This story is by Chris Arneson and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Alone, and far beyond the reach of civilization, a tent stood in the canyon’s darkness. He was in between dreams and consciousness as dawn approached. Perched on a ledge 3500-feet below the rim of the Grand Canyon in August meant it was going to be a hot day. He began to stir as the chirping of canyon wrens woke him.
Knowing that he needed to get moving he wormed out of his sleeping bag, and tent, and slid on his hiking boots. Standing up and stretching with the early dawn light, his stiff muscles and back screamed at him. A soreness of accomplishment. Fifteen miles for a 53-year-old canyon junkie, that was not too shabby he thought. His friends were invited on these trips often, but seldom joined him. He didn’t mind the solitude.
The sunrise still elusive, he reached down to pick up his water storage bladder. “Oh no!” He screamed. The side seam of the bladder had ripped during the night and all that remained was a muddy mess.
He frantically reached for his backpack to look for his extra water bottle he usually brought. Guilt set in as he vaguely remembered it on the passenger seat of his car. He gave up searching. He sat down on a rock, nauseated and disgusted with himself.
As he sat in the twilight, he tried to calm his mind. Survival training kicking in. The way he saw it there were two options. Hike further into the canyon to reach the river to get water, or turn around and hike out. It was closer to get to the river. He also knew he could get water, but he didn’t have the means to haul enough water to be useful. He checked his cell phone. No service. He decided he must hike back.
He packed up his gear and loaded his heavy pack on his shoulders. He started back on the fifteen mile, 3500-foot climb. A tough day even with the proper water.
Within an hour the sun had crossed the eastern range and he began to feel the heat. The inner canyon temps regularly reach well over 100 degrees in August. The exposed ridge trail he was on was naked of shade. Occasionally the trail cut into a side canyon which would be his best bet for cover and possibly water. He didn’t see any water the previous day in these canyons, but he was still hopeful.
He spent the morning traveling in and out of the canyons, the sun directly above him. Now, extremely thirsty he began to really crave water. The heat from the canyon walls radiated back like an echo of heat, there was nowhere to retreat.
He pressed on and had nothing do to but hike and think. Trying to keep his thoughts of thirst and exhaustion at bay, he thought of his family and friends. He wondered what they were doing. His core was beginning to overheat and his body was barely sweating.
He entered into another side canyon and hope was diminishing. He hadn’t seen anyone in two days. Why would he? Other tourists were in the canyon for sure, but they stayed on the corridor trails with water available every few miles. And here he was in the backcountry and beginning to struggle for his life.
The next side canyon produced a scraggly juniper tree with just enough shade to slide under it. He did. He knew if he kept going in this mid-day heat, he wouldn’t last long, and decided to wait until there was shade. He checked his cell phone, still no service.
Every sound he heard he pictured a park ranger instinctively walking towards him with a gallon of water. No ranger appeared. He tried to eat, but his mouth too dry to get the food down. He rested, saving his strength for his climb out.
He awoke a few hours later from his shaded intermission. When the sun dropped behind the western horizon, he would get going on the trail again. That was still several hours away. Now his thirst was agonizing. He got up to look down the ravine to search for water. Not expecting to see anything, he was surprised to see a small pool of water in the wash. A spring perhaps. No way, he thought.
He walked to the edge and it was extremely steep once off the trail. He started to slide down the hill keeping one hand on the slope as he slid for balance. Rocks and gravel broke loose from their stronghold and tumbled down the hill with him. He was doing well until one rock refused to budge as he slid into it. It grabbed his ankle and he flipped over himself screaming and tumbled down the rest of the hill until he stopped.
The hot dust settled around him. His misery was now at its peak, he pulled up his pant leg to see if the ankle was broken. Nothing visible, just a bad sprain. He sat there for a bit to regain his composure. He wondered if the heat was affecting his clarity. Why take a risk like that? Why take such a careless trip down the hill? His family would never forgive him if he gave up.
He was not giving up. But how much can one guy take? His awareness of his thirst suddenly came back to him. The water. He looked up and he was only a few feet from the water hole. It wasn’t and illusion. “Oh, thank God,” he said.
He used his hands and arms to drag his body to the oasis. He scooted right up to the edge and looked in. A divine miracle. He scooped both hands under the cool clear water. As he brought the water up to his lips he glanced into the pool. No bugs, not a single one. He recalled a survival class he took. “Don’t drink from particularly clean water sources. No flying, or water bugs means that water is tainted with Arsenic,” the instructor had said. He dropped the water back into the pool.
His depression escalated. He was fully exposed in the hot afternoon sun down this steep embankment. Now again without water. You stay here you die. He reached over to a large boulder and used it as leverage to get himself up. His left leg howled in pain. His mouth so dry and parched, his shirt salted with dried sweat. Come on man you got this he muttered.
He began the painful climb up the hot talus, a slow accent. He powered on up the hill. The mid-afternoon sun was heating the canyon walls like iron. He reclaimed his place in the shade. A small reprieve with the weight off his ankle.
His eyes closed as he lay. In a semi-delirious state, he pictured his wife and two college boys. He envisioned them talking to him, though he couldn’t make out the words he knew what they were saying. A shadow now appeared from the upcoming hill bringing a slightly cooler draft.
He slid out from his shelter and looked up at the 1000-foot climb ahead of him. The sun still up, but he would be shaded the rest of the day blessed by this massive incline. Just the first of a series of climbs he would have to endure. He broke a branch off the juniper tree. A makeshift hiking pole to assist with his ankle. He put on his pack and began the climb up the switchbacks.
After two hours he was only halfway up the hill, and it was now dark. He had made it only a half mile by his calculations. The pain gnawed at him, a full body piercing pain. He could even feel the nerves in his back zing with each step. He sat down and checked his phone. Nothing. It was still over 100 degrees and he wasn’t sweating anymore. Not a good sign.
He eventually got up, grabbed his bag, and continued the grind. The glorious grind up the hill. The hill began to get a little steeper and more unstable. “Good,” he said. He laughed to himself now feeling a little crazy. He could see the crest of the first hill above him. Every time he blinked there were flashes of light, was he seeing things? The luminous flashes continued in the darkness of the sky.
He crested the first hill. Another bolt of light, his face lit up with disbelief. Lightning flashing deep within the depths of the storm backlighting a wall of rain. A wall of water. An August monsoon thundering like the calvary across the canyon. He began to hear the deep bellowing roar from the depths of the storm. Most would be running to find shelter. He lifted his arms high and welcoming, tears coming down his face. “Aaahhh!” The cool breeze now blowing in gusts. Within minutes cool fresh water would be upon him.