Lesson of That First Desert Trail
By Richard McCord
The bottom line was always
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
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
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 Amazon.com