She didn’t want to talk. She wouldn’t even turn her head to look at me. I was trying to make conversation, but she half-listened and half-answered with the quickest nods of the head. I asked her if she had finished the DORBA trail my wife and I were about to hike. She just sat there on a wooden bench at the trailhead, legs crossed, looking straight down, her dog pacing beside her as she held the leash in her hand.
“No, I had to come back,” she pleaded. She looked down at her dog, a black and grey Heeler, who was panting. “He got hot…” Then she looked at me, her eyes welling up with anime tears, and said, “And somebody hit my car while I was gone,” her chin tightening, quivering.
“What?” I said.
“They hit the side and the bumper, and just drove off. I called the police.”
“Do you want some water?” I asked. She hesitated and looked at me, just barely nodding her head. By this time, my wife had walked up, concerned. “Do you want an apple? We have an apple.”
When my wife asked her this, she brought a cupped hand over her mouth and started crying. “My car doesn’t have air conditioning, he’s hot, and now, this.”
Just then, a state park police officer drove up. She quickly stood up, fumbling with the leash and her dog, and walked out of the shade onto the bleached grey asphalt to give her report. I hurried back to my car to fetch some water. While the police officer sat in the truck and called it in, the girl met me back in the parking lot and I filled her big, empty bottle with water. I asked my wife to watch the dog while she went back to talk to the officer.
I tried to get as much water as I could over his coat. He looked up at me, confused, and opened his mouth trying to catch the water with his tongue. Just as I got him cooled down, the police officer got out of the truck and said the dog could come in the truck with them. My wife walked the dog back to the owner who waited in the truck, and delivered a chilled Gala apple into her hand.
I told my wife, “Once she feels better and knows her dog’s o.k., she’ll be able to handle all of this, just fine. It’s the heat and the worry that pushes you over the edge.”
I threw on my CAMELBAK, buckled it up, snapped my hiking poles together, and we were off.
Now, I, too, had reservations about this hike. It was hot. Dallas-hot. And I’ve had close calls before, myself. There was the time on a one-mile hike, that’s right, a one-mile hike in the Greenbelt, when I was going all out on a climb from the creek bank up to the top of a hill when I lost my breath inhaling all of the fresh mold from a grove of decaying trees in the sheer heat of a July day that brought me just short of passing out. I remember nervously giggling to myself as my airways closed and the trees swirled around me like I was time-traveling. (I didn’t take my allergy medicine that day.) There was also the time on the McKittrick Ridge Trail in The Guads, hiking down, that the heat and the worry got me good. I stomped down the mountain like an anxious toddler throwing a tantrum knowing I had drunk most of my water on the way up, the prior day. I had 3 little cups-worth of water left for the 7.5 mile hike down in 92 degree heat. That lesson was merciless. I rolled my tongue and lips around my mouth like someone with his dentures out. I didn’t hike out. I staggered out.
“Ready?” I called. She started her watch and it beeped. She nodded. The heat waves circulated around my body like vines when I took my first step. Like Van Gogh brushstrokes of the air. Yesterday, I was chillin’ in an air-conditioned Air BnB in Arlington reading Louis L’Amour all day while my wife and son were at Six Flags. Today, I was gonna bake. And to boot, because of my flawless planning, my last clean outfit on our trip consisted of one black t-shirt and a pair of black sweatpants. Great.
My wife is smart, though. Before we started the DORBA hike, she suggested we walk the Penn farm grounds and hydrate so we could acclimatize and focus on filling up with H2O. We walked around, with the farmstead to ourselves, marvelling at the old rusted equipment from the late 1800s and early 1900s. The blades of a windmill spun like a pinwheel and turned side to side in the wind, with vines wrapping up and around the metal struts of the tower. It was very quiet, but then a rush of wind would come and rustle the trees and wash over the grass of the homestead. I couldn’t feel the people that used to live here, but I could see them, in my mind. Men in hats and overalls, with Amish beards, working cattle, and the women and girls walking dirt paths in black boots and long, fluffy dresses, blocking the sun with their hands.
