The conviction that I cannot move forward. The certainty that I have no choice but to keep moving. I am alone.
It was supposed to be a short sight-seeing drive in a rental car after a long conference in Phoenix I attended for work. Because I’d never traveled west of the Mississippi River before, I figured it would be foolish not to get closer to the red earth and searing sun of Arizona.
So, I pulled out a dog-eared guidebook borrowed from a friend and looked for a little adventure. I stopped searching when I saw a map labeled “The Superstitions,” and read that I could drive through the mountain range in a little over 20 miles—plenty of time to get there and back in the afternoon I had free.
I felt a twinge of concern when the guidebook suggested that travelers drive west to east in order to be on the inside lane up the mountains, but I trusted that guidebook writers would tell me if something was a really bad idea. Nothing really exciting happened to me anyway and I had no expectation that this would change.
My destination was a portion of the Apache Trail which was first used by Apaches and then as a stagecoach trail. I learned later that the area was home to the legend of the Lost Dutchman’s Goldmine, and that some Apache legends said a hole nearby was a doorway to the underworld. Sign me up.
I was first struck by the vertical lines of the rising mountain range. Sharp and upright, portions of the rocky landscape reminded me of a castle. The desert was scrubby here, occasionally speared through by tall saguaro cactus. The colors on this afternoon were shades of tan and grey, flattened somehow by the sun. Heat had mass and weight here, but that’s okay—I watched it through auto glass, sheltered by metal and cooled by air-conditioning.
The change happened slowly.
Driving comfortably, looking around, I felt the engine whine a little as we climbed. “No problem, just slow down,” I said to myself.
The paved road changed to dirt and gravel after a time. I slowed down again to quiet the crunching under my tires and to test the integrity of both my rental car and the rough road.
The mountains began to feel higher and the road closer. There were no highway shoulders on which to pull over, and no rest areas or even open grassy patches on which I could take a break.
Soon it was road under me, vertical mountainside to the right of me, and…nothing…to the left of me—just open air as the mountain dropped off into sheer cliff.
I could see other mountains to my left but in order to get there I would have to fly, right over the occasional guard rails whose stubby, dented presence made me feel protected by tinfoil.
The road narrowed, and then narrowed again. Technically this portion of the Apache Trail was not one-way, but here I was certain that two cars could not pass. Neither could we pull over, nor turn around. One of us would have to attempt to drive in reverse, around mountains and at cliff-edge in order to find a spot wide enough for the most intense K-turn in the history of the universe.
As I write this I feel the panic setting in, all over again.
I have never been so relieved to be alone on a road. I have never been so terrified to be alone.
I think this is a good time to outshout the scare so I fumble with the radio dial, searching for any Phoenix radio station. I need something I can sing to. I notice my slippery, oily grip on the steering wheel but I need to hang on. Now. Hum and hold, just hum and hold.
It doesn’t work. Maybe my agitation will calm if I turn the radio off.
But maybe I should pray.
I dare not disturb my concentration with extemporaneous prayer so I just go with whatever floats in the top drawer of my memory, out loud. Out comes a mashup of the 23rd Psalm and The Lord’s Prayer:
The Lord is my shepherd, hallowed be thy name, something, something, something…
My breath comes in little puffs, very fast (when I bother to breathe) and very shallow because I must not lose my grip. It is not safe to loosen my chest enough to take in a long, deep breath. A big breath will jostle me and then I will fall off the cliff, I think. I have no recollection of exhalation. Too dangerous.
I finally surrender to a clenched throat and its silence. I cannot sing or pray or breathe at all because if I do any of these things I will fall.
I am creeping now, giving the car only enough gas to stay in motion at all. I dread the surge forward that may happen if my pedal foot twitches. And then, the path takes a sharp right turn around vertical rock. Sharp. Which means I cannot see what is on the other side. The road could have washed out. There could be another car. There is absolutely no way of knowing.
I cannot go forward. I cannot go backward. The sun is going down.
I am going to petrify here or slide off, leaving only dust and crumble and pieces of metal. The narrow cliff-side passageway is more likely to hold the car’s weight if I keep moving, I think.
Go, go, go. But no, no, no.
I see a movement out of the corner of my eye and I quickly look to my left.
It’s a raptor of some kind—hawk, eagle, condor, I don’t know—flying nearly level with my car window but off the side of the cliff. Hovering. I think he is looking at me. He is looking at me.
I give the pedal the slowest, gentlest pressure I can. I get as close to the mountain as I can, risking long mountain-made gouges in the passenger car door so that I might get through this upcoming, impossible, turn. I make some irrational, unreasonable conclusion:
I can do this, because this bird is in motion and I am no longer alone.
I find the ability to exhale somehow and feel better sort of and then it occurs to me: I am patently ridiculous. I’m a fool not because I’m scared, but because I think my prayer was answered by an immense bird-in-flight who has anything to say to me. I’m just one soul on the side of a barren mountain. How ridiculous it is to assume magical thinking about a bird who is in his own habitat and who can look at me only because I am a step away from his lofty air space. My looking eye-to-eye with a massive bird is a coincidence enabled by my very human folly…even though I haven’t seen any animal life since the journey began. So, yeah.
I am able to keep going. More turns, more dusty ascent. More sweat that is now pooling in the small of my back. I lean forward, hunched over the steering wheel so that my face at the windshield feels like a rigid figurehead on the bow of a ship. Dusk approaches and it’s definitely getting darker.
My car moves on all four tires, the road turns and suddenly, the mountain gives way so I see open, scrubby dirt and sand to my right. It’s open.
I slam on the brakes and come to a full, silent stop.
Two mule deer are standing there with wide ears and dark eyes. These animals don’t move, not even to twitch their tails. We look at each other so long that I wonder if there will be moonlight or starlight so I can keep my focus after the sun goes down. I remember from encounters with native deer in the northeast that this is what happens: they look and look until they choose to leap away, white tails marking their exit.
And then this soft, benevolent thought comes: “you rationalized the presence of this hawk so we provided two more animals to let you know that you are seen, and safe.”
My full-body tension is too acute to permit a sob, but I notice my face is wet. I feel a wave of gratitude that also registers as heat or fever. I know, suddenly and without doubt, that I’m going to be okay. I am thick with wonder that in this vast, forbidding place, I was found.
I don’t remember who moved first, me or the two mule deer. I just know that my foot found the pedal again and I drove, downhill. The sky darkened more deeply, the car obeyed, the road stayed true, and I exited The Superstitions.
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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum