On Consuming the Outdoors – Take a Hike!

The little SUV is fine I guess, for a rental, but he wishes it was bigger, more lumbering, more … omnipotent.IMG_3031

He doesn’t feel like he owns the road. He’s not consuming it and that’s what he does after all, isn’t it? Consume?

You should see the mighty vehicles in his garage outside Chicago. Three-story jet black behemoths you can really lean against while comparing the rest of your stuff with the neighbors. (“Go Cubbies” stickers in the rear windows? You bet.)

Passionate consumers like him don’t do well in places like Many Lost Ways National Park.

You encounter dozens of them on your way to the trailhead. They roar up, park haphazardly, and leap out – leaving the doors open so you wonder if they might be paramedics – but no, there’s Alpha Male with the camera stretched out in front of him directing the entourage into the frame. Two, maybe three clicks and back they go into the A/C and on down the road, tailgating at 25 mph to the next brown sign.

Consuming the place. Or trying to.

That was Chicago’s plan: Snap photos of the boys at all the scenic overlooks and when he got home he was going to have the guys over for beers and casually pass around the digital vacation.

“Oh is this the new iPad Air?”

“Yep.”

“I didn’t think it was supposed to be out until next month.”

“It’s not.”

They’d be scrambling for weeks to catch up to that one.

But Chicago’s frustrated with his pictures. The colors look bland on the screen. The kids look bored. He frowns to himself – geez, his trophy wife isn’t such a trophy anymore.

What poor service, he thinks, to buy a park pass and not get what he paid for!

He needs to take a lesson from the Europeans.

I don’t like seeing men in capri pants any more than the next guy, but you have to hand it to them when it comes to enjoying our National Parks. Descend the South Kaibab Trail into the Grand Canyon much farther than Ooh Ahh Point and you realize English is no longer the primary language.

These people understand that to get the full benefit of a place like Glacier or Bryce Canyon or Many Lost Ways, you have to let it consume you.

When your socks are full of exotic-colored sand and the switchbacks zigzag up, up, up, painfully beyond where you can see, and you remember they weren’t kidding, all the signs about plenty of water – you lean against the rocks and close your eyes and melt into the place.

The sun is real on your face, the stone is real beneath your fingertips, the gravity is real under your feet. You feel infinitely small but also that you may be standing on the very hand of God. The trees, the bugs, the quiet, the Earth. There you are consumed by it, and that’s when it becomes yours.

Take a hike, Chicago.

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ModelStory: A River Deep and Wide

At first the thing that bothered him most about the whole idea was that they might fall.

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“At first the thing that bothered him most about the whole idea was that they might fall.”

As a dad, falls are a major concern. Traffic and roadway hazards are a close second, followed by choking and other ingestion-related dangers. Dads tend to worry about the things that cause immediate trauma.

Moms fret over the hazards of repeated exposure like dressing properly for the weather and adequate nutrition.

Dads worry about falls.

So the notion that his daughter and her cousin would embark – unchaperoned – on a three-hour river raft trip caused him some heartburn.

(It had to be a three-hour tour? The universal code for nautical tragedy?)

“They’re fourteen years old, Ted,” said Marcia. “As long as you’re there to pick them up on time, how much trouble can they get into? Frankly I was looking forward to some time alone during this vacation. Just me and the Discover Card and those cute shops in Salvation Point.”

That didn’t make him feel any better, but he realized he was licked and agreed to drop them at the dock.

And now he stands here all alone experiencing one of those unforgettable moments of immense transition:

She WON’T fall.

She’s fourteen and a pretty good swimmer and smart enough to stay seated.

She’s not the little girl who couldn’t help but skip everywhere she went, the one who fell out of bed and fell off the jungle gym and fell off her bike and needed him to fix her up and remind her to pay attention.

She hasn’t needed any of that in a long time. She’s done some growing up, and he wishes he’d been paying closer attention.

Because there’s this boy, sitting right across from her, and they’re not fifty feet from the dock and already talking to each other.

She’s going to have different kinds of falls now, harder ones to recover from.

He’s not sure he’s ready.

*   *   *

At first the thing that bothered her most about the whole idea was that she might fall.

As a kid, falls were a major concern. Falls out of bed and falls off the jungle gym and falls off her bike – and Dad was always there to fix her up and remind her to pay attention.

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“At first the thing that bothered her most about the whole idea was that she might fall.”

So the notion that she would embark with her cousin on a three-hour river raft trip without him had her freaking out a little.

(Dad kept singing some stupid song about a three-hour-tour, a THREE-HOUR TOUR, like that meant something.)

“We’re fourteen years old,” said Brittney. “As long as he’s there to pick us up on time, how much trouble can we get into? Besides, it’s better than hanging out with your mom in town.”

She didn’t entirely agree with that, but she realized she was licked and agreed to be dropped at the dock.

And now she sits here experiencing one of those unforgettable moments of immense transition:

She WON’T fall.

She’s fourteen and a pretty good swimmer and smart enough to stay seated.

She hasn’t needed to worry about falling or choking or getting hit by a car in a long time. She wishes she’d paid more attention to the growing up she was doing.

Because instead of Dad – well, hello cute boy across from me!

The falls are about to get harder.

She’s not sure she’s ready.

(Scratchbuilt river raft, factory-painted Preiser and custom-painted Model Power figures, EnviroTex Lite water with clear silicone caulk effects.)

ModelStory: The Cell – A True Story

“This building is alive,” says Tully. “It talks to you, and it doesn’t say nice things.”

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He was speaking of the imposing concrete structure that serves as tunnel portal and ventilation plant for the Nichols Tunnel, which pierces the canyon wall at Herbst Junction and allows the FCFL to reach Flagstaff.

The building, plus a one-room depot cum Park Ranger office and a wrinkle-tin stand where Navajo artists sell turquoise jewelery, make up the totality of architecture in the tiny junction.

Tully Luiskama is a longtime FCFL conductor and the railroad’s resident storyteller and folklorist. Each year around Halloween he leads a tour of the building, touching on the technical specifications while espousing his own, less-verifiable version of its history.

