Incident at Indian Springs: Ghosts of the Grand Canyon

Grand CanyonIt was fifty years now since the woman came panting up the Bright Angel Trail, her face white and calm, so calm, but eyes that were wilder than anything he’d ever seen.

That was the summer he turned twelve, the summer after the winter that his mother died, the summer that he walked the South Kaibob nine miles down to the Colorado River and back up Bright Angel to the south rim by himself for the first time. It took him fourteen hours, taking it slow and smart and steady as his father instructed.

Now he walked the four miles down the South Kaibob trail to Indian Springs, taking his time.  It was October, and the air was still warm and pleasant.  The occasional fall of dead leaves crunched underfoot, and the smell of their decay was also pleasant.

He carried a backpack that held two liters of water. There was no need for this really –they always  kept the water flowing at Indian Springs year round but as a park ranger it was important that he set an example and always be properly equipped, even for a short day hike.   In his pack there was also a first aid kit, an orange, an apple, a peanut butter sandwich, three Power Bars,  and a bottle of aspirin.

The pack was light and he carried it easily, swinging his arms a little as he walked along. And though he went along as slowly and watchfully as he always did, there was nothing to feel in the air but the thin October sunshine, and nothing to smell but the fecund smell of the trees.  There were no hikers out this late in the day.  He was alone, just him and the trail and the quiet, and the Canyon looming all around.

He has made some version of this hike for twenty years and more, and though it was always a different walk in its details – for example in the way the dusty pink color of the Canyon walls darkened down to purpled coral in the early evening – it was always the same in the way the trail had nothing new to tell him about the disappeared man, the way the Canyon had nothing new to reveal about what the wild-calm woman might have seen or or heard. Or done.

The walk was easier in the fall, the dirt ground to a fine silkiness under the feet of a thousand  day hikers.  Footing was more treacherous in the spring, when the snow runoff left the rounded backs of rocks poking through the skin of the trail like the skeletal spine of some ancient and unthinkably large creature.

He arrived at Indian Springs around noon and ate his sandwich on a bench near the water supply, smiling at the couple resting there. The woman smiled at him in a friendly way and he saw that she was pretty in a manner similar to  that  long ago woman – fair and dark-eyed, with cheekbones that might have looked haughty but somehow didn’t.

The incident with the woman with the missing husband had also happened in the fall, the first week of October.  Funny how he always thought of it as an event, as something that had happened. When in fact the entire incident was defined by the inability to name anything specific that had actually happened.

The woman walked into the Park Ranger Office  just like anyone else – she was not running  or shouting.  She even glanced up at the doorway to confirm where she was.

Maybe that was why he had had such a hard time believing her – she’d seemed too calm.  Though on reflection he could never say what manner she might have had that would have been more believable.  How should one behave when the man walking behind you just disappears? What was the right reaction to walking along and suddenly the man who courted you and married you and maybe opened your jars of pickles and sent you daffodils on your birthday was suddenly just…..gone?

What did one say or do, exactly, to convince others that  the man whose weight you bore from time to time in the night, the man who was supposed to pass his  aquiline nose and high-arched feet and knobby knees onto a daughter or a son or even grandson, simply was no more?

He has never found an answer for this.

“My husband is gone,” the woman said.  Then:  “Did he come here looking for me? Have you seen him?”  Her voice was like her face, strained and somehow flat with hopeful urgency..

Though he was only twelve and afraid of her white face, he stepped to the counter with his notebook. His father was out minding the burn, and would not be back for hours.  The other on-duty ranger was walking the rim, reminding people to step back.  They’d lost a little girl two years ago, an event for which the word tragedy first taught him about the inadequacy of language.  His father had kept him away from the site, but it didn’t matter. He’d seen her clearly in his mind’s eye, face down on the steep brushy slope.

“Was there a lot of blood?” he asked his dad, and was surprised to get an answer.

“Just a little, from her nose. Poor little mite.  She broke her neck on the way down.  She was dead before she hit the final ground.”

This formed a hideous rhythm in the boy’s mind  (broke her neck on the way down / dead before she hit the ground, the final final ground) a triplet of words that circled his head restlessly as a trapped sparrow.  It was the solo hike that finally chased the thought away.

“When did you see him last?” he asked the white-faced woman.

“I don’t know,” the woman said, and uttered a strange laugh that made the new hair growth on the back of the boy’s neck stiffen.

“Can you tell me where you think you saw him last?” he asked the woman.

“On the trail,” she said.  “It happened on the trail.”   She stared around her.  “We were about halfway.”

“From the river?” he asked.

“From the place with the well,” she said.  “We rested there”

“Indian Springs,” the boy said.

