by David Desjardins
See that shuttle bus way down there, hugging the canyon road, looking like a tiny caterpillar. That curve it’s making: must be this sharp one on the map, heading out to The Narrows. Tucking the PB-and-J’s into our packs at the motel this morning, Janie said she might head there today, follow the Virgin River stream bed, leave the mountain-goat route to the boy and me.
Wet her pants, if she’d come with us; never has liked the steep stuff. Even this part, at Scout Lookout, last spot with good footing before you step into vertigo land. Uh uh, not for her. Drop-off’s something like 1,000 feet straight down, guidebook says. Be half that again by the time we hike up to the Landing.
Boy there with his sandwich, reading his zombie book, leaning against the trail marker sign. He’ll be fine, gangly like me, got that long wingspan, good for reaching from handhold to handhold. Same age as I was then, come to think of it. Let’s see: April school break, eighth grade, so…back in, what, ’85, ’86?
Place hasn’t changed. Same long zigzag approach through the pines and juniper along the mountain’s backside getting up here to Scout. Red rock everywhere, gritty red powder getting in your boots, your socks. People breaking out lunches, water bottles, cameras. Snag their selfies: Our Utah Vacation.
A lot won’t even try the last half-mile on the narrow rock fin out to the Landing. Don’t know what they’re missing: the ridge with its wicked exposure, you stepping along like you’re on a dinosaur’s spiny back. Spit in the air on either side and it won’t hit the ground for, God knows, twenty, thirty seconds. I remember thinking that exact thing when the old man made us turn around that day.
Love you, Pop, but that was lame.
But we’ll fix that today. See what it’s like to stand out there at the tip of that arrow, that scary balancing act behind you.
Guess it was Mormons who imagined the angels floating down to Earth and planting their feet there. Picture one standing at the edge like a hood ornament, wings trembling and eyes peeled for all the humans wandering into Zion.
Mormons, man. Worse than Catholics, with their grandiose names: Great White Throne here, Temple of Sinawava there. Friggin’ melodramatic. Pop was that way too: imagination on steroids. Explains the cold feet. Picturing what could happen.
Beautiful here, though. Give you that. Those Navajo sandstone cliffs scraped vertical by…what did that, anyway? Not glaciers, like back East. Rivers, probably. Hope the kid appreciates it, though look at him: nose in his book, could be in a library somewhere for all he cares. Guess I was like that too. Though not that day.
‘Dad, will we meet Mom back at the pool later?’
Motel doesn’t open the damn thing till 4 in the afternoon, takes so long to heat it this early in the year. Snowed the weekend before, manager said, though you couldn’t tell by me: bone-dry down there. See it more and more up here, though. Pocketful of white in the knobholes of that cedar near the railing. Birdbath-size icy patches in the shade too. Not enough to close the Landing, ranger said, but you be careful up there.
Careful’s okay, I guess, but people go overboard. Careful keeps you stuck. Careful puts the blinders on you, staying on that scuffed-up path, watching your feet, missing what’s out there. That quote by Thoreau, men living lives of quiet desperation. Again, Pop, all the way. Playing it safe, right up to the day he died. Working the dead-end job, sucking up to those Republican types, eyes on the actuarial tables. Spare me.
Man, I could taste it that day. The trail so narrow, you’re feeling you are the ridge. Rockface like sandpaper some places, and polished slick in others. Falcons and condors riding the canyon’s warmer currents like angels themselves, and they’re hundreds of feet below you. Even a twerp like me could tell the trail out to Angels was as good as it gets. You don’t dangle something like that in front of someone and then snatch it away. Don’t think I said a damn word to the old man all the way back to the shuttle stop.
Burned in me a long time. Always swore I’d get back here. Make it right.
Okay then. Pitch this lunch trash and make our move.
‘What do you say, Izzy my man. Time to do it.’
Hates to close his damn book. Obsessive. And right to be like that, only way to live.
Here we go. Out onto the back of the beast. Right away, feeling like an action hero. Like Bond, walking along the top of a moving train, dodging bullets, to boot. Love this shit.
Glad for these support chains, gotta say. Bolted into the rock, helping you navigate the really steep drop-offs. Imagine the park workers way back when, drilling these suckers in, what that must have been like. Taming a bronco was what it was, really. I mean, exciting, of course, but kind of sad too, to be taking the wild out of something. Who am I kidding, they were probably just glad to have a job.
‘You loving this, son?’
‘Yeah…Hey Dad, know what I’m thinking?’
‘Angels Landing would be a perfect spot to hide out if there’s ever a zombie apocalypse. A: you can only get out here single-file, and B: zombies’ balance is not so good, so most of them would probably fall off before they even reached you out there. You know?’
‘Yeah, I can see that.’
Imagine standing out at the point with a big broom, swatting them off one by one. Zombies flailing in the thin air, raining down on the shuttle buses. Angels landing, all right.
Couple of young bucks coming up behind us, moving quickly. Sure, come on past. Can’t stand it when people tailgate me on the trail. Lean into the rockface while they edge by, their asses hanging out over a world of nothing. Remember Pop, yeah, these tight scrambles really freaked him out. His death grip on the chain.
More ice now. Maybe not more, just harder to avoid it, the ledge so skinny.