This year’s tour was a special treat – it seems one of Tully’s trainees recently had a rough night in the place and decided to discontinue his employment. That is to say, the kid disappeared.

A little background:

The building houses immense blowers that draw out diesel exhaust and flush the five-mile tunnel with clean air, making it livable for train crews and their deep-breathing locomotives. There are also big pumps that continually remove the water that collects in the tunnel. The interior is as you’d expect: Industrial gray machinery stitched in place by safety-yellow railings and catwalks. There is a machine shop, pallets of maintenance supplies on the concrete floor, and walls lined with giant tools.

The place emits constant noise: The hum of electricity, the groan of motors, the creaking of pipes, and always, always – the howl of moving air.

It is almost always deserted.

But, wedged as an afterthought in a corner of the first floor, is a windowless room with several bunks installed decades ago for overnighting train crews. The bunks are still occasionally pressed into service when crews run out of hours here, 42 miles short of the comfortable accommodations at Salvation Point.

I think the building would technically be called a “head house.” Railroaders simply call it “The Cell.”

Now, about the kid.

I don’t know how Tully knows all of this, and it sounds pretty far-fetched to me, but he swears this is true:

Tully was the conductor aboard the Phoenix local one day last week. He knew his crew would die on the clock at Herbst Junction and pass the night in the head house. So he spent the afternoon telling his conductor trainee, Dustin, the catalogue of tall tales that have grown up around The Cell.

“Now this one I know is true,” Tully said, leaning close to the kid and giving the engineer, Roy, a playful wink. “Not so long ago – late ’90s – guy spends the night in The Cell. Hears all kinds of racket middle of the night – howling, clunking, whatnot.”

He paused and took a bite of a sandwich, continued with his mouth full.

“So he thinks it’s something going on in the ventilation shafts or whatever. Gets up and goes up on these big catwalks they have there, starts poking around, taking off grates and stuff.”

Tully swallowed and shook his head in pity.

“Get’s sucked in.” He patted Dustin on the shoulder, laughing. “Get’s no foolin’ sucked into the duct! Big fans in those ducts – BIG fans. So there’s meat all over. Whole tunnel was shut down for a week while they cleaned that up. Remember that Roy?”

Roy nodded. He and Tully had refined this act over their two decades sharing locomotive cabs. Roy’s job was to lend credence to the tale by nodding somberly when prompted.

“So why does a sane man go leaning half his body into a giant air duct?” Tully mused, chewing another bite. “Cause that building makes people do things, son, that’s why. It’s dark in there, lonely, and all that machinery and wind and trains comin’ through? The building is alive. It talks to you, and it doesn’t say nice things.”

It was one of his favorite lines, and he always paused a long time after delivering it.

“Truth is,” he continued, striking an authoritative tone. “There have been exactly one dozen men who’ve disappeared from that building since it opened in 1934. Sucked into ventilation shafts and got the food processor treatment I don’t know, but the disappearances are historical fact. I’ve researched it.”

He had done no such thing, but he had told his stories enough that he believed many of them to be fact. Besides, spooking the kid was a small vengeance for the headache he had given Tully and Roy all day.

Rolling out from Salvation Point that morning, Dustin boasted incessantly about his exploits with booze and girls, which grew immediately tiresome. When he donned a set of ear buds, produced a pack of cigarettes and stepped out onto the front platform of the locomotive, the veteran railroaders didn’t protest. He was breaking half a dozen rules, but they were thankful for the quiet and let him go.

Outside of Phoenix, they were put in the hole for nearly two hours while BNSF trains occupied the interchange. Dustin passed the time hurling ballast at birds, buildings and the locomotive.

It was early afternoon before they finally got to turning the plastics plant, which was always a mess and a puzzle, and Tully knew better than to ask the kid to help keep track of the manifest. Instead he simply told the kid to stay out of the way, which he didn’t. Twice Roy was sure he’d killed him as he scampered across the tracks in front of cars the engineer was maneuvering.

When their train was finally assembled and ready to head back north, Dustin was nowhere to be found. It was Tully who came across him at last, standing in the plant office outside the reception window, showing the provocatively dressed office assistant – approximately Dustin’s own age and temperament – a spider web tattooed across his skinny belly.

Tully was too angry to speak. He glared at the kid and jerked his thumb toward the door.

So on the way home they started in on the ghost stories, it being nearly Halloween and all, and were enjoying their effect. The kid’s tough, defiant veneer was gone and he sat subdued, listening.

“One that gets me,” Tully said, “and this one I know is true cause I’ve seen the marks, is the old guy back in the ’50s who spent a night pickaxing away at one of the walls because he thought someone was buried in there, trying to get out.”

Roy’s eyes remained focused on the track ahead, but he nodded in agreement. With his hands he casually made a motion like the swinging of a pick.

“Crew showed up in the morning and found him swinging away, all bug-eyed and foaming at the mouth,” Tully went on. “He refused to leave, wouldn’t stop swinging that pick, so they kept on to Salvation Point and sent the sheriff back for him. By the time he got there, the old man was gone. Burrowed a hole right through that wall, left a worn-out pickaxe leaning there, and nobody ever saw him again.”

Roy glanced at Dustin for a split second, then stared again out the windshield.

“You can see where they patched the hole if you know where to look.” The engineer deadpanned the only line Tully ever let him say.

During the rest of the trip they recited a few more of the well-worn stories: The man who was driven insane by the noises in The Cell and wandered into the canyon and disappeared. The man who was lured into the tunnel by the ghostly, beguiling voice of a young woman, only to be struck by a train. The man who spent a night in the place and emerged like Moses from Mount Horeb, white-haired and dumb with fear.

Each story started the same: “This one is true.”

“There’s all the predictable theories,” Tully mused, thoughtfully shifting his gaze out the window in his well-practiced way. “Ghosts of people who died building it, Indian burial ground, guys sealed alive in the wet concrete.”

“What do I think?” He shrugged, looking back at Dustin. “Maybe it’s just a noisy building with a darn lot of air moving through it. Plays with people’s minds.”

The sun was low over the canyon walls when they reached Herbst Junction. A steady breeze moved through the canyon, rustling the tall desert grass and putting an October chill in the air.

