Monday, August 10, 2009

Flash Flood in Zion

This is an excerpt from a mystery we (Liz & David) are working on.

“Let’s check the weather,” Isabel said as she and Max approached the visitor center the next day.

“Hey, it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” Max responded. “Look, there’s the shuttle bus. Run!”

The driver had already closed the doors but reopened them when he saw Max and Isabel jogging toward him. They clambered on.

They seemed to be falling into a pattern: Hike, find a body, rest day. Hike, find a body, rest day. Today they were in the hike phase and were meeting Dallin Miller for a trek to Observation Point. Though not as famous as the Angel’s Landing Trail and the route up the Narrows, the hike to Observation Point was another one of Zion’s iconic experiences. The strenuous trail ascended more than 2,000 feet in four miles. It ended at a point that jutted from the East Rim and gave hikers a spectacular bird’s-eye view down the sweep of Zion Canyon.

Dallin was waiting at the Weeping Rock shuttle stop, in spotless chinos, a blue-checked long-sleeved shirt, and a brimmed sunhat. Isabel had been surprised when Max told her he had invited the assistant curator to go hiking with them—Max wasn’t naturally drawn to conventional people. “He sure knows his history, though,” Max had said. “I can pump him for information.”

They launched themselves up the trail, which traversed the rocky, terraced slope. After a mile, the Hidden Canyon Trail veered right, and the threesome turned left. Isabel followed the two men up a second series of switchbacks, half-listening to their conversation and keeping her eye out for wildflowers.

“When did tourists start coming to Zion?” Max wanted to know.
“The 1920s.”

“Is that when the railroad came through?”
“Yes. The Union Pacific built a spur line. Tourists could go to Zion, Bryce, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon by taking the train and then a bus.”

“How about car traffic?”

“The … the highway from Springdale to the East Rim was finished in the thirties. They bored a tunnel through the cliff.”

“So you’re saying Zion Canyon was pretty isolated until the twenties.”
“From the outside world.” Dallin hiked steadily as he talked. Isabel was impressed with his conditioning, as she was feeling rather breathless herself. “There were farms down on the canyon floor, and there was a trail going up the East Rim here that the Paiutes used.”
“Is it visible?”

“We’ll be following part of it. John Winder, one of the early settlers, used this trail, too, to move stock. It was precarious. He was always losing cattle over the edge.”

“I bet,” Max said. “Instant hamburger.”

Isabel smiled, but Dallin didn’t seem to get the joke. Isabel had encountered men like Dallin during her dating years—smart and blah. Dallin’s halting, monotone voice lacked emotion, and his movements were stiff. Isabel had noticed he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. That was no surprise to her. As much as women liked stability, passion was far more alluring.

“There … there was a cable works here on the East Rim at the top of Cable Mountain,” Dallin continued. “Settlers had a lumber mill at Stave Springs, and they used the cable to lower the lumber to the canyon floor. So there were people here. But they were clustered at the bottom of the canyon. The surrounding terrain was so rough it remained a wilderness until the railroad opened it up.”

“And the white people who were here were all farmers? What about mining?”

“There wasn’t any serious mining activity.”

“How about the adventurers—you know, the solitary gold-diggers?”

“Treasure hunters sometimes came through.”

“Like … ?”

“There … there’s a legend that in the 1500s, the Spanish sent an expedition to look for a city of gold, but it couldn’t get across the Grand Canyon. And the Native Americans spoke of a white shaman who lived in the canyon and guarded a treasure of some kind.”

“What about the hiker who fell into Hidden Canyon? Do you think he was looking for a pot of gold?”

Dallin stopped, head lowered. “Dead men don’t reveal their motivations.”

“And the woman whose body I found? What would she be doing on the East Rim of Zion Canyon in 1910, carrying a miner’s lantern?”

“Probably supporting her husband in some way. Maybe there was an accident.”

“Wouldn’t there be a record of that?”  Isabel interjected.

The curator glanced at Isabel. She caught a glimpse of his eyes, a pale, lifeless blue with the pupils retreated to black pinpricks in the sun’s glare. “Who would care? People died in this place all the time. Still do.”

“Tell me about it,” Max muttered.

Dallin turned abruptly and walked on.

Isabel followed behind the two men as they continued climbing. Max chattered away—about geology, bird life, the mummy, and Wayne’s chances of finding the first draft of the Book of Mormon. Dallin answered direct questions when asked but otherwise didn’t say much.
A half hour later, the trail leveled out and rounded a corner. The men pressed onward. Isabel paused and all thought vanished from her brain.

Where the trail crosses the stream in Echo Canyon

She stood at the threshold of a slot canyon. The hiking path ran along a ledge on the right side, hugging a sheer garnet-colored cliff. To the left was a deep drop off, but just how deep was hard to tell. Tentatively, she leaned over and peered into it. The gray rock swirled wildly, twisting and turning, so that it was impossible to see straight to the bottom of the slot canyon. The water must have come—must still occasionally come—roaring down from farther up and had relentlessly pushed against the stone, boring ever downwards. The churning force had left its mark, just like a fingerprint. She could almost see the water, but the water wasn’t there, only the evidence of its passing. It was eerie and beautiful. There was an incredible sense of motion, and yet everything was still.

Isabel proceeded slowly. The canyon was cool and shaded. Vegetation, fresh and green, sprung from the cliff next to her. She recognized penstamon, Indian paintbrush, phlox, Virginia waterleaf, holly, false Solomon seal, and some kind of lily.
Max was standing at the far end of the canyon where the trail crossed a dry creek bed.

“Is this Echo Canyon?” Isabel asked.

“Listen,” he said. He cupped his mouth with his hands and hooted like a barred owl. The sound reverberated off the cliffs.

They gazed silently down the narrow cleft, listening to the notes fade away. “How can something as inert as stone seem so alive?” she asked.

“Actually, there probably is life in these cliffs,” Max answered. “Geologists have found bacteria a kilometer down in solid rock. They have no idea how it metabolizes.”

“So the rocks are alive. I thought that was just … poetry.”

A cool, light breeze rustled the leaves of the Gambel oaks.
Isabel looked around. “Where’s Dallin?” she asked.

“Oh, somewhere up ahead. We’d better hurry.”

“You go on ahead. I want to take another look at the flowers. I’ll catch up.”


Isabel was paging through her flower guide when she heard footfalls behind her. She turned to see Old Fossil plodding up the trail, his eyes on the ground before him. He slowed for a moment when he noticed her and then slightly picked up his pace.

“Good morning!” Isabel said cheerily. “You wouldn’t happen to know the name of this flower, would you?” She pointed to an orange-red flower with four petals.

He stopped. “Monkey flower.”

“That’s right! How could I forget? But I never could see the monkey face.”

Old Fossil’s eyes darted forward, like an animal wanting to escape.

“Your name is Frank, isn’t it?” Isabel asked gently.

He glanced at her, surprised. Then he nodded and looked away.

“Did you … did you know Mar-Dean?” she asked.

He thought for a long moment. Then he nodded again.

“Really?” Isabel was shocked. She hadn’t expected an answer. But Old Fossil wandered all over the park. Maybe he knew how Mar-Dean died.

“One of the Sisters,” he said.

“No, no. Those are different women. Mar-Dean lived up on the mesa. On Jesse Cage’s ranch. Did you see her recently?”

He glanced at her again, squinting. The skin on his cheeks was furrowed and brown, like a plowed field. His aqueous blue eyes showed intelligence, though it seemed buried deep within him.

“Maybe you saw her near Orderville Canyon?” Isabel probed.

Old Fossil stared ahead, down the trail. Isabel followed his eyes, but all she saw was swirling gray stone.

He shook his head and shuffled off.

The trail doubled back. Soon it became a lot steeper and emerged into the dazzling sun. Max stopped to wipe his forehead and glanced up. The sky was deep blue against the tan and red rocks, with hundreds of puffy white clouds that looked like heads of cauliflower. He spotted Dallin above him. Pocketing his blue bandanna, Max trudged on. He liked to establish a breathing routine. Two steps for each breath in, one step for each breath out: 1 and 2 in, 1 out; 1 and 2 in, 1 out. It helped him deal with the monotony and maintain a steady pace so he didn’t get too winded.

But Dallin was pulling ahead. Max shifted to a lower gear, stepping and breathing faster: “1 in and 1 out; 1 in and 1 out….” It didn’t seem to matter. Dallin gained more distance. Max saw him pass into the sun, and when the trail curved around a buttress of rock, he disappeared.
Now Max was determined to catch up. Dallin was a lot younger, but he didn’t look like an athlete. Heck, the guy was a bookworm!

More than half way up the trail
Max picked up the pace and maintained it for a while. But when the trail ducked into a spot of shade, he stopped and took a drink. Panting, he wiped the sweat from his forehead with his bandanna. He could see there would be no more shade until he reached the top, which was maybe a thousand feet higher. And Dallin was nowhere in sight.

