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Lost in the desert

I’d heard of Hovenweep National Monument as a child. One time on a summer vacation, my father wanted to stop there on our way to the Grand Canyon. We never made it, but the name stuck with me. The night before we left Mesa Verde, we spread the map out on the picnic table and looked at it with the flashlight. We spotted the national monument about an hour away outside of Cortez, Coloardo. We decided we would go there just to see what such an out-of-the-way place just had to offer.

We arrived early enough in the day to walk the rim of the canyon where stone houses of the ancients stood below. We set up our camp and made our way to the tiny visitors’ center, where a park ranger showed us on the map where other ruins stood and how we might get to them. We had the park to ourselves. Not one other camper or tourist was visiting at the time we were there. Even the ranger remarked that it was a pretty lonely place. Sydney filled part of the afternoon doing her Junior Ranger activity and walked away from the visitor center with her book stamped and another plastic ranger badge.

After the activity in Mesa Verde National Park, we took it easy, thinking that two nights in the park was going to be good enough for us to see what we wanted. Sagebrush desert around Hovenweep, almost totally devoid of hills or other features surrounded us. The place was quiet as a museum, only the calls or ravens split the silence. We gathered wood for a fire from the few pinons that stood around the campsite. The presence of enough deadfall for us to make a good fire testified to the loneliness of the place.

That night, I convinced Syd that we ought to sleep outside under the stars. I am not much of a tent man myself, and only use them against rain and bugs. But here the dry desert was inhabited only by flies, which wouldn’t keep us up at night. At first, she was unsure of herself. The tent afforded her an enclosed space where she felt safe. But with some assurance that nothing would get us—there were no bears or moose or dogs—she bedded down beside me after our fire burned low. The stars floated like chiffon frozen in a breeze above us. Using a flashlight, I shot up a beam through the last smoke of the fire to show her constellations I knew and what they were called. She fell asleep after I turned off the light.

The next day, we made a quick breakfast and coffee for me. Today, I said, we are going to hike to a ruin a couple miles distant called Holly House. We would have to walk from a parking area some distance from the visitors’ center on a nondescript trail through the sagebrush. We had plenty of water for the short hike and bounded off with a great deal of confidence. We made it to the ruin and walked around the canyon where it stood, one lonely sandstone tower in the elbow of a deep canyon lush with green growth and cottonwoods. We headed back and came across another ruin, a single ancient house about ten feet square built from sandstone and petrified wood. She was able to climb into this one to get an idea of the size.

“You mean this was someone’s house?”

“It was probably the house for an entire family,” I said.

“But it’s so small. I think my room is bigger.”

“Remember,” I said, “the people who lived here probably didn’t spend a lot of their time inside. It was a place for them to store some things and to sleep. They probably spent most of their day gathering water and food. They grew their crops down here in this draw, where they could catch water when it rained, at least I think so. I makes sense anyway. If you follow this line of cottonwoods (they were stubby little things not more than ten or twelve feet high) that shows you where the most water is.”

“But there’s no water here.”

“There is enough water for these trees. If you look around, these are the only trees anywhere near here. At one time, there was likely more rain and water than there is now. That’s why people don’t live here anymore.”

We started back the direction toward the car. The sun was full and the sky clear. The temperature rose a great deal since we started and soon the wind blew furnace hot. Our water was about gone.

Then, we lost the trail. It just ended in a welter of sagebrush and clumpy grass and sand. We were alone in the desert and I felt a pang of panic. I looked around and walked in circles trying to find the path, but I found none. We continued in the direction I thought the car lay. Soon, darker thoughts crowded my head. I’d read stories of people dying in the desert, some not far from their cars or sources of water. Was this the right direction? What kind of father kills his daughter in the desert? People run out of water and get disoriented. They make bad decisions. I scanned the horizon, looking for a glint off the car’s metal surface or windshield, but saw nothing. We came across a lone pinon standing in the desert. I sat Sydney down in its shade. She now knew something was wrong. She wondered if we were going to be all right.

I searched for another hour, walking as far from Syd as she would allow before calling out to me. I worried that heat and dehydration would get to her. She began to get anxious. I soothed her and told her that everything was all right. Panic interfered with anything we might do. Keep calm and I’ll figure it out. We have plenty of daylight left and we’re bound to find out way back to the car. This seemed to comfort her. She stopped fidgeting and began singing to herself, as she did when she waited in line or for her mother or for me or Virginia. Just singing and whistling. It calmed me down.

We drank the last of the water. The white sand amplified the sun’s glare so that even the shade wasn’t much of a relief from the sun. I sat down next to her. “So, what are we going to do, dad?”

“The way I figure it, the ranger must check the parking areas for the outlying ruins once in a while. I’m sure he’ll find our car and come looking for us.”

“Will it be long?”

“It might be a while,” I said. “So, we’ll just have to be patient. I’ll get up here again in a minute and see if I can’t see the car again. I’m going to walk over that way a little. Don’t be scared, I’m not leaving.”

I walked a while in one direction, looking back over my shoulder to keep an eye on Syd. The last thing I wanted was to find a car and lose a kid. Nothing came of my effort, though, and I returned.

As I went to sit down again, I turned and caught a flash of light coming from the direction I believed led to the car. I ducked one way, then the other, and sure enough, it must be the car. I told Syd it was time to go, I knew where I where we were now. I didn’t look back at her but waited until she joined me by my side. I kept the glint of light in sight and we started walking.

I’ve never felt the kind of relief I felt when we got close enough to see that it really was the car. A kind of elation overcame me. We didn’t have water there and would have to wait, but in a few minutes, we’d really be home safe.

We spent the rest of the day and evening in our campsite. We had a good fire and this time, I pulled out the rest of the bag of marshmallows for Syd to roast over the fire. Again, we lay out under the stars. This time, Sydney was falling asleep before I even pulled the sleeping bag up around her.

“We weren’t really in trouble out there, were we?” she asked.

“No,” I lied.

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