They had eleven minutes left in their federally mandated twelve-hour shift when Roy eased the nose of the train to a stop a few feet short of the rugged grade crossing. Parked on the gravel road that terminated there sat a FCFL pickup truck with a replacement crew leaning against the front fender.

“Sweet of you to come for us,” said Roy, genuinely surprised. “I was figuring on a night here.”

“They wouldn’t do that to you,” said Bruce. The replacement conductor eyed The Cell with a shiver. “You two get to deadhead home in the truck.”

He turned to Dustin.

“You,” he suppressed a smile. “You spend the night here, and get trained on the Flagstaff turn tomorrow. That train will be here at oh-seven-thirty to pick you up.”

Roy and Tully hid their laughter as they picked up their grips and climbed into the truck.

“So, what, I’m staying here? Alone?” Dustin said.

“You can walk home if you want,” said Tully, flopping into the cab next to the driver. “But the Flagstaff crew will be looking for you in the morning. They’ll bring you home at night. Code for the cell door is … six … six … SIX.”

Roy, Tully and their driver burst into hysterics.

“I’m only kidding,” Tully managed between fits of laughter.

He scribbled the code on a pad mounted to the truck’s dash and handed it to Dustin. He swung his legs into the cab, then smiled, “nighty-night.”

The kid stood for several minutes, angrily watching the truck disappear. The GP40s at the head of the train grumbled, and before long the homebound Phoenix local was clickety-clacking into the growing darkness.

Dustin stood for several more minutes, surveying his surroundings. He was utterly, completely alone.

He swore and kicked at the sand.

It was quickly getting dark and cold, but Dustin was reluctant to retire to The Cell so soon. Instead he slowly approached the building, stopping about five yards away, and paced an arc in front of it, eyeing it from several angles.

The building is alive.” Tully’s words echoed in his mind. “It talks to you, and it doesn’t say nice things.”

It did seem alive. It bellowed and whined and snorted, all noises with a mechanical explanation, but they seemed to grow in intensity with his presence. He felt it – while he studied the building, it studied him.

Ridiculous,” he told himself.

Still, he couldn’t summon the courage to go inside.

He wandered up the tracks a quarter mile to where the mainline crossed the river. He watched the black water for a long time and saw a few die-hard kayakers pass, their headlamp beams dancing in the darkness. He sat on the bridge abutment and listened to the night – insects and birds, a frog croaking somewhere on the bank below. It would have been a restful scene, but the head house was over his shoulder, and he still felt like it was watching him.

As he scanned the canyon wall, he noticed distant campfires begin to flicker in the night. Backpackers on the backcountry trails, eating warm suppers, sharing ghost stories and cold beer.

Stories,” he shook his head. “Dang Tully and his stories.

More stories he didn’t need. But a fire? Fire was friendly and warm and might be pretty good company right now.

He gathered plenty of dry grass and found a few small sticks, which he piled into a campfire twenty or thirty feet from the head house in a depression in the sand. He pulled out his trusty Zippo lighter, ignited its three-inch flame, then bent to touch it to the grass.

Whoosh.

A sudden gust of wind blew the flame out.

He swore.

He stood, perplexed, feeling the air to be sure it was still. He struck the lighter again and reached toward the unlit fire.

Whoosh.

Twice more he attempted to light his little fire, and twice more sudden, short gusts extinguished his flame. They came up as soon as his lighter was close enough to catch the grass, then died as soon as the lighter failed.

He looked up at the building. It groaned.

This building is blowing out my fire.

He pushed the thought from his mind. It was impossible. It was just a building.

Just a noisy building with a darn lot of air moving through it.” Wasn’t that what Tully had said?

He was a rookie and the old heads liked to tell the rookies scary stories. Maybe they even arranged it so he would spend the night here alone. They were initiating him. Tomorrow they would give him heck about his little sleepover and that would be it. The harassment would be unbearable if he freaked out – that was what they wanted.

With that thought, a spark of courage warmed his belly, enough for him to walk straight to the personnel door at the base of the concrete monolith. The door was secured by a lockset with a mechanical keycode – the kind with five metal buttons that have to be pressed in order, sometimes two at a time. He keyed in the code Tully had given him, wrenched on the knob, and the door swung open.

He was nearly blinded by the intense, flourescent lights that clicked on, triggered by his motion.

The giant mechanical room was immaculate, with neatly kept machines, bright yellow stairways and catwalks, and a polished concrete floor. The noise was considerable, but Dustin was pleased to not find the black, damp, pulsating heart he had anticipated.

Relief washed over him as he crossed the threshold and closed the door behind him. This wouldn’t be so bad, he decided.

Yellow stripes marked a walkway across the concrete floor, and a laminated sign taped to the wall pointed the way to “road crew accommodations.”

He followed.

When he reached the bunk room, he located the industrial light switch, flipped it on, and a half dozen flourescent fixtures buzzed to life.

In the bunk room were six sets of steel bunk beds. At the foot of each mattress was a neatly folded blanket, and atop each blanket a pillow in a powder blue case. The bedding was in good repair and reasonably clean – better than the moldy, rodent-nibbled linens he had expected to find.

On one end of the room was a clean stainless steel toilet and shower, shielded by a blue vinyl curtain. Opposite the bunks was a small writing desk and steel chair. On the desk were two battery-powered lanterns.

He walked into the room, and the heavy steel door swung shut behind him. It slammed with a metallic clang, threatening the brief sense of security he had enjoyed.

Picking up one of the lanterns, he located the bunk in the farthest corner, where he could put his back to the wall and see the entire room. He switched on the lantern, doused the overhead light, and moved over to it.

He dropped his duffel on the lower bunk, untied his boots and kicked them off, then stripped to his shorts. Lantern still glowing in his hand, he swung himself into the upper bunk. He arranged the bedding, rested his head on the pillow, spread the blanket over himself, and lay very still. He held the small lantern in his hands for a long time and then, reluctantly, switched it off.

The darkness that surrounded him was more complete than any he had ever experienced. Through it, the building’s noises arose in layers: air moving through huge ductwork, the low vibration of flowing electricity, the howl of straining motors, the muffled splash of water.

