A Find in Lost Ways, Part 5

Mayer sat in his makeshift lab, turning a small plastic baggie filled with red sand between the thumb and forefinger on his right hand, pressing a cell phone to his ear with his left.

“The soil analysis is complete,” he reported. “Good levels of chalcopyrite, some bornite…”

“I don’t need a geology lesson. Is it going to be worth doing what they want to do?”

Mayer looked at the ceiling. Was it going to be worth it? Mayer had studied the Lost Ways strata for more than 15 years, first as an undergraduate. He fell in love with the place, like so many who went there did – especially The Column. Like Half Dome at Yosemite or the Garden Wall at Glacier, it was famous among outdoor types. Sacred. Magical. He’d given his career to that rock outrcopping. He’d spent summers with the USGS there. He had published a dozen papers about it. He had led field trips and digs. He’d given lectures.

And he hadn’t made a dime.

“We’ll all make millions,” he said.

“Good. How soon will it start?”

“The field sensors your people installed worked perfectly,” Mayer said. “I’ve completed the computer model and will have a blast plan and excavation plan by tonight.”

“Fine. I’ll get the supplies shipped. Get up there as soon as you can. Those search party volunteers are still crawling all over the place, you should be able to get in without a permit. I don’t think they’re even asking for anybody’s name.”

“Have they found any sign of the girl?” Mayer asked.

“She was told not to be found.”

* * *

Sarah Willoughby sat with her back against a tree trunk, her head slumped to the side with a tangle of dishwater hair over her face. She wore a dirty blue sweatshirt and khaki shorts, and a black backpack leaned against her shoulder. Grass and leaves were matted into her hair and clothing. Her shins were covered with bruises and scrapes.

TJ, like most people, had never discovered a body before. He approached apprehensively, taking one step, pausing, studying, then forcing himself to take another step. Then she stirred, and he took several quick steps backward.

“Hey, hey are you OK?” he called, gathering himself. “Are you Sarah?”

She lifted her head, rubbed her eyes, squinted at him.

Then she swore.

“Who are you?” she half asked, half scolded. “How did you get out here?”

She looked at him as though he had walked in on her in the shower.

“I was rafting.” He motioned toward the riverbank. “Are you hurt? Do you need … like, blankets or something?”

She looked at him, confused, drowsy, grumpy. Several seconds passed.

“I could use some water if you have some.”

He jogged back to the raft and returned with his bottle. She was pulling herself up, brushing off the debris.

“So are you Sarah Willoughby?” he asked. “Did you jump from the plane or …?”

She stretched her arms out in front of her then gathered her hair into a ponytail. She looked at the ground for a long moment, then sighed and looked into TJ’s face.

“I’m tired, I’m hungry, I’m really thirsty, and I’m in a heck of a lot of trouble,” she said. “If I tell you I’m Sarah Willoughby, I think that gets you in trouble, too.”

TJ stared back. He blinked and handed her the water bottle. She took a long drink.

“I can help you,” he said. “I have a raft, we can be in Salvation Point in a couple of hours.”

“Getting me to Salvation Point right now is not exactly helping,” she said. “What would help is if you went away, and if anyone asks, you didn’t see me.”

“I can’t do that!” His voice was incredulous. “Half the world is looking for you, mostly because I saw you jump from an airplane.”

“At least I was right about that,” he added to himself.

She laughed a dismissive laugh.

“Yes, look at me here in my parachuting gear,” she rolled her eyes. “I wasn’t on an airplane. I hiked out here. Look, if you want to help me, go away.”

TJ was baffled. He could only stare.

“So you’re running away?” he asked. “Disappearing? I can relate to that.”

She just shook her head. They looked at each other with irritated, confused expressions.

“Go. Away.” She hefted the words at TJ like heavy objects.

“I can’t just leave you out here,” he said. “You don’t look good. You’re dehydrated. Let me take you home and I’m sure you can work out whatever trouble you’re in.”

“Not likely.” She took another long drink. “You seem like a nice guy. Eagle Scout even. But this isn’t normal trouble, OK? This is fake plane crash, pretend you’re dead, won’t be long until you really are kind of trouble.”

