The Lesson of That First Desert Trail

By Richard McCord

SFAOL Writer

  The bottom line was always the same:
Any mess-up in the real West can kill

Perusing a short stack of newsmagazines that accumulated recently while I was on the road, I found a color-illustrated report of the flash flood that drowned 10 unsuspecting hikers in a narrow red-rock Arizona canyon in the blazing August sun.

The reminder of this tragedy, which I had heard about, was especially vivid, for when it happened I was within 100 miles, in the canyon country of Utah, giving a 13-year-old niece from suburban Atlanta her very first taste of the West.

Standing on mighty cliffs in the sunshine, looking at grim dark storms in the distance, I told her that people are killed each year by rain falling many miles away. Surveying the parched landscape below, she found that hard to believe.

It all brought back my own first trip to the West, as a 24-year-old emerging from suburban Atlanta. I was hypnotized by the wide-open spaces, humbled by the towering mountains, seduced by the exotic Indian and Hispanic cultures. But not until Zion National Park in Utah did danger hit home.

Before then I was seeing the West through my windshield-so much space to cover, so little time. But at Zion I finally parked at a trailhead to get out and hike. I took along a self-guiding leaflet. And that was the start of something big.

The text of the pamphlet described what would be seen on the hike. But the full back page was a scary list of warnings:

       STAY ON THE TRAIL. The desert has few landmarks, and it is easy to get disoriented or lost-which can result in death.

       CARRY PLENTY OF WATER. The combination of high heat and low humidity dehydrates the human body-which can result in death.

       SHIELD YOURSELF FROM THE SUN. In just a few minutes the sun can severely burn human skin-causing pain and even death.

       BEWARE OF RATTLESNAKES. They are plentiful in this area-and their poisonous bite can frequently result in death.

       BEWARE OF SCORPIONS. Less deadly than rattlesnakes, the scorpion still must be avoided-for its bite too can be fatal.

       DO NOT THROW ROCKS. Portions of the trail below switchbacks are out of sight-and stones can cause injury or death.

       STAY BACK OF CLIFF LEDGES. There are no guardrails, and falls from any height can cause injury-or death.

There were more, but the bottom line of every caution was the same: Any mess-up out in the real West can kill someone.

I found this most exciting. As a child in a comfortably tamed part of the East, I thrilled to Western movies in which the sun or rattlesnakes, or wolves or the endless desert posed disaster for the manly hero. If only I could live in such dangerous country! Surely I would triumph over every threat.

But on that Utah desert trail, my boyhood fantasies took on a frightening overcast. The dangers that had seemed distant and romantic were suddenly real and present, with the actual power to kill people-like me. This was no longer the movies.

I realized at once that I liked the reality better than the celluloid image. The sun was as hot as it ever was in the Old West, the snakes as potent, nature just as unforgiving. If I fell or got lost or bitten, it wouldn't make much difference that modern, sophisticated help was just a few miles away. I could be as dead as anyone whose luck ran out 100 years ago.

I survived that hike without incident, but never forgot its lesson. Years later, when I moved to New Mexico, I did not mind when a cloudburst ripped open Hyde Park Road, stranding me in a tent for three days. I enjoyed the times when the raging water made the arroyo to my Tesuque house impassable, leaving me stuck on whichever side I was on. I have loved the big snowstorms that sometimes paralyze Santa Fe. I'm sorry I barely missed the 40-below-zero freeze of 1971.

The theme to all these dramatic phenomena is that when all is said and done, nature is still bigger than man. This is ultimately true in big cities as well, but it is more visible out where we live. I feel sadness and horror when hikers get washed away, or when an old couple freezes to death looking for their dog on a snowy trail. But at bottom I love nature's majesty more.

To order Richard McCord's book "The Chain Gang," which tells the story of the weekly Santa Fe Reporter, visit .


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