The sun bursts over distant vermilion and ochre cliffs casting shadows across the arid plain. I’m sitting on the crest of a hill, with my last hope in my hands, looking out over an empty wilderness. I have to remind myself how breathtakingly beautiful it is here. Rock formations of every possible description stud the plains to the extent that the visual senses become numbed. It’s like listening to Get Ready by New Order over and over without a break – after a while you don’t hear it anymore, …it becomes ambient noise, …too familiar. So you file it away for another couple of years.
The rising sun pokes its head through a delicate arch of coral sandstone creating a massive inflamed eye. I know that arch. Searching for the memory it dawns on me: it’s the portal from the Joan Collins episode of Star Trek and I realise that I’m drifting, losing concentration. Trying to stay conscious I go over the events of the past few days in my head.
We were on holiday as recently as Saturday, we being Jon and I. Driving through Utah in a rented SUV, marvelling at the colossal rock formations that skirted the highway for mile upon mile, counting the arches and monoliths, trying to figure out which one is The Mexican Hat, and all of this whilst safely cocooned in an air conditioned bubble.
Jon was doing his usual I know an interesting fact thing. I played along with frequent interjections of ‘Really?’ and ‘That’s amazing!’ said in the peppy tone that Jon seems to appreciate. It was just another day on holiday really.
I had read in the Dorling Kindersley that there are great examples of petroglyphs all over this part of Utah and just happened to mention this in the bar where we stopped for lunch. It was in Moab I think – there are some strange people in that town. Anyway, as we were driving on the highway past another giant rock, this one looking like the termite hill from hell, Jon says: ‘Hey Laura, did you see that sign? It said “Petroglyphs next right”. I’m going to make a detour.’
About a mile further on Jon turned onto a dirt road. There was no sign to say it was the right road so I said: ‘Jon, this doesn’t look like a proper road. Are you sure this is right?’
‘Hello!’ he said, figuratively tapping me on the forehead. ‘We’re in deepest, darkest Utah. This is probably the best you get off the main highway.’
‘Well if you’re sure it’s OK.’ …I wasn’t sure at all and the further we went down this track the more sure I became that I was right.
After a while the dirt became stones, then mainly bare rock and through a series of tight switchbacks we descended into a canyon which looked like the painted layers of ancient oceans. And then it happened. A pothole tipped us savagely. Jon, trying to counter our momentum, fought with the wheel, there was a mighty crack and the car slid a hundred feet down into the canyon’s belly.
After an age of silence Jon said: ‘You OK?’
‘Yes, I think so.’
‘I’d better get out and see how bad the damage is.’
As Jon climbed out I looked around and started to collect a few things for my handbag: water bottle, phone, sun screen and the trail mix. Looking out of the window I saw Jon getting very agitated. He was shouting something I couldn’t quite hear then I realised it was ‘GET OUT!’ So I did…
‘There’s petrol pouring out of the car – it could blow up!’ He was running around in a kind of zig-zag with his hands on his head. ‘We need to get stuff out of the car. …No not you! Go over there. …Behind that boulder.’ So I did…
Jon pulled open the back door of the car and instead of just dragging everything out, he leaned over to get his backpack. He had just managed to find it when the flames started.’ I screamed ‘Get out!’ He made it just in time – with his backpack – but everything else went up with the car.
We watched the inferno in silence.
‘What do we do now?’ It was a question borne out of the hope that Jon had a plan.
‘We’ve come down this track too far to turn back. I say we keep going until we get to the place with the petroglyphs. There’s bound to be some kind of tourist thing going on there.’
‘I’m not sure about that Jon. We might be on the wrong road.’
‘Oh that’s typical. Already it’s my fault.’
‘I didn’t say that. I…’
‘Just… let’s crack on before we start to fry here. It must be at least 40 degrees.’
‘I’ve got some sunscreen. We should put it on first.’
‘What! I don’t believe you. We’re not on a picnic here. We need to find help – Fast! I’m going to follow the road. It can’t be far.’
So I put sunscreen on my arms and legs, made sure I covered the back of my neck with my hat, rearranged the straps of my handbag converting it into a backpack and set off after Jon.
We must have walked four or five miles before Jon spoke again. ‘That sign on the road must have been wrong. I don’t think we’re going to find those petroglyphs along here. …And that means we may not be near any people.’
OK – I’d worked all that out back at the car. The next bit I didn’t know.
‘I’ve been checking where we were on my phone – I can get a GPS reference but no map. I haven’t been able to get a signal anywhere along here so it’s pointless anyway.’ Then mumbling to himself: ‘Not even an emergency signal.’
‘If we could get a signal somehow could we call for help?’ I knew the answer but I wanted to help Jon get to it. Instead he just cracked…
‘Laura, it’s a bit complicated and I don’t want to waste precious energy explaining it to you out here in the middle of nowhere. This so-called smart phone is useless if it can’t be a phone. And to cap it all the battery’s dead. So I might as well consign it to the gadget shop in the sky.’ At which point he threw what had been his most prized possession a full 50 feet. The crack as it hit a boulder made me wince.
Then the yelling began. ‘If you hadn’t decided we should see some boring cave paintings I’d be in a hotel bar now with a cold glass of IPA. What were you thinking? You know we always have a plan. I have no idea what to do. Don’t you understand? You’ve really screwed us up this time.’
I didn’t know how to react to this, or whether I even should. I put up with Jon’s patronising attitude out of habit – it was easier than confrontation. But there was more to this. All that was wrong about him was boiling over like sulphurous lava. Sweat poured from his face. He fell to his knees and began to wretch his guts on to the parched earth.
‘Jon you’re not well. You need to get in the shade.’ I looked around for somewhere we could shelter. The shadows were already lengthening and I spotted a recess in the canyon wall over to our left. ‘Look, over there …some shade. Please, let’s rest for a bit.’ I needed to plead with Jon to get him to see the sense of it.
