sun except at midday, which he’d counted as a blessing that morning—a shelter from the desert heat—but as he gimped through the cold stream, the chill radiated from his feet to his chest. Instead of trail runners, he should have worn swim booties.
He stopped to unearth a wool cap and gloves from his bag, which forced him to consider its contents. Because of his fading physique, he’d packed little. For the chill nights, a down coat. Only a tarp and sleep sack as shelter. No flashlight or camera. No phone or wallet. For cosmetics, only sunscreen and a first aid kit. For food, freeze-dried or dehydrated. “Travel light and fast,” the salesman at the outdoor goods store had counseled. Since he had no intention of rappelling again, Alan dumped the helmet and harness, then ate a nutritional bar and drank half his water.
He removed the wet bandage and examined the red flesh beneath it, which was starting to blister and shred. Plus, his feet were coated in damp, red dust. He wrung out the fabric, which had absorbed the stench of sweat and river dank, and rewrapped it loosely enough not to hurt. Then he added a layer of duct tape, which could fix almost any camp supply.
He shouldered his pack again, which felt no lighter, and moved forward cautiously, testing each footing before placing his full weight on it. If he kept the ankle rigid, that limited the pain, but rocks hid beneath the soft ground, and in spots, hard sandstone replaced the sand. Meanwhile, the tap of his poles echoed off the walls back to him mockingly, and his shoes squelched beneath. Any time he saw someone limping on a cane, he felt not pity nor empathy but fear that by the time he could retire, he’d be slumped over a stick.
After a time, he came to a clearing. A great stone bridge soared above him, fifty feet up at least. The guidebooks had not mentioned it, and the maps showed nothing about it. Maybe he had discovered it. He could name it after himself or, better yet, his trip—Desolation Arch. If he’d brought a camera, he would have recorded the site, but he’d left that at home with his phone and wallet. The wide, flat ground offered a tempting place to stop and camp, a release from the tight, damp chill of the canyon. However, the sky still showed the pale blue of day, and he needed to keep going as long as his ankle would endure it, in case it tightened overnight. Reluctantly, he kept walking.
Farther on, the walls narrowed to a slot, the sides rubbed into smooth striations by eons of floods. The rock shone in tones of red and orange from the slim light, almost like a bruise. The walls became a gantlet, barely wide enough for the stream to pass—so slim he’d have to sidestep. Another photo moment, but he’d have to record it in his memory. He stepped into the stream again, which rose to his ankles and weighted his shoes. The closer the walls pinched, the deeper the stream became, reaching his knees, then his thighs. In the shadow, he couldn’t clearly see the bottom. He poked one stick ahead like he was searching for snakes in tall grass and felt the riverbed falling away. Ahead, the walls converged so he couldn’t see the exit, but he could hear the water rushing forward and feel it pulling against his legs. With each step, the water rose to his waist and chest, so he held both sticks in one hand and balanced his pack atop his head to keep it dry. As he advanced, he felt the stream sucking him toward the pinch point. He leaned into the poles to make a tripod. Then his pack teetered and fell in, banging against his stick, ruining his balance. Before being dragged through the narrows like a dead log, he heaved the knapsack toward the bank and backtracked.
On land, he assessed the damage. One hiking pole bent, his pack saturated, his body cold. Shockingly cold for a desert. Quickly, he started hyperventilating and shivering. No choice now. He had to retreat.
His stride became even more ungainly with only one good pole. The landscape blurred into a continuous tunnel of rock. The walk felt endless.
When he reached the arch, he dumped out his things, which were all soaked. The plastic bag he’d wrapped them in couldn’t protect against full immersion. Even in that wide clearing, the sun had already passed beyond the narrow slot, leaving everything in shadow. No way he could dry them without light, so he set up for the evening.
Even his down jacket failed to fight off the cold, retaining more moisture than heat. If he’d brought a stove, he could have ignited it for warmth, yet that would have added to his load. He retreated to his sleep sack, which felt clammy and provided little comfort. The silt from his immersion irritated his skin, while the smell of his sweat mixed with the stagnant water. At least his hat and gloves still offered some insulation, so he concentrated on them, watched the stars appear above the arch, and waited for sleep to overtake him.
He awoke with a start. The sky remained dark, but the moon had risen, casting the walls a pale blue. Nearby, he heard a rustling and turned to see his backpack twitching. Rather than rise or crawl, he grabbed a walking stick and struck the bag, scaring off whatever rodent had been foraging there. Still, as his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he saw several of his food wrappers strewn around the campsite.
What to do? Usually, he’d hang his food bag to make it inaccessible, but no trees stood in the clearing. Despite being fed by a year-round stream, the canyon supported only rock and sand and the slow, grinding decay of water. Placing the bag on a boulder would do nothing since healthy rats could climb far better than injured old men. Instead, he used the stick to draw the bag to him, then removed what food remained and stashed it at the bottom of his sleep sack, where the smell would repel all but the boldest raider.