“Wait, you faked the plane crash?” TJ’s eyes were wide. “How do you fake a plane crash?”

“I didn’t,” she said flatly. “My dad did.”

She swore again, took another drink.

“Look, if we keep talking you’re going to be in over your head. Seriously, get back in your boat and go away.”

“I think I’m in over my head already.” He slumped on a rock, and another long, quiet moment passed.

“I get it that you don’t want me to help you,” he put his hands up. “But if I just leave you out here, I’ll never forgive myself for what happens to you. Why …”

She cut him off. “Why is none of your business.”

“Why is my business!” He was getting animated, which was rare. “You’re going to be in the news for a while, and my name seems to pop up when they talk about you. There are a couple hundred people wandering around this park because I said I saw something. Like it or not, I got involved in your drama long before I found you here. You owe me an explanation.”

She sat on a rock across from him and stared at the label on the water bottle. She drank the last of the water, sighed, and stared at the dirt between her boots.

“Would you believe me,” she started, looking up at him, “if I told you that my dad was involved in a conspiracy to secretly start mining copper out of Many Lost Ways National Park, and that the plane crash and my little disappearance here are supposed to distract everyone while he does it?”

TJ shook is head. “No. I don’t believe you. Try again.”

“That’s the truth,” she shrugged, and swore once again. “Alright, you asked. I told you to go away but you asked, so I’ll tell you. If knowing gets you killed, that’s on you.”

She took a deep breath, swore one more time.

“I got into some trouble at school. Something that could have put me in jail for long time. My dad got me out of it but ended up owing favors to people more powerful than him.”

“People who can crash planes,” TJ said.

“People who can crash planes by remote control,” she said. “And make people disappear. In order to not permanently disappear, my job was to wander around out here for a couple of days, but not get found. I’m supposed to get picked up by some of Dad’s people, I guess. That part’s pretty fuzzy.”

“So what happens while you’re wandering around out here?” TJ asked.

“That’s fuzzy, too,” she said. “Dad wanted to confirm that there was actually something worth mining out here, so there was some field station set up. If anybody came across it and got nosy, the search for me was supposed to be the cover. The equipment was on the plane and was supposed to be dropped before it crashed. It was all pretty high-tech. Pentagon stuff. Two people were supposed to hike up there to set it all up.”

“The Howes,” TJ said. He suddenly felt sick.

“Who?” Sarah asked.

“There were two people on my raft trip when the plane crashed,” he explained. “They told me they were Paul and Lillian Howe, and they went into the backcounty looking for you.”

“Dude, Paul and Lillian Howe disappeared like ninety years ago.” She raised an eyebrow at him. “Everybody knows that.”

“Yeah, thanks, I found that out,” he said. “But a secret copper mine? That makes no sense. How do you keep that secret? And how can that be worth all this trouble?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m sure there’s more to it, but that’s all Dad shared with me.”

They sat in silence for several minutes.

“So, what now?” TJ asked.

“Well, I don’t know about you.” She rummaged through her pack. “I’m supposed to be missing, so I’m going to disappear.”

“I have to tell people that I found you,” TJ said.

“I figured you’d say that.” She pulled a multitool from her pack and opened it, quickly walking to TJ’s raft. She held the tool above her head, then plunged the knife blade into the inflatable. A sickening hiss filled the air. Then she pushed the raft – loaded with TJ’s pack, extra water, his phone – into the current. He stood stunned as the small blue craft swirled in the water, then snagged on a rock 30 feet from shore. As the last of the air escaped, the raft melted into the river and disappeared.

“I hope you find somebody to tell!” Sarah Willoughby called as she sprinted into the trees and disappeared.

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A Find in Lost Ways, Part 4

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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.

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.

He laughed.

“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.

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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.

A Find in Lost Ways, Part 3

TJ shifted in the burgundy leather couch in Clark Willoughby’s office and watched the Senator stare out the window to the street below, where three satellite trucks from cable news networks had gathered. It was a small turnout by Washington standards, but for Salvation Point this was a Big Deal. Sheriff Killinger had gone all out holding a joint press conference with the park service, promising a thorough search for the Senator’s daughter and asking the media to respect the family’s privacy.
The sheriff had sidestepped questions about a rumored parachute sighting, saying only that all leads were being pursued. He’d pursued that particular lead over and over in his interview with TJ, until the exhausted river guide wasn’t sure what he’d seen and wished he’d never spoken up about it. So focused was he on the falling object, the sheriff never got around to asking about the granola couple. When the sheriff’s questioning ended, instead of being allowed to go home, TJ had been delivered to the Senator and his wife, who pressed the issue further.

