by Kevin Sebesky
Ignoring the rules of the mesa – and coming back to tell about it
09-12-08 – Monastery of Christ in the Desert, Abiqiui, New Mexico
Hikes on the mesas above the monastery must never be undertaken alone and only when the Guestmaster has been notified. The terrain of the mesas is quite hazardous especially to unseasoned hikers. Guests who fail to observe this rule will be asked to leave. Years back, a young male guest died in a hiking accident and was buried in our cemetery. A few years ago, a lady tried to climb the mesa cliffs without letting anyone know she was there in the first place. A cross marks the spot where she fell to her death.Guest Booklet – Monastery of Christ in the Desert
Although I had read the warnings, I willfully disregarded them. I made a singular choice. I placed myself above the rule and, as I’d find, beyond my own capabilities. We all do this. We all ignore wisdom and truth at times. This time I happened to get away with it.
At 9:30 AM this morning, right after Terce, I set out for a hike. “Just a walk down the road,” I thought to myself, so I didn’t bring any water. I did, however, bring my walking stick and my iPod to listen to music while I walked. It was pleasant just plodding along and the dreary morning rain had started to lift. I saw a path to my left marked by a State Forest sign that said the trail was closed for reforestation or environmental restoration – something like that. Naturally, I could not resist the imitation of exile.
The trail was fine at first. In fact, I even kept my headphones on for the first ten minutes or so trudging to Karl Jenkins’ “The Armed Man – A Mass For Peace”. Deep adventures always begin in measured marches. The pattern of the tempo forces us to lose track of time and distance. It obscures the ability to linger on danger, suffering, and the endless number of details that naturally prohibit the conscious mind from placing our bodies at mortal risk. Arguably, when we begin an endeavor with a march, we have already consigned ourselves as casualties.
The armed man must be feared; Everywhere it has been decreed That every man should arm himself With an iron coat of mail.
The powdery flat gave way to rockier terrain which required more concentration so I turned the iPod off and continued. I was engulfed by the shadows of the towering canyon walls, assimilated like a single cell into the body of a much larger organism.
The path led me through a deep-cut washout at the mesa base. Odd Mars-like red rocks washed smooth by years and years of rushing water and grit. The walls resembled the interior of a hand-cut tomb. They were protected from the sun, so there were occasional pools of water with odd tiny tadpoles swimming in them. Most, though, were floating dead on the surface. Judging by the rate of desert evaporation I estimated their life cycle to be a day or two at most.
As I made my way through the washout, my judgment was beginning to desert me. Up ahead was the first “technical” part of the hike – a steep hill with dubious footing. I’d say it was about sixty feet of climbing. I felt alive, using my arms and legs to investigate around unfamiliar corners and heights. It was as good as I’d felt in a long time, so I pushed on, fully trusting my abilities. I was receptive to the idea that there was purpose in the trek. I was absolutely certain, in the ease of each movement, that I was exactly where I was supposed to be and that I was being led as much by bliss as by blister. There was also a connection to the increasing ascent. I found myself leaning into the hill and in some places actually clinging to it so closely that my heartbeat pressed itself into the rock and soil. The shift from flat to vertical was subtle, though.
When I got to the top I was utterly lungless. It felt more comfortable to exhale than it did to inhale yet the view from this height was victory – so remote a place I barely shared it with a cone of black birds overhead. I was concerned primarily with my lungs until I began to consider all of the other organs in my body that were being stressed. I am comfortable with the idea that I will die shoveling snow in the driveway. I had no reference for dying in a place as mystical as this. Therefore it presented no danger to me.
I finished catching my breath and looked around. Stunning. Up this high, about 600 feet above the Chama River basin, the view is enough to make you want to push on. At altitude the entire landscape is revealed in the 220 million year old sedimentary rock left over from the Permian Age. This is the west of John Ford and Georgia O’Keefe. It is the type of place tourists often rush past; too homogenous a wasteland to waste snapshots on. Ironically, it is a geological and paleontological souvenir stand for those with the patience to scratch its surface. For modern monachists there is no finer backdrop. That such a sanctuary can exist is enough to make you want to withdraw from the overload of society. At the very least, it is enough to convince you that this is as good a place as any to die today. But this is a bad place to ignore the program if you’re not yet absolutely certain you’re ready to go. “Just keep going. You’ll be fine.”
