The Independent

Without a Map: a story, Part 1

Joan and Mark stood on the ridge in the Pecos Wilderness and stared in awe. As far as they could see in every direction forested mountains rose in green waves. “It’s like being in the ocean,” he whispered to Joan. Whispering seemed to him the only respectful way to speak in the face of such majesty. “It’s like being in the middle of the ocean in a huge storm with waves that are as big as mountains coming at you all the way to the horizon.”

“It’s more like being lost in the ocean,” Joan sort of disagreed with a groan. She didn’t often groan. She wasn’t a groaning type of person. But she did often sort of disagree, particularly lately.

She wasn’t whispering when she added, “I wish we still had it.”

• • •

The day before, near the beginning of this multi-day hike, they had stopped for a drink of water and a snack at a trail intersection beside a river. There were two paths, one on each side of the river.

“Should we cross here?” Joan had asked him.

“It’s awfully wide,” Mark said. “But it doesn’t look very deep.”

“Maybe we should stay on this side and cross upstream. It looks like it narrows in the canyon.”

“Sure, but it’s probably deeper.”

They were at loggerheads as they seemed to be increasingly. He didn’t remember that they ever disagreed in their first year of marriage. Then, they didn’t have to make a big effort to agree, or look for compromise. They were like body and shadow, voice and echo. They were one. They just instinctively wanted to be on the same wavelength, and so they were.

Now in their fifth year, he felt that they almost automatically took opposite sides of everything, from hiking in the wilderness to having a baby. He didn’t want it to be that way, and he didn’t think she did either, but that’s the way it was. Lately it had started to feel like destiny, something uncontrollable, their fate.

Undecided which bank of the river to follow, they were doing it again. Sooner or later, they both knew, they would have to cross to the other bank. Was it better to do so here, where the river seemed wide but shallow, or further upstream where it narrowed but the current was faster?

They were cautious, experienced, well prepared hikers. Before the hike even began, they had both studied the map over and over again. They were both sure they knew where they were going and how to get there. The Skyline Trail was 50 miles long and they had planned on three days. It mostly, but not entirely, stayed high on a ridge and circled the entire Pecos Wilderness in northern New Mexico. It had beautiful views but no water. They had to drop down from the trail each night to find a spring and refill their water bottles.

“Let’s look at the map again,“ he had proposed during their rest stop. This time she agreed. They kept the map in an outside pocket of his backpack where it was easily accessible. He reached over to the pack, pushed his hand deep into the pocket and withdrew it, empty. He did it again. “It’s not there,” he said.

“Maybe you put it in the wrong pocket. Check the others.”

“Nope. Not there.”

“Where’d you put it?” Joan asked. She heard the note of accusation in her own voice but felt it was justifiable. “We always put it in the same place.” They had done a lot of backpacking together and like all established couples, they had their habits. The way they loaded their packs was one of them.

“I never put it anywhere else,” he retorted defensively.

“When is the last time we looked at it?” she wondered. “Did we check it this morning before we started climbing?”

“No. Remember, we’d gotten a late start. We were worrying about the long day’s hike ahead before the summer showers that always started in the afternoon. I said, ‘Let’s refresh our memory of the map.’ But you said, ‘Never mind that, we’ve got to go,’ and so we did.”

There was an undercurrent of meanness in his voice, as if to say, “You got us into this mess.”

Then she jerked away from him. “Now I remember.”

“What?”

“We had camped at the trailhead the night before the hike. The next morning, you put out the campfire and I got out the map. I got my pen, circled the trailhead and marked the route we wanted.”

“Yeah, I remember. Then you noticed that a log in the fire was still smoking and suddenly burst into flame.”
“I jumped up and started pouring water on it.”
“Then we struggled into our backpacks,” Mark said. “I kept thinking that mine seemed awfully heavy what with all the water I was carrying. I complained to you that you weren’t carrying your share of the weight. You got angry, turned your back on me.”

“Then we started walking,” Joan said.

“Did you put the map back into the pack?” she asked.

“Did you?” he said.

They stared at each other.
“Oh, no,” she had groaned.

“No worry,” he quipped, “there’s only 3 million acres of uninhabited wilderness. We’re sure to find our way.”

“Nice joke,” she said, “but I don’t hear you laughing.”

END OF PART 1. NEXT WEEK: THE CONCLUSION