“I know you understand that it’s my daughter up there,” the Senator said, turning from the window and sitting next to TJ on the couch. “So let’s go through it one more time – what did you see?”

TJ rubbed his eyes and looked at Mrs. Willoughby, leaning against the desk, shellshocked. He felt for her.

“I saw an airplane,” he said, slowly. “There was a lot of smoke coming from the cabin, not the engines. Just before it went out of sight, something fell away from it. I don’t know what it was.”

“Was it a person?” Mrs. Willoughby asked.

TJ looked from her weary face to the Senator and back, then to the floor.

“I can’t say,” he mumbled.

The distraught mother stifled a sob. “But someone is up there looking for her, right? Do you think they will find her?” Her words got lost in her tears, and the Senator went to comfort her.

TJ was thankful for her breakdown. It meant she couldn’t look him in the eye and demand an answer. The fact was, no one had heard from the couple in the six hours since they parted at the trailhead.

“Maybe it’s time for you to rest, Gracie.” The Senator went to the door and motioned for a secretary, who gathered Mrs. Willoughby and led her out of the office.

“Tell me about that couple, son,” the Senator said, returning to the office, folding his arms, and meeting TJ’s eyes. “Should I have any confidence that they are in any better shape than my daughter?”

“They seemed capable of making the hike,” TJ said. “I’m not sure they were … I’m not sure they are experienced outdoor types, but,“ he trailed off. “They were from Seattle.” He wasn’t sure why he added that.

“They gave you names?” the Senator asked.

“They did,” TJ said. “Howe. He said their names were Paul and Lillian Howe.”

The Senator’s head drooped and his eyes narrowed on TJ.

“Paul and Lillian Howe,” he repeated flatly.

“That’s right,” TJ said.

“Son, I think you’ve been had.” The Senator sighed. “Anybody who’s been to a book store at the park knows who Paul and Lillian Howe were. Paul and Lillian Howe disappeared on the river in 1923.”

* * *

The disappearance of Paul and Lillian Howe was indeed a popular chapter in the lore of the Benjamin-Henry River, and there were indeed prominent displays of books on the subject in the bookstores at the Many Lost Ways visitor centers. That is precisely where the man got the names he gave to the river guide, who thankfully wasn’t an avid reader.

“That kid saw the packet being ejected,” the woman said. “Maybe we should abort, we should have found it by now.” Her name was Perkins, and she was getting annoying.

“I don’t care,” spat Lars. “He was an idiot. He doesn’t know what he saw and by the time anyone figures it out we’ll have our hands on it. Shut up so I can hear the beacon.”

He held the smart phone – which wasn’t really a smart phone – in front of him. The screen glowed green on his face in the failing sunlight. Their job was to find the packet, distribute the sensors it contained at the GPS coordinates provided, gather soil samples from those locations, and return them to their contact in Albuquerque. For this they would each receive $500,000. They didn’t care about why, or who.

* * *

“You’ve been honest about everything and you didn’t do anything wrong.” Annie tried to reassure TJ over a mountain of chili-cheese fries at a booth in the back of Janibelle’s. “They’re worried parents, you can’t blame them for being upset.”

“I know, but I feel responsible.” He took a long drink. “Why would those people lie about their names? And why am I the only idiot who wouldn’t have caught it? If Sarah Willoughby survived that plane crash, she’s still going to turn up dead because I didn’t recognize the most famous names in Lost Ways history.”

“Don’t beat yourself up,” Annie soothed. “You didn’t miss the biggest questions. Like what was she doing on the plane? Where was she going? And who else was on board? Don’t you think it’s odd that no one has talked about that?”

TJ wasn’t so sure. Aviation was a way of life for a lot of people in this part of the country. Some people even commuted to work daily in their own planes. The notion that Sarah Willoughby hitched a ride with a friend and didn’t tell anyone wasn’t so farfetched.