Whose voice was that anyway?
Up until this point I had omitted some pretty important data. “What happens if the trail runs out? “What types of animals live up here?” “Will I be able to descend the way I came up?” “Why didn’t I bring water?”
The answer to the first two questions came in short order. The trail ran out, so I figured I’d just hike my own path of least resistance as far up as I could go. Why? I don’t know. I had made it this far and it seemed like a good idea at the time. Of course, oxygen starvation played a part but the beauty was also a lure. Now, 700 feet above the canyon floor (over 10,000 feet above sea level), I was lost, emotionally and physiologically. I had no idea how unreliable I had become at that elevation. Nor did I care. I was beginning to molt my earthbound reasoning, the single-most important tool in the tool box – I was in deep trouble.
As for the animals, I remembered Brother Sipho’s reassurance that the altitude was too high for scorpions and that the tarantulas wouldn’t bother me if I didn’t bother them. Same for the rattlesnakes. He laughed when I asked the question a day earlier. I took his reaction to mean that my physique gave him no cause for concern that I’d go wandering off into the desert.
From the right side of my peripheral vision I saw a long-eared rabbit zigzag away ahead of me. I assumed it had heard my footfalls and got frightened. My first reaction was, oh, that’s nice. A bunny.” Then I saw the real cause of its panic. A coyote shot out of a scrubby patch of sage, hot on its trail. A coyote! Less than twenty feet away from me! Where is a Franciscan when you need one? This was nature in its lightning quickness and I froze waiting for my cortex to catch up.
I know that coyotes hunt in packs. It’s a fascinating behavior that they’ve mastered. For the good of all they band together to make a kill. They are utilitarian socialists. They are the Jeremy Bentham of the animal order. Outside their congregation they may suffer, but together they posses a determination, primal as it may be, for the greater good. In other words, they eat meat. I think this is a sensible model, which is why I started to wonder if I was being eyed by other pack members as I pushed on. It was an uneasy feeling, dedicated more to survival now than recreation. I think it was then that I realized I was not John of the Desert. Nor was I any acceptable imitation of Christ. I realized I could never stand another 39 days (don’t even think of the nights) in this fearful desolation. A pressing realization of a suffering beyond my touch engulfed me. My long walk was done.
That voice was mine.
Up ahead I saw a washout. “A shortcut,” I thought. “I’ll go down that way and my trek will be one gigantic horseshoe-shaped loop. I will have defeated the canyon. Over and done.”
At first, things were OK. Even though it required some acrobatics I managed to descend about one hundred feet, some of it sliding on my back on smooth rock, uncontrolled. It felt good to be going downward and I started imagining gulping bottled water in the refectory. Then I came to a deep drop. I couldn’t see where the drop-off led to, so I made the decision to slide through a crevasse about fifteen feet to the ledge for a better look. This time I was asking myself whether I could make it back up if the washout was impassable.
It was impassable.
The ledge fell about thirty feet straight down. I had no alternative but to go back up the way I had come down. That was an extremely awful truth because there was no purchase on the rock except for an ankle-deep channel that led up the wall. Bracing my back to the rock I dug my foot into the fissure and started to push. Push. Push. Just a few inches at a time. Then, halfway up I felt myself slipping. Push. Harder. My heart was erupting. I could feel my entire body surging with catecholamine. The fight or flight effect was shifting into overdrive. Slipping back down was also a bad thing because, if I did, my momentum would cause me to plunge over the thirty foot void that I just discovered a few minutes before. Push. Harder!
Then I discovered a fantastic new use for my fat body. If I turned slightly to my right I could chock my belly into the channel like a cork and reset my feet. Each time I successfully fastened my body I found myself nervously giggling. It was as if I was outside myself, amused at the comedy of someone else’s predicament.