Once more into the sunshine. Max rounded another steeply sloping bend and then stopped, panting. Hah! There was Dallin, maybe a quarter of a mile away and higher, sitting with his back against the rock wall, and …. Max could just make out a movement: hand to mouth, hand away, pause, hand to mouth, hand away. Dallin was smoking! “Well, I’ll be darned,” Max thought. “I didn’t know Mormons were allowed to smoke. This is my chance to catch up with him.”

He trudged on. Sweat streamed from his temples, into his eyes and onto his sunglasses. Max didn’t mind the heat, but he hated to sweat. He was one of those people with sweat glands on steroids. Half the time, he’d be the one in a room sweating while everyone else was as cool as a cucumber. Now he chugged upward like a steam engine, dials pushing into the red zone, rivets straining, steam hissing through cracks in the boiler. Finally he reached the spot where Dallin had been lounging.


Max felt deflated. Maybe he would have to accept Golden Geezerhood after all. He couldn’t even keep up with a smoker. And maybe he had been talking too much. Maybe Dallin had forged ahead on purpose. That was the worst thought.

Hearing a footstep behind, Max turned. Another hiker approached: a tall, scrawny man, slightly hunched, with an unkempt beard and long, stringy hair. He wore a grimy long-sleeved shirt half-tucked into black shorts, and old black leather hiking boots, with dirty white socks slithering down like earthworms shrinking from the morning sun. And, most amazing, on his head sat an old-fashioned pith helmet. It was an apparition—like finding Livingston, long lost in darkest Africa. Except Max had seen him before. Old Fossil.

The man’s furtive eyes danced around Max for a moment as he passed him and then looked away. He tramped rapidly up the trail.

Passed first by a bookworm, and now by old Robinson Crusoe! Max was really starting to feel ancient.
Looking down from near the top of the trail

He slowed to a moderate but steady pace and in another hour reached the top of the mesa. Though there were scattered trees, there still wasn’t much shade. The soil was sandy and parched, and while some trees were green, others were blackened skeletons. Must have been a big fire, Max figured, maybe the year before. He paused. A breathtaking view was opening below. And to the southwest, over Angel’s Landing, he could see the puffy clouds merging into thunderheads.

It was about a mile to Observation Point. The trail moved away from the rim and across a long stretch of dry brush, with scattered clumps of large yellow daisies. Max was hot, but the light wind was drying his sweat, and he was resolved not to rest until he reached a grove of trees in the distance, near what he thought must be the end of the trail.

He arrived at noon. Max lowered himself onto a flat apron of red rock near the point, with a view on three sides. Straight ahead, across the abyss, rose the angular faces of eroded cliffs. Lower and to the right stood Angel’s Landing, stretching upward like a little brother on tiptoes. Far below, Max could see the campgrounds, the Virgin River, and a few buses creeping along the road.
View from Observation Point

For a few minutes he drank in the view, and then slid back to a shady spot, where he pulled out a sandwich—ham and cheese on rye, with lots of mustard. Savoring the pungent mouthful, he watched an ant carry away a crumb, struggling over the top of his boot.
Izzy puffed up.

“Hey there, Izzy. Have a rest.” Max moved over.

“Are you kidding? Look at those clouds. We have to get out of here. A storm’s coming.” She yanked out a sandwich. “And what the heck were you guys doing, by the way? Having a foot race to the top? First of all, I didn’t count on doing this hike by myself. And second, when I noticed those clouds, I wanted to turn around and head back, but I couldn’t catch you to tell you what I was doing.” She bit off an enormous mouthful of bread.

“I was trying to catch Dallin myself, which I never did,” Max said, rising to his feet. “He must have turned off onto another trail.”

“Without telling you? That’s weird.”

Max studied the clouds. He hated to jump to a panicky conclusion. Thunderstorms were often local affairs, and this one might pass them by.

Observation Point was still in full sun and so was the canyon floor to the south. But a great curtain of clouds was surmounting the mesas on the opposite side. Intently, Max watched a point on the wall of clouds. Hmm. Not moving sideways. Then he picked out a rocky outcrop on the far canyon wall, which was in the sun. At once it fell into shadow. That meant the storm was advancing straight toward them.

Gathering storm from Observation Point

The first peal of thunder sounded. Max glanced around. Half the hikers who had been resting at the point were already gone, and the others were quickly packing their daypacks.

“I told you we should have checked the weather forecast,” said Izzy. Her face crinkled with concern. She slung the strap of her pack over her shoulder. “I’m getting out of here. You can stay and toast your buns if you want to.”

Max felt a pang of guilt as he watched her disappear back down the trail. In truth, he had forgotten that Isabel was tramping up behind him, and it hadn’t occurred to him that she might not like doing it alone. She was so independent most of the time that her desire for his company almost always surprised him.

Another rumble sounded. Once more, Max examined the sky. The clouds under the front formed a flat ceiling about a thousand feet above the canyon’s West Rim. Though dark, the main mass didn’t appear especially menacing. But then Max noticed that a skirt of clouds—extending from the ceiling right down to the ground—was rapidly approaching. It advanced like a forest fire, with a wall of smoke blowing away from Max and then getting sucked back up into the main mass of cloud. Only it wasn’t smoke but a mantle of rain. Max had never seen anything like it, except in photos of tornados.

Max loved storms, and this was shaping up to be a great one. But as a promontory, Observation Point was an obvious lightning rod, and he didn’t want to be on it when Thor started hurling his bolts. Several trees in the area showed the spiraled scars of old lightning strikes. Max decided to retreat to a lower spot on the mesa. There might be some risk of getting hit by lightning, but it’d be worth it. Besides, he had faced more risk driving through the Las Vegas airport than he did here.

A great shadow swept across the point as the first drops fell, and the wind freshened. Max smelled the pungent aroma of cedar. Or was it ozone? The desert was giving off that burnt smell that arises when the first raindrops splatter a sun-baked parking lot. He took off his hat so it wouldn’t blow away, pulled on the thin windbreaker he carried in his pack, and began to walk down the trail.

He felt an eerie sensation. Whoa! His hair was standing on end!
The wind? Max pushed his hair down but it lofted again. Then he heard a crackling sound—sparks were jumping off his outstretched fingers!

“This is no place for me,” he said aloud and began to run.


There was a flash, and Max felt an explosion so intense the pressure thumped on his back and chest. The surrounding mesas reverberated like vast drums, and his ears rang. He looked over his shoulder and saw smoke ascending from a tree.

He ran faster, as fast as he could on the uneven trail. Large drops smacked the dust.
Soon the rain fell in sheets that swept across the blue-gray landscape and drowned out the view. A cold wind hit, and the trail filled with rivulets, in some places ankle-deep. This section of trail sloped only slightly, and Max kept jogging, his thumbs hooked under the straps of his daypack to steady it, ignoring the soaking he was getting.

After 15 minutes, he reached the place where the trail began a steep descent on a thin ledge that had been blasted from the cliff face. There, huddled beside a large boulder, was a young woman in a purple shirt and white shorts that were smeared with mud. Her arms hugged her shoulders, and she rocked back and forth, crying.

Max dropped down next to her. “Are you OK?”

She gave a choked wail. “I… started down the trail … and I slid. I nearly fell… over the edge. I can’t walk! It’s too slippery!”

Max thought she looked fit, but she was soaked to the skin. In fact, her undies were on full display underneath her wet clothes. He pulled his mind off that topic, pondered the situation for a moment, and said, “This is no place to stay. You’ll get cold. I can help you down. You can walk on the inside and hold onto my arm. Do you think you can do that?” She nodded faintly. Max stood, offered his hand, and pulled her to her feet.

They set off slowly, but the woman quickly gained confidence and soon let go of his arm. The rain lightened up and the claps of thunder grew faint. Max asked her a few questions to distract her. Her name was Jenny, he found out, and she was hiking alone because her girlfriend had twisted her ankle the day before.

The trail curved and opened up a view. Max stopped to take stock of the situation. Patches of mist scudded against the far cliffs. Everywhere, water poured down the rock walls: some places in sheets and other places as little veils so lacy they vanished into thin air. And all around was the sound of rushing water.

Now Max began to think about a new danger, something besides lightning, hypothermia, and slippery trails. He remembered that about halfway up from the valley floor they had crossed the dry creek of Echo Canyon. He figured it was probably flooded by now, or soon would be. For a moment, he had a vision of Izzy being swept away. But no, Izzy was too cautious! He’d probably find her waiting above the crossing. She’d wait even if it were safe to cross! This was one time he hoped the yellow caution light that she carried around inside her turned on.

After thirty minutes, they reached the bottom of the steep trail and approached Echo Canyon. They couldn’t see the creek that ran into it—it was hidden under the rocks below them. But waterfalls tumbled off the cliffs and streamed down into the channel Max knew was there, and piles of muddy rubble had slumped onto the path.