He lay in the dark, focusing on the individual noises, giving them names and explanations: Air compressor. Water pump. Loose pipe. Wind. Wind. Wind.

And then clink, clink, clink.

A pickaxe striking concrete.

Clink – breath, clink – breath, clink-clink-clink.

Someone swinging a pickaxe desperately fast.

He fumbled with the lantern, clicked it on, and shone it around the room.

No one. He scanned the walls with the lantern.

His heart skipped.

The orb of light revealed a rough circle in the concrete wall, about eighteen inches wide and three feet from the floor. The wall was worn light gray, the circle slightly darker and smoother.

The patch.

Okay,” he told himself. “This building’s been here a long time, there must have been dozens of changes. A patched hole in the wall isn’t remarkable at all.

He didn’t believe that, and had to spend a long time looking anywhere but at the patch before he was calm enough to attempt sleep again.

Finally he switched the lantern off. The noise did not return, and in time he drifted off to sleep.

Dustin was awakened some time later by the sense of a presence at his back. He realized he was lying on his side, precariously close to the outside edge of the bunk. He also became aware that his head was pounding. It felt like electricity moving through his brain in waves, accompanied by an intense buzzing. The building’s noises were more oppressive than ever. It felt like the constant din was crushing his head. He pressed his fingers to his temples and squinted against the pain, orange bursts appearing before his eyes.

Then the bursts began to take form. Despite the total darkness, he could see, very faintly, as though moonlight was coming through a window. He could make out the silhouettes of the bunks, the small table, his hands. But The Cell, he remembered, had no windows.

The fuzzy orange glow continued to solidify until Dustin made out that each bunk held a slumbering, snoring, faintly shimmering form. He choked back a scream, his eyes wide. The forms were snuggled under the blue blankets that had been folded at the foot of each bed, their ghostly heads resting on the pillows, each emitting a faint orange glow.

Trembling, Dustin counted them in pairs.

Two.

Four.

Six.

Eight.

Ten.

Tully’s words came to him again:

There have been exactly one dozen men who’ve disappeared from that building since it opened in 1934.

He carefully craned his neck to spy the bunk below him.

Eleven.

That meant …

He slowly turned his head, looked over his shoulder, and laid eyes on the presence in his own bunk.

When the Flagstaff local arrived at 7:30 the next morning, they found the personnel door to the head house ajar. Inside the bunk room they found eleven bunks neatly arranged, a blanket folded at the foot of each and a pillow in a blue case atop each blanket. The twelfth bunk, the farthest one on top, in the corner, was a shambles. A corner of the blanket was tucked under the mattress, and the rest hung like a curtain to the floor. The sweat-soaked pillow was pressed into the crevice between the bunk and the wall. Dustin’s duffel, his boots, and his clothes were scattered on the floor.

The crew took a short look around the little junction, then the sheriff was called, and the park rangers, and the usual search ensued.

Of course it turned up nothing.

Dustin’s last paycheck was sent to his mother’s address. Someone cashed it.

Tully hasn’t decided what to tell the newbies now. Maybe he’ll tell them that backpackers still report seeing a skinny man in nothing but boxer shorts, a spider web tattoo on his belly, running wildly down the trails near Herbst Junction. Or perhaps that Dustin hid in the ventilation shafts and is in there today, waiting to be found, perhaps alive. He’s also considering the more sinister notion that Dustin was swallowed by The Cell, and the noises it makes are he and the others struggling to be free.

What do I think?

Maybe it’s just a noisy building with a darn lot of air moving through it.

(Scratchbuilt styrene structure.)

ModelStory: Maybe We Should All Shut Down

The teenaged girl – thirteen, fourteen maybe – is good to her little brother. He’s about four and has been sitting on the train for too many hours and all he wants to do is run. She thumbs the screen of her phone with her left hand, squinting to see the display against the sunshine. Her right hand is extended casually to her right side, where the brother grabs the pinky with his fist and runs across in front of her. He lets go when he gets to her left hip and while he runs behind her she absently extends the hand to her right again, where he grabs it and the cycle repeats.

A small kindness, playing this game with him while she texts or posts or tweets. Dad is looking after the bags while Mom is tying the shoe of another brother, six or seven, and Baby is starting to squirm in the holder on Mom’s chest.

IMG_3044The platform at the Salvation Point depot is my favorite place to eat a cheese Danish and watch the people. There’s trouble today, though – the Federal Government is shut down and with it Many Lost Ways National Park.

Eighteen hours on the train and I bet Mom made Dad promise:

“No electronics,” she said. “We are on this trip to be together and I don’t want you looking at your phone every three minutes.”

He nodded, looked up from his iPad, and sheepishly shut it off.

“Work will be there when you get back you don’t need to check your e-mail during our family vacation you know what the doctor said about your stress level.” She said it all in one unpunctuated burst.

So he promised, and enjoyed the train ride – they got the sleeping car with the nice accommodations – and now they are here and he doesn’t know yet about the shutdown.

The daughter, she knows, there was something Aunt Kate posted on Facebook about liberals or GOPs or something but at thirteen you don’t connect that to your family vacation.

And here Dad comes with the bags, grim-faced. He murmurs something to Mom and her shoulders sink, arms go up in surrender.

Salvation Point is a town that supports The Park. It fills little holes of time – a movie theater for when it rains, shops and some nice restaurants, a pool at the hotel – but if The Park is closed indefinitely and you have a large number of what look like demanding children? I’m with you lady. Surrender now.

I don’t have a point to make about The Affordable Care Act or right or left wings or whether the Federal Government should shut down or if it’s such a bad thing if it does. “A pox on all their houses” as my Dad would say.

I look at this family and I consider everything they had to do to get here – spring the kids from school, use up a good chunk of Mom and Dad’s PTO, plan and save and pack – and my heart breaks for them. I can tell by looking that they are Involved. Sports, music, dance, scouts, work, work, work. Not necessarily bad stuff, but these people clearly have forgotten how to take it easy. A week without the Things the Brochures Told Them To Do could kill them. They will have to talk to each other and ad lib and sit on the floor and play matchbox cars and maybe put a couple puzzles together.

