For the past four months, my friend Margaret and I'd been able to cobble together daily hour long walks, aided by the fact that she was in the midst of a contentious divorce and dissecting her almost-ex made the time fly. I was on a roll with these treks, and I was reluctant to jeopardize this long aspired-to accomplishment by accompanying my husband on a business trip to Scottsdale. I feared that without the almost-divorcee keeping my feet to the pavement, I'd slack off.
"I can't believe you're not interested in escaping a minus ten degree wind chill," he marveled. "People do walk in Arizona, you know."
"I know, but I'm afraid I'll be tempted to just sit by the pool and not move my butt."
"There's a resort that adjoins the desert. You can walk the Sonora trails, I'll golf."
By the end of the month we were in Scottsdale, and the morning after our arrival I was at the concierge desk.
"Did you want to walk Trail A or B?" the concierge asked.
"Which is easier?"
"Trail A varies from one to three shoes. Trail B is quite challenging," she explained. "One shoe is the least demanding, five shoes requires a lot of stamina. Don't forget to take water and a hat. It gets hot out there."
"I'm not going to be out long," I said, distracted by her spectacular turquoise jewelry. "I love your squash blossom necklace."
"Thank you, it was my grandmother's. If you're into Native American jewelry, you'll be in heaven in Arizona. Here's a map of all the jewelry shops in the Old Town area where you can do some serious shopping."
I stuck the map in my pocket. "Well right now I need to get some serious exercise."
"You came to the right place. I'm not a hiker, but our guests rave about the trails. Enjoy yourself."
"I will, and I'd better get moving if I want to check out the Navajo silversmiths this afternoon. I'm taking a pass on the five shoe route; just point me to the beginner's trail."
"Go behind the restaurant, between the tennis courts, past the gate, through the tunnel and you will emerge on Trail A. Have fun!"
Within minutes, I crossed into God's country--a landscape at once both brawny and delicate. Muted terra cotta, vibrant purples, and hazy greens stippled the scene. This was not the desert of pyramid fame, where I'd scorched my soles in the Sahara sand, but the desert of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly--the majestic stomping ground of Geronimo.
Nothing prepared a girl from the Prairie State for this vista.
I pictured Butch Cassidy galloping over the saguaro-studded hills, Wyatt Earp hunting down cattle rustlers, John Wayne lassoing varmints. This was desperado territory.
Setting forth, I almost twisted my ankle on my first step into the wild. 'Be careful in these flimsy sandals,' I reminded myself. 'This trail is not asphalt.' I noted a Visitors Center and a BE PREPARED sign, that smacked of overkill. Hikers should carry a gunnysack of paraphernalia. Some nut must have dreamed up the list while working on his Wilderness Survival Badge. For starters, he suggested a whistle, water, compass, map, knife, mirror, matches, candles and a blanket. Matches, around tumbleweed? Water, with no porta-pottys? A blanket in this furnace? Ridiculous. Besides, I was going for a walk; it wasn't as though I was Sacagawea on an expedition with Lewis and Clark.
I marched onto the one-shoe trail, the piece-of-cake one, where I'd planned to walk for a half-hour and then turn back, all the while keeping my eye on the Visitors Center. Every so often, I murmured good morning to a jogger or a dog-walker. "Oh, she's adorable," I gushed over a puppy who sported saddle-bags and a water bottle. I passed a few Girl Scouts laughing and a woman, on her cell phone, bleating, "Snowing again?...Well, it's absolutely gorgeous here." At every turn, I encountered desertscapes I'd only seen in movies in which cowboys fell in love with Indian maidens, and white men smoked peace pipes with the Chief. Images of gun-slingers, runaway stagecoaches and saloon hussies ran through my head.
Each time I thought to turn back, I discovered a new distraction--a giant cactus pockmarked with bird pecked holes, a mysterious rock pile, a jackrabbit zigzagging out of harm's way. Moseying from pillar to post, it occurred to me that I'd not passed a human for awhile, and the sun was bleaching out the aubergine highlights I got at the Buzz Salon just before we left Chicago. It was time to get out of Dodge, and fast.
I did a one-eighty, but when I turned around, the shiny roof of the Visitors Center was nowhere in sight.
You're a little off course. No big deal. You curved to the right when you entered, so just hang to the left. You should've worn a hat. Maybe I shouldn't have worn velour; I'm melting. The Center is just around the bend. Are these buffalo footprints? Do buffalo bite?
Then, an hour later, I knew I was in trouble.
Nothing looks familiar. Don't shed a tear, you'll dehydrate. Do they have desert rangers? Keep your wits about you. If only I could see a landmark like Sears Tower. I should have brought a knife or a mirror like the sign said, but what was I supposed to do with a mirror anyway? Too late now, you're toast.