In another fifteen minutes, they entered the slot of Echo Canyon. Here the trail had been blasted from vertical rock, and there was a broad overhang that provided welcome shelter from the light rain. Max heard voices ahead. When they rounded a bend, about a dozen bedraggled hikers materialized from the deep shade. He spotted Izzy and felt a big release of tension.

“Hey!” he said, patting her on the shoulder. “Glad to see you!”

She did not look happy. “I don’t like this, Max. I don’t see how we’ll be able to get across. And we won’t be able to stay here if the creek keeps rising.”

Izzy was right. The overhang kept them dry, but Echo Canyon was so narrow in this spot the overhang almost created a tunnel. In a flash flood like this, it could fill with water. He carefully stepped to the edge of the trail, tested his footing, and looked down. A hundred feet below, a torrent of black water covered with white foam streamed through the canyon.

Stepping back, he turned to Izzy. She had on her blue rain parka—trust Izzy to be prepared! But her hand clutched at the collar, keeping it closed tightly, and streaks of wet curls stuck out around the hood. She was shivering, and for the first time since it started raining Max became aware of the clammy wetness that was creeping down his back.

“There’s no way the creek will rise this high,” he said. “I know it’s cold here, but we’re safe.” He looked ahead. Echo Canyon was like a narrow apartment with two rooms. The “room” they were in had the overhang. The creek sprang out below it and then bent sharply and dropped into the second “room,” which was a very deep slot canyon. After coursing through that, it emerged out into Zion Canyon, where it took a long freefall. The trail crossed the creek just at the threshold to the second room—the edge of the plunge into the slot. Max remembered the crossing well. It was where he and Izzy had stood to listen to the echo of his barred owl call. But what had been a strip of dry sand only hours before was now a turbulent river, foamy and brown.

The other hikers stood in a tight knot, hands in pockets. Everyone wore shorts, though most had on some kind of jacket. For a while, they all seemed giddy, caught up in the excitement of a new experience. What a story to tell friends! But as the wet and cold took root, spirits soured. No one wanted to sit on the wet muddy ground and instead they stood restlessly in place, like cattle before the drive, anxious to move on. The exception was one lean, middle-aged man. He was crouched on his haunches by the wall next to a big pack, with a small stove cheerily puffing away. He had spread his bandanna on the ground like a miniature tablecloth, and neatly arranged on it were a case of matches, a spoon, a teabag, and a ziplocked bag of sugar. He had pulled a fleece jacket and pants over his shorts and looked smugly comfortable. Now he was spreading out a folded air mattress for a seat, carefully brushing off the dust like a fussy English maid.

Max noticed that Izzy was enviously eyeing the whole set-up. “Don’t get any ideas,” Max said. “This kind of situation happens once in a lifetime, and I’m not hauling that much gear every time we go for a hike.”

“What do you mean once in a lifetime? Disaster strikes you every forty-eight hours!”
He put his arm around her shoulder. “What disaster? We’ll be out of here in no time.”
Two hours later, they were still there.

Concern for appearance had long disappeared. Some of the hikers were now sitting, their bare legs slick with red, greasy mud. Trail mix and energy bars had been shared, and if anyone had any food left, they weren’t talking about it. Instead, conversation centered on how to cross the creek.

The rain had nearly stopped, and Max joined a group of guys who were venturing down the trail to get a closer look at the crossing.

Three men in their twenties were especially impatient, probably because they were the ones without raincoats. “I wonder how deep it is,” one of them said as they looked out at the churning water.
“It doesn’t look that bad,” said another. “I’ll swim if I have to!”
The problem was no one could see the bottom of the creek. The water was the color of chocolate milk and coated with foam. On top raced a scum of sticks, splinters, and bark whirling around in little whirlpools.

“I’m going in,” said guy number 1.

“Wait,” said number 2. “Grab my wrist.”

The first guy waded in, holding onto his friend’s arm. The water came to his waist. He leaned against the current, facing upstream. “Man, it’s cold,” he said.

Number 2 followed him into the creek and held out his arm to number 3. They moved clumsily together until the first guy was half-way across, above his waist in brown water and struggling to stay upright in the heavy current.

Max was worried. Here the canyon was at its widest, which meant that down canyon the water was much deeper. If anyone were knocked over and swept downstream, within seconds he would not be able to stand. Neither would he be able to grab a tree or a branch since the banks were solid rock. Almost immediately, he would disappear into the deeper slot canyon, which had vertical walls hundreds of feet high. And even if he survived the churning water and the log jams filled with broken branches that were as sharp as spears, he’d be flung over the long cascade at the end of the canyon. For a moment, Max remembered the corpse in Orderville Canyon, broken and scraped. Then he snapped back to the present.

“Come back! This is crazy!” he shouted. “There’s a waterfall downstream!”

The first guy turned his head. “Relax, Dad. I’ve got it under control.” He took another wobbly step and abruptly sank nearly to his chest. The current began to tug him downstream. He twisted behind his friend, who kept a steady grip, and regained his footing. Then the friend pulled him closer, as if he were reeling in a great fish.

“Let’s move upstream and try again,” said guy number 3. They did, and clasped together, stumbled towards the far bank, supporting each other across the deepest part. One by one, they rose out of the water, pulling their clinging shirts away from their skin. Like athletes stretching, they rested one foot and then the other on waist-high rocks to drain their boots.

“At-a-way, bro!” said number 2 to number 1.

He raised his fist. “Margaritas, here we come!”

Then they turned and disappeared down the trail, without a look behind.

A couple of men in their thirties stood next to Max appraising the crossing. “That didn’t look so bad,” one muttered to the other. “Let’s go.”

“Look,” Max said, impatiently. “Those guys were lucky. You can’t see the holes in the bottom, and if you’re swept off your feet, you’re dead. We have to stick together. If we wait until the water drops some more, we can make sure everybody gets across. The more links we have in the human chain, the stronger it will be.” Max didn’t want to say it out loud, but he knew he’d have a hard time helping Isabel and Jenny if he were on his own. And he figured that in a group this size, there were bound to be a few others who were fearful or clumsy or both. A couple of the younger women, he had noticed, were wearing flip-flops.

The two young men exchanged glances. One of them nodded. “Yeah, I think he’s right. But it better drop soon. If I get any colder, my dick’s gonna disappear.”

“Yeah, well, no loss there!” his friend said, punching him in the arm. They walked back up toward the overhang.

Thank God, they didn’t call me Dad, Max thought to himself.

He pushed a stick into the sand at the water’s edge for a marker. In fact, it was hard to know what to do. There was a cold breeze blowing down the canyon. It would not be a good idea to spend the night here. It looked like the picnicking Mr. Boy Scout had a tent strapped to his pack, but they couldn’t all fit into it, and he hadn’t shown any sign that he wanted to share his kingdom.

Max hunkered down on a rock and kept his eye on the stick. It was all he could think of to do. Within an hour, the water had dropped three feet. Max figured it would probably come up to Izzy’s thighs, and while the current was still strong, it wouldn’t knock her over. Even if it did, as long as people held tight, she wouldn’t go far.

He gathered up the group and they all trooped down to the crossing. Max picked out the burliest guy and asked him to take up the rear. Then Max waded in, clasping the hand of one of the stronger-looking guys. With Max in the lead, they made a long chain. As each stepped out on the other side of the creek, someone new stepped in. Max and another man helped everyone up the final rocky edge to dry ground. And while Izzy and Jenny looked pretty nervous, they made it across without mishap.

Izzy gave Max a squishy hug. Then she wrinkled her nose. “Boy, you’re stinky! You smell like burnt toast!”

“Oh, it’s probably from sitting on the ashes of the old fire that was up on the rim.”
She scrutinized his face. “Your eyebrows are singed!”

Jenny came up to them. “I want a hug, too.” She gave him a big one.
Max’s ego inflated. Guess he had a little charm left after all!

“Can I take your picture?” Jenny asked Max. “I want to put it on my website.”
“Sure!” Max replied: “Give them my phone number, too: 1-MAX-FIX-CHIX.”

He chuckled at his own joke and turned to Isabel, expecting a smile of appreciation. Instead she raised an eyebrow.

“I think you mean 1-MAX-GET-REAL.”


The sodden group slipped and slided to the trailhead with Max and Isabel in the rear. A few folks complained that the park hadn’t sent up a rescue crew, but not Max. First of all, he knew that the margarita-bound guys who crossed the stream on their own wouldn’t stop to report the group’s plight to the rangers. Besides that, there weren’t enough rangers out there to assist hikers across flood-filled creeks every time it stormed in Zion National Park. These risks came with the territory, and you simply had to use your head and deal with them.

So Max was surprised to find a white Park Service SUV in the trailhead’s parking lot when he and Isabel finally got there. The fastest hikers were clustered around Ranger Amber and were filling her in on the Echo Canyon ordeal. Ginny was there, too, in a dull green poncho that covered her from neck to knees.

