By Jacqueline Eis
According to my map, the trail goes on beyond this talus-strewn rise into a larger, impassible box canyon. But once again, I decide to go no further. I’ve arrived at my favorite resting place, happy that I’m the only one there. A spring-fed stream beside the trail tumbles over a low cataract of sandstone boulders into a shallow pool. The clear water reflects back the deep blue sky and cliffs such an aggressive gold that I have to shield my eyes. I take off my hiking boots and stand in the cold water, my bare feet settling into the gravel between the stones.
I hear pebbles falling. There, on the rise, breaching the rim of the lower canyon, a wiry young man with a worn red backpack, tattered jeans and running shoes, sweaty hair plastered under a dirty cap, scrabbles down the steep incline, dust and gravel flying as he rounds the big boulders. He shoe-skis through a patch of flat, loose scree, tripping over tangled brush, then skids to the bottom of the draw and stumbles onto the flat section of the trail nearby. Winded, he bends to his knees and gasps out, “Where is this place?”
Thinking he means the trail, I point west, toward the visitor center, the highway, and eventually, the airport. “You’re two miles from the trailhead. Follow the path along the stream.”
He dance-steps circles, raising a cloud of dust, so agitated he seems about to leap out of his body. “Where is this place?” He waves his arms toward the sky, nodding outward, as if suggesting a larger scale, a run from somewhere far away.
I’m puzzled, but he’s lost and I can help. “You’re on the Box Canyon Trail at Ghost Ranch.”
Bewildered, still looking up at the rock walls, he takes off his cap, runs a shaking hand through his hair. “Where in the hell?”
This town? This state? I say, “Near Abiquiu, New Mexico.”
The confusion still doesn’t leave his face. He stares and shouts up at the sky. Not at me. “Where?”
This country? I’m smirking when I ask, “The United States? Planet Earth?” Something about him feels familiar. He’s not the first guy I’ve met who shouts nonsense at the sky, then doesn’t give it a chance to answer.
He doesn’t react. I flutter my map at him, so close the edge touches the back of his hair. “Let me show you,” but he doesn’t seem to hear me or feel the air stirred by the map, doesn’t turn to look at it. He looks annoyed, a sure sign he must hear me. He looks back toward the rise he came down, then downstream where the canyon eventually spreads out into flatlands.
His trancelike anxiety suggests he’s been dropped off, told to run. But even a caged animal released into the wild wouldn’t be so disoriented and irrational. It would be sniffing the dust for the right scent, orienting itself. His look though, is all miscalculation, as if picturing some imaginary landscape that doesn’t match these subtle landmarks—the way the sun is creating shadows on the sunny, south-facing walls of the canyon, the strewn arrangement of boulders in the stream near the path. Urgency without direction.
I hold out my water bottle, but like a wild bird, he hovers nearby in unfocused fear, not allowing himself to look at it, unable to alight.
What’s in that backpack he’s hefting? Why that furtive way he won’t meet my glance? Am I seeing a drug runner, literally running? One of the ranch’s supposed ghosts? Truly a lost soul, unable to connect, not even for a moment?
I start to ask, but he suddenly springs away down the trail. “I have to be there by four,” he calls out like Wonderland’s White Rabbit.
I shout, “Or what? What will happen?”
I can’t help myself. I call after him, “Where? Where more beautiful than this?” But his odd, contagious panic constricts my voice, and my shout mocks me in the canyon’s hollow echo. “This? This? This?”
I glance back to the rise, half-expecting someone in pursuit, but hear nothing. I notice now that during his flurry I heard no birds, no stream babbling, even the wind stilled with puzzlement, as if he’d held the world spellbound.
What an eerie man; more dust cloud than human, the kind of ominous presence I meet only in my strangest dreams, as I wander alone and adrift in unknown cities. Did he see or hear me at all? And then that most peculiar of threats, the blank way he looked right through me, as if I didn’t exist.
The thought stops me, especially now that I can’t feel my feet in the cold water.
I catch my breath, light-headed at the realization of my invisibility.
I’ve inhabited this fear before and frequently. I had intended the hike to be an escape from my own rushing world with all its difficult relationships, seeking solace in a place that makes me feel more alive, not another opportunity to question my own existence.
I’m chagrined that I fall so quickly into easy insecurity. I sit down, my feet on the sun-warmed rock beside the shallow pool, and as they warm, the sensation reorients me.
Yes, if I’m still, nature will acknowledge my reality. A tiger swallowtail lands on the rock beside me and climbs onto my hand, comfortable as it suns its wings on my warmth. The stream too plays a little joke as it accepts my presence, rippling back my rattled, funhouse reflection. A bubbling curl, a watery giggle, uses me and winds itself around my toes, gently tickling, and runs out of the pebble-lined pool, teasing me back toward the wildflowers along the creek, completely unconcerned with what I am or how long I might haunt this planet.