Getting close now to where we were that day when Pop lost it. Yup: This has got to be it. Trail like a playground slide here, dropping you down into a narrow saddle. And no chain. Pop going first, on his butt. That embarrassing enough, but his shimmy down awkward too, his arm lurching so he slides sideways, landing on his back there, foot sticking out over the edge. His face when he turned back to me, looking like he’d just swallowed a bug, and I knew he’d had enough. Standing there shaking his head and staring at his boots, even as a couple of kids younger than me strolled past like it’s some sidewalk.
So, Pop, wherever you are…watch and learn. One short step after another, let your quads take the weight. There. No big deal.
Boy’s turn, but he’s not moving.
‘What’s up, Izz?’
Clouds moving in, bit of a breeze now. Hands go in his pockets.
‘You can do this, son.’
So then do it already. Don’t just be looking at me.
Finally, down on his butt, skittering inch by inch.
Take a minute here. Water break. Touch him on the shoulder, buck him up. Good to go, right, big guy?
Climbing again, and after just a minute, sucking for breath. Steep, and narrower than before, but at least we have the support chains again. Now they’re hanging from poles, like the ones that keep you from cutting someone in line at the bank. Sneak a look back. Kid’ll be okay. Hey, he can tell his buds he did this amazing thing. Should thank me.
Whoa. That wind, like a blind-side tackle from a cornerback. Stay low, close to the rock. Center of gravity.
Hard to read them at this age. That male code takes hold. Guarded. Everything on a need-to-know basis. Nothing you can do about it: they cut loose. Remember thinking Pop had nothing to offer me, past a certain age. Once you veer off on that other road, you don’t go back. You’re a different animal and you know it.
Christ, check it out: thirty-foot-long stretch, wicked pitch on the right and worse on the left—and no chain, of course. Remember Treasure Island, walking the plank.
Steady now, nice and balanced, slow easy steps. It’s like you’re a surfer—goddamn!
At the far side, another support chain at last. Turn to watch his high-wire act.
Staring at something. His eyes far off.
‘What do you think, son?’
‘Nice!’ Holding that chain hard.
Still staring way across the canyon, as if he can see Nevada out there.
‘I really like it here, Dad. I mean, the view…right?’ Both hands on the chain now.
‘Yeah, son, it’s—’
‘You know, I might just stop here.’
Of course. How fucking perfect. Don’t say anything. Let him feel it.
‘Yeah, I twisted my foot back there, sort of. I think I need to rest it.’
Landing’s like two minutes away. Okay, maybe three, but it’s right fucking there.
‘So…you should just go on, Dad. I’ll just sit here and wait…I actually want to finish my sandwich anyway.’
Won’t look me in the eye. Loving the view, hurt his damned foot, now he’s famished. Can’t just say it straight out: Screw this Evel Knievel shit.
Won’t look me in the fucking eye.
And you can’t call him on it, either. He’s your son, for Chrissake.
Imagine it out there. That sharp point of the arrow, out there with the angels. What you wanted, right?
Still, him staying behind, living with that…
Guess I’ve told a few in my life too. You have to. Survival tactic.
‘Now you mention it, kid, I think I twisted something too. Might have been the same spot as you: that gnarly tree root back there?’
‘Um…yeah, I think so.’
Walk the plank again, cross back over to the kid. Even hairier than before, because you’re stepping down. But still, feels awesome, like you’re floating to earth on a cloud.
‘Think I need a drink, son. Wanna sit?’
Section of scrub pine here, like a bench for the two of us. Flat sandstone worn smooth by probably a few thousand boots. Way down below, the river a scribble through the red rock, and puffs of trees along each bank like you shook a paintbrush out while you hiked.
Guess it’s not happening. Charlie Brown with the football. What did Pop always say: Things work out the way they’re supposed to.
Like there’s something up there looking out for you, making you take this path and not some other one. Can’t see it myself. Still…
Come those two young dudes again, returning from the Landing. Look a little green around the gills, one’s got a nasty cut on his arm.
‘You guys all right?’
‘Yeah but it’s brutal up there. Lot of ice. Still, awesome views, you know?’
Boy’s eyes glued to that ripped-up arm. Blood streaks down to the wrist. Makes it real, I gotta say.
‘Good for you. Think this might be as far as we take it: Got a nice little roost here. Careful going back, okay?’
‘Yeah, you too.’
Breeze feels good now. Warming up too, finally. What he liked the best, I remember: the quiet you get when you’re up this high, watching the clouds’ shadows hurry across the canyon walls, passing that beat-up canteen of his back and forth. Just drinking it all in.
‘So let me ask you, since you’re such an expert: Can’t the zombies just climb straight up the rockwall to get you here? I mean, whoever heard of zombies following a hiking trail, anyway?’
‘No, Dad. They can’t climb something like this for the same reason they can’t walk on ledges like these: They don’t have the gross motor skills, duh.’
Love the condescending manner. Not a place for zombies, this. Angels, maybe. The way it should be. Natural order of things.
David Desjardins is a journalist with roots in Rhode Island, having worked at The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, and other newspapers. His short stories have been published in Red Savina Review, Gravel, Roanoke Review, The Worcester Review, and elsewhere. His short story “The Gathering” published in the December 2018 issue of Ruminate was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lives in Arlington, Mass. with his wife.