“One of her latest pet projects could have been flying lessons,” he shrugged.

“Maybe. It’s still fishy,” Annie fidgeted with her milkshake straw. She was on duty in the morning, and looked longingly at TJ’s beer.

“So,” he said, changing the subject. “They’re looking for search party volunteers. Do I sign up?”

“Absolutely not.” She didn’t hesitate. She always saw things clearly, and TJ liked that. A lot. “You’re already more involved than you want to be. Lay low. Go to work. Mind your own business.”

She stood and fished a 20 from her pocket. “Look, I have to make a run to Globe tomorrow and then bring some extra back the day after. Call me if you hear anything, and I will see you when I get back, OK? Mind your own business.”

He nodded thanks. He started to stand, but she put a hand on his shoulder as she walked past. He wanted a more formal goodbye. He wasn’t sure if she knew that and was letting him down easy, or if it was just her nature to not be affectionate.

Should she be affectionate to him? He wasn’t sure. He’d come to Salvation Point a year ago, fleeing a cubicle future in an insurance company call center. He’d met dozens of rugged individuals, many of whom were friendly and helpful, but he hadn’t really connected with anyone – except Annie. They met in this same booth, both of them waiting for takeout.

They’d shared hours of conversation, hiked together, seen each other at parties and in recent weeks had begun to spend time together at each other’s places. But it had not turned romantic or physical. He was thankful for the good friend and wasn’t sure if he was willing to risk that. Complicating things was her job, which was unpredictable and took her away for two or three or four days at a time.

No, for now he would be content with her friendship, her good advice, her clear thinking, and her strength. In the days ahead, that strength would prove crucial for them both.

A Find in Lost Ways, Part 2

Sixty-seven people stood bewildered on the west bank of the Benjamin-Henry river, some looking skyward at the spreading smoke, others staring at the ground. The youngest children scrambled about the rocks as their parents attempted to corral them, eager to reboard the rafts and get back to civilization. Four rafts stood side-by-side in the river, their noses beached and lines secured to nearby trees.

Four river guides huddled around a radio, trying to hear the park service and wondering what to do.

“We reported what we saw,” said Phil, the veteran of the group. “There’s not much more we can do. We have to get these people back before they go crazy on us.”

“I don’t know, man,” Jordan shook his head. “TJ saw somebody jump. They could have survived. They might need help. We’re the closest, the rangers will take hours getting up there.”

They stood at the foot of Goosebill Canyon, one of hundreds of side canyons that terminated at the river. TJ guessed the plane went down three or four miles west of the river. Accounting for the 2,500-foot climb, he figured it would take a strong hiker ninety minutes to get to the wreck. But he wasn’t sure there was any point in going up there.

“I didn’t see anyone jump.” He spoke slowly and clearly and tried to keep the edge out of his voice. “I said I saw something fall. It could have been a person, it could have been part of an engine, it could have been a refrigerator. I don’t know. I didn’t see a parachute … I don’t think.”

They all sighed, hands on hips, and stared at the ground. TJ glanced at Jordan when the radio squawked and a park headquarters dispatcher confirmed that the nearest available helicopter was in Flagstaff, but a pilot wouldn’t be able to get there for another half hour. Rangers were making their way up the river, but wouldn’t reach Gooseneck Canyon for at least an hour. Another ranger was on mounted patrol in the backcountry, but his location was uncertain and he had yet to respond via either his radio or satellite phone.

All of the guides loved this place for its remoteness. At this moment, they cursed it.

“Can we fit all these people on three rafts, and one of us hike up there?” suggested Claire, one of the rookie guides from the East Coast somewhere.

They all did some quick math and shook their heads. Eighteen adults made one of these rafts hard to maneuver. Overloading them with 20 or more was dangerous.

“We could ask for volunteers to stay here,” she offered half-heartedly.

The granola couple, TJ noticed, had been circling near the guides, close enough to hear and clearly anxious to chime in. They took that opportunity to speak up.

“We’ll go up there,” the man announced. “My wife is a nurse. We’re strong hikers. If someone is hurt up there, we can help.”