The others credited Max with saving the day, but if Max expected praise from Ranger Amber, it wasn’t forthcoming. She listened and gave him a couple of assessing looks, but her face remained stonily impassive.

When a shuttle bus appeared, everyone hurried to jump on. Max held back.
“Say,” he said to Ranger Amber, “have you identified the body I found in Orderville Canyon yesterday?”

“Finding a victim is a very serious situation, Mr. Buckley.”

“Berkeley,” Max said. “Like the college. And, yeah, of course it’s serious. It’s the most serious thing there is.”

“And you realize we assembled a search and rescue team, which is a very costly operation.”
“I’m sure it is. I was on teams like that in my younger days.” Prickles of uneasiness ascended Max’s neck. “What are you getting at?”

She answered with a question. “Why did you send us on a wild-goose chase, Mr. Berkeley?”
“What do you mean?”

For the first time, Ranger Amber looked him in the eye. “Because we took that team up Orderville Canyon, to the place where you told us you found a body. There was no body there.”

“But I took photos! The sheriff has my memory card. Talk to him!”

“We did. He said all that’s on your card are landscape photos.”

“He’s wrong! I ….” Max closed his mouth without finishing his thought. “Look, the body must have washed down river.”

“Negative. We went up the Narrows and searched the entire route, just in case that might have happened. I assure you, Mr. Berkeley. A body did not come out of Orderville Canyon.”

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Three varmints on their nightly rounds

Dateline: Chisos Basin, Big Bend National Park, November

It was early evening in the Chisos Campground, a day after a front had come through. The temperature had plummeted, with gusty winds all day, though the weather was sunny as ever. Most of the campers had fled leaving the campground almost deserted. After supper, Max decided to stroll through the campground. The wind had died, but the temperature was dropping into the forties.

The sky was deep blue, with stars of shocking clarity. Venus, followed by Saturn, were plunging after the sun, together making a slashing diagonal across the sky towards where the sun had set. Even the crickets were silent, apparently as frozen as the campers. Everything was quiet.

Max now walked through a stretch of the campgroud without campsites. There, ahead on the road, he noticed a shape. Shining his light, Max was surprised to see a gray fox lying on the road, tail curled around it in a perfect circle, long ears erect and pointed at Max. The fox was soaking up the heat from the road, probably after his rounds of looking for scraps on plates waiting to be cleaned.

In Zion, Max had seen foxes near the campground at night, but always in motion, streaking like arrows across the road or beyond the lights of the campground.

But this fox wasn’t going to give up his warm spot without good reason. And Max didn’t give him any reason. Max switched off his light, and gently sat down on the road, not far from the fox, which stayed put. In the dim light, Max could see the fox continuing to stare at him, but after a while, the fox relaxed, and looked in other directions.

Now, Max liked to “communicate” with animals. He knew they didn’t understand English, but did truly feel there was could be some kind of interchange. He’d made the acquaintance of a seal pup on the beach at the Galapagos. He’d talked to numerous ravens and crows, getting a variety of responses from them. In Wisconsin, he liked to call in Barred Owls, Tufted Titmice, Sandhill Cranes, and Cardinals, by imitating their calls.

But you can’t fool a fox so easily. Max remembered the time on the shore of Lake Superior when, early in the morning, he had paddled up to a fox sleeping right by the shore. The fox had stretched, yawned hugely, and awakened to see Max watching just 10 feet away. But the fox had apparently never seen a person in a kayak before, the two combined as some kind of aquatic centaur—half man, half boat. So the fox had just continued to doze. Finally, Max had spoken to the fox, and then it instantly recognized him as human, frantically trying to get away and up the steep bank. For Max it had been a sobering lesson, first to be accepted as an equal—as some kind of fellow wild mammal--only to see, in an instant, acceptance be replaced by implacable fear.

So Max had the good sense not to speak to the Chisos Fox. He was going to content himself with sharing a piece of its world. As the fox looked around, Max looked around. The peaks of the basin were jagged, black and silhouetted against the last glow of the sun. Did the fox know anything of the world beyond the basin? Max suspected he did. Did the fox have family nearby, or acquaintances, or was he a loner? Did the fox notice Jupiter and Venus, and if so, of what use were they to him? Did they provide light to hunt? Could this fox be immune to beauty?

The fox raised its muzzle slightly, sniffing the air. Max could smell someone cooking upwind. How tantalizing that must be to a wild carnivore! Perhaps the fox already had a plan—just waiting on a warm spot of pavement for the right time to help himself to the leavings from this tempting meal. Perhaps this fox already had the habits and timetable of this particular family figured out.

Sitting there together, the fox taught Max something. The road was quite warm! There were no cold rivers of air coming down this particular part of the hill. This was the perfect place to survey the night, to listen to the pulse of the basin. The fox also taught Max to keep his mouth shut. There was something to be said for sharing the night in silence.

In the dark, Max heard some footsteps approaching on the road above. In a flash, the fox was gone, fading into the brush by the roadside like a ghost. A few seconds later, a light fell on Max, who was still sitting on the road. It was the campground host, on his evening rounds.

He said: “Good evening. I almost didn’t see you there.”

Max didn’t know what to say—how do you explain that you have been sharing the evening with a fox?

“Good evening,” Max replied. “I was just sitting here... the road is still warm.”

“You might want to pick another spot, or you could end up like one of those flat-rabbits.”

* * *

The next evening, when Max got back from his hike, it was dark. It was much warmer than the previous night, but not exactly balmy either. Max was going to sit outside and have a beer and look at the night sky. But there was a street light nearby that spoiled the celestial scenery, so Max decided to take a walk with his beer instead. Perhaps he’d see the fox again, and they could share a brew.

Max kept to the campground road, in an area where there were no lights. It was very dark—great for looking at the sky--but a hazard for drinking beer. On his first sip, he spilled on his shirt, because in the dark he couldn’t see what he was doing.

On the faraway slopes, shafts of light played--the headlights of drivers going to the lodge for supper. But after a while, full dark returned—just of rim of jagged buttes on all sides, black against the stellar extravaganza.

In the west where a rosy glow lingered, Venus and Saturn were putting on their nightly show. Venus was standing in for the past-full moon, which—like an aging diva-- was late to arrive.

Standing quietly on the road, Max listened to the crickets, which had resumed singing with warmer weather. They sang in slow tempo, in deference to the cool night, and a number of them were singing in coordinated tempo. But now Max noticed something extraordinary, for the first time in his career of cricket listening—the crickets were singing in… harmony. Some were a bit higher in pitch, some lower. Together, they reminded him of slow and sad barbershop quartet.

Now Max gazed at Venus, which was about to set behind a conical peak. He waited, and after a few minutes, her light started to dim. It took maybe 15 seconds for her light to extinguish altogether. Max moved on up the road, and to his astonishment, noticed that Venus was there again. By walking higher, he had caused the peak that eclipsed Venus to drop lower, relatively speaking, and Venus had reappeared! “Outstanding!”, Max thought So he waited, and within a minute, Venus started to set again. This time she took twice as long to fade—Max figured she was setting through a tree that stood on the far mountaintop. Max walked up a bit, and watched Venus set yet again. What a feeling of power—like a god, Max could will the heavens to do his bidding. Beer and star watching definitely go together, he thought.

When Max got back to the trailer, Izzy was already in bed, reading. Max was tired from his hike, so he crawled in too.

He hadn’t been in long before Izzy’s nose twitched, just like the fox. Evidently, she smelled the beer Max had spilled on his shirt.

“I notice you’ve been out drinking with the bears and foxes again….”

Not wanting to encourage comments about the company he kept, Max didn’t say anything.

“Well—you stay away from the rodents. They have fleas that carry the plague.”

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Fly Chi

Dateline: Perrot State Park, Wisconsin. July

Max was sitting in the campsite after breakfast, wondering what to do. He sat in the chair, facing the trailer, and listened to some music on his iPod, tapping his foot, oblivious to the couple in the campsite directly to his left. They were a pair of college students on break, flirting up a storm. But Max was oblivious to their carryings on, which had annoyed Isabel so much the day before. Max was in his own little world.

Max was wondering if he should be doing something more constructive. He sat there, tapping his foot, looking around. There was hardly a breeze, and gentle dappled light filtered through the trees overhead. To his left was a little semicircle of small tree trunks 6-8” in diameter.

After a while, max noticed a small fly hovering in the center of the semicircle, about at his eye level as he sat. Grooving with the music, he watched it. It just hovered there, and Max wondered what it was doing. So he began to watch it more carefully. Half his brain was engaged with the fly, half with the music.

The fly hovered, remarkably keeping the same station in space, despite the occasional gentle breezes. Its body was tilted a roughly a 45 degree angle, just like a hovering humming bird, and in the shaft of sunlight, max could see its wings moving as just a blur, roughly in the same arc and degree as a hummingbird. Every few seconds, the fly abruptly swiveled 90 degrees to face in a new direction. It seemed very alert.

