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Prompt 6 : Coming Undone | Word Count : 1200 (exactly!) | Genre : Travel Memoir

I should have listened to that little voice.

I squint into the setting sun. They’re true; those movies depicting deserts as a golden blended haze of sun and sand. My reveling evaporates with the hollow sound of my water bottle. Empty.
“Have you guys got water?”

My croaky question sends a few lizards scrambling. I stare at my two silent friends, realizing the meaning of their non-commitment. Shit!
“We have to turn around,” I say as casually as I can, “we cannot spend the night with no water.”

The rising panic is palpable. But we know. There is only one way, and that is back to the river.

*****

A few hours before, we were reminiscing under a tamarisk tree. The river was close enough to crawl to, I noticed absently as I listened to the chatter. Our grateful limbs settled into the sparse shadows as we tried to remember how we ended up there.

“Humph,” said Rene, “they said we must make sure we have proper maps.”
“And we said ‘it’s a canyon, surely one just follows the river?’”  Both Rene and Dina nodded, remembering. The concerned ‘they’ wanted to know why we were not packing tents.
“You are so exposed out there!”  they said. And we were brazen in reply.
“Why? It only rains two days a year. It IS a desert, remember?”

Regardless of our arrogant responses to the well-intended advice, we decided to play it safe and prepared.
We researched.
We trained.
We anticipated difficulties.
We provided for survival.
We repacked.

Then we shut out fear. And we turned a deaf ear to the little voice.
We were ready and the monster was coiled in silent waiting.

The descent sported chains to hang on to, while adjusting our balance with loaded backpacks – as we were warned in the many blogs we read. Slow, step-by-step downwards to protect toes – as experience taught us. Regular stops to oxygenate thighs – as demanded by failing lungs and muscles. Every stop an excuse to inhale the arid river-scape, but also to swallow the angst. Hours on our feet downhill, trembling legs and the smallest distance covered before calling it a day.

Too tired to cook, we settled down with snacks and water and a shy moon, hiding behind clouds that quickly assembled into a noisy storm. Our first night out, under a sky filled with thunder and lightning and no tents. Surrounded by storm-echoes rollerblading off fearsome cliffs we huddled together. We shimmered, in the unabating show of lightning like Christmas lights, on-and-off. Hoping to stay dry, we sat on our hastily repacked backpacks and used flimsy space blankets as partial cover. And much later for warmth. As the groans of the canyon became distant we fell into exhausted sleep, not noticing the milky way gliding along its path.

The next morning all was washed clean. Even the trail. The faint proof of human activity was not there anymore. There was a sea of boulders and mile-high walls hugging the gurgling river.
We lost the trail.
We lost the canyon.
We lost spirit.
We lost track of distance and time.
We became profoundly tired – bordering on dangerous. A previously unknown sense of hopelessness stalked us.

THAT’s how we ended up under the Tamarisk tree.

For the umpteenth time we studied our maps. And finally we agreed. There was an emergency exit, close by. We were going out. We quit. We were leaving this canyon with blind corners and dead ends and no contact or signal and we were going to phone whoever to fetch us.

“My toes are like marshmallows, rolled in honey,” Dina said.
“That sweet?” Rene tried some light-heartedness, which we all felt with the certainty that came with the abandonment agreement.
“No! That fat and sticky!” Dina moaned. “And I can do with a shower and pampering.”

We found the dirt track snaking up, over a manageable cliff. We marched on and for the first time in days, felt the return of hope. Walking with new vigor and lighter packs we checked for phone signal.

Much later, guided by a thin two-track disappearing into a flat desert, we finally register. There was no connection to the outside world; no end to the road, no rescuers awaiting us with luxuries, and no water.

*****

There is only one way, and that is back to the river. All the chirpiness is gone. The way back is further. Harder. Heavier. It has no sound.

Darkness infiltrates everywhere. And gains weight. It fabricates an unfamiliar edge. It smothers the senses.  Once again the Milky Way shows its magic, but we are too busy listening to darkness and despair, to notice.

After lifetimes of stumbling, I stop. Suddenly. Dina walks straight into me and Rene into her.
“Dominoes!” I say, but not without affection. “I think I can see the Tamarisk. Am I hallucinating? Please tell me you see it?”
Dina tries to speak, she coughs and her hoarse reply coincides with Rene’s yelp which disturbs owls on-the-hunt.
“That’s where we rested this morning!”
“The river is close, some stupid thing I remember noticing when we looked at the maps.” My relief shrill in my ears.

With the splash of water in our bottles and our heads on our backpacks, we agree there is only one way out of this canyon. Walk to its end.
“Another three days?” Rene asks.
“Who knows.” I say.
“We take each day as it comes. Goodnight,” Dina says and a soft rumble soon plays in the back of her throat.

The next day we see the morning star for the first time. There is a lightness around. I know the canyon is conquered.

The mind-shift is astounding – it defines the rest of our hike.

We make peace with our smell.
We adapt a casualness towards sand in our ears, our beds and in the coffee.
We accept dirt and survival are companions.
We treasure the clean wash of whiskey through a sandy mouth and down a dusty throat. And we stop purifying our drinking water.
We settle at the end of each day under an expanse too majestic to grasp.
And we learn to turn our backs to the wind when it takes us by surprise in the middle of the night.
We dance (albeit with a limp) with joy when we encounter a flat hard piece of track.
We make good use of the puddles to splash salt-peter off our toning bodies.
We lick our fingers after we polish our bowls of rehydrated meals.
We sleep in shoes and clothes.

The granite walls start tapering down and the flow of the river becomes wider. Human presence is evident. We are reaching the end of this formidable natural phenomena. We walk into a subdued camp. We know where to go; exactly the same place where we were picked up a week (or more?) before.

“We did it!” Dina sobs. I turn to laugh away her silliness and then see Rene’s face. Contorted with a primal emotion, I see the deep borne force of survival powered by hope. Proud and tired I spread my arms around them.
“We did it!” I whisper into the group-hug.

And then I become undone …

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