“Okay, pup,” I said, turning around to face Pema, “Come on.” She stood on top of the boulder, now slightly above my chest, from which I had just climbed. It was difficult to see her in the dark, but there was a soft glow about her skin and hair that was easy enough to follow as she leaned into me. I had one foot on a small patch of dirt, the other on the pointed edge of a stone, but I didn’t feel settled. I eased her down off the rock and brought her close. For a moment we were just father and daughter, warm and safe. Thunder came somewhere out of the southwest. There was no rain, thank god, but I would have welcomed a flash of lightning, anything to get my bearing. I set Pema down and looked into the crooked silhouettes between us and the car. A soft blue light hovered around Angele, Silke’s friend, up ahead. It couldn’t be far but it was hard to tell.
“Dada, when will be done?” Pema asked, innocent as a flower. “I’m tired.” She was a trooper, but it was way past bedtime and I could feel it in her muscle tone, the way she had flopped into my arms. I was tired too. It had been a long day. How had the night descended so quickly? I felt angry with myself, and confused. But my bewilderment did nothing to escape the dawning fact that we were lost. I looked over the gaping edge of the gorge. There was a light coming from below, probably some campers down by the river, but otherwise everything was black. In the distance I could see the pinpricks of light coming from houses in the Hondo Valley, only a mile away. Beyond that, the black on black silhouette of the mountains rose above everything else. The moon, only a sliver, wouldn’t be out for hours. “Oh, Pema,” I said, trying to brush off blame and regret and remain focused. There were dozens of boulders like this to cross. “Soon, pup,” I said, trying to reassure myself. “We’ll be home soon.”
I had walked the same path earlier that day, over fifteen hours ago, in the light of dawn. A couple miles from home, and about three-quarters of the way up the western slope of the Rio Grande Gorge, there is a switchback in the dirt road. It doesn’t look like much, but by climbing between two creamy-orange boulders one can find an old game trail established by big-horned sheep. The trail, though remote, is easily accessible because of the parking spot created by the switchback, and by following a series of broken paths one ends up at a small side canyon a few hundred yards away.
I had chosen that trail in the morning, because I knew Silke would be staying in the side canyon that night. She was preparing to do a vision quest, and Pema and I were to join her that evening for prayers in her sweat lodge before taking her out for several days of fasting and meditation. But as I squeezed between the two creamy-orange boulders that morning, I knew the game trail would be just a brief leg of my journey. It would only take me fifteen minutes to reach the side canyon, descend, and then trail west through the canyon to the mesa top, after which I would veer north for several miles and finally circle back home. I know the terrain well, and it’s not uncommon for me to travel thirty to forty miles in a day, often across a series of roads, paths along the river bottom, scaling over brush and rocks. The only direction I don’t go is straight up or down.
After the entrance through the boulders, I made quick work over easy ground, then veered into a cluster of junipers. Uphill was a large boulder and downhill was a cliff edge, with a hefty drop to the river. There was no obvious route, but being accustomed to such obstacles I quickly chose what looked like the easiest path, dropped to my knees, and I began scuttling under the branches. I emerged on the other side with little trouble, save a minor snag on my backpack, which, giving a forceful tug, released from the tree with a telltale snap. Advancing a few feet forward, I turned uphill and regained the path.
I ambled another fifty feet over easy ground, avoiding the cactuses effortlessly, then around a bend when the trail disappeared again. This is how game trails are. On my right was a large black and tan boulder which was missing a huge concave facet, so that it resembled a crude throne. From its perch, one could look over a vast section of the gorge, down to the Rio Grande below, up the eastern slope and beyond to the towering mountains in the distance. I thought about sitting down and trying to spot my house, only a couple miles away in the Hondo Valley, but quickly shook off the idea. It was early and I wasn’t even a bit tired. There was a lot of ground to cover before the close of the day, so I put my foot in the seat of the throne and pressed on.
I heard the car pull up through the open window. It was almost five-thirty and the sun was still high. A couple hours earlier I had returned from my walk, quickly showered and packed, and I was now sitting at my computer checking my email. I would have another child with me tomorrow morning, making the total four.
I turned off the computer and grabbed my things, a small shoulder bag with a few snacks and a couple bottles of water, and headed outside. I was eager to get moving, but then I stopped at the door, unscrewed one of the water bottles and took a big gulp. As I drank, my headlamp hung within arm’s reach, but I wasn’t thinking of it. I never leave my house without food or water, but I rarely travel with a light. Early to bed, I’m rarely out past dusk, and when I am I prefer the broad spectrum of graying eyesight to the nearsightedness of artificial light. But the real truth is that I just wasn’t thinking. I was leaving all the details to Silke and her friend. I hadn’t ever taken someone out on vision quest. I hadn’t even thought about the fact that we might be walking home in the night.
