Monday, October 25, 2010

On the Lonely Mesa a Rude Visitor Comes Calling

This is a newspaper story written for a special Halloween feature. It's as true as a double-bitted axe. From the Herald-Citizen, Oct. 30, 2005.


It was getting dark and I was driving the two-lane blacktop north along the Utah mesa known as Island in the Sky, a monolith a few miles wide and 20 miles long rising into the air on vertical cliffs 1200 feet high. On my eastern flank jutted Dead Horse Point, a precipice named for the horses that once ran too close to the edge before they realized the awful truth.

Immediately around me the mesa looked like ordinary high plains. But I knew better; the abrupt cliffs are out there like the ultimate edge. A few miles north the cliffs play out enough that the road can wind its way down.

I was drifting through spring that year, on a solo trip around the Four Corners area. I’d been walking on the southern tip of Island in the Sky, a place known as Grandview Point that overlooks the junction of the Green and Colorado Rivers. At the mesa’s tip, the very last rock juts out into space like an anvil’s point. I’d climbed out on that rock and gazed down into the terrible swooping distance below. The vista before me was as forbidding as it was immense, one scarred by deep canyons, standing rocks and mesas, raw naked rock, a case of geology gone mad. The Point earns its name.

The long walk over, I was leaving now, driving north. I needed a place to sleep. I spotted a Jeep path angling off to the west that looked like a good bet. I headed the truck down it, looking for a likely place to park. After a half mile, I came to a wide spot where it appeared campers had stayed before. I turned the truck around, ready for a quick get away, and parked it level beside the path.

The sky was clear and the moon was full, casting a yellow glow over the desert rocks. I looked forward to a peaceful, lonely night.

Stretching a hundred miles to the west lies some of the most barren land you can find—land so profoundly worthless as to be infinitely valuable. At least to the human soul. If a laser weapon high in space burned the whole region, it would kill precious little; the sage bushes would turn black and the black bushes would just get blacker.

The next day I planned to venture into that space and find a canyon where the ancient ones, the Anasazi, left elaborate petroglyphs on the walls. Extended drought 700 years ago decimated the Anasazi and drove them from this region. But their stark art still decorates the canyon, ghostly images of spirits long departed.

It was too early to go to bed. I sat in the truck cab for a while and discovered an FM station in Salt Lake City playing mainstream jazz, a rare kind of program I was glad to find.

Suddenly headlights came bouncing along the truck path toward me. This was disappointing; I wasn’t expecting company. A van rumbled by without stopping. I watched as it went on down the path. Probably just some camper looking for a place to sleep. Soon the taillights dipped out of sight over a rise. Good. Whatever they had in mind, it didn’t look like they’d be doing it close to me.

It soon got too cold to sit in the truck without running the heater, and I wasn’t going to do that. I stood around outside and sat on the tailgate. The moonlight was a pale liquid falling on an austere landscape of sand, rock and shrub. To the west the view faded to darkness, as if that harsh land swallowed light.

I had dismissed the van. It was time to go to bed. My truck had a camper shell and my sleeping bag was already stretched out in the back. I climbed in, closed the main tailgate, the camper gate, and slid into the warm bag, removing only my sneakers. Moon glow came through the windows, lighting the inside. I was tired and soon drifted off.

Crunching metal jarred me awake like a garbage truck. I sat bolt upright, grabbing my .38. Somebody’s outside! What do they mean? You can’t come into a man's camp raising hell! You’ll get shot!

I sat there holding my breath, trying to get a fix on their direction, see if I could hear talking. It had sounded like guys stomping beer cans just outside my truck. Anyone would have to know the hostility of that. Menace was their clear intent, and they probably weren’t through, I thought.

My pulse was roaring. It seemed like all the blood in my body was trying to rush into my head.

I couldn’t see anyone outside the windows. They could have crouched down beside the truck, I knew. As quietly as I could I leaned over to each side window and looked down, but saw nothing. The same for the back window. They may have retreated to the rocks a few yards away or be hidden toward the front of the truck.

One thing was obvious to everybody concerned—there was only one way out of the truck bed, and that was through the back. I had to get out. I was a sitting duck inside. I slipped on my sneakers as quietly as I could and got set to jump.

Here goes! I flipped up the camper door, slammed the main gate down and hit the ground facing the truck, pistol ready.

And saw nobody.

Not at the sides of the truck, not at the front. I fetched my flashlight and swept underneath the truck, but nobody was under there either. They had retreated to the rocks, I figured.

I checked the ground near the left rear wheel, where I thought the can crushing sounds had come from. There were no cans there. Neither was there any metal left over from a previous camper that could have caused the noise. From that, I assumed they had taken the cans with them when they ran—all the better to annoy a lone camper.

Well, I wasn’t leaving. I stood around, wondering. A hard moonlight fell on the desert rocks—which now took on a new evil dimension.

Oddly, I remember noticing the beauty of it all, too. The moon was so bright I could clearly see the snow on top of Tukuhnikivats, flagship peak of the La Sal Mountains, thirty miles to the east.

I went back to bed. I lay there not quite asleep.

The sound started again.

Again jerking upright, I couldn’t see a soul outside the truck. The sound had changed, I noticed, to a metallic crunching, something like a hack saw on sheet metal, a rhythmic sound akin to gnawing. Gnawing?

Ah, yes, there was my answer. It must be some kind of desert rodent gnawing on my truck. The metal bed of the truck had amplified the sound, making it louder, especially to my ears so close to the floor. I decided I’d get out and find the little varmint.

The commotion of my getting out made it stop the sound, of course. It’d be hiding. I scanned the underside of the truck with my light, expecting to see a furry scurrying. But it held tight.

I knew where it would be—the engine compartment. There’s tasty stuff there. I raised the hood. It was cagey and probably small, but I figured I could find it or, at the least, make it run away. I inspected closely, looking inside the fan shroud, underneath the AC compressor and alternator, wherever it might be crouching.

I satisfied myself that it wasn’t there, that it had already bailed out. Everything was quiet. Good enough, I thought, a lesson learned for both of us, a happy outcome all around.

I returned to the back of the truck, prepared to go to bed once again. For some reason, before climbing in I decided to have one more look underneath the back of the truck. It wouldn’t be there, of course. The commotion of slamming the hood and door would’ve already scared anything away.

I stooped down and shined my light on the rear axle and the spare tire area.
As if cued by the light the metallic crunching suddenly started.

It was in front of my face, just past the tailgate, at precisely where I was pointing the light. As if mocking me, my light, my futile search, it scrunched and screeched, metallic and undaunted.

Crouched there on that harsh lonely mesa drowned by cold moonlight, I pointed my light at a grating sound made by something I could not see—and conveniently re-affirmed a long-held position, one unsupported by the immediate empirical data: I don’t believe in ghosts.

With that, I climbed back into the truck and slipped into my bag. While it gnawed on the steel bowels of my truck I drifted gently into a sweet sleep.

No comments:

Post a Comment