Come to think of it, this could be the best trip of their lives. I hope they figure it out.

A Find in Lost Ways, Conclusion

“If I don’t see your lazy hide in this office in fifteen minutes, you’re out of a job!” LaVerne Hinks slammed the receiver onto its cradle and swore under his breath. “Rotten kids.”

He leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes, and pressed his fingers to his temples. The last forty five minutes had been a frustrating gauntlet of demands from management, crew no-shows, and equipment breakdowns. Jake and Aaron – the yard crew for the day – started the melee with back-to-back phone messages announcing illness. LaVerne was disappointed in Aaron – he showed a promising interest in the transportation business – but Jake was a lost cause. Then the regional VP requested the business car the Senator had used be prepped and routed to San Diego for a customer. Jake and Aaron would have handled that, if they weren’t hungover in the back of some pickup or wherever they’d passed out.

Two locomotives wouldn’t start.

A conductor twisted his ankle dismounting a cut of cars.

The dispatch computers were on the fritz.

The only coffee left was decaf.

But those were minor frustrations, stuff he dealt with every day. What put his stomach in knots today was Annie. Her rushed message said she wouldn’t be available for a couple of days, she didn’t know when she’d be back, and she’d call when she could. It was a major fly in the scheduling ointment, but more importantly an uncharacteristically flaky move from his most reliable engineer. He was angry, but mostly he was worried.

He leaned forward, rubbed his eyes, and swore again. Then LaVerne Hinks, Superintendent of the Four Corners Division of the FCFL rail network, rose from his chair and walked to a utility closet, retrieved a vacuum cleaner and dust rags, and made his way out to the luxury business car waiting in the yard.

* * *

The two-hour trail ride by horse from The Column to Herbst Junction was one of Mayer’s favorite things about field work in Many Lost Ways. He loved the change in temperature and vegetation during the descent into the canyon, and the sound of hooves clattering on the rocky trail thrilled him.

Today he would have rather been anywhere else.

Mayer rode second in line behind Lars, and behind them a third man whose name Mayer didn’t know. It didn’t matter – the man never spoke, just glared straight ahead. A jagged scar started on the middle of the man’s left cheek and carved a deep arc upwards until it disappeared behind mirrored sunglasses. They each rode a horse with a pack horse behind, six ponies altogether. They were dressed in casual outdoor gear, but Mayer knew that beneath the billowy Columbia shirts his companions wore, there was serious firepower.

This all looked good on paper, he thought.

“So we’re going to put two boxcars worth of stuff on three horses?” he asked. He knew the plan – they would make several trips – but he wanted the men to speak.

They didn’t.

“So, two trips today?” He rubbed the reigns with his thumbs. “Maybe three?”

Lars looked over his shoulder, glaring.

They rode on in silence, neither man speaking even when they entered the narrow switchbacks just above Herbst Junction. The horses tiptoed along, sometimes brushing Mayer’s legs against the rock face. When the trail widened and the grade eased, they saw through the trees to the railway junction below. Lars pulled to a stop, signaling the others to do the same. For the first time in two hours, he spoke. When he spoke, he cursed.

There was the tiny hamlet of Herbst Junction: the Navajo jewelry stand, the sun-battered pickup with thick grass growing in the wheel wells, the tiny railway depot shared with the park service for a backcountry office. There was a dusty jeep, parked hastily in the employee spot.

There was the siding.

Empty.

* * *

LaVerne took pride in his work, be it making the trains run on time or taking out the trash. He saw no shame in cleaning the business car, and worked at every detail with the gusto he gave to managing the railroad. It was part of his character, deep and firm, that made him a respected leader not only in the railway, but in the community. He was everyman, and he was bourgeois. Few people knew that he and Clark Willoughby were close, the Senator looking to the Superintendent for the mood of the electorate. He wasn’t alone.

From his little yard office or his stool at the breakfast counter at Janibelle’s, Vern Hinks quietly took meetings with everyone from the mayor of Salvation Point to the Governor of Arizona. When the park service wanted to know how a new wildlife management agenda would go over with ranchers, they’d ask Vern. When the railroad and the highway department clashed over grade crossings, it was Vern who mediated. When business leaders considered locating in Salvation Point, the Chamber of Commerce made sure they met with Vern. When Senator Willoughby sponsored a bill on locomotive emissions and fuel economy standards, it was hailed by rail industry leaders as common sense regulation and by environmentalists as effective climate protection. The Senator had Vern to thank for that.

So it pained him that Sarah Willoughby was missing, under such odd circumstances, and he could do nothing about it. Pained him, but didn’t slow him. He learned long ago that worry was best extinguished by hard work, so in thirty minutes he had vacuumed the carpets and upholstery, dusted the woodwork and tabletops, washed the windows and polished the brass. He was reaching behind an overstuffed armchair to replace a wastebasket, his knee on the seat, when he noticed a scrap of paper peeking up from behind the cushion. He snatched it and was about to crumble it up, but the scrawled words made him pause.

It was on FCFL stationary, the courtesy tablets placed on the writing desks before every trip. The top line, scrawled hastily in the soft penmanship of a woman, said “statement for after.”

“I am profoundly saddened and angered that the disappearance of my daughter, and the bravery and sacrifice of so many searchers, would be overshadowed, and even used for cover by vandals.”

“Vandals?” LaVerne furrowed his brow and read on.

“The Column has long been a symbol of this great park, and of the beauty of the southwest. It’s destruction by so ferocious an attack is an assault on our very way of life.”

What in the world? Vern thought. There was more.

“Further, this act makes it plain that these wonderful resources, so remote and so vulnerable, are better cared for by commercial enterprise. Development of these lands, careful, thoughtful development, will ultimately be their best protection.”

Vern reached for his hip, withdrew his cellphone, and dialed the park office at Herbst Junction.

“Herbst Junction backcountry office, this is Chip.”

“Chip, Vern Hinks. How’s things down there today?”

“Umm, you lookin’ for Annie?”