The woman nodded and waited.  The boy waited as well, then realized with a start that she was expecting him to do the talking. They’d somehow switched roles, and he was the controlled adult questioning the frightened, insecure child.

“What can you tell me about his disappearance?” he asked the woman. Years later this scene would recur to him from time to time, and he would marvel at this adult-sounding question.

The woman seemed to take it as a matter of course that a twelve year old boy would lead the conversation about her missing husband. But her eyes, he thought.

“We went down the south trail this morning.  We were at the river for a while.  We had lunch and soaked our feet.  Then we walked back up. I have plenty of water.”  She stopped and looked at the boy.

He felt it wold be rude to check her pack, so wrote “has plenty of water” in his notebook.  He made a tiny question mark next to it, to remind himself that he hadn’t checked. For some reason, this made him think of his mother.

“We walked up the trail single file, me in front. We were talking. I asked him did he think it was getting cold. He didn’t answer, so I turned around to ask him again.  And he was just…not there.  He was gone.”

“Gone?”

“Gone. He wasn’t on the trail anywhere. I looked all over. I thought he must have fallen, but I couldn’t find him.  I went down as far as I could.  I couldn’t find him,” she repeated.

“When did this happen?” the boy asked.

“I don’t know.  I looked for a long itme. Then I had to walk all the way up here for help.”

The word ‘help’ seemed to shift her into a different gear. “We have to go down now,” she said. “Get men, a mule, a helicopter – we have to go down now. He’s hurt.  He might be…he must be hurt.”

Her voice sharpened on the first hurt, and broke on the second.  She turned as if to go.

“Ma’am?” He said. He was afraid she wouldn’t stop, but she did.

“Julia,” she said.  At his blank look she repeated it. “ My name is Julia.” She gave him a small, automatic  smile. “I don’t like to be called ma’am.  It makes me feel old.”

“Oh,” the boy said.  He wasn’t sure what he would have asked her next – perhaps the name of her husband, which turned out to be Michael, but the other ranger arrived and being much older than the boy, assumed control of the situation. The boy felt both grateful and bereft, as if he had somehow let the woman down.

Although the word ‘control’ wasn’t exactly the right word. ‘Stewardship ‘might have been a better word, since many things happened but nothing about the situation changed: the husband stayed missing without a trace, just as the woman said.

The park rangers searched; the police searched.  Even the FBI searched, since Julia’s husband turned out to be more than just a husband but also the CEO of a venture capital firm with partners and clients who wanted to make sure the man was at the bottom of the Canyon and not, say, in a tiki bar in Central America drinking rum drinks out of coconuts.

The boy found himself thinking frequently of the woman, of Julia. The presumption – never stated but as clear to the boy as if thought bubbles hovered over everyone’s heads – that the little girl falling was more tragic than the husband disappearing troubled him.  After all, the parents of the little girl had each other for comfort.  And they knew what happened.

Julia had no one; the boy knew, because when they’d asked her who they could notify, her answer had been a distracted shake of the head.  She had clasped her elbows in her hands and hugged her thin arms about herself as she answered their questions in a voice that was as pale as her face.

The search had stopped on the sixth day, but the woman – Julia –  showed no signs of leaving the Canyon. The boy’s father arranged to let her stay for free, as long as she would move from the cabin she’d shared with her husband and into one of the motels nearby.  The woman nodded as the boy’s father explained, her lips tight, whether to keep from crying or some other reason, the boy could not tell.

The boy carried her bags to the motel room, which was a clean but unlovely cinderblock square of a room with a scratchy-looking bedspread. The boy set the bag on the bed, noticing the engraved brass tag with the man’s name and address on it.  He rubbed his finger on this, the only evidence of the husband’s existence that he’d seen. He felt awe.

I could look for him, if you want me to, he told the woman, surprising himself.

The woman slowly shook her head.  No one is ever going to find him, she said in a low voice.

Well, the boy said. Sure they could.  After all, he has to be somewhere.

The boy  knew that animals might have gotten the best of the man by now, but felt sure that something of the man’s clothing or bones or teeth would certainly still remain.

I think that’s the mistake everyone keeps making, the woman said.  That he has to be somewhere. Because he doesn’t, see. He’s not.  He didn’t fall, and he didn’t hit his head and he didn’t drown, the woman said.  He just disappeared.  I know that no one believes me. But that’s what happened.

She looked at the boy with eyes that did not plead or demand to be believed, and so the boy, twelve, believed her.

We were walking along and one second I could hear him back there, his voice talking, the sound the little rocks  and dirt made under his shoes, and the next second there was nothing.  Just the wind.

He didn’t say anything? The boy ventured.  His voice cracked a bit, and he cleared his throat.  I mean, like, call out or something?

