Saturday, December 3, 2016

Fire

A couple weeks ago Jamie Olson stopped by Twin Rocks Trading Post to advise Barry, Priscilla and me, he and his longtime companion Marge, were driving to Cigarette Springs for a hike. They wanted to visit the Citadel, which is an Ancient Puebloan archaeological site perched at the end of a narrow sandstone peninsula. As anyone who has been there will tell you, the Citadel lives up to its name. The ruin is high above Road Canyon, giving it an expansive field of view. As a result it is easy to imagine its original inhabitants using it to defend their territory. Even the walk out is dramatic, because you must cross an extremely thin ridge to access the dwelling. Twenty-one years ago Jana and I spent our honeymoon hiking there with my five year old daughter and a large troupe of nieces and nephews. We were financially strapped and could not afford to get out of town, so that was our location of choice. As Duke would have said, “They were so broke they couldn’t pay attention.”

Jamie had stopped by the store because he wanted to ensure someone knew where he was spending the day and would come retrieve him if anything went amiss. Visitors who have spent time in this rugged outback know that if you or your automobile breaks down it may be weeks, months or even years before anyone realizes you have gone missing. That reminded me of the trading post’s early days, when a young man from Chicago arrived in Bluff for his first experience in the wilds of southern Utah. It was late November, and, having comfortably ensconced himself in one of the local motels, the wanderer began trudging round Cedar Mesa. He was a city dweller in his early 20s; just out of college and sure he had a firm grasp on everything from the afterlife to women. Despite his confidence, his experience in the wilderness was extremely limited. As a result, during his excursions he carried neither food nor fuel, water nor winter clothing, matches nor munchies. He was totally and absolutely defenseless against the dangers inherent in our red rock desert.

One day the youthful Chicagoan found his way into Twin Rocks. During the winter season most of the town’s businesses are closed, so it was almost inevitable he would arrive on our doorstep at some point. Explaining what he had been up to so far, he mentioned a planned hike into Grand Gulch later that day. Having spent a great deal of time in that particular canyon, lest his lose his way and eternally wander among the mule deer and mountain lions, I cautioned him to be sure someone knew where he was and when he was likely to return. I advised him this is difficult country, and if he misplaced himself or sustained a serious injury while scrambling over boulders he may be out there a long, long time. "Only your bones will be left to tell the tale”, I dramatically predicted. He scoffed at my recommendation and headed out the door with a wave of his hand. Apparently nobody, including me, was going to tell him how to manage his adventure.

When I next saw the young traveler, two days later, he seemed less audacious, more chastened, so I asked why. After a moment’s hesitation, he said that subsequent to our conversation he had indeed gone to Bullet Canyon, a tributary of Grand Gulch. Upon departing his rented vehicle, without taking any precautions, he struck out on his trek. It was a glorious winter day, and he was immediately captivated by the canyon and its extraordinary beauty and deep history. As evening approached and a chill settled in, he realized he was not only lost in the gulch’s stark elegance, he was altogether lost. Realizing it would be dark soon, he scrambled into a shallow cave and began shouting, “Help . . . help . . . help . . . .” Much to his surprise, after several hours, nobody had responded. At that point he began to wonder whether I had been correct to caution him and whether he had been foolish not to heed my advice. This was, of course, long before the popularization of cellular telephones, so he could not just “phone home.” He was stuck.

After a long, lonely night the intrepid explorer decided he would either find his way out or expire in his rock shelter. Realizing he had only one viable alternative, he struck out without knowing where he would end up. To his complete surprise, and utter delight, he located the proper exit route. Late that afternoon, after taking time to absorb the gravity of his predicament, he returned to relate the story. Although I tried to refrain from doing so, I couldn’t help admonishing him, “Didn’t I tell you!” I was ashamed of myself afterwards.

As Jamie gave us the rundown, Barry reminded him to carry adequate water, proceed with caution and be sure to take fire. Reaching into the pocket of his worn Carhart work jeans, Jamie extracted a Bic lighter and confidently replied, “I always have fire!” Seeing Jamie and Marge pulling out of the parking lot, I felt a twinge of nervousness. He has become an indispensable part of our trading post family and the Bluff community in general, and, aside from not having his exceptional jewelry to sell, we would miss him greatly. I could not help thinking of Everett Ruess, the young artist, poet and writer who explored the American Southwest with only his burros as companions. Ruess became a folk hero after disappearing in a remote section of Utah, not far from Bluff. The mystery of his whereabouts has never been solved, and numerous stories and songs have been written about Everett and his travels.

As darkness settled in over the towering Twin Rocks, Barry and I readied our survival packs, filled our water bottles, inspected our supply of snacks and began researching Woody Guthrie tunes. We wanted to be prepared with a folk song in case our search did not bear fruit and we had to inform the public Jamie had been lost forever. Much to our relief, Jamie and his trusty companion navigated his old blue pickup truck into the gravel parking lot before we waded out into the wilderness. We were both pleased and relieved, since neither Barry nor I can play guitar or sing.