“As a matter of fact,” Vern said. “Also wondering if anything exciting happened lately. Hows that column of yours?”

“I, um, guess it’s fine,” Chip said. “Haven’t been up there in a couple of days. Been busy with the search and all. Annie tore in here a few hours ago, she was in a real hurry. I made her buy a permit, then she practically sprinted up the trail. I couldn’t stop her in time to tell her to move her Jeep. Geez Vern, is everything OK?”

“I don’t know, Chip,” Vern pressed his fingers to his temples again. “Write down everything you see today, OK? And be careful.”

Vern sat in the big chair and read the scribbled words again. The Senator had arrived the night before last, when the early stages of the volunteer search effort were underway. It wasn’t too odd that he would reference that. But what was this bit about vandalism of The Column? Destruction even? Chip would have known about something like that. He turned the page over in his fingers, puzzling. The line about commercial enterprise and development was baffling, too. Willoughby was a Republican, friendly to business, but surely he undertsood that Many Lost Ways was the biggest money maker for the people of his district. Development around the park was always part of his agenda. But in the park? It was impractical and politically toxic. Then there was that line scratched hastily across the top, “statement for after.” After what?

Something was up. Vern didn’t want to be involved, but too many questions were gnawing at him. He decided to pay a visit to the man who could answer them.

* * *

TJ’s head pounded. He stooped by the river and cupped his hands, splashing cold water on his face and scrubbing at the lump on his forehead. His hands came away clean, which told him he wasn’t bleeding anymore. He was thirsty, but didn’t trust the river water for drinking. He soaked his T-shirt in the water, sat back on his heels, wrapped the cool cloth around his head and closed his eyes.

What day was it?

He remembered calling Annie. He’d known she was working and wouldn’t answer her phone, so he’d waited for the beep and talked as fast as he could, wanting to tell her everything about Sarah Willoughby, secret copper mines, his location, his raft being sunk. He’s not sure how much he actually got out. Everything went black, and when he came too – minutes later? hours? – his head was ringing and the Senator’s daughter was gone. Had she hit him with something? Someone else? It was all a fog.

He’d decided to abandon his pursuit of Sarah Willoughby. First off, he was no longer certain she was alone. Second, his head really hurt and he wanted to try to move closer to potential help. And, he had no idea which way she had gone. So he wandered downhill until he caught sight of the river, and followed it south. He’d been walking for at least an hour, he figured, but he wasn’t sure.

He rested another moment, then hefted himself to his feet and continued, unsteadily, along the river. He was dehydrated and weak. The sun beat down, high in the sky and bright white so he could barely open his eyes. He had picked up a walking stick somewhere – he didn’t remember doing it – but now he used it as a crutch, picking along the rocky riverbank.

As he walked, his mind wandered back to Annie. He hadn’t realized until this ordeal in the wilderness how frequently she invaded his thoughts. For weeks he’d sensed a growing fondness, maybe a crush. But limping along in the heat, his brain throbbing, his fate uncertain, so much to worry about and so much to do, he still dwelt on her. No, it was more than a crush. He was falling for her, he was certain of it.

Or was he delirious? Like those people who have near-death experiences, was his mind shutting down, and placating him with comforting sensations?

Or was that really her voice?

* * *

“Clark, how are you holding up?” Vern shook Clark Willoughby’s hand, put his other hand on the Senator’s shoulder, and looked him square in the eye. “You look tired. How’s Grace?”

“I am tired, Vern,” Senator Willoughby said. “Grace, poor Gracie. She’s gone to stay with her sister for a while. It’s too close for her here, she said she needed to not be so close to the search. Me, I can’t imagine being anywhere else but, she’s more fragile I guess.”

Vern nodded and clapped the Senator’s back. Willoughby moved behind his desk and sat, Vern took a chair in front.

“Real nice of you to stop by.” He leaned back in his chair and exhaled deeply. “Your support means a lot, always has.”

Vern nodded again and looked at the floor, taking the scrap of paper from his pocket. He unfolded it and held it between his knees, where the Senator couldn’t see it. He hoped it wouldn’t unravel decades of friendship.

“Clark,” he sighed. “I need your help with something.”

* * *

Chip didn’t have a good feeling about the three men dismounting from their horses outside his little office. The taller one stayed outside and seemed to be peering into the windows of Annie’s Jeep, while the other two strode in, businesslike, and approached the tiny counter where he sold backcountry permits. There was an edge to them that wasn’t tourist, and wasn’t search volunteer. He tried not to sound uneasy when he spoke.

“How’d the trails treat you fellas?”

The shorter one started to reply but the taller, meaner one spoke over him.

“Who do we see about rail freight?” His eyes were stone, his voice cold and hard.

“Geez I don’t know,” Chip said. “Closest office I think is in Salvation Point. I see crews in here once in a while dropping off paperwork but otherwise.” He trailed off, shrugged.

“Where do they drop the paperwork?” The man leaned on the counter, eyes locked on Chip.

Chip nodded toward the locked Dutch door across from the counter. There was a mail slot, and a plastic organizer hung from the wall with various forms tucked in the pockets.

“It’s all locked up,” he said. “I don’t have a …”

The man withdrew a large pistol from under his shirt.

“A key,” Chip finished weakly.

“Oh,” the man said, his eyes following the gleaming barrel to Chip’s forehead. “I reckon somebody does. Why don’t you give somebody a call. I’m sure they’d be happy to come help some, ah, fellow employees”

“Ya… yeah, sure,” Chip stammered. With shaking hands he lifted the receiver and dialed Vern’s cell phone.

“Chip?” Vern answered. “You alright?”

Thank God!

“Oh, sure thing Vern,” Chip said. “Got a, um, train crew here that say they need to get in to the office. Can you please bring a key? Please?”

“Good,” the man said. “Now, outside.”

* * *

Hiking down the switchbacks over Herbst Junction was tricky enough, but shouldering the weight of a stumbling, barely coherent TJ took all the stamina Annie could find. They were nearly there, though, so she gritted her teeth and pushed the pain and fatigue from her mind.

“Come on, you big lug.”

