A hot sun was just peeking over the horizon as Annie walked from the yard office to her waiting train. She hoisted her overnight pack onto the front deck of the locomotive and began her pretrip routine of inspection, checklists and paperwork. She had drawn a pair of GE AC4400CWs today – modern locomotives that bored her – but the day was already warm and she admitted to herself that she would be grateful for reliable air conditioning.
“Gonna be a hot one,” LaVerne called as he appeared from behind a cut of cars, where he had been dressing down the yard crew for a sorting mistake the day before that sent a half-dozen cars nearly into Mexico when they were meant for Nebraska. He shook his head. “You never give me heartburn like that, Annie. I think I’ll have you cloned.”
“You’re just trying to sweeten me up after making me so late yesterday.” She didn’t take her eyes off the sight glass she was reading.
“Is it workin’?” he stopped and put his hands on his hips.
She finally looked up and took him in, his old FCFL hardhat, nylon jacket, cowboy boots, large belt buckle straining under a larger belly. He reminded her of her father, and had always treated her like one. “You’re out of the doghouse, but still in the yard,” she smiled.
“You’re probably glad to be getting out of this town for a couple of days,” he followed her as she walked to the second locomotive, ducking low to inspect the trucks. “It’s going to be a circus with the search parties. Supposed to be four or five busloads here in a bit.”
She paused and stood upright, facing him.
“Vern,” she furrowed her brow. “You told me Sarah Willoughby was missing and presumed dead in the plane crash.”
“Yep,” he nodded. “That’s what the Senator’s office told me when they called asking for us to hustle him and the missus here. They asked me to let the sheriff know.”
“So nothing from the FAA or an airport reporting the plane missing, nothing like that?”
“Not my job to know that,” LaVerne said.
“Should be somebody’s job to know that,” she ran a gloved hand over the MU lines connecting the locomotives. “Hot day for five busloads of people to go into the desert on the word of a politician.”
“You think he’d lie about a missing daughter? Why?”
“I don’t know, Vern.” She started up the steps toward the cab. “Something just seems really strange. I would have expected to hear about where she was coming from or going to, who she was with, something. So far it’s just the Senator saying she was on that plane? It’s weird. But I hope they find her.”
She climbed the steps and grabbed her bag. “Hey, do my roll-by for me?”
LaVerne nodded. “You focus on getting this train to the right place. Let the authorities worry about finding Sarah Willoughby.”
She waved and pulled the hatch in the nose of the cab tight behind her. Ten minutes later, her paperwork complete and signals clear, her train rolled out of Salvation Point yard. LaVerne Hinks stood by, his experienced eyes scanning every wheel and coupler and hose. Annie was always comforted when he did a roll-by inspection. He looked after his trains, and after his employees, like he looked after his family – to him, they were all the same thing.
* * *
More than 300 volunteers descended on Many Lost Ways National Park that morning, spreading out in waves under the direction of park rangers. Most had come after seeing the distraught Grace Willoughby on national TV, her tear-streaked face pleading for help. One of the river guides who saw the plane reported seeing a parachute, the networks asserted, flashing a snapshot of Sarah and her parents at a Washington fundraiser.
“I just know she’s out there,” the Senator’s wife told Anderson Cooper.
Backcountry trails, which seldom saw more than four or five hikers a day, were searched by dozens of people walking in close formation, scanning the ground. Other than a broken Nalgene bottle and a few cigarette butts, they turned up nothing.
A helicopter team, guided by the telltale smoke, had found the wreckage of the plane the evening before. Investigators hiked in early in the morning and found an impact crater and far-flung debris, but little was left of the fuselage. No bodies were recovered. The plane was too small to have black boxes, and the log books were consumed in the fire.
By noon, the first shift of searchers was returning to the visitor’s center for lunch and to debrief with rangers. No one paid any attention to the granola-looking couple that emerged from the backcountry with the crowd. No one noticed the larger-than-usual backpack they loaded into their Subaru, and no one stopped them as they exited the park and drove straight to Albuquerque.
* * *
TJ took Annie’s advice and tried to spend the day minding his own business. Few park visitors were up for a leisurely raft trip with a life-or-death search underway, so he was not needed for guide duty. In order to graduate from the smooth water to whitewater trips, he needed to navigate the rough segments of the river to the satisfaction of a state inspector. He was allowed to use company equipment to practice on his days off, so he checked out one of the small inflatables and drove it in a company pickup to a put-in upriver. He planned to paddle to the take out at Herbst Junction, where the smooth water trips originated. There he could hitch a ride back to the truck.
He was gaining confidence with a paddle, and no longer met the trip with anxiety. He was glad to be alone with his thoughts, and the spray from the rapids felt good against the powerful sun.
TJ looked at his watch – 10:30 a.m. on a Thursday. He rested the paddle on his lap and coasted along a smooth stretch of river. He looked up at the towering canyon walls and watched a turkey vulture soaring. He squinted at the whispy clouds overhead. He listened to the river. Right now, two time zones away, the call center at the Midwestern Life Insurance Company was coming to life.
He could still hear the din, could still feel the headset on his ear. He could still see the dingy putty-colored cubicle walls with snapshots and crinkled photocopies tacked to them. His memory carried him back to that office and he could almost feel the world passing him by as he sat staring at a computer. His pulse quickened and his mouth went dry as he relived the desperation and terror he felt the day he realized he might spend 40 years there, only seeing the outdoors during two weeks of vacation, every day the same. A voluntary prison, where people went to get a paycheck they would use to make payments on a house they only slept in and a vehicle they only drove to work.
He lasted another nine months in that cubicle, time he used to reduce what he wanted to only what he needed. He sold his new Honda – for which he paid $358 per month for 60 months – and bought a 1998 Civic for $850 cash. He learned to cook. He grew vegetables at a community garden and reduced his grocery bill by three quarters. He cancelled his DVD-by-mail service and checked out books from the library. He saved up nearly $18,000 in those months, which he used to buy a rusty Winnebago, a high-deductible catastrophic health policy, and a Garmin. He was hired by Lost Ways Adventures after a phone interview. He was halfway through his second season, and would soon have enough to pay cash for the cheap acre-and-a-half where LaVerne Hinks was letting him park his motor home.
“You got out,” he whispered to himself, looking to the sky again.
An hour later, TJ beached his small raft and sat on a rock, unwrapping his lunch. He removed sliced cucumber, cherry tomatoes, sliced avacado, some crackers and a small cube of cheese. He gulped water from a bottle and hungrily ate. He stretched out in the sun and rested his arms, weary from paddling. He stared across the river where tall grass waved in the breeze, and craned his neck to see the red rock overhanging the sandbar where he sat. He wondered how high it was – the canyon skewed perspective and made judgements of distance difficult. He thought about learning how to climb. He thought about what a privilege it was to be alone in this space. He thought about Annie.
The clouds shifted and the hot, noon sun beat directly on him. He soaked it in for a moment, and when it became too warm he turned away from the river and faced a stand of trees a few yards away. They swayed in the wind and he found himself lulled into a stupor by the movement. He spent several moments studying the shadows as they changed, letting his mind create images from the shapes, letting his eyes go blurry and then focusing again.
And there she was.