A story: Walking Alone, Chapter 3

After finding the red daypack in the Sandia Mountains, Josh’s first call was to the New Mexico State Police. When he told the desk sergeant how short a time Sandra had been gone and that she had a history of voluntarily disappearing, he lost interest. “Call back in a week if she doesn’t show up by then,” the desk sergeant had said before hanging up.

Josh’s second call was to Sandra’s mother—despite the fact that she hated him. He never understood her. Hated him for what? Pulling Sandra away from her training as a doctor, from classes in medical school at the University of New Mexico? Taking her away from her family, her home, her mother? Dragging her down to Brazil? Helping her fulfill a dream of being a photojournalist? Those hardly seemed valid reasons to hate the man her daughter loved. It made no sense to him.

More plausibly, it was just for being himself, for being Josh, an unambitious guy who had found his place in the world and liked it and had no plans to move on or up. A guy who liked to walk on new paths and look into things and ask questions—and made a decent, more than decent, living doing it.

Josh had called her only because he didn’t know who else to call. It was that simple. Sandra’s life had been that private, even from him.

When Josh called to describe Sandra’s disappearance and the things he had found in the mountains, Mrs. Lopez screamed at him, “That’s impossible. She couldn’t have gotten lost or fallen down or died or whatever. She’d been in those mountains a dozen times, a hundred times. You’ve done something to my Sandra. You or somebody else.”

He couldn’t argue with her. Maybe somebody had done something to her Sandra. Or maybe not. Sandra, the intense, unpredictable woman he loved.

But was love ever enough? Love. What did it mean? Wasn’t declaring, “I love you” just another way of demanding love in return, of saying, “I need you”?

Did he even believe in love? Did Sandra?

Sandra was a tough woman, striding tall in her cowboy boots with three cameras strapped to her shoulders. Tough-minded, too. She’d never given in to his emotional neediness, never told him she loved him. Except once, during their last trip to the Amazon, when they’d briefly feared that it was the end of their relationship.

What did she want from him, from their relationship? She’d come together with him and then she’d left him without actually severing their bond. She insisted she’d always be there if he really needed her.

There’d been no quarrel, no real parting. She just moved out, but they continued to talk, to see each other, to work together on the Brazilian project. The living arrangements changed, became more complex, a bit distant, but nothing else changed. Until now.

* * *

For some, hiking can be a way of life. The line between vocation and avocation can often fade to invisibility, whether you are a musician, a chess player, a writer. Or a walker like Josh.

He was the well paid executive director of Mountain Ecologists and Hikers. He was also the nonprofit’s only full-time employee. He organized and led trips ranging from two hours to two weeks. He raised money (for everything including his own salary), publicized events, held social get-togethers and even launched a charitable branch to take troubled kids, depressed seniors and wounded veterans into the woods to improve their outlook on life. His newest idea was to use mountain hiking to help the mentally ill find some balance and stability in their lives. He was the living proof of Lyndon Johnson’s adage: Do well by doing good.

He owned a nice house in the foothills, made a good salary and drove an expensive SUV—really a company car that he shared with his clients. He was his own boss. He was paid for doing the things in the world he most enjoyed, taking a walk in the mountains and helping saving what was left of the natural world, whether in New Mexico or Brazil, and helping those who most needed help. It was a good life. But he lived it alone, until Sandra strode proudly and stubbornly and willfully into his world.

Now he was alone again.

Sandra had been so alive that even now, days later, Josh could not imagine her gone, whether alive or dead. He waited. He waited for her to walk into his house. He waited for her to kiss him, lips touching lips with ineffable gentleness. He waited for her to laugh at him. “That’s crap,” she’d told him the last time they met, after he’d argued that he really needed his huge, powerful, gas-guzzling SUV. But she said it with a smile. Always a smile. He didn’t have it in him to resent her toughness.

How did she disappear? Why? To understand how and why Sandra had just abruptly dropped off the face of the earth, he’d have to go back into the past, make it live and serve him now in his grieving and despair—as if the past were a lion and he was its tamer. Somewhere in the past was the answer to the present.

Her disappearance was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, as Churchill said of Russia. How could he grieve until he solved that riddle, mystery, enigma? There would never be any peace of mind. Now it was time to get to work. The waiting was over.

NEXT WEEK: PART 4

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