The grade evened out and the trail widened, and she paused in the same spot Lars and the others had to survey the junction below. Her heart sank.

The sight of Chip, kneeling on the ground with a very large pistol pointed at his head, made her sad.

The sight of her Jeep, sitting where she’d parked it – but with four slashed tires – made her angry.

* * *

Clark Willoughby had called out the cavalry. He rode with LaVerne Hinks in the second of two National Guard helicopters, and the two men in their late fifties were quite a sight as they tumbled from the craft as it touched down in Herbst Junction. Soldiers and state police led the charge to the parking area behind the backcountry office, but when they got there the fight they had prepped for didn’t materialize.

Annie and Chip sat comfortably next to two squirming forms, dusty men with their hands and feet bound by the plastic seals used to secure railcars. Mayer sat nearby, his head in his hands. TJ was propped up in the shade of a tree, a bottle of water in his lap and a peaceful grin on his face. As the group approached, he called out.

“Man, you should have seen her!” He laughed like he was drunk. He felt like it. “The other guy helped, and Chip held his own, but wow. Don’t mess with a girl’s Jeep, hey?”

Annie rose and met the leading officer.

“There’s two bad guys who won’t say much,” she said. “And a geologist with a bad conscience who has a lot to get off his chest.”

The soldiers and officers fanned out, tending to TJ, getting Lars and his partner upright and properly handcuffed, securing the office and nearby bushes while unfurling yards of yellow tape.

When Mayer saw Senator Willoughby, he wept.

“I’m sorry,” he sobbed. “I’m just so sorry. I never meant to hurt anyone! It was her own daughter, you know? They seemed like they were in on it together. I hope she’s OK. I just hope she’s OK!”

Willoughby looked at him pitifully.

“Arrest him just like the others.” He motioned to an officer.

The officer approached Mayer and reached for his wrist, but the geologist squirmed away and made a feeble attempt to flee. He landed face down in the dust a few yards away, and three officers made quick work of shackling him.

* * *

Twenty-four hours later, TJ sat comfortably in a hospital bed waiting for the doctor to sign his discharge orders. Vern and Annie waited with him, she for moral support, Vern to give them both a ride.

“So how much of this ridiculous scam was he actually in on?” Annie asked.

“He says not much,” Vern said. “I’m inclined to believe him. I’ve known Grace Willoughby for a lot of years, and she is every bit the politician he is. I have no doubt she could engineer something this massive. She’s as well connected, if not better, than he is. Or was – I think he’d be lucky to be elected dog catcher ever again.”

“I still don’t get how she thought she could mine copper in secret.” Annie thoughtfully unpacked a shirt and pants from the bag she had brought from TJ’s camper.

“There wasn’t ever going to be a copper mine.” Vern shook his head. “The idea was to damage the Column, ruin the land so the park service would deaccession it. Then it would be ripe for development. Grace Willoughby’s family has an interest in a big construction firm out here, and Clark had arranged for some nice contracts. Like most lawmakers, he didn’t read them enough to realize they were for proposed work in the park.”

TJ stood and began to slide into his pants while trying to hold his robes closed.

“Any sign of Sarah or Grace Willoughby?” he asked.

“None,” Vern said. “It’s still tearing Clark apart, but he’s relieved that you saw her alive and well.”

“So that’s Sarah and Grace Willoughby missing, but I think they’ll lay low for a while. What concerns me,” Vern looked sternly at Annie. “Is the two boxcars of unspecified material, likely dangerous in nature, that have also gone missing.”

Annie dodged his gaze and looked out the window. “Happens all the time, Vern.”

“Well, I also have two missing yard hands,” he said. “Not smart ones. And while they don’t know much, I think they know where those boxcars are.”

She looked at him, startled. “Oh, no.”

“Yeah, well,” Vern said. “It’s your problem now.”

“I know, I screwed up,” Annie said. “I’ll try to find them.”

“Don’t try, kid.” Vern put his hands on her shoulders. “You just have to get it done. That’s what the superintendent does. Congratulations.”

“What?” She was incredulous. “Was all this too much for you? Are you quitting?”

“I wish,” he chuckled. “I got a call from the Governor. Seems a Senator has resigned and she needs to appoint a replacement.”

Annie gave him a hug. “I’ll miss you. You think I can handle this? Really?”

“You know you can handle this,” he said. “And I won’t let you miss me. The FCFL employs half my district. I have a keen interest in seeing that it’s run right.”

The doctor arrived and handed TJ his paperwork. The three made their way down to Vern’s truck and drove to TJ’s camper.

Annie got out and walked TJ to the door. He opened it and they lingered a moment.

“You want a ride to your place, Annie?” Vern called from the cab.

She thought a moment, then put her arms around TJ’s neck and pulled him close.

“Nah,” she said, keeping her eyes on TJ’s. “I think I’ll stay here a while.”

A Find in Lost Ways, Part 7

TJ sprinted down the path and aimed himself at Sarah Willoughby. When he was about ten feet away, she saw him and stood. She turned her shoulder to him – the one with the heavy black backpack on it – and braced herself. Unsure of what to do, he pulled up at the last second and instead of bowling her over, he awkwardly stutter stepped into her waiting shoulder, catching the pack square in the chest. The impact was enough to make Sarah fumble the satellite phone, but left her standing over TJ on his back, the wind knocked from his lungs.

“Are you an idiot?” She looked down at him scornfully.

He lay motionless, humiliated and in pain. The phone sat face up, inches from his ear, a gruff male voice still streaming from the speaker.

“The supplies are enroute, supposed to be delivered to a place called Herbst Junction,” TJ heard it say. “Give us twelve more hours, then we’ll get you out. You don’t want to hang around there much longer than that.”

She snatched up the phone, punched “end call,” and stepped over his chest.

He grabbed her boot and she stumbled, landing with a knee and both hands to the ground.

“Let go of me!” she spat.

“Listen,” he barely got the word out. His lungs were burning. “Just let me make one phone call. Just to have somebody come get me. I’ll pretend I never saw you I swear.”

“You are an idiot.” She dropped to her elbows and struggled to free her foot, but he held firm.