Every few minutes, another insect passed by, and the fly, with amazing rapidity, zoomed off, apparently in some kind of chase. But within a few seconds, he always returned to the same station, continuing his patrol. The fly patrol. Some of the insects were smaller, but some seemed exactly the same size, possibly the same species. So, Max concluded that the fly was defending a territory, possibly a mating territory, against other male intruders. Rather like the Prairie Chickens on their booming grounds, Max thought. Either that, or the fly was chasing after prey insects—but Max never saw it catch anything.

Now the fly was pretty small, and Max had to concentrate. What Max didn’t realize is that his intent stare to his left, was directly into the campsite with the flirting couple. But Max didn’t see them—he didn’t see their mating dance—he had eyes only for the fly and it’s mating dance. They began to get annoyed—at first making remarks that gradually escalated to the rude—like “Dirty old man,” and “Peeping Tom,”, etc.” But Max couldn’t hear them because of his iPod.

Eventually, they left in annoyance, and on their way down the campsite lane, ran into Ranger Amber. In righteous retribution, they reported the Peeping Tom in campsite 88. Now Amber knew this was Max’s campsite, and this was the last straw. As a woman--and a woman with a gun--Amber hated sexual deviants. She new Max was a deviant of some kind, and now she knew which kind. So she turned around and marched for 88. Instinctively, as she did whenever things got tense, Amber reached down and patted her gun, making sure it was there. Approaching campsite 88, she recalled with some disgust, the uncle that had touched her, when she was a little girl.

In the meantime, Max had learned all he could about the fly from a sitting position. He decided to get a little closer. So he carefully stood up. Whenever Max moved, the fly darted away about a foot, but quickly came back to its territorial station. When it returned to its station after he stood, Max slowly started to move in on the fly, which amazingly, held its ground. Probably it just figured Max was another tree.

Pretty soon, Max was within an arm’s length of the fly. He wanted to see how the fly would react. He extended his right hand towards the fly, and for balance, extended his other hand backward. His legs were spread, so he could move smoothly, without having to take a step. He began to experiment by moving his body this way and that, to see if the fly was using his body as a landmark to maintain its exact position in space.

It was then that Max noticed Ranger Amber coming into the campsite past the trailer. There he was, staring at a fly, in a really strange posture. He wondered what he could say. He couldn’t say he was watching a fly—that would sound nutty, and probably the fly would promptly disappear, with Amber about to take over it’s territory. It was then that Max remembered the slow-motion Chinese exercises you see older Chinese doing in parks. But still he had the word “fly” on the tip of his tongue.

Amber planed herself squarely in front of Max. “Good Morning, Mr. Berkeley… It’s about your behavior….”
“Yes,” Max replied, “I’m doing my “Fly Chi” exercises. (You stare at a point in space, and make slow moves around it.) I hope that’s not against the rules?”

After Amber had left, Max sat down and thanked his stars that he’d though of Tai Chi. Amber had be caught off guard, and quickly retreated after mentioning the couple’s accusations. At first, with his mind still on flies, Max had been confused, thinking she was talking about flies when she said that courting couples deserved privacy. But then he had caught on, and now she was gone.

Max looked around for the fly, afraid it would be long gone. He imagined how it must have felt, with Amber, a creature about 10,000 times larger taking over its territory. Max thought: “It’s as if you’ve found this beautiful blond in a swimming pool, and you’re starting to move in on her, when suddenly a blue whale lands in the pool and squashes the girl, and all the water spills out.” But then he saw it again, the fly in the middle of the little semicircle of trunks, swiveling this way and that, as perky and defiant of intruders as ever. “Even the flies aren’t afraid of Amber,” Max thought.

Isabel arrived in the campground with her friend Martha, just as the ranger was leaving. She noticed the slightly indignant expression on Max’s face, and said: “What was that all about. Did you get busted again?”

“Naw, I’m squeaky clean. I talked her out of it.”

“Talked her out of what?” Said Isabel, with a bit of concern creeping into her voice.”
“It’s a long story. It was a misunderstanding over a fly.”

Martha said, “You mean one of those deer flies? I hate ‘em. Their bites swell up something terrible.”

“No,” said Max. “A little striped fly.”

And as if on cue, perhaps because the wind had shifted, the perky little fly appeared behind Isabel’s head, where it continued to hover, about a foot behind her red baseball cap.

“There he is, right behind your head!” Max blurted out.

Izzy turned her head, but the fly shifted position in sync, staying right behind her.

Martha laughed, “There he is, still right behind you Izzy!

Izzy turned her head, this way and that, and the fly always stayed right behind. Finally, she got a good look at it. “Oh, that tiny thing. What’s the big deal? You had a misunderstanding over a fly?”

“Yeah, Max said, these flies have a way of causing trouble.”

They were all sitting up on the picnic table, chatting about this and that. Then Max noticed the fly was hovering right between himself and Izzy. It was his first chance to get a really good look at the fly. It had a head completely covered with huge, reddish eyes. And its body, relatively small and slender, was crisply attired with black and yellow stripes, that wrapped around at right angles to it’s length.

Staring intently at the fly, nearly cross-eyed, with Izzy just behind it Max exclaimed: “Wow, it’s really cute!”

Izzy blushed, “Aw Max, you’re so sweet.”

Emerging from his trance, Max replied: “No, I mean the fly!,” but he immediately realized his mistake.

Izzy smacked him on the shoulder. “Humph! You can sleep with the flies, tonight, you… insect.”

“That’s what I was trying to explain before,” Max said defensively. “This fly is nothing but trouble.”

Paddling a Canoe on the Chicago River

Dateline: Chicago on the river, July

Max and John paddled along the waterfront, with Max gawking at the tall buildings, and taking quick photos of their silhouettes against the clouds, and reflections of the skyline on the brilliant facades of glass and metal.

There were almost no places to haul out and rest, but after a while, they found a good one—a small floating dock about 12 feet long by 3 feet wide, next to a large tour boat, parked off-duty, and—this was the best part—in the shade of a nearby bridge. They hauled out for lunch, and Max sat comfortably on their cooler, after extracting a cold beer for himself and John.
The deli sandwiches were delicious, but Max was careful to eat it protruding from the wrapper, since his hands were soiled with the filthy water (and he had forgotten to bring hand sanitizer). Only a little ways back, they’d seen a large rat floating belly up in the company of other unsavory items. When tour boats passed, Max was afraid their wake would wash over the tiny dock, but his fears soon proved unfounded, as it just bobbed up and over the next boat’s wake.

The infamous lunch pier is just to the left of the tied-up tour boat

They watched the tour boats and water taxis go back and forth--the tour boats droning the tour of the day from speakers. The water taxis (really busses with a capacity of about 20) were mostly empty. Some of the tour boats were modern, like the streamlined, giant yellow “Waterdog,” which looked like a hotdog doused in mustard, and other--very classic old wooden belles from the first half of the 20th century. Max tried to photograph the boats as they passed under the bridge, framing the boat with the arch of the bridge.

They finished up and got back into the canoe, then pushed out around the parked tour boat and headed towards the mouth of the river. Just ahead, Max noticed a large police boat tied to the opposite shore, not that far away. Then he spotted a burly officer beckoning them over.

Max quickly grabbed his PFD and tried to squirm into it without untying it first, without removing his floppy sun hat--but the PFD rammed the hat down tight over his eyes, then got caught on his camera, still only halfway on. For a long moment, Max was blind and in a straightjacket, drifting ever closer to the Police boat somewhere ahead. Max thought: “Well, so much for my quick change. I’ll probably get a ticket for not wearing the PFD. That must be why they called us over,” Finally, he squeezed it all the way on as they came up to the boat. The officer loomed over them as Max handed up their bow line.

Max looked up, apprehensively. The sideboard of the Police boat was an ample 4 feet high. And there, towering over them, just a silhouette really against the bright blue sky, was an immense officer, built like a gorilla, thick arms bulging outward, with a large gun protruding from his waist. He seemed as large as a skyscraper—and as if to match, on the other side of the river was a huge skyscraper, reaching for the sky, seeming to lean towards the officer, till the officer’s head and the building’s top nearly touched. Together they formed a gigantic arch over the river, and over the canoe. In the tiny canoe, Max felt like a cockroach on the pavement before an oncoming bus.

“Hand up your identification. And open your bags for inspection. NOW! What’s your business here, and why were you photographing that bridge?”

“We’re just tourists,” Max offered, “from Wisconsin. Madison, Wisconsin.”

“Why were you photographing that bridge? Convince me you’re not a terrorist! You can’t go around photographing bridges.”

“I’m a retired photographer. I wasn’t photographing the bridge—I was just using it to frame my photos of those boats. And see how the blue reflects off the girders on the bridge—that makes for a great shot.”

