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.

For My Dad and Dads-In-Law: Have fun, fellas.

Southbound to Salvation Point, if you make it past Milepost 138 without being put in the hole, it means you sleep in your own bed tonight. How many afternoons – early mornings, black midnights – did he roll down this hill toward that sign, fingers crossed, wondering what she’d have on the stove, what homework he’d help with, what might need fixing before he set off again?

Today, no matter what the dispatcher says, he’s going home.

Retirement.

People don’t hold the same job – hell, people don’t work in the same industry their whole career anymore. He started as a conductor on this section in 1969. He got up in the morning, or whenever they called, did what they asked him to do.

Still does.

He remembers all the wonders he wondered, all the worries he worried, rolling past MP 138. There have been answers, but he still has questions.

She married him, thank God, and stuck around.

The railroad taught him to be an engineer.

He rolled past MP 138.

They bought a house, had a couple kids.

He rolled past MP 138.

The kids got older. Her dad died.

The railroad got new equipment. New rules.

He rolled past MP 138.

The kids started driving. Her hair showed a little gray. So did his.

The railroad started using e-mail, onboard computers.

He rolled past MP 138.

The kids moved out, went to college. He paid for it and was thankful he could.

The railroad became FCFL Transportation. Suits from out east started showing up.

He rolled past MP 138.

She got cancer.

She got better.

He rolled past MP 138.

Four grandkids. All boys.

He had a TIA – a “ministroke.” They said he was OK but it scared him.

He rolled past MP 138.

A full life, lived between shifts and during a few weeks of vacation, financed by work he liked and got to do alongside good people. Faces and names he’d learned over four decades. Some of them still around, some gone from the railroad now. Some of them just gone.

“It’s just a job,” he tells his kids. “Do it the best you can but don’t worry too much about it.”

After today, he won’t worry about it at all. Maybe not as sweet as it sounds, but maybe not so bad either. He’s not sure.

The signal’s green.

He rolled past MP 138.

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 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.

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.

Weathering a Covered Hopper

Today I am going to demonstrate how I weather rolling stock. This is my down n’ dirty, quick n’ easy process that I’ve refined over the last few years – if you’re looking for a complicated, highly detailed project that involves an airbrush and an entire weekend, this ain’t it. This takes about an hour, most of which is drying time. That said, my fleet has received a lot of compliments, so maybe I’m doing something right.

Our subject today is Norfolk & Western 178134 from Intermountain. Right out of the box, it’s a pretty model. Too pretty:

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The first step is to carefully remove the trucks and set them where they will stay clean, unbroken, and be found again.

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The next step is to decide how weathered we want our car to look. According to the marks on the car, it was built in 1973. We know that the N&W merged with the Southern to become Norfolk Southern in 1982. Since I model present day, that means we have about 30 years of abuse to replicate. So, we don’t just want the car to look dirty – we need to distress the lettering and add some rust.

I use a sanding block to knock the lettering down. Go slowly and check every few strokes until you get to the look you want. If you intend to use the original reporting marks, which I do in this case, tread lightly on the numbers. It is also important at this stage to run the sanding block in between all of the ribs on the side of the car, even the “blanks” where there aren’t any letters. This will rough up the surface and help our weathering solutions “streak” more effectively.

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Here is the car after sanding:

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Now we apply our weathering solution. I use a mix of Adirondack brand inks and rubbing alcohol. I buy the inks at Michael’s; I think they are supposed to be used for stamping. Any alcohol-based ink will do, I suppose. I use baby food jars and mix five or six drops of ink to maybe 1/4 cup of alcohol. This takes some trial and error, and I keep a few jars with varying concentrations on hand. I also have a mix with a drop of India ink in it. I’d love to give you the exact recipe for my solutions, but I don’t have one. I just mix until it feels right.

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I use a cheap one-inch paintbrush to apply a liberal wash of the lightest solution and let it dry. I then add a wash of darker solution. While it is still wet, I experiment with holding the car upside down, or laying it on its side, so get the distribution of color I want.

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Now let’s turn our attention to the trucks. Carefully remove the wheels and set them aside. We are going to use weathering powders to add some years to the trucks and bring out the molded detail.

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The trucks and wheelsets are acetal plastic, so I hit them with a little dullcoat to give the powder something to hold on to. But first, mask the couplers and the inside of the sideframes so we retain a slick surface for the wheelset to roll in and don’t gum up the couplers.

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In a well-ventilated area, give the trucks (but not the wheels) a coat of dullcoat. I use the Testors stuff in the spray can. After the trucks dry, I use a stiff brush to dust on gray and medium earth weathing powder to the outside of the sideframes.

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A note about dullcoat: Sometimes I give the carbody a coat and sometimes I don’t. I’ve found that dullcoat put over my weathering solution makes it look too grainy. But, weathering solution or just plain rubbing alcohol, applied in a wash over dry dullcoat, produces a craized finish that nicely simulates faded paint. (You can see this effect on the GN boxcar in the “about me” section.) In the case of our N&W hopper, I gave it a coat of dullcoat and didn’t like it (too grainy!), so I applied another wash of the light weathering solution, scrubbing a little with my brush to loosen up the dried stuff.

After everything dried, I reassembled the car and turned it loose on the layout.

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Before

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After

I think the hardest thing for some people about weathering is fear. I just paid $30 for this Micro Trains boxcar, I’m not taking a sanding block to it! Well, don’t start with your $30 Micro-Trains stuff. Get a cheap car and experiment until you build some confidence. Weathered rolling stock – as well as weathered buildings, weathered track, weathered vehicles – adds a very satisfying element to any layout.

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.