“Probably,” he said. “But if you don’t let me use that phone I’m going to follow you for the next twelve hours. I’ve got nothing better to do.”

“The first thing you’re going to do is tell them you found me.” She pushed herself up and tried kicking him. He bear-hugged her ankle and rolled, pulling her to her elbows again. “Ouch! You IDIOT!”

“I’m tough to get rid of,” he said. “Even if I tell somebody, your people will have you out of here before they find you. You’d at least have a chance. If I stick around, you and your … whoever they are will have to deal with me. You don’t want that trouble on top of whatever you already have.”

She swore. “Fine.”

She reached for the phone and flicked it at TJ. He let go of her boot, sat up, and dialed.

* * *

At the moment TJ was dialing, Annie was two hours from Salvation Point at the throttle of her northbound train. Her cell phone was exactly where it was supposed to be, powered down in the bottom of her duffel on the floor of the locomotive cab.

When she got to Salvation Point yard, she tied up her train, finished her paperwork, clocked out, and drove home.

She showered, ate a can of soup, and looked through her mail.

She emptied her duffel bag and started a load of laundry.

Then she checked her phone.

TJ’s message chilled her. She threw on hiking shorts and a tank top, grabbed a jacket and backpack, stepped into her hiking boots and raced out the door. Ten minutes later her Jeep skidded to a stop outside the yard office.

“Where’s Vern?” She didn’t wait for the stunned yard grunt to answer.

The two boxcars had been cut from her train and were rolling to a stop in the yard, where they would be put on a local for delivery to Herbst Junction. Forgetting her training for a moment, she sprinted across the mainline and into the yard. She ran up to one of the boxcars and grabbed at the hasps holding the door shut. It was locked and a plastic car seal was looped through the latch, making it impossible to open without the intended recipients knowing. She pounded the door with her fist and ran to the next one, where she found the same thing.

“You alright?” It was Jake, one of the newbie yard hands.

“Jake! It’s Jake, right?” She brushed her hair from her face and flashed a flirty grin. It worked.

“Yeah.” He smiled and leaned against the box car. “Something I can do for you?”

“These two cars,” she nodded toward them. “I screwed up, they’re not supposed to be here. If Vern finds out he’s going to kill me. Think you can get them out of here? Anywhere other than Herbst Junction?”

yard

“You mean, like, lose them?” he eyed her warily.
“Only for a little while,” she said.
“Sure,” he shrugged. “Happens all the time.”

“You mean, like, lose them?” he eyed her warily.

“Only for a little while,” she said.

“Sure,” he shrugged. “Happens all the time.”

“You’re the best!” She gave him a swift hug, then sprinted back to her Jeep. She cranked the engine and wheeled out of the lot, raising a cloud of dust on the road to Many Lost Ways National Park.

A Find in Lost Ways, Part 6

Paperwork complete and signals clear, Annie’s hand was reaching for the throttle when the radio chirped and Javier gestured for her to wait.

“Looks like we got a late add,” the conductor said, poking the touch screen of his onboard computer. “Just two. Couple of boxcars for us to drop at … Herbst? Is that right?”

“Herbst Junction?” Annie wrinkled her brow. “Really?”

“That’s what it says,” Javier keyed the mic and radioed the tower.

Herbst Junction was a tourist stop on the border of Many Lost Ways National Park. Backpackers took the steam train from Salvation Point there to hike into the backcountry. Crews used the short siding there as a runaround when sorting cars for the Flagstaff local, and occasionally as overflow when the Red Earth Co-op siding got crowded. But Herbst Junction was almost never listed as a destination for freight.

“Yardmaster says it’s right,” Javier reported. “Looks like … ‘mechanical equipment,’ no other description. Light loads – only five tons per car. This is weird.”

“Well,” Annie sighed. “At least they’ll be a couple thousand feet behind us.”

IMG_1006

“Well,” Annie sighed. “At least they’ll be a couple thousand feet behind us.”

* * *

TJ looked over the river to the spot where his raft had disappeared into the current, then paced to the edge of the trees and stared in the direction Sarah Willoughby had fled.

He had a decision to make.

On an ordinary day, he could sit on the riverbank and within a couple of hours a raft trip would come by and pick him up. But there were no trips today, and he wasn’t sure there would be any tomorrow. He could follow the river on foot, a good 12 or 15 miles to the takeout at Herbst Junction, but the trail was iffy at best. He could turn inland to the backcountry and hope to come across the searchers.

Or he could try to follow the Senator’s daughter.

He breathed deeply for a moment, then plunged into the trees.

Tall and lean, and in reasonably good shape, he would have no trouble running down the presumably exhausted girl, if he went in the right direction. He scanned about for trails and saw at least five possibilities. Would she have gone uphill? Would she stick to the river? Would she stay in the cover of the trees?

TJ imagined a true outdoorsman would have useful insight, and he chastized himself for lacking such clarity. It was a conversation that constantly raged in the back of his mind – a small voice insisting that he belonged in a cubicle after all. He was constantly working to convince himself that he was strong enough, smart enough, clever enough to live this independent, unconventional life. Moving to the wilderness and living on the fringe wasn’t a lark. He was the real deal. He repeated it to himself over and over, but didn’t really believe it.

He wondered where Annie was, and wished she were with him. He wished he could ask her advice. She would know precisely which trail to follow. But if she had been along, he considered, they would probably be paddling home with Sarah Willoughby right now instead of wandering the woods with no way to even call for help.

He decided on the path of least resistance, not because he reasoned that she would, but to preserve his own energies. He jogged along the flattest path, which ran close to the river just inside the trees. He rounded a corner and for the second time in an hour came across Sarah, leaning against a tree.

She hadn’t seen him. She was 50 feet up the trail, tucked to the side in the shade, a bulky satellite phone to her ear. It took TJ a moment to realize it. A phone! His own cell phone was probably at the bottom of the river by now, but even if he had it he wasn’t likely to get a signal here. Hers seemed to be working.

It only took him a moment to decide – he would simply overpower her, take the phone, hold her down while he summoned help.

“Yeah, sure you will,” he told himself, doubt taking hold.

But his feet were already thundering down the trail.