We walked into one empty barn and saw a baby vulture perched in a doorway, no doubt waiting for its mother. It’s plumage was short, fluffy and white, and it had a black head and beak. It reminded me of the Spy vs Spy character from Mad comic books. It was a little creepy, too, so we went around. I didn’t want to be walking by the baby and have a condor landing down on my chest with a buzzard’s rage, with talons tearing at my flesh.
We walked to a shed with a parked, red tractor and walked across the lawn. The farmstead felt like a manicured graveyard of barns and sheds, with maroon-rusted farm equipment bundled in corners here and there. I thought to myself, “These farmers had nothing but the breeze to cool them down. No air-conditioning, ceiling fans, or iced tea. No power-steering on tractors, or countless other things. But if it’s all you know, then you don’t know the difference.” I saw my wife move quickly away from me. She was chasing a lizard with her camera phone as it zipped around the trunk of a nearby tree, the skin blending in with the rough bark.
We were careful to start our hike counterclockwise to avoid mountain bikers crashing into our backsides like pile-ups in a peloton. As I climbed, I was reminded of the terrain around White River Lake on the South Plains where I’m from. A land of baked dirt with rows of ragweed, tall and lush like fields of corn with a muddy shore, the water lapping under a naked sun. The baked, caked earth lay cracked in pieces like a jigsaw puzzle coming apart after someone has bumped the table it’s on.
Further up the trail, we saw boards nailed to trees with the names for each waypoint: Snakehead Bridge, Caveman’s Crossing, Bobby’s Boardwalk, 5 Points, Poison Ivy Alley, Cow Corner, and my favorite, The Barrels (the sign placed right beside two beat-up, orange and white road construction barrels). Occasionally, we would enter a grove of Cedar Elms, my favorite tree, and stop for just a minute to admire their lime-colored leaves glowing green in the sunlight. Tall as they were, they swayed with each other, like dandelions blowing in the wind.
Now, usually I’m the bumblebee when we go hiking, but not today. I was losing my edge. I felt like a kid again, sitting in my mother’s 1976 Impala in the summer, windows up, the ‘AC’ blowing hot air on my face like a hair dryer. My wife, on the other hand, was walking around like a no-time-to-talk naturalist from the early twentieth century, stopping only to inspect flora and fauna with her magnifying glass and a dog-eared notebook. She stopped to snap pictures of tree bark, lizards, signs, spiders and webs, and all of creation. Meanwhile, I swayed like the town drunk under a tree, a beggar with chapped lips breathing out of the mouth.
At our two mile break, I had to take off my shirt and Camelbak, and hang it on a tree. I caught my breath as I watched her walk around like a busy penguin looking for the perfect shot. Amazed, I thought to myself, “This woman is fine. Unfazed by the heat. She really has plenty left in the tank.” We did two miles at the Farm. This will be another three, and she wants to check out the two overlooks afterwards? I started to worry. How did she have all of this energy? How? All of yesterday, she was at Six Flags riding all of the scary rides with my 13 year-old boy under this very same sun. Baked. Batman, Mr. Freeze, the Joker, Texas Giant, and the TITAN. After I picked them up, she said her Garmin watch had her clocked at 7.6 miles of steps. What? I was still in slippers and a robe, like some Lebowski putting together another White Russian, ice cubes plopping in my glass.
She made a deal with my son. She would take him to Six Flags after football camp if he rode all of the roller coasters with her. That boy got quiet. Kept to himself the whole week thinking about the gravity of his pledge. But he did it. Ended up riding the Titan 3 times back-to-back with that FastPass, screaming “LE TITAN” in a faux French accent right before the big drop. My wife encouraged him to ride as many times as he wanted while she secretly went to the restroom to throw up...She told me later she was worried she was losing her ‘abilities.’ Her mojo. She’s jumped out of airplanes and been launched from Slingshots, after all. But now she was losing her stomach on rides she’s done before. I laughed. I poured water on my shirt and drenched it. I put on my Camelbak.
Half-a-mile left. She looked back, waiting for me, so we could go.
You haven’t lost a step, babe. Quite the opposite.