When we were out of the sun at last, Jon’s breathless panting began to subside. I took the water out of my backpack and offered it. ‘Where did this come from?’ his tone accusing me of hoarding.
‘It was in the car…’
‘And just when were you going to bring it out to share? I’m so thirsty I can hardly speak.’
If only… ‘I think you should just sip some – a little at a time.’ I passed the bottle over. He took a big swig and gave the bottle back, giving me a “don’t tell me what to do” look. I decided not to tell him about the trail mix. …Or my phone.
Then suddenly he groaned: ‘Oh no! …No not now.’
‘What’s the matter?’
‘I have to go. I mean GO! This isn’t good. Have you got any tissues?’
I rummaged in my backpack and gave him a pack of wet-wipes.
‘What else have you got in there?’
‘Oh nothing really. Just make-up and stuff.’ Jon was already clambering out and behind some rocks just far enough away to spare me the spectacle.
He barely made it back. The panting had returned, and all colour, including the rubicund glaze he’d acquired walking the trail, had fled along with the last moisture in his body. Crawling back into the shade he asked me again: ‘What else have you got in there?’
‘I told you. Just some make-up and stuff.’
‘Typical! As long as you can do running repairs everything else will be OK. Well a fat lot of good a chapstick is going to do you out here.’
‘What about your backpack? What have you got in there?’ I’d been dying to ask this.
‘It’s my camera of course. You don’t think I was going to lose that do you?’ It was so obvious to Jon that he momentarily regained some colour, albeit a combination of puce and green. The effort was too much – he passed out. It was at that point that I decided to take charge of the situation and, since the sun had dropped below the horizon, we were heading for an interesting night.
First, I made sure Jon was comfortable. His well-padded camera backpack made a good pillow. He was beginning to shiver and though the temperature was unlikely to drop below 20 it was going to feel cold in shorts and a tee-shirt. I made sure there was a relatively comfortable space alongside so that we could share body warmth. I did a stock-take: the trail mix, water bottle half full, a packet of mints (handy), half used tube of sunscreen, unopened aftersun, more wet-wipes and my phone. I stood away from our little alcove and turned the phone on. No signal of course but a full charge – good. In the rapidly failing light I did a quick check on our surroundings. On the opposite side of the canyon, which was about 50 yards wide there was a slope up to the rim that looked climbable.
Jon was looking feverish so I set to work with the tools at hand. Aftersun on his face and neck should cool his skin a little. I tilted his head forward and gave him a sip of water. Then made a compress out of two wet wipes and laid it on his forehead.
I woke in pitch black to hear rustling and scratching. Terrified, I held up my phone and pressed the camera button. The flash gave me a fleeting glimpse of a mouse who looked more scared than me. Then I remembered the Flashlight app that Jen told me to download “Shine it in the buggers’ eyes and they’ll run a mile” she had said about the low-lifes who hang around the taxi stands.
The flashlight lit up the ground near our feet and displayed an array of foraging insects. The bright eyed rodents gave me idea. I turned off the light to preserve the phone’s battery and waited patiently for dawn to arrive.
So here I am, sat on the hill above the canyon. I had to leave Jon in the alcove, still out and severely dehydrated. This spot is the highest point I could see nearby and if anyone is out there this is my best chance to get their attention. There’s still no signal on the phone so I‘ve been shining the flashlight at all points of the compass for the past half hour. I check the battery – it’s nearly drained. Then I think I see something in the distance. Like a reflection off something smooth. And is that a dust cloud? It must be five miles or more away, but the speed it’s moving, it must be something on wheels. I point the bright light of my phone at my rescuers to guide them on their way but at that moment the battery finally gives up.
I hear stones cascading down the hill behind me and turn to see Jon. He has a crazed look and seeing the phone in my hand he launches himself at me.
‘Give me the phone bitch!’
I side-step his lunge and he crumples on to the ground. This time he could be out for good and, frankly, I don’t really care.
I can still see the dust cloud in the distance so I use the phone as a mirror catching the sun’s rays and projecting them across the plain. The dust cloud stops. Then it starts to move again and this time directly at me.
The sheriff is very kind. He takes us to the nearest hospital which turns out to be back in Moab. The doctors tell me that I’m absolutely fine. Jon gets put on a drip but they think he’ll be OK in a day or two.
By Monday we’re celebrities. Not much happens around here so finding a couple of English tourists stranded in the wilderness is worthy of a TV crew from Salt Lake City. When they arrive Jon has recovered enough to be propped up in bed and they arrange me at his side for the interview.
Sherry-Lee from the network asks her first question. ‘So Jon. How exactly did you two survive a night in the wilderness?’
‘Oh it was nothing really’ he began ‘It was just a matter of keeping our cool. If this little lady hadn’t done everything I asked her to do I don’t know what would have happened.’
‘And what was it that you did Laura?’
‘Well actually, Sherry-Lee, if I had taken any notice of this self-obsessed, feeble, idiotic excuse for manhood, we’d both be dead now. Fortunately I have a mind of my own though, and right now I have a mind to go home and forget that I ever knew him.’
A nurse standing behind the TV crew loses it big time. ‘Show some respect for your man little lady! Don’t you know your rightful place?’
I remember what it was about the people in this town that was so strange – it could easily have been called Stepford. I walk out of the hospital room and straight to the sheriff’s office.
‘Hello Sheriff. No offence but what would be the quickest way to get to Salt Lake City? I want to fly home as quickly as I can.’
‘What about your husband? Is he OK to travel?’
‘Oh, he’s not coming with me, and as of today he’s not my husband. I have a feeling he’s better off staying here anyway.’