In his book, “Deep Survival”, Laurence Gonzales lists the attributes of people who survive life and death situations such as these. He notes that staying calm requires a sense of humor – “In the initial crisis, survivors are making use of fear, not being ruled by it. Their fear often feels like and turns into anger, and that motivates them and makes them sharper. They understand at a deep level about being cool and are ever on guard against the mutiny of too much emotion. They keep their sense of humor and therefore keep calm.” (Deep Survival, pg. 287)
Now, this maneuver cost me a treasure of oxygen and what little residual water I had in my body, but it was bought and paid for when I reached the top and managed one more shove. I rolled right, and there I was; right back where I started from. No wiser, just huffing and puffing, once again facing my dented sense of mortality.
Back up the hill I reasoned that panic would not solve my dilemma. “Just go back the way you came,” was my instinct. But by now reason was tied more directly to lack of oxygen and water; firmly anchored to the truth that I was utterly lost in the mesa’s digestive stream, and I had failed to take mental notes on the route. There was no breadcrumb trail to follow and I could not find a single footprint of my own.
For about two hours (judging by the narrowing of the shadows on the mesa’s deck), I wandered, delirious, in circles. It was not like a bad dream. It was a bad dream. I’d think I was making progress then I’d realize I had done a broad circle back to my original landmark – a stubby tree with bare branches. It was hard hiking, too! Not just trail hopping.
I began speaking aloud to God on my third futile circuit. I was pissed off and scared. In the Kubler-Ross model I had landed between denial and deal-making. “You can’t let me die here, Lord. You can’t be serious. This place is so barren. No one will find me. I deserve better. I really, really don’t want to die here!”
I did a cursory inventory of the stuff I had on-hand. Belt, walking stick, lip balm, breath spray, wallet, camera, headphones, iPod. Wait, no iPod. It had been connected to the headphones and my climb up the wash-out must have ripped it from my pocket. I deduced that the devil took it. “Good. Have it! I didn’t want it anyway. I hope you choke on Britten’s Dies Irae!” I just laughed at it all.
Besides my wallet, the only item of real value I had was a rock I’d found for my daughter, Emily, and placed in the Velcro pocket of my hiking shorts. I noticed it embedded in the sand during the “good part” of the journey. At first I thought it was organic, perhaps an insect, so, naturally, I poked it with my walking stick. It was a perfectly rounded triangle, pure black, with a lovely band of brown running through it. A trinity rock for my Emily. I converted its value into a deeper yet simpler reason to live. Somehow the thought of delivering it to Emily trumped every other emotion enveloping me in that moment and pushed back the despair. I spit on the rock; shined it up, and held it tightly in my hand. I looked in the deep distance, at the spruce and aspen trees below. I saw the Chama River glinting, too far to be heard. I smelled the scent of the desert, so dry it releases every bit of its precious moisture as perfume.
Back to the dying part, I was sitting next to my landmark tree, panicking fully, when I realized that I was directly in the sun’s midday rays. Quick thinking on my part and a small correction put me in the thin shade of my tree where I lay down to compose myself and harvest some oxygen. I remembered St. Benedict’s Rule, the first words of the prologue I had read the night before and recited to myself like a poem.
Listen, my son, to your master’s precepts, and inline the ear of your heart. Receive willingly and carry out effectively your loving father’s advice, that by the labor of obedience you may return to Him from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.
After a few moments I prayed. I begged forgiveness for my slothful disobedience. I asked God to give me a sign. Anything. A footprint, a path, some tangible clue that would lead me home. I wanted to live. Fantasizing about giving up, being desiccated on the shelf of this high rock, would not do. I wanted to deliver the trinity rock to my daughter. I wanted to live.
I looked around for a minute, anticipating a quick reply. Then two minutes. Then five. Nothing. I was listening with the ear of my heart, but heard nothing.
So I got up and just started walking. I looked at the ground and saw that it was a tan color. Then I looked across to the mesa walls beyond the Chama River and, for the first time, noticed that my ground was the same color as the topmost striation of the canyon nearly five miles in the distance. Below it was a layer of yellow, followed by a thinner layer of white, and then rust red. “I’ll do it like a child would,” I thought. “I’ll do it by colors.” One clear sign.
