Without a map of the trails but still confident they knew where they were going, Joan and Mark buckled up their heavy backpacks and trudged on into the vastness of New Mexico’s Pecos Wilderness. The contiguous national forests hereabouts covered more than 3 million acres. Mark felt as if they were tiny dots amid these mountains that stretched to the horizon in every direction.
They crossed a river on whose bank they had earlier paused and started climbing along a trail on the other side. They entered a canyon that seemed to head up to the 12,000-foot ridge. An hour later the canyon divided. After another hour, it divided again. Their well established trail faded into an animal track packed down by herds of elk. The animal track divided and divided again.
As the sky was blackening with an approaching thunder storm, they halted. Dense clouds that had been backed up to the north all day now started to spill over the high ridge. Wisps of clouds, as beautiful as they were terrifying, were moving toward them fast.
“It’s like those clouds are speeding on wings of wind,” Joan said. “You’ve always had a poetic bent,” Mark said.
It wasn’t clear to Joan what he meant. “Is that a compliment or a criticism?”
“Take it any way you want.” He shrugged and stared hard at her.
“What now?” she asked.
“God,” Joan muttered half under her breath, “you’re an idiot.”
“What?” it was Mark’s turn to ask.
“Nothing. Nothing at all. Just nothing.”
Seething with anger—at each other and themselves, seeking whom to blame for their plight—they pitched their tent in a grove of blue spruce just below the ridge. There was no water here. Each of them grabbed two empty plastic bottles and headed off downslope in a separate direction in search of a spring. All of the perennial springs had been marked on the map, and Joan had carefully circled the ones nearest their route. She tried to recall if there was one around where they were but couldn’t bring up the map’s image in her mind. They were searching blindly. “Fucking needle in a haystack,” she muttered scornfully.
She didn’t believe in luck. She’d never had any. No slot machine clanged with coins for her. No lottery ticket delivered undeserved cash. She’d learned never to bet on anything. Against her instincts, she’d bet on Mark.
As usual, Mark was luckier than she was. Unlike her, he always seemed to have a bit of luck in reserve when he most needed it. It was her nickname for him: Lucky. He had abruptly, angrily quit his job and on the same day stumbled into another. He had absconded on the rental contract on his apartment just before discovering that an old friend with an extra bedroom lived nearby. He had crashed his car and walked away uninjured. All that happened before they had met. Since then, luck had made itself a stranger. “I can’t believe how lucky you were,” Joan had told him after he recounted the list of near tragedies.
* * *
Mark searched for the spring. He carefully checked each grove of trees, each clump of thickening brush where lushness might signal the presence of water.
After a few minutes, he stumbled on a small spring, a trickle of clean water spilling out of a rock crevice in an arroyo. He filled his two bottles, thirstily drank one of them dry, then refilled it. Having first satisfied his thirst, he yelled to Joan, “I found it! I found a spring!”
Silence. He yelled again, louder. Silence. He screamed at the top of his lungs, “Joan, where are you?” Silence.
Mark didn’t know what to do. He carefully retraced his steps back to their campsite. Now, without the detours he’d made to search out the spring, it only took him a few minutes. Maybe Joan was waiting there for him, but why didn’t she respond to his call?
The campsite was empty.
Not knowing what else to do, Mark set off in the direction Joan had taken.
She was a strong walker. Mark remembered trips on which he was sagging from exhaustion and trailing behind her. It seemed as if she could keep walking forever. But her weakness was that she often plowed ahead without noticing where she was going. Had she gotten lost? Why didn’t she cry out for help?
He followed the path she had taken over a ridge and down into a small canyon. Eventually the path ran out, dead ending in impassable underbrush. Finally he turned around and headed back to the campsite. What else, he wondered, could he do?
• • •
“I lay down in the tent and fell asleep,” she explained as he came up to her. She had built a small fire and was munching on a granola bar. “Sorry.”
She didn’t sound sorry. Her tone was as aggressive as it had been earlier. He remembered how during that first good year, he’d told her, “Some trials divide a couple, some pull them together.” Then, it was the first half of that equation that had impressed him. If he was sing it now, he thought, he would’ve added a third possibility: “And some trials just infuriate a couple, drive them up the wall to no purpose.”
She looked at the water he was carrying. “You got lucky.”
“Yeah, lucky me.”
“Yeah, lucky you.”
He hadn’t yet offered her any water. “When we get out of here…” she blurted, then stopped and started again, “If we get out of here, I’m leaving you. I’m out of this.” If eyes could spit fire, hers would have. If a woman could brace her torso like a pugilist, she was doing it. If a woman could silently enact hatred, she did.
Mark looked stunned. “What brought that on?”
“It’s been a long time coming. I hate hiking.”
“You never told me.”
“If you’d been paying attention to me, you’d have known. That you didn’t know says it all.”
“What’s wrong with hiking?”
“I can’t stand carrying a heavy pack up the sides of mountains. I dread stomping around in the rain. Now we’re doing it all without even a map. You get us lost. You put us somewhere without any water and then find some and don’t offer me any. What the hell’s the matter with you? It’s a good thing we never had a kid. You’d probably lose it.”
“I forgot the map? The last one to handle that map was you when you folded it up.”
“And who was it that left me sitting there on the ground, who turned his back on me and stood up and walked off with your pack, when you’re always the one who puts the map in your pack? Who was it, just tell me!”
They glared at each other.
• • •
When the search and rescue team found them four days later, they were hungry, cold and still glaring. They hadn’t stopped glaring when they stood before the judge and swore that their divorce was, luckily, by mutual consent.