Just as I was about to gather rocks to spell out "farewell," I spotted a metal marker with an arrow pointing to Trail 306 and another to Trail 100 in the opposite direction.
What's with the trail numbers? Where was the one-shoe trail? The U.S. Wildlife Service lures visitors into Death Valley, and can't even post an EXIT arrow? Just choose a trail--you have a fifty-fifty chance of being right. Turn to the left. You are not lost; you've just strayed a bit off the beaten path.
Before me was a two-foot high, log-shaped cactus lying on its side.
And then it clicked. You-are-lost. You are so lost. If you'd passed this heat-stroked, phallic symbol on the way in, you'd have remembered--it looks exactly like Margaret's description of her husband's erectile dysfunction.
I scanned for a human--a nomad, a migrant, a wrangler, even a gold prospector, anyone. I caught sight of a jogger.
"Stop! Stop!" I shouted, afraid he might not see me in the withering inferno. "Please help me," I begged. "I'm lost!"
"Relax. You're just turned around. Where do you want to go?"
"To my hotel--I'm a tourist."
"Really?" Just what I needed, a condescending savior, but I was in no position to call him on his attitude. "Where's your map?"
"The concierge gave me this map of the jewelry stores in Old Town, but it's of no help."
"A map of jewelry stores?" he asked with a 'there's no cure for stupid' look. "Alright, let's get you oriented. You see the sun overhead? It's a bit to our left because it's still early, so that's East. Now because it's late February it makes a bit of a wider arc as it crosses the sky to the...to the...?"
"To the other side?"
"Well, yes, but we call the other side the WEST," he said, taking a long draw on a tube connected to this CamelBak HydroFlo contraption strapped to his back.
I wanted to tell Mr. Professor that I hated Geography and Astronomy or wherever the hell you learn about the Big Dipper and the solar system, but I didn't want him to think I was direction-impaired.
"Now pay attention. This will always be East, that will always be North and this will always be South," he said, pointing to the three directions. "Where did you enter the canyon?"
"From the tunnel."
"Seventh Street or Seventh Avenue?"
"I have no idea. How many blocks is it to the Visitors Center?"
"Blocks? How many blocks?" he repeated, as though he'd caught me tossing beer cans on the trail. "Where are you from?"
"Ooookay, so, now you know North and South. Do you see that dip between those two mountains, kind of looks like a camel's back?"
This whole town is camelback crazy, Camelback Estates, Camelback Country Club, Camelback Condo...
He interrupted my thoughts. "You're not paying attention. That's how we got lost, isn't it?"
Whose 'we,' Tonto? I'm the one who's lost, and right now I could be shopping for a turquoise bracelet in Old Town.
"Stay on this trail, and keep heading toward the dip," he continued. "Pretend you're a soccer ball rolling..."
Now I cut him off. "Dude, I understand sports only slightly less than I understand the solar system."
"Never mind. Do you see that white dot way down there?"
"The trash bag on the cactus?"
"That's NOT a trash bag. It's a woman in a white robe meditating. Head towards her. Follow the curve and you'll come to the iron railing you passed on your way in. You do remember the railing, right?"
"Yes, I lied, "I remember the black railing."
"It's green," he said, with a look that telegraphed, I'd flunk your ass, if you were in my class. "Grab onto it, it leads to the tunnel. By the way, your cell phone has a GPS."
"I only know how to make calls and text." He took a deep breath as though I'd just declared I was a saturated-fat addict.
"Well, next time, let's hope you come prepared," he said with a fake smile.
"Oh, I don't think there'll be a next time," I said. "Thanks for your help, but I'm pretty sure I'm done with the desert."
I could tell he thought that wasn't a bad idea. "You'll be okay now; just don't leave the trail." He took another swallow from his CamelHydroFlo and trotted off.
"Thanks a lot," I shouted after him. "You saved my life!"
He wasn't my kind of guy, but he did save my life. I could've run into a Peyote-munching gangbanger marauding the happy hunting ground. A century from now, a Boy Scout could have stumbled on my little carcass and wondered why a fossil was wearing a tiny jogging suit.
Within minutes, I spotted the shimmery roof of the Visitors Center. I texted Margaret.
GOT TRND ROUND IN DESERT. CLOSE CALL.
She responded within a second.
OMG! U CLD HV DIED!! FRND LOST IN PALM SPRGS DESERT OVRNGHT. RATTLESNAKES SCORPIONS ALMST FROZ 2 DEATH! IN A.M FOUND CAR IN PKG LOT ONLY 1 BLOCK AWAY! B CARFL!
That was the straw that, and I couldn't believe I had to say it, broke the freakin' camel's back. The next time I needed a desert fix, I'd order Blazing Saddles from Netflix.