The Cop studied the offered credit card, since Max hadn’t thought to bring his driver’s license. “What’s your address?”

Max dutifully rattled off the address on his credit card, while John offered his identification and some explanations about their jaunt on the river. As the cop began to relax, his gorilla arms no longer bulged so much to the sides, like a sheriff ready for a quick draw at OK Corral, and his voice softened:

“Let me give you some advice. That was private property back there. You can’t climb out on private property. And don’t go taking pictures of bridges, or those sewer outfalls. It’s a changed world, since 9/11? You understand?”

“Oh, perfectly,” Max cooed. “We understand. I’m glad you guys are doing your job, protecting us.”

The cop continued, in a more friendly tone: “The captains of those tour boats, they see you photographing a bridge, they call us. If you keep it up, you’ll get picked up again in 20 minutes. You’ll get picked up ten times a day.”

The cop was droning on, still towering over Max, head next to the gleaming skyscraper—the black angel, and the white angel—like a great arch over the river. It reminded Max of the great arch at St. Louis. He couldn’t resist. It was a once in a lifetime chance for a great photo, so he said: “Mind if I take your picture?”

“Whoa—you gotta be kidding? Here I am making a terrorist search, and YOU wanna take MY picture? I don’t’ think so!”

“That’s OK. I understand. Well, we’ll be getting on, if that’s all right. “

“OK, here’s your rope. And try to stay out of trouble. Stay on the river, and you’ll be all right.”

When they got a ways away, Max felt a rush of relief and an urge to joke about their little adventure. He turned back to John in the stern, and said: “Hey Mohammed, we sure fooled that cop, didn’t we?” But John looked funny, and shook his head, looking to the left. Max followed his gaze to see a worker on a nearby pier, probably within earshot, who was looking at them intently while dialing on his cell phone.

“Oh shit!” Max thought, “Another trip to the Police Boat. This time it’s going to be harder to explain.”

Travel tip by Max: Keep your identification handy while paddling under bridges in Chicago. If you're name is Mohammed, try paddling on Lake Geneva instead.

The Lost Dog

Dateline: Great Smokey Mt. National Park, Cosby Campground, Spring, 2009

Max knew he was beginning to miss Izzy when he started taking an interest, a personal interest, in the other campers… especially the women. Maybe he was a teeny bit lonely. But instead of expressing it by going up and talking to them, he made up stories about them—who they were, and what they were doing.

That evening, a car stopped to admire the trailer. There was a woman on the passenger side talking to Max, a man driving on the far side, and three children. The woman asked questions about the trailer, and said they were staying in the vintage Airstream, from the 1960s, down the drive. She was surprisingly talkative, in a car filled with people--probably hungry for supper.

Late that next afternoon, when Max returned from a hike, he was waved down by the campground host.

“Good, I wanted you to stop. You know those people up in the Airstream? Their dog ran away! They don’t even know about it yet. I was up there this afternoon, and I noticed the window was pushed out, and the blinds all messed up, and the dog was outside. When I came up, it ran away, up into the woods.”

“Oh, no,” Max sympathized,” that poor dog. I’ll keep my eye out for it.”

“Maybe a bear came along… and that’s why it broke out of the trailer. It seemed terrified.”

“Well, if you see it, and need someone to help catch it, let me know.”

It wasn’t long before the Airstream people came along, and within a few minutes, Max heard them calling for their dog. The children fanned out, and pretty soon Max heard anxious calls from all over the campground. Most of the family headed up one of the trails, calling, and soon their voices faded into the evening whispers of the forest.

Up to this point, Max had been too exhausted from his hike to help. He was lying in his bunk, recuperating, and thinking about what the poor dog would do, alone in the woods. Feeling somewhat refreshed, he got a beer and his chair, and sat by the side of the road, where he had a good view of a blooming dogwood. Shortly, a slim woman in her 40’s came down the campground loop, calling once or twice. She stopped when she saw Max.

Max said: “I heard about your dog. I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do?”

She explained how he was a two-year old collie, rescued from a shelter, and very afraid of people. She said if Max saw the dog, it would just run from him.

“It’s a very silly dog—it hasn’t a clue—no sense,” she said. She explained how it was especially afraid of men. When they first had the dog, her husband had to lie down on the floor, and give it treats, to gradually socialize it.

“The kids are going to be traumatized. This is the second dog we’ve lost this year.”

They continued talking, Max sitting with his beer, she standing 8’ away in the road. Max couldn’t offer her a chair, because he had only one, and was afraid to offer her a drink, as inappropriate to the situation, and he knew that would just send her on her way. So they continued to chat. Her husband was just retired from the Navy, and they had sold their house, and were just living in the trailer. He was waiting to hear about a job in Ithaca, but it was very long in coming through.

Max commented: “Well, that sounds OK—it gives you the perfect excuse to travel around and enjoy the spring weather.”

“You’re right, but we’d feel a lot more secure it we had a job to come back to.”

The woman was slim and petite, in black quick-dry pants, and a tie-died t-shirt.  Standing in front of Max, she did a kind of slow-motion dance, hugging her shoulders. Then she’d raise her hands over her head, and clasp the back of her head, leaning back a little. This pulled up her undersized t-shirt, revealing a very ample section of tanned skin around her navel. Then she’d put a hand on her hip. She had a cute, up-turned nose and long black hair, tied up in a bun.

She asked Max if he was “batching it,” and what he was doing with the kayak. Max explained that he had been in the Everglades, but that it was too hot and buggy.

“But it’s perfect, here in the Smokies.”

She said Max should read “Travels with Charlie,” by Steinbeck, about a man traveling around with his pet poodle.

Soon she said goodbye, and headed back the way she had come, giving a call for the dog with a lovely soprano note, and disappeared around the bend.

Max went into the trailer and lay down on the bunk, with the lights off, and listened to music. Dusk was deepening. From his spot on the bunk, Max could see out three windows at the treetops—the deep blue of the evening sky, luminous, silhouetting a lacework of spring foliage, gradually deepening. Max thought about the woman who had been surprisingly appealing, and made up a story to explain this apparition.

Early in their conversation, she had mentioned the need to cook dinner for four hungry people, yet she had lingered. Both times she had been surprisingly chatty, even inappropriately so, considering the family that was waiting while she talked. Max wondered if she was a younger woman, perhaps childless herself, who had married an older man with a family. Perhaps she wasn’t 100% into this family thing, looking for some diversion. Perhaps… no… yes… maybe… she was on the prowl.

Deep in every male’s reptilian brainstem, there’s a circuit waiting to be activated, waiting for its day. The circuit that says “here comes the cheating female on the prowl, your big chance—Quick, inflate that big red throat pouch, and sing your song.”

Max was surprised that part of his brain still worked. But there is was, speaking perfectly clearly, not missing a line. Not that he was going to do anything about it. That circuit in his brain was like the emergency exit on the plane, or the oxygen mask. Waiting there for years, until the moment needed. But like those devices, you finger the placard for a moment, give it a cursory glance, then turn back to the Sky Mall magazine.

Max lay on the bunk, watching the sky, and conversing with the reptile inside, till night fell. By this time, he had recovered sufficiently to go for a walk, looking for the dog. He’d been thinking what kind of strategy to employ, and about the poor dog. Would it come back on its own? Unlikely, unless it had some experience with the woods. Max imagined it hunkered down in some underbrush, completely lost, exhausted, quivering with fear, perhaps with several coyotes closing in for the kill.

Max headed up the slope in the dark, through the empty At the parts of the campground that were closed. At the edge, he found a gravel road leading up hill—the Snake Den Trail.

Hearing a rustling in the undergrowth, Max shined his light—he figured if he held it close to his own eyes, he’d see a good reflection from a dog’s eyes. There was nothing there—perhaps just a branch falling from a tree. So Max continued to walk in the dark, repeating a scan with the light every few minutes.

The moon was a thin crescent, descending towards a lingering reddish glow in the west. Even its dark backside was easily visible. The air was balmy warm, with a light breeze, and stars speckled through the budding foliage. The trees were just starting to leaf out, so Max could see the big dipper high overhead, dripping out its last drop towards the north star.

Not too far away, a barred owl suddenly pierced the nigh with a long, high hoot, descending at the end to a distinctive rolled “R.” Max gave his own imitation, but he couldn’t call anywhere near as high as this particular owl. It didn’t seem to respond, but soon another owl joined the first in a brief duet. Max slowly strolled up the dark road, feeling the forest enfold him, listing for any sounds that might give away the dog. But all he heard was the wind in trees, the rustle of earthworms among the dead leaves, the occasional squeak of two branches rubbing on one another.

Ahead the blackness of the forest opened up, where faint streaks of moonlight fell diagonally across a semi-clearing. Max turned on his light to reveal a cemetery containing only six graves—"Elizabeth Robinson and …" he couldn’t make out the other name. Born before the Civil War, surviving into the early 1900s, ages 51 and 67. Now the warm wind was blowing more strongly, and the branches were swaying, winking the stars off an on. Max sat on his haunches for a while in the quiet cemetery, one hand resting on the mossy ground, lumpy but soft. Somewhere out there was a terrified dog.