The woman shook her head.  Not a sound.  His voice cut off in mid-sentence.  He didn’t know what was happening. Whatever it was, it surprised him, she said.

It? The boy repeated.

The thing that happened. I don’t know what ‘it’ was, she said.  Just that it was.

Of course he went anyway, the day before the woman left the Canyon.  He stood looking out from the south rim in the pre-dawn cold and dark, then began picking his long,careful way down the south Kaibob trail.   It was rocky and steep, dropping more than 4,000 feet in the first 5 miles in a tangle of switchbacks and rocks the size of baby skulls.

The footing was  treacherous and required his full attention on the two-foot patch of dirt in front of his  hiking boots, so that he was surprised how easy it was to forget that he was in a canyon, much less a Grand one.  He stopped like a clock at the top and bottom of each hour for water and a little food, watching the rising sun color the canyon first smoky blue, then verdigris, then glowing coral.

He walked carefully but quickly, not bothering to look around much – the man had disappeared on the Bright Angel Trail which was on the way up, not down.   By the time he reached the canteen at the bottom, the big muscles of his thighs were trembling like guitar strings so he waded into the icy Colorado and stood, teeth chattering, for ten minutes, envisioning the capillaries in his legs shrinking , the cold acting as a solder against the tiny hemorrhages of his exercise.

He imagined Julia with her husband standing knee deep in the river, the way the cold would tighten her nipples that poked at the cloth of her camp shirt.  He wondered if her husband was handsome, or tall,  and decided he was probably both.

At the bottom of the Canyon the river ran alongside the trail for awhile, keeping him company, then veered away abruptly as he started up, as if to say, you go on ahead

You’re not thinking you can find that fella, are you, his father had asked, to which the boy had shook his head.  Despite what he’d said to Julia, he knew that anyone who didn’t turn up in the first couple of days after going missing was almost surely dead. He was only twelve but he was his father’s son, and knew all about heat stroke and head injuries from falling, and drowning in the river.

It was the truth, too. The boy did not expect to find Julia’s husband.  He believed the woman, that her husband had disappeared.  The boy thought he might be able to find the place where the disappearance occurred, if not the reason.

It was late in the day as he headed up the Bright Angel Trail.  The boy was surprised to encounter only a single hiker, someone headed down to the river.  The man smiled pleasantly but did not speak and the boy had a brief thought – that guy could just as easily be a ghost – there and gone before he could acknowledge it.

Full darkness fell when the boy was four  miles from the top.  The boy had heard the term “darkness falling’ but had never gave it much thought.  It was a term that made him think of going to the movies, the way the red velvet curtain descended after the movie credits rolled past, which he’d always watch to the very end, right up until the movie studio logo with the year in Latin characters and the trailing end of the song.

But here in the Canyon, darkness did not descend like a curtain pulled by invisible strings, but actually fell like a dark blanket dropped suddenly from the sky.  One minute the boy was walking in patchy late afternoon sunlight,  minutes later it was as if someone had flipped a giant dimmer switch.  The air purpled like a bruise, and just like that it was full dark.

The boy put on his headlamp, strapping it above the bill of his cap.  The pool of illumination was startlingly precise, as if he were wearing goggles made of light. Several times he reached up to touch the skin beneath his eyes, thinking the darkness at the perimeter of the spotlit path was creeping onto his face.

There had been no wildlife on the daytime part of the trek; it was fall, a time when creatures were deceptively quiet.  But the night was different; the night was astir with unseen animals: an orange-eyed bat flapped frantically away from his spotlight eye. A  disembodied pair of round yellow eyes startled him; the effluiva of the skunk followed a moment later, calming his heart.

Walking along listening to the sounds of night creatures rattling the undergrowth and sending little cascades of pebbles onto the path, it was easy to let the imagination run wild. The boy’s did not; he did not think the woman’s had, either.

But these facts did not stop him from acknowledging the possibility of  such a thing, and how it could come to be that people might not believe a woman who said her husband went missing, preferring to believe her imagination had gotten the better of her, warmed by this thought to the point they forget the ongoing fact of the man, gone.

No trace of the man was ever found.  In time people forgot the story, and Julia.  But the boy continued to make the annual trek, looking for the place on the trail where the man went from existent to non.  He made the trek as a young man, a middle aged man, and now, an old man (if a youngish one).   The man had simply disappeared, never aging a day past the day of the incident at Indian Springs.

Pausing to rest and eat in approximately the same spot lo these fifty years, the ranger turns off his headlamp. In the mild temperature, the darkness seemed not fearsome but friendly, both encompassing and comforting.  He imagined Julia surrounded by the same darkness like a blanket wrapping her and stretching up infinitely, broken only by the stars scattered above him like fistfuls of diamonds on velvet.

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