Saturday, March 7, 2015

the desert, and a fatal mistake

I can't get it out of my thoughts.It is the Grape Hill Trail that haunts me.One of the easiest paths in the park.That day, we walked on it for a mile up to the balancing rock.This was Big Bend National Park in Texas;it was winter and even then, the sunny part of the walk, which was most of it, was hot.

Texas is not Georgia.The sun is brilliant and in the park, the only shade available is in very early morning or late afternoon when the rocks block the sun.Mid-day is sun.Period.And sand.

I knew the story of the man from New York who had perished here in May of 2004 but to walk and see the exact spot where he made his fatal mistake was jarring.I was with my son who knows this park, my husband and plenty of water when we started out on this flat, interesting trail.Then we got to a place of narrow winding rocks going up and before long I was on my hands and knees.That's when I fore swore going any further and plopped down and waited for their return.Fear of heights is a burdensome thing but also perhaps a warning from my psyche that a fall from here at my age would be dreadful in many ways.

I was in the shade of the monumental rocks and not unhappy to wait and let the breeze blow on my cheeks and look at the magnificence all around.And, it is just that.Soon, they were back, and with helping hands, I got back to level ground.The sun was falling behind the rocks as we walked so there was more shade and that is when we came across what looked like another path.

On that May day,when the 42 year old lawyer from New York hiked solo up  the rocks, the temperature was over 100 degrees.A man who passed him coming down the trail said that he observed no water and a very red face as he said hello.The lawyer had reached the top and mentioned it was worth the climb.When the second man came back down, he observed only one other car in the small lot at the head of the trail and suspecting it belonged to that red faced man, wondered where he had gone.There was only one path to the cars.

I saw the spot where he kept going, down a small sandy wash, a dry stream bed, that looked just like the trail.He kept walking and, as this wash went down, he didn't see the cars above him to the left.His car, his escape.He kept on and rescuers found him the next day, two miles down the wash, face down, swollen.They have since put a small string of rocks to block that wash from being mistaken for the trail.

I stood for a minute at that small group of rocks thinking of the man who succumbed to the heat of the desert so rapidly that day.He was coherent when he passed the other walker and a mile later when he crossed a road which had not been on the path when he went in, he kept going which tells us that, by then, his thought process was impaired.His small journal, found at his side, hurt me when I read it:"9:40 started trail to balance rock.""think I'll be back by ten?""11:00 no car,go path, mtn nearby.""should be back by problem.""Call for help."" rest in shade".The last entry simply said:"12:40".

I loved Big Bend and the wide open spaces of Texas.The fact that this land is so wild and untamed and we don't "own" it.But, Douglas Pappas from New York haunts me.And teaches me.


Garnette Arledge said...

You make his journey so real to me. An honor to read. Thank you for sharing his journey lest he be forgotten. Blessings.

Missy said...

Haunting for sure-and a good reminder that it's not a good idea to go hiking alone or without water.

Teresa Piccinini said...

wow- yes, a powerful story.... nature is beautiful,
spiritual, awe-inspiring and..... not to be messed with