I didn’t bring coffee on a week-long canoe trip with paying clients. There’s your horror story. What became of those people was my personal horror story. I was nineteen years old and should not have been assigned as head guide and food buyer. It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t drink coffee. I didn’t know.
At first, I gave them Lipton tea bags and said what about these? Their expressions seemed to collapse. I couldn’t tell if it was anger or terror, or holding back the urge to rip me limb from limb. This was the Green River through Labyrinth Canyon, with no doors to knock on, no other campers to mooch from, fifty miles to take-out.
I wondered what was wrong with them, how they seemed to twitch and something deep inside of them writhed. Mornings were agonizing no matter how many smiley faces I made with fresh blueberries in their pancakes. I’d never seen such a gathering of foul moods. Day after day, their words became harder to understand. Some held their heads in their hands.
I’d never before looked an addict in the eye, nor a dozen or so of them. Even my assistant guide was starting to froth. At dawn, they stormed me. I was just waking to start their morning pot of Lipton when their open hands smothered the moonlight coming through the mesh of my bug screen. Their moans sounded out the words americano, dark roast, splash of cream. I screamed that I’d gather acorns from scrub oak and roast them and grind them, but it was too late. The tent buckled under their sprawling weight and they gummed me to death right there on the banks of the Green River.
Now, if you listen in the dark of Labyrinth Canyon, you might hear the tapping of my empty cup. A non-coffee drinker roams the river’s edge, eternally searching for the one thing he doesn’t want.
This one is true. I really did not bring coffee on my first guided trip, but I wasn’t turned to a ghost from the experience, not as far as I know. This next encounter, however, happened just this way, beginning to end. The alcove where I took shelter from a late night barrage of lightning and rain in the bowels of the Grand Canyon was full of phantoms. They had been painted on the alcove’s ceiling a few thousand years ago, and if they weren’t phantoms, they were spirit-beings or threshold guardians, something powerful, human-like with faces, torsos, and hands.
After the storm let up, I stayed in the dark of the alcove listening to rivulets wind down the bare rock outside. That’s when I noticed a nebulous light floating in my direction. I had to fix it squarely in my eyes to see, without a doubt, that this was not a trick of the eye. It was moving, not like someone coming down the canyon with a lantern, but like a luminous cloud. The light was enough that canyon walls brightened around it.
My face drew a blank. I was seeing something inexplicable. Let me preface this with the fact that I was alone for weeks, and before coming here, I’d gone into a movie theater in Flagstaff on a whim and ended up seeing a sci-fi horror where a spaceship is warped to hell, the actual place, and returns haunted and strewn with the dismembered parts of the former crew.
The rational part of my brain kept working the problem, but no sense-making could explain this blob of light moving down the canyon toward me. Soon I could hear it. Rocks were clattering into each other, branches snapping, and my breath tripped, blood cold from adrenalin. It was a glowing monster of some sort and it was going to pass through the canyon floor just below me. Whatever it was, it was tangible and I was about to encounter it.
I couldn’t think of anything that would protect me, if I should shield myself or run, so I remained at the mouth of the alcove. The thing was milky white and reaching out, extending and retracting as it passed below me. At that moment, the towering cumulus clouds of the storm stepped back. Moonlight poured into the canyon bottom where it had been following the leading edge of a flash flood. The two forces traveled in tandem, churning bore of mud and water, and liquid light ducking in from the edge of a storm. This was the monster, and as it tumbled by, its light reflected up into the alcove. The ceiling above me, formerly pitch black, lit up with the bodies and faces of phantoms painted in many colors. It was almost too much, a supernatural cascade. I wanted to tell myself this was just another thing, a happenstance, nothing magic about it. Instead, I got out of that alcove to find somewhere else for the night.
We walked for many days in nothing but dunes, a sensation that became like floating. In my journal I started describing us as wind. Even under the weight of water and gear on our backs, our feet seemed to leave the ground. A time or two I forgot my name and worried that we may have died long ago, turned into ghosts who wander the sands.
The dune fields were in Sonora, Mexico, and two of us often moved at night, chasing the moon on its rounds. When we came to an edge of the dune sea, we washed up against black craters and lava flows. The barrenness around us, beautiful as it was, kept ringing a bell in my head, a small, constant warning. Your life is nothing out here. You are already bones.
Along the dune edge, we found signs of ancient people, broken pottery from O’dham ancestry and shell traders who walked from Gulf of California a thousand years ago. They’d held camps here, their fired reddish ollas broken open in the sand like flowers. A basalt grinding stone lay on its side, a gyrator crusher used for turning rock-hard mesquite beans into meal. I’d only seen these in archaeological reports and museums, not in situ. Its surface was smooth from the work of hands many centuries ago.
That night, I woke in my sleeping bag to hear my companion whispering my name. I’ve gone with him for months in wild places and he’s never whispered me awake. Hearing him, I immediately thought someone was here. I whispered back.
Did you hear that? he said. Did you hear the people?
I listened and the night was as silent and still as any we’d had. Usually there was a wind, the distant scrawl of a breeze wandering among dunes. Tonight felt as still as midnight. He said he’d been woken by voices. He hadn’t moved a muscle, listening to people coming closer, children, women, men. They were on their way somewhere, moving along the edge of the dunes, but no one was here and he knew it. In at least ten days we’d seen a half-dead windmill and a ranch with windows broken open and dunes pouring through open doors. No one was out here. The land was vacated. He said he heard them pass by and listened until the last voices faded in the distance.
He didn’t sound afraid, more breathless. I thought maybe he’d been dreaming and couldn’t tell the difference, but he was awake, his voice verging on laughter it seemed so impossible. Who is to say echoes are not left behind? This route must have been used for thousands of years, the dune edge showing people the way. What science says that the air doesn’t still tingle, that electrons sparkle with memory?
In the morning we looked, but we knew there’d be no tracks. The sand said nothing of people coming through. Broken ollas and the mesquite bean crusher lay in the sand, and whatever my friend heard must have been a memory, voices of a windless night.