TJ assessed the pair. They were well clothed, had newish-looking boots and sun hats, and appeared to be in good shape. But there wasn’t much for supplies. The rafts were outfitted for leisure trips, a water cooler bolted to the deck and not much else – not great support for a rescue mission.

“I can’t let you put yourselves in that danger,” TJ said, summoning his most authoritative tone. It wasn’t convincing.

“You won’t be letting us do anything,” the man said. “If we want to go, it’s our right.”

TJ looked to Phil, who looked back expressionless. They were river guides. Not cops, not lawyers. They both knew that to hike up Gooseneck and into the backcountry required a permit, but that was for the park service to enforce. The man was right – if he and his wife wanted to go, there wasn’t much a river guide was going to do to stop them.

The little circle of guides nodded assent.

A quick inventory of the couple’s personal gear revealed a pair of binoculars, two smart phones, a 16-ounce water bottle and –TJ groaned to himself – a bag of granola. The rest of the passengers offered a backpack, some additional drinks and food, and a bottle of sunscreen. First-aid kits from the rafts and Phil’s topographical map of the park topped off the pack.

TJ had hiked Gooseneck before. He walked with the couple a few paces up the trail, offering whatever he could remember about the trail conditions and landmarks. He wished them luck and turned toward the rafts.

“Oh – just in case … ahh … you know,” he put a hand on the back of his neck. “Maybe you should tell me your names.”

The couple looked at each other for a moment, then chuckled.

“Yeah,” the man said, keeping his eyes on the woman. “Paul and Lillian … Paul and Lillian Howe. We’re from Seattle.”

Of course you are, TJ thought. “Alright. Good luck, and thanks.”

He ambled back down to the riverbank, where the guides were already boarding the passengers and cranking over the Mercury outboards. On the way home – experienced or not – they all pushed the throttles wide open.

* * *

Annie was beat. She’d pulled out of Durango in the predawn for a seven-hour run to Salvation Point, 78 cars of mixed freight behind a weary pair of SD40s, and almost immediately met delays. She was put in the hole repeatedly for hotshot double stacks and a UP coal drag on trackage rights. A glad-hand came loose and she lost the air not far from the Highway 160 underpass. When she finally started making time, she was given the siding again for a priority extra – the FCFL business car. She could handle delays for revenue trains, but sitting still for a suit on a joyride boiled her blood. By the time she tied down at the Salvation Point yard, she was nearly five hours late, and minutes from exhausting her 12 hours of allowable time on the clock.

“You’re the man, Bruce,” she thanked her conductor as he finished his paperwork, grabbed his gear and ducked out of the cab..

“Scared the heck out of me as always,” Bruce shot a friendly grin over his shoulder.

She took a deep breath and gathered her own belongings before descending the stairs and turning toward the yard office. She ran an affectionate finger along the battery boxes beneath the cab, whispering a “thank you” to the forty-year-old locomotive. The engine’s compressors banged to life, as if the machine were a loyal dog responding to her touch. She smiled. Keep your high-efficiency, computerized engines with the comfy isolated cabs – she’d drive an SD40 as long as the railroad would let her.

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Keep your high-efficiency, computerized engines with the comfy isolated cabs – she’d drive an SD40 as long as the railroad would let her.

Raised on a Wyoming cattle ranch by parents who tried to steer her to law school, Annie never got comfortable behind a desk. She wrenched with her dad in the barn and at fourteen restored a Farmall Cub as a 4-H project. She still had a passion for elderly machinery, but had truly found herself on the railroad. Moving things, feeding people, supplying industry, the puzzle of getting it all done efficiently – it fascinated her, and she was good at it. As much as she loved being an engineer, she really wanted to drive the whole show.

“I know what you’re going to say so don’t say it,” LaVerne Hinks barked as she approached the yard office door. He swung the last of his coffee to the ground, crumbled the paper cup in his large hand, then opened the door and followed Annie inside. “How could I put you in the hole for the umpteenth time just for an executive extra.”

“You had your reasons.” She walked to the computer terminal and logged herself off duty. “You’re the division superintendent, it’s not like you have any authority.”

“Not over a sitting U.S. Senator,” LaVerne answered. “Seems Mr. Willoughby’s daughter has come to some grief.”

