Gusty winds whip at my hair while passing trucks rattle and shake the concrete walkway. Grey enameled railing tells and incomplete story, marred by graffiti, glib aphorisms, and poignant memorials; it becomes increasingly obvious the bridge has had a history with suicide. Firmly, I grab the waist-high railing and peer over the edge, it looks to be over 500 feet. I immediately remember a time when I dove off a mere 15-foot cliff into moving water. Time took forever. I notice my friends taking their own moments of reflection and angst. Thankfully, the herds of geriatric tourists clutter at the edge of the bridge's span, their fears granting us an unadulterated experience of the abyss.
Large cumulonimbus clouds heavy with rain have been forming all day. Looming, they begin to overtake the sun; the red gorge walls cease casting harsh shadows, giving us an entirely new view. I spot a distant shopping cart camouflaged among the rocks and remember the nearest grocery store must be over ten miles away. Nearly a two hour drive from camp and with rain imminent, we decide to leave early and enjoy the scenic route home. Before heading for the car, I stop and take in the grandeur a final time, planting myself at the vertical intersection of river and bridge. A modern-day solution for a stream crossing. The wind begins to gust and the temperature drops another five degrees; time to go.
Our winding descent back to basecamp flies by, the late afternoon sun lights up the valley. The journey ends and we pull up to the dirt parking lot and try to find an open space in a sea of dusty second-hands. We meet up with some more friends who are in the process of making dinner plans. A few more people begin trickle in while a few others toss a Frisbee back and forth. Sean, the Camp Director of Whiteman Vega, mumbles something about “later”, as he tinkers inside his currently non-operational leviathan truck. Car trouble is always a hassle, but when the nearest parts shop is an 80 mile round-trip away, fixing things becomes a headache. The sun has begun to set and I know he won't be too far behind us.
Jumping in the cars once again, we venture into Cimarron for another meal out; a new barbecue joint has recently opened up in town. We cruise, windows down, along the four-mile straight stretch of road, it is the main access in and out of the Ranch. Wind loudly whips through my hair and ears while setting sun-rays bathe the car and mountains in warmth. Nicole, the Camp Director at Fish Camp, has graciously volunteered to be our sober driver for the evening, a favor and chore any good staffer will reciprocate. Surprisingly, in our numerous years of shared tenure, this is the first time we have hung out socially. I suddenly realize the car is full of people who fit the same description. Most of us have to be at back at our respective camps the following afternoon. However tonight, we celebrate; our camps haven't burned down...yet.
We pull up along the familiar stretch of town in search of this new barbecue joint aptly referred to as “Smokehouse”. Quickly spotting it, I can't help but notice this is the third restaurant in five years to occupy the same space. Still, my hopes remain high. We park, place our orders, and wander out to the patio to wait and relax. The food and mosquitoes begin to arrive. Paperwork is bemoaned. Sauces are ranked. Days-off recounted. We finish and all give each other a knowing and silent nod; it is time for the bar. All satisfied to have found another eatery, we exit. Looking up, I notice the store adjacent to where we parked, Buffalo Nickel, bares a sign with their painted name and date, 1909. The mortar and stone have definitely seen more than three restaurant changes.
Plopping down atop the small table kept on the porch, I scan my hot and dusty territory. Camp operations functioned smoothly during my leave of absence, however, a few staff members haven't been getting along entirely well. Their recent flare-up has given me a unique challenge to sort out and I take some time to process. A small scout with legs black from sweat and dirt quietly rummages through the swap box, a receptacle for trading unopened and unused food. Camp is unusually calm for such a warm afternoon, perhaps crews destined for us have decided to take an extended lunch break. Noticing a small scurrying dot on the long concrete slab, I swat away buzzing flies and get down to examine close-up; eight eyes stare back at me. Although not yet large enough to tackle our overwhelming fly problem, I sweep my new friend to safety. Fortunately, my code only allows me to kill things which have wings and legs with a value greater than two.
I awake to the clamoring sounds of departing crews on our porch. Their combined excitement, boots, and brotherhood before 7 a.m. are far too raucous without sufficient waking up. Postponing my coffee ritual, I quickly throw on my whiffy 4-day-old shirt and tattered Arborwears and take off for the quiet ATV course. Unexpectedly, the entire landscape is overcast, gray with moisture. Heavy, cool air clings to my jacket while dew sparkles and glints; nature's chandelier. Every leaf, flower, and blade of grass is covered in damp stillness. The silence I so desperately crave has finally greeted me. Good morning.
Finishing my walk, I pause at the fence line to catch my breath before descending into camp. I glance at my watch; everyone should be awake and functioning, but past experiences tell me I need to double-check. The newness of camp has definitely started to wear off, June gloom is upon me. I make my way back towards the cabin and try to work out a few more ideas to help my staff get along better. Coach, chef, cheerleader, counselor; these are some of the many job requirements I find myself needing on a daily basis. Entering the kitchen, I notice a few staff members absent. Grabbing an apron, I offer eggs to those who are hungry. It's time for a change.
Crews come and go as does cloudy mornings and rainy afternoons. It seems like I blinked and July has arrived, the last six days have been long and similar. Last week's moth-in-ear-canal and today's first ATV crew are major events my mind strings together in some sort of surreal movie storyboard. Our two ATV Specialists, John and Jimmy, grab as many chest protectors as they can and prepare to head up to the course in order to instruct our first group who just arrived. I know they are as nervous as I am, but I reassure them today is going to be a fun test to prove what they already know. They disappear past the bridge and I return to a half-dozen new crews and unfilled forms which need my attention. I wish I could debrief them about how the course went, but my meeting on the 4th has forced me to leave camp a day earlier than I had planned. Eight miles of steady uphill lie ahead of me, monsoon season has just arrived and getting caught in a storm is not ideal. Camp remained intact during my last set of days and I know the same will be true for this set. My staff have started to become more confident and I don't think it's my imagination.
Once again, I am awoken by overly zealous scouters. I lie swaddled in my sleeping bag, fearing to move my limbs. In my haste to leave camp yesterday, I neglected to bring any water or snacks. Today, I should be a veritable Tin Man. Fish Camp's double hung windows emit a dim blueish glow and I sit up to have a look outside. It's completely socked in! Slowly, I get up and dress myself and wander into the kitchen and attempt to find something to eat. Nicole confirms our departure time, the goal is to head into basecamp via Phillips Junction to meet up with a few other CD's. I decide to take a walk around camp to try and warm up my aching bones; the weather is far too inviting and mysterious to hitch a ride back to base. I walk along the Rayado, in between aspen and yarrow, my knees and back begin to loosen. The stillness is invigorating.