Max arose and shuffled slowly back down the gravel road, trusting his feet to find a way in the darkness. High in the treetops, three lighting bugs cruised about, giving their single pulse, repeated every few seconds. Sometimes, when they pulsed behind a tree trunk, Max could see the canopy around them shine with their light, every so faintly. The temperature was perfect, and the mosquitoes were yet to emerge. It was one of those evenings when your skin seems to disappear, and you merge with the larger, pulsing being of the forest, reaching up for another year.

The next morning, Max spoke with the husband of the Airstream trailer. The dog, it turns out, had returned on its own about 11:00 pm, whimpering at the door. He said it must have wanted very much to be part of their family, and maybe was hungry, too. Before dark, they had gone out along a number of the trails, laying down their scent, giving it a way to follow them back. Apparently it had worked.

Max noticed the husband was middle-aged, in possession of all his black hair, handsome and charming. So much for the reptilian theory about the wandering wife. So much for the reptilian nooks is his brain—they could snooze in the ooze for another decade.

In Cosby Campground

Cosby is isn’t your average campground in a national park. There are only a few sites suitable for RVs, and the RV crowd has passed it by for the more spacious Cade’s Cove. A number of the campers over the weekend were obviously local people—with pickups, amply tattooed, and tents.

One family near Max had at least 3 children, and between the children and the father, they made as much noise as a schoolyard. Flashlights were playing in the trees, and a big campfire burning. Howls of sibling controversy periodically erupted, alternated with the squeals of some younger child throwing a tantrum over Kool-aid not provided fast enough. Most amazing was the father with a booming voice: “Come here, NOW!” or “Do you want a whipping?” The entire campground was kept abreast for most of the evening of every little domestic squabble.

The day Max had arrived, after driving for more than a day from Florida, he was exhausted. He’d gotten up before dawn, it was hot, and all he could do all day was lie in the trailer and listen to music. Evidently, the local couple in the next campsite felt the same way. They had a big fire going at mid day, but all they did the entire day was sit around the campfire, or lie inside the tent with the door open. At one point, Max noticed the strong smell of marijuana wafting up to the trailer, as they sat behind the tent, passing a joint back and forth.

One of the trails came out right at Max’s campsite, and people had to go out of their way to walk around his trailer. About suppertime, the family with the classic Airstream returned from a hike. The woman saw Max sitting outside in his chair, and quipped: “Aha! The snack shop at the end of the trail! What’s for supper?” Max laughed, but still wrapped in the lazy afternoon mood, couldn’t think of a smart reply.

Unlike Zion, not many people went out for a morning or evening stroll around the campground loop, but a few did. First of all, the little pairs of matching doggies in t-shirts hadn’t come to Cosby. One man did stroll by with two large matching dogs of unknown breed—one black and one white. He had a white mane and a white goatee—Colonel Saunders’s style, with a light blue shirt and bright red suspenders, to loft his pants over a portly belly. Later, another man in sporting garb came by with a beagle on a leash. OK, that one was medium-sized—but so far no little doggies. Next, a very elderly couple with crisp white hair and freshly pressed shorts came doddering by—Max wondered if they were in a tent. There was one pop-up camper at the handicapped site—maybe that was theirs.

Now, on a Tuesday, the campground was nearly deserted. All the hillbilly families with the screaming kids had vacated. The retired teacher was reading in her camper chair—a torrid, rip-off-her-bodice romance? Another retired couple was sitting beside their tent reading. Here in Cosby, there were no generators recharging the batteries of hulking RVs, getting ready for another evening of sitcom reruns on the satellite channel. Just people passing the time, pursuing their interests, in the quiet afternoon, close to nature.

This was the last place you’d expect to find a body. The best Max could do was come up with a graveyard—three of them. Yes, lots of bodies nearby, just a few feet down, but tucked in nice and proper, with no loose ends dangling. No unanswered questions—except—what had it been like to live here in the Smokies? Was life hard? Did they take the time to smell the flowers, in the spring?

On his first day in Cosby, Max had been exhausted. On his second and third, he went on long hikes. But on the fourth day, Max took time to really relax. He listened to Music, and did a little writing. He strolled around the campsite, and down by the brook. He finally tidied up the trailer and swept it out.

He kept wondering if he should be doing something, but those thoughts didn’t last for long. He was gradually floating down towards that baseline of existence, where you really relax, when you can hear the hum of your cells, idling and rebuilding themselves.

It’s that state that gradually creeps over you like a warm blanket, the kind of contentment you can’t give a name to. It’s the state when you don’t do the dishes, and it’s not procrastination. It’s when you idly watch a small olive bird rustle among the leaves outside the trailer, and wonder what’s on it’s mind. It’s when you notice the upright parallel tree trunks, reaching for the light, interwoven with the horizontal branches of dogwoods, voluptuous with flowers.

An overbird shouts “teacher Teacher TEACHER” low down in the woods, invisible as always, while a cuckoo clucks far away in a treetop. But mostly the birds are silent, their last day off before a busy breeding season, turning inward, like the campers… on vacation. Its so quiet, you can almost hear your own pulse. A day when the clouds don’t know which way to go.

Wisconsin's "Prevention of Cruelty to Hitchhiking Animals" Act

Dateline: Wisconsin

Isabel and Max were at home in the evening, between trailer trips. Izzy was reading the paper. She remarked to Max:

“Have you heard about this new law? The Prevention of Cruelty to Hitchhiking Animals Act? PoCHAA?”

“PoCHAA? Is this some kind of joke?”

“No. Haven’t you heard that sometimes animals crawl up into the area around your car’s engine? They like it there ‘cause it’s warm and dark. They can hide. They seem to mistake it for a nice warm burrow. Remember, how you always find chewed pine cones on top of our engine when you change the oil?”

“Yeah, it’s those stupid chipmunks.”

“They’re not stupid—they’re cute. It’s probably Alvin, the one in our back yard.”

“They say in the paper that hitchhiking animals can be a real problem.

“What’s a hitchhiking animal?”

“That’s something like Alvin, or more often a raccoon, who’s snoozing on top the engine, under the hood. You get in, and drive away, and if he’s not quick, he goes along for the ride.”

“So, what’s the problem?” My dog used to love going for a ride. Head out the window, tongue dragging on the pavement…. Where’s the cruelty?”

“Says here that sometimes the animals aren’t so smart—or, they’re hibernating. You go for a long ride on a hot day, and the engine gets really hot, and the animal fries. A terrible death. Imagine that poor thing—trapped, trying to get out. If they climb out while you’re driving, they get run over. If they stay, they die from heat exhaustion. It says here a lot of the dead animals you see on the road actually come from inside cars.”

“Yeah, I remember reading about rats that live in cars. In places like New York, they climb up into parked cars and do a lot of damage. They chew through wires. Costs hundreds or thousands to replace the wires. If your electrical system suddenly goes haywire, it’s the rats.”

Izzy: “They could get electrocuted.”

“Serve them right.”

“Max, that’s unsympathetic! You love animals.”

“Yes, Animals in the rough. In their natural place. So, what’s the deal with PoCHAA?”

“Well, these Hitchhiking Animals can cause a lot of trouble. When they cook on a hot engine, it really stinks up the car.”

“Not to mention the stench when the body rots in your garage.”

Izzy: “That’s right, so pay attention. This is serious. They say that PoCHAA—it’s a voluntary program. If you live near a wooded area, and you don’t use your car every day, and you have certain makes of car, then you may be at risk for cooking some poor animal….” She studied the article.

“Max! We’re at risk! We live near the woods. You don’t drive everyday. You have a van with lots of space under the hood. And when you do drive, you go for hours. Let’s sign up for the PoCHAA program, so you don’t fry poor Alvin.”

“What’s involved?”

“A DNR wildlife expert comes out and inspects your car. If they find animal hairs or droppings on your engine, then they sign you up.”

“Sign us up for what? I don’t like the sound of this.”

Izzy: “They match you with a compatible animal. Research has shown… when you have a compatible animal around you house, your car becomes part of their territory. They defend it against other animals—and keep them out of your car.”

Max: “So what’s ‘compatible’ about having some wild animal around you house, courtesy of DNR?”

“They bring in some animal, usually a raccoon, one that knows the drill. An animal that knows enough to get out of your engine when you’re going for a drive. It’s almost like they are trained. DNR tests them, to see if they get out before you drive off. They actually have a test and training facility. It says here you’re supposed to bang on the hood twice before you get in the car. The animal climbs down and sneaks away on the opposite side. Most of the time, you’ll never even see it leave the car. They’re naturally cautious—that’s why most people don’t know about the problem of hitchhiking animals.”