By morning, he felt too stiff to move. Not just his ankle but his back and legs had seized up, unused to such exertion. How frail he’d become with age. He pulled his knees to his chest and tried to return some flexibility, but that only emphasized his immobility. He rose and tested his foot. It could bear only a fraction of his full weight—even less than the day before. The flesh looked raw, still striated by bandaging. Another curse of aging: the thinning of the skin. His hands felt as cracked as a lizard’s, blisters rose between half his toes, and his nose bled from dry air.
Next, he checked his remaining food stash: a few nutrition bars and dried fruit the rodents had missed. His GORP was so infested it smelled of mice, so he dumped it into the stream. Like all his supplies, he’d packed minimal sustenance, anticipating a three-day trek and leaving little extra. He could stretch the food another day, but that left nothing for the walk out. He counted the remaining items, divided them into six portions, and allotted himself a single bar for breakfast, which tasted as dry and gritty as the desert dirt.
He shouldn’t have gone solo, shouldn’t have kept his plans secret, shouldn’t have pushed himself this late in life. Should have accepted old age as the whittling away of all he loved. His ex told him he was always too ambitious, longing to escape. Most likely, he’d starve or die of exposure. A fitting end. Unless he could extract himself.
He needed to pass through the narrows without another injury. Not walking. Not swimming. Not climbing. He studied the arch, which had withstood thousands of floods. If only he could resist the current where it grew strong and swift.
Then a thought. Mentally, he examined, rotated, and considered it from all angles, like a three-dimensional drawing. When he could find no flaw in it, he rewrapped his ankle in the dank, smelly bandage, retrieved his pack, gathered his things, and attached his rope to the outside.
He hardly recognized the trail despite two previous passages. A sign of his distraction, his loss of clear thinking. Or maybe he’d stopped paying attention long ago.
Soon enough, he came to the slot. He looked for a tree trunk but, finding none chose a large boulder close to the pool and tied his rope around it. Without his climbing harness, he lacked a good place to clip on, so instead, he looped it around the bent pole and sat on it like a rope tow at a ski resort. Then he gave it a test tug. Good.
He walked to the pool’s edge and backed in. Ahead he heard the water rushing through the narrows, and he felt it tugging at his ankles, daring him to try again. He let out another foot of rope, stepped backward, and nearly slipped on a wet rock. Fortunately, with the good leg, but fair warning. He continued thus, unwinding slowly into the pool, feeling the bottom sink under him, the undertow grow stronger. The water rose to his knees, thighs, and waist. Then it covered his rope and hands so he couldn’t see them. No matter. He’d rely on feel. He descended until he stood chest deep, then turned to see the pinch point only steps away. The froth sprayed his face and blurred his vision. He wiped his eyes, squinted, and saw the falls disappear over an immeasurable edge. The vacuum sounded as loud as a jet engine. He inhaled, braced himself, and stepped backward.
Suddenly, he found himself not standing but dangling from his knees like a trapeze artist. Water flowed under, around, and overtop him. Couldn’t tell which way he faced. All he knew was he couldn’t breathe. Panic tried to steal his reason—drowning all he could think. Then he felt his hands still gripping the rope. He let the line slide through his palms until the water fell away beneath him. He fell with it. Then stopped. Dangling upside down. River pouring overtop him. Twisting and battering him from all angles. He sputtered and flailed. Had to let go, even though he couldn’t see what waited below. Could be a steep cliff or boulder. He’d be falling blind. Could bash in his brains. Still, he must. His life had compressed to this one moment. He gave in and felt himself free-falling.
He landed with a jarring splash, yet the weight of the falls kept him submerged. His lungs contracted with longing. Something struck him in the head and thigh simultaneously. Something dragged him downward. His pack was weighed down by the water. He slipped off the shoulder straps, then felt himself being sucked away.
He surfaced at the far end of a large pool. Gasped for air, his heart beating so rapidly he could feel it in his ears, lungs aching from the effort of breathing. How close he’d come to drowning. A few seconds more, and he might have lost consciousness. He noted the chill of the pool but felt only relief. He dog-paddled till he felt the earth beneath him, then crawled onto the bank and lay there. For that brief time, he’d forgotten about his ankle, his age, and the distance to go and focused only on survival.
He looked back at the falls, which plunged nearly twice his height, and at the pool, which sank so deep he could not see the bottom. Scattered all about lay his things—his pack, his rope, one good pole. Without cataloging them, he gathered what he could find and stuffed everything roughly into the bag.
Ahead, the canyon widened, but the walls remained just as high, blotting out the sun and suggesting an endless passage. He resolved to keep walking no matter how long, hobbled but not humbled.
About the Author
David Hagerty is the author of the Duncan Cochrane mystery series, which chronicles crime and dirty politics in Chicago during his childhood. Real events inspired all four novels, including the murder of a politician’s daughter six weeks before election day and a series of sniper killings in the city’s most notorious housing project. He has also published more than 30 short stories, including many about his penchant for outdoor adventure. When he’s not inventing disaster fantasies, he hikes, paddles, bikes, swims, and skis. Read more of his work at https://davidhagerty.net.