I started on my new course of descent by moving in the exact opposite direction I had been trying. It hardly made sense. It was illogical to try. It narrowed the possibilities but I felt it was not a decision I had made on my own. I spotted something out of the corner of my eye that didn’t register as “natural”. I walked closer and saw that it was a man made stack of small rocks. My first thought was that it was some sort of memorial; a makeshift headstone. I would later learn these are called cairns and that “real” hikers use them to mark paths. It was yellowish, indicating I was heading downward. “Keep going. This is the sign you prayed for.”
Another cairn. Lovely things these cairns. Why hadn’t I noticed them on the way up? Then another, which positioned me atop a steep descent down a thirty foot slide that ripped my hiking shorts and left deep bloody gashes in my arms and legs. I also accidentally punted a cactus and a single spine poked right through my shoe and into the tip of my big toe. “Cactus acupuncture,” I thought, but didn’t stop to pull it out. I was too focused, too excited finding these markers, these signs that would bring me home.
And then I noticed that the rocks were red. I completely skipped seeing the white layer. I am sure the coyotes will not miss the blood trail I left there. One more cairn and I saw the first familiar thing since I left. The washout crossing that looked like a tomb. Then the small pool of dead tadpoles; the water almost completely evaporated now, all swimming had ceased. And then I saw one of my own footprints.
Then I saw what looked like a human shin bone. Brother Rodrigo explained to me later that young drifters occasionally come to the monastery for a meal or a dry bed for a night or two. Sometimes they hike in the mesas and are never accounted for again. Since they usually didn’t carry identification and there was no way to contact family members these poor souls were buried in the monastery cemetery where, in the wintertime, they keep an extra grave dug since it would be too difficult to dig one in the frozen soil. I wondered if I was looking at some poor kid’s leg bone.
Brother Rodrigo also handed me an historical account of the monastery which included references to the ‘brujos’ “…evil spirits, demons that roam the terrain looking for someone to devour” (Brothers of the Desert., Pg. 75). I know this is simply lore; an ancient expression of cause and effect, but it serves a valuable purpose when attempting to explain why a person might suddenly go mad in the desolation and leap to their own death. It lends a certain forbidding poetry to the place and provides a cautionary legend for those bold enough to challenge the vacuum of the desert.
I briefly scanned for a skull or any other human artifacts like an amateur pathologist, but I saw nothing. I’m not sure I was ready to come upon the ghoulish grin of the mystic before me, fed upon by wolves, birds, brujos or any other predator, so I moved on.
As I made the last of my steps on the now perfect path I felt changed. More mortal, yet less vulnerable. I asked. I received. And it’s not like I had asked all that nicely, either. It was God who led me down from that mesa. He laughed at the hubris I brought up with me and finally said, “oh, alright, walk this way.” It is God who allows such things when we admit that the path of our own construction is sometimes flawed; that we need help and are receptive to the consequences of giving ourselves completely to the will of another.
When I came upon the road I knelt down and kissed it right on the lips. If you don’t believe me (and it hasn’t yet eroded) you can see for yourself the lip & nose indentations in the red soil.
I wanted to drink water desperately. One more mile and I would be in the guest house, in my cool dry cell gulping quarts of cold water like a sponge. As I approached the guest house I heard the bell ringing. 3:40 PM. Ten minutes till None. I had been gone for over six hours. I was spent, physically and emotionally, and I felt I had every right to just lie down on my bed and rest. But I kept on walking. I knew I could get water in the refectory (which I did). I also knew that the bell for None, the last of the three “little hours”, was being rung for me. In this soundless place the peal of a single bell was leading me to the only welcome that mattered.
So, I kept walking.
Kevin Sebesky has been an avid long-distance motorcyclist for 20 years and has ridden to destinations picked randomly from the atlas including 48 U.S. states, and the provinces & maritime regions of Canada. These days you are likely to find Kevin ministering to the sick and infirm at hospitals, nursing facilities, hospices, and homes throughout Bucks County, PA. You will recognize him by the black & white checkered Vespa scooter he rides from place to place and can also find him at his website. Sebesky won the Adventure Travel Bronze for “Surviving the Mystical Experience” in the Fourth Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.