Turkeys do not make good compatible animals, because they are more interested in copulating with cars than crawling under the hood.

Max: “What if I don’t want a raccoon around my house?”

“Most people, if they live near woods, or even just in the suburbs, have them around anyway. They live in the storm sewers, or hollow trees, and come out at night. They’re everywhere. This way, with PoCHAA, you get one that’s safe—“compatible,” as they say.”

Izzy kept badgering Max till he agreed to sign up for PoCHAA. A few weeks later, the DNR man came out—a young guy fresh out of college, with a degree in wildlife management. Yup, there were raccoon hairs on the engine, so he signed them up.

In fact, he had brought a “compatible” raccoon along—with a tiny green PoCHAA ear tag. When he released in the back yard, it quickly scurried away into the bushes and disappeared.

They never saw it again, until a few weeks later, when Max was out for a drive to his favorite state park for a walk and a swim. He smelt something funny, a sort of animal smell, and suddenly he remembered. He’d forgotten to bang on the hood! He’d jumped into and driven the car away, driven for nearly an hour, without any warning. When he stopped by the side of the highway and opened the hood, a somewhat disheveled raccoon with a green ear tag jumped out and limped away. It turned to “chitter” at him angrily before it disappeared into the tall grass.

The next day, with the aroma of singed hair still clinging to the van, Izzy grilled Max, and the story came out. Izzy understood Max--that he was sometimes impulsive and didn’t always follow the rules--but she was firm about getting another animal.

“Max, we’ll be out of compliance with PoCHAA if we don’t call DNR and get another compatible animal. If one dies on our engine, I won’t be responsible. You’ll have to pay for the cleanup! It’ll be on YOUR conscience--the agonizing death of an innocent animal!”

So the DNR guy came out again. This time he explained patiently that there was a shortage of compatible animals. Interest in PoCHAA was really taking off. Given Max’s record, they weren’t willing to risk another raccoon. There was already a long waiting list. But they did have plenty of skunks. Skunks weren’t very popular in the PoCHAA program, for obvious reasons. But the DNR man explained that skunks were really the perfect animal. They could hold their own against any wild raccoon that wanted to take over the car as a snoozing place. And, if you treated them with proper respect, they almost never created a stink.

“They’re one of the most misunderstood animals,” the man said. “They’re really very gentile and friendly.

“What about all those skunks you smell when you’re out driving in the country?”

“Research shows that two thirds of dead skunks on the highways actually came from inside cars. They’re asleep when you get in, and as you drive down the highway, they wake up and try to get out. They get run over, either by the car they jump out of, or by one behind. But if you have a compatible skunk, you’ll never have to worry. Our tested skunks are light sleepers, Mr. Berkeley. Next time if you forget to bang on the hood, he’ll wake up anyway and exit, before you drive off. Skunks are very intelligent.”

Max didn’t like the implied comparison. He thought the DNR guy was a bit too cocky, and he was embarrassed by what happened to the raccoon. According to the DNR guy, the hapless raccoon had turned up at an animal rehab shelter with burns and singed fur. They said it had PTSD--wouldn’t go near cars again—was lost to the PoCHAA program. He droned on.

“And we got a waiting list for raccoons a mile long,” the wildlife guy said, with a hint of reproach. “But this is a really good program. It’s part of the new philosophy of “behavioral pest control.” You work with the grain of animals, rather than against it. You can’t get rid of pests like raccoons, so you work with them. The animals get a safe home, and you get a clean car, with no odor problems.”

So Max, feeling a bit under duress, had accepted the skunk. The DNR guy said it was vaccinated against rabies, and they’d give him a special permit to keep a skunk. The DNR guy had a skunk caged right in his van. So they agreed, the DNR guy released the skunk, which then ambled off into the bushes, checking out his hew home with a fastidious and careful air.

A few days later, Izzy had a little pet door installed in the garage.

She said, “What’s the point of having a ‘compatible,’ if he can’t take a snooze whenever he wants? You do sometimes put you car in the garage.”

But it wasn’t long before Max noticed a little bowl of cat food in the garage. Whenever he opened the driver’s door, the skunk dropped out of the right front wheel-well within a few seconds, and ambled sleepily out through the little pet door. Max did notice a little “eau de skunk” whenever he started up the car, but it was usually gone within a minute or so.

In fact, he even began to like the faint musky odor. It reminded him of… something….

Max says: "I know there may be some skeptics out there, who don't believe in banging on their hood. If you're one of them, just google: 'rats damage car wiring' Signing up for a compatible animal will solve all your problems! Follow this link to sign up for PoCHAA. It’s completely voluntary."

Turtles do not make good compatible animals, because they are cold-blooded.Add Image

Travel tip by Max: "Don't forget to bang twice on the hood, folks. The animal you save could be your own."

The story behind Max's profile photo

Dateline: Wisconsin

It was a beautiful August day, when Max and Izzy decided to drive up to Devil’s Lake for the day. It was less than an hour’s drive north, but Max managed to turn it into an adventure.

They were going to take the short cut from Sauk City to the south side of the lake, but when they got to where highway 78 branched from the main route, there was a big detour sign: “Road closed—local traffic only.” But there was a way around the sign, with dusty tracks indicating quite a bit of traffic.

So Max proposed to Izzy. “Why don’t we take this route and see what they’re doing? It’s a lot shorter this way. This sign has been here for months—they’ve probably finished everything but painting the white line down the center." Izzy, true to her cautious style, was pretty dubious, but Max persuaded her.

So they continued past the sign on good road, but without any traffic—for a while. Soon the blacktop ended, and gravel began. There was one of those stripped sawhorse barriers, with another “road closed” sign, but taped over the official message was a sheet of paper with a scrawled message “Let the Adventure Begin!” “Whoo-ee” said Max.

Ahead stretched a great slash of dirt, cutting a beeline through the rolling prairie. The curving old road had been widened and leveled, evidently at a cost of tens of millions. Cubic miles of fertile farmland moved, cutting the hills down to size. “All this so a few old folks can get to their cottages faster?” said Max, considering the logic of modern America. After all, Sauk City is not on the way to anywhere important.

There were a few tense moments when they came to places where you had a choice of driving on the old road or the new one. It wasn’t clear which way was best. Max argued for the new road. Izzy argued that Max owed her a trip to the car wash.

A few other adventurers (with four wheel drive) passed heading the other way. “See, they got through, Max suggested hopefully.” “Or, they came from that farm over there,” Izzy retorted.

After a while of driving at 20 mph on the gravel, Izzy stopped for a bathroom break. She pulled onto a shoulder large enough to park the entire yearly production of Toyota. Max suggested that Izzy go looking for wildflowers, because he needed a little snooze.

Max had always had trouble with sleep. Being hyperactive, he often stayed up late, and the night before, truth be told, he had been up blogging. When he was a professor, that sometimes led to dozing off in committee meetings. The Dean was not amused, especially when it happened in the all-important ANTPAMIC committee, which decided merit pay. Max didn’t see the problem, because he always managed to wake up when they got around to discussing his merit pay.

Now, Max was an expert on finding good places to snooze while traveling. There are several factors which have to be considered. Quiet is one. But being sheltered from the sun is another. You see, once Max had dozed off in the desert, on his back under a tree. While he slept, the sun moved, and soon he was in the sun. The ultraviolet rays penetrated inside his nostrils, where the sun seldom shines, and pretty soon he had a nose bleed, that lasted--off an on--for several days.

Having thought about the nosebleed incident—and Max was a thoughtful person—Max realized it explained a lot. Have you ever wondered why old men have so much nose hair—so much they have to be careful not to step on it? Why—dear reader—it’s to prevent sunburn inside of the nose while they snooze!! Yes, long ago when snoozing was more fashionable, old men with long nose hair were protected, and those with little hair bled to death. The cave ladies recognized the virility and survival value of long nose hair, and so the genes for nose hair inseminated their way into the gene pool.

Max didn’t want to sleep in the car, because it was dusty beside the road with occasional pickups passing, and besides, you can cook like a pop-tart in a parked car. And Max didn’t want to sleep on the grass, because of chiggers and ticks.

Max knew that culvert pipes were good places to sleep. Raccoons know the drill. Pipes are dark, quiet, and cool—though sometimes a bit damp. Suddenly, Max spotted a bright, shiny new culvert pipe, waiting to be implanted in the ground. It whas clean as a whistle! So he crawled in far enough to shade his head and chest, and dozed off.

The view from inside--restful

The next thing he knew, Izzy was taking his picture. “With my own camera!,” Max complained. “Can’t an old guy get some privacy?” “Serves you right for dragging me out on this wild-goose chase. You owe me a car wash!” “Ok, Ok, anything!” Max agreed. “Just let me sleep for another ten minutes.”

Max’s travel-tip: One thing to remember about snoozing in new culvert pipes. Make sure the workers have quit for the day. Otherwise, you might wake up six feet under.