His face was grim, his tone flat. Sarah Willoughby was well known around Salvation Point. She’d spent the last few summers here – supposedly doing an internship or taking a summer course – but mostly being a Senator’s daughter and stirring up minor trouble. Clark Willoughby stood up for the national park, sponsored local Federal projects, and was generally regarded as an honorable representative for the region. He also won favorable legislation for the railroad. All of which meant that this daughter’s “learning experiences” were swept under the rug. It also meant that if the railroad was giving him a ride, Annie’s train could wait.

“Skip out on her bill at Janibelle’s again?” Annie rolled her eyes.

“No,” LaVerne slurped from a fresh cup. “Missing and presumed dead in a plane crash.”

A Find in Lost Ways, Part 1

The grumble of the big Mercury outboard pierced the quiet of the canyon and rattled across the rock walls. TJ winced and pulled the throttle back, admonishing himself for making the same rookie mistake again. This was the hardest part of the trip, backing from the dock then circling across the current before shooting the narrow gap between the pilings that supported the FCFL’s twin railroad bridges.

raft

This was the hardest part of the trip, backing from the dock then circling across the current before shooting the narrow gap between the pilings that supported the FCFL’s twin railroad bridges.

The raft was seventeen feet long, four large inflatable pontoons lashed in pairs with a steel deck between, eighteen aboard for the “smooth water” tour of Many Lost Ways National Park. It was hard to bring the bulky craft about in the current without gunning the engine. The seasoned guides who belonged on the river had a touch. The rookies – the parentally subsidized future MBAs who came to gather a summer’s worth of tall tales–always goosed the throttle as he’d just done. He vowed to develop the finesse.

“So, I don’t know where your guide is,” he said to the group , after he had the raft comfortably pointed upstream. “They just gave me a life jacket and some keys and said ‘go for it.’”

It wasn’t his joke. He didn’t remember who he’d stolen it from, and he was sure whoever that was had stolen it from someone else. But it was a good icebreaker and set the tone for the four-hour trip. He delivered all of his jokes the same way – deadpan, no eye contact, no smile. He would pick out a spot on the riverbank and coolly watch it go by while his passengers laughed. But their eyes were on him, and what they saw was the confidence and cool of someone who had traded their stress-filled, keep-up-with-the-Joneses, suburban world for a rugged, independent life on the river. The more he acted like that, he hoped, the more it would come true.

“How do you hide a twenty-dollar bill from a river guide?” he said, this time nodding to a spot on the bank where, on cue, a blue heron touched down in the tall grass.

“Hide it under a bar of soap.”

He went on to explain that their departure was from the exact spot where some 200 years earlier Captain Benjamin-Henry had landed, the first white man to come to Many Lost Ways. How the Captain had established a settlement a few miles downstream at Salvation Point. How the Captain’s son, Michael, had been crucial to forging peace with the Navajo, and how despite harsh winters and dry summers the settlement flourished. Then he nodded to the Benjamin-Henry bridge, now high overhead, and told how the Four Corners Railway had been established to carry timber and minerals from the land, but later established the park and brought tourists instead. How today’s FCFL Transportation, the rail giant, still held the land sacred and stood as a bulwark against developers.

“How do you hide a fifty-dollar bill from a river guide?”

“Dunno. Never seen one.”

This was a good group. Families, some with teenagers who wished the cell signal was better, some younger kids not yet aware how uncool it was to get excited about wildlife. One wanna-be granola couple wearing the entire North Face catalogue. Four college kids flirting and taking pictures of each other while their fifth wheel nursed an obvious hangover. They would laugh at his jokes, participate in the usual gags, ask easy questions, and probably tip alright.

The smooth water trip on the Benjamin-Henry River was a popular option. It took half a day and gave visitors a chance to experience the Many Lost Ways backcountry without an arduous hike. TJ would prefer to lead the more adventurous white water trips, but that was for experienced guides. He would get there in time. For now he was grateful to earn a few bucks rafting through extraordinary country.