As I approached the car from around the corner, I could make out Pema’s voice coming through the backseat, but not her words. She seemed to be saying something to Megan, her mother. The car door slammed and there were footsteps in gravel. Then I turned the corner. Megan stood at the back door, her hand gripping the door handle. She was wearing a colorful summer dress and she turned to me with a relaxed and joyful expression.
“Hey there, Papa,” Megan said, releasing the door handle to greet me. We hugged and I could feel that her body was dry. Even with the shower, mine felt oily and I was beginning to perspire again.
“Hey Pup!” I shouted, staring through the car window. I was looking forward to our evening, which would contain all kinds of rich and novel experiences for Pema and I. It’s not every day you sit in sweat lodge, smelling the sweat perfume of copal and sweetgrass, and it’s not every day that you witness someone willing to sit on the earth in silence with no food or shelter. Whatever happened, I knew Pema would take home all sorts of questions and ideas that would, at this age, expand her mind in ways I could only dream of.
But Pema just sat in the car and huffed. No matter the excitement of the evening’s activities, she had been with Megan the last two days and she wasn’t ready to leap out of her arms into mine. These transitions can be a sensitive time for all of us, and I wasn’t going to press her. Usually, we would spend an hour or more talking about our day, sharing food or a game, and allowing the three of us to re-acclimate as a family. But this evening I was in a rush and she knew it.
I circled round to the passenger side, trying to be calm. I didn’t want to magnify the situation. Tossing my bag through the open window of my car, I eyed the five-gallon jug of water I had filled with spring water - I would be carrying this into the canyon later - then turned back to Pema. I peered through the open passenger window, trying not to rush things, but feeling a little anxious. Megan opened the driver’s side door and sat down, prompting Pema to climb out of the back and into her lap. “Yeah, I’m going to miss you too,” Megan said, taking Pema into her arms.
Two minutes later we were off, rolling a bit too fast down the long gravel driveway.
Advancing carefully over a pile of loose stones in the dark, hand in hand, Pema and I caught up with Angele, Silke’s friend, up front. “Watch out for the cactus, honey,” she said as we stepped onto solid ground. Using her phone as a torch, she illuminated a hairy cactus just inches away on our left. It was indistinguishable from the rocks in the dark, but with the soft blue light of the phone its green flesh, covered in tiny hairs, stood out in great detail. Pema had already encountered a cholla cactus, its barbed needles yanking on her skin as I pulled them out. That was bad enough, but this cactus can leave dozens of miniscule threads that break into fragments and irritate like a rash. We only had to walk a few hundred yards, but our pace was miserably slow.
“I think we’re below the road,” I said to Angele. In the distance, we could make out the bare earth of the road, a gray line along the black surface of the gorge wall. It was obvious enough, but it looked to be a quarter mile away. It should have been much closer. We had left Silke behind more than an hour ago and in normal daylight it wouldn’t have taken us more than twenty minutes to cover the distance back to the car. We had to be close. But where were we? Angele pointed the phone’s light toward the road, but it was useless. Its pale light died out within ten feet.
“Hey pup,” I shouted over the crackling fire. Pema had just risen and, dressed and alert, was threading her way through the brush in the distance. It was three days since we had been lost in the gorge, and the sun was beginning to crest over the eastern mountains. Silke was due back in an hour. I had been up since early that morning, tending the fire for the sweat lodge that would mark the end of Silke’s vision quest.
Pema was captivated by something, so she didn’t even look at me when I called to her, but continued walking toward something I could not see. I walked towards her till, passing round a large hedge of juniper, I finally caught a glimpse of the giant purple balloon rising out of the gorge. With a deafening roar from its flame, the basket of the hot air balloon rose above the lip of the gorge and we could see the people looking over the edge.
Having had her fill of the balloon, she turned to me and jumped into my arms. I held her close, feeling her bare legs. They were still covered in scratches, but they were healing. The final plunge out of the gorge that night had ended with she and I rocketing down the side of a steep embankment to the road below. At the bottom stood Angele’s husband. She had finally reached him on the phone and he had come out with his car, shining his headlights in the dark so that we could get our bearing. Standing above the embankment, I knew it would be uncomfortably fast, but I thought we could make it and I didn't want to backtrack a hundred yards through those conditions to a gentler slope. There were risks in every direction, and it had been like that the whole night. I crouched down and pulled Pema onto my lap. We started moving before my butt even hit the ground. Pema followed my lead without question, then erupted at the bottom in terror, shrieking the kind of sobs that accompany long stretches of silence and gasping breaths. I felt like a fool, worse, and it took a long time to assess whether either of us was hurt badly. We weren't, but it had been a hellish night.
I held Pema in my arms as the balloon rose high into the air above us. Silke would be here any moment. Behind us, the fire crackled softly. Life is so precious.