TJ’s raft was one of four on the trip today, a loose flotilla snaking along the canyon, slowing to point out wildlife or favorite rock formations, spinning in the current, all the while the guides slinging playful jabs at each other to the delight of their guests. They settled in to a rhythm of easy banter, tidbits of history and nature, and “where are you from” exchanges.” The Mercury drummed along, lulling the group into a mellow silence.

“OK guys here’s what we’re going to do,” TJ announced, backing the outboard to an idle and letting the other rafts disappear behind a towering vermillion cliff. “When we go by, I want everybody to point up to the right. We’ll see if we can get the others to look. Ready?”

He brought the raft back to speed and pointed to a spot at the top of the cliff, and the passengers joined him in unison. A mom from Salt Lake City gasped for effect. As TJ expected, when the other rafts came into view, every passenger was pointing the opposite way, to the sky over the left bank. It was a choreographed gag the guides pulled on every trip. There was the usual chorus of playful boos from his boat, but as he passed the next raft and grinned at the guide, Phil, he saw astonishment and fear. TJ followed Phil’s gaze skyward just in time to see a small, twin-engine plane speeding toward the ground, smoke belching from the fuselage. It was still high, so it wasn’t clear but he thought he saw something – or someone – tumbling away. A moment later, obscured from view by the canyon wall, came the crash. The column of smoke became visible to those on the river just before they heard the heart-wrenching sound.

Arrival

Soaked. Leather boots, wool stockings, trousers, undershirts, blouse, wool coat. His red beard (he wondered how untamed it looked, his looking glass bartered months ago). All of it soaked, and a good six inches of water in the bottom of the boat. But, despite a tumbling ride through foaming current, several drops of as much as 15 feet, and terrific blows against rocks (cursed, cursed rocks – everywhere in this country!) the boat was floating and they were alive. It was just he and Michael now, but they were alive.

Captain Benjamin-Henry had departed St. Louis more than two years hence with a party of 48 men, bound for God-knows-what, with only a dream to find and settle land “suitable for agriculture and homesteading” in the southwest territories. He had promised his sponsors as much. The Captain knew it was there – a benevolent God would not cast upon the earth an endless desert. The Captain was sure enough of what he would find to wager his meager savings – but considerable inheritance – on the expedition. His detractors and his own months as an Israelite wandering the desert filled him with doubt. Was there anything out here but stone and sand? He’d begun to concede to himself it was folly, settling the south and west of the continent. He’d begun to wonder, as parched days turned to scorched months, if indeed he would ever see water again.

And then a cascade from a cliff face, and a creek deep enough for dugout canoe, then a week’s pause for men to gather timber and convert wagons to john boats. And now he was soaked. The irony settled in on him and he would have chuckled to himself, but he was too cold.

“Please papa,” Michael pleaded from behind him, “can’t we stop to rest?”

Poor Michael, sturdy as he was but only 12, had not made complaint during the arduous hours on the river. He had in fact not made complaint during the entire expedition. Nor did he complain through months of tutoring to teach the boy English. He made no complaint when he was adopted from his nation – the Navajo – and sent to live with the Captain, and to become his guide and interpreter. He made no complaint perhaps because he was fed and clothed like the child of aristocracy, and the Captain was kind. Michael loved him like a father.

“Yes Michael, perhaps this is far enough for today,” the Captain replied. His tone was gentle. He loved Michael like a son.

The rock walls began to flatten and a small beach came into view. Michael noticed her first and pointed. Following them with her eyes and gliding gracefully along the rocks in deerskin moccasins, a young Navajo woman was descending toward their selected landing. With the Captain on the pole and Michael on the tiller, they edged toward the spit of red sand. As the boat beached, the woman met them.  She spoke, and Michael translated.

“You are seeking something,” she said.

“Only peace,” the Captain replied.

“Perhaps,” she said. She wore loose woven clothes and called to the Captain’s mind high priests he had seen on his travels to India. “You are welcome to seek whatever you desire here,” she continued. Her face was kind. “My people have come to this land for generations. They find things here.”

“It is a land where much would be lost for others to find,” the Captain said.

native woman

This is the land of Many Lost Ways

“Some get lost when they come here,” she nodded. “Many more come here when they get lost.” She gestured to the canyon, the river, the valley opening below them. “This is the land of Many Lost Ways.”