At best, the words were vestigial, parts of speech that had atrophied in the womb. When the “rescue party” searched for the hiker lost in the Jemez Mountains, it had been anything but lively. The faces in the van driving to the campsite were somber, nervous, hands wiping at noses and scratching the backs of necks. Gina had been tapping her foot against the floor with such force that another volunteer sitting in front of her turned around and asked in a whisper if she’d stop.
“Sorry,” she’d whispered back. It was five in the morning, the van speeding down the dusty highway toward Jemez Springs. The hiker had told his camping buddies that he wanted to find a lookout point off-trail. Twenty hours later, here they were.
Gina wondered if the response time would be as swift for her now that she herself was lost. She’d been hiking all her life with her step dad and little sister, and never once had gotten lost. Early that dark, dry morning in Albuquerque, she left her house and drove to the La Cueva campgrounds. She wanted to challenge herself and hike as the crow flies from there to Fenton Lake, where she’d camp for the night and head back. It was now early afternoon, and the most she knew about her whereabouts after hiking up the mesa was that she was vastly off course. Just letting herself admit that she might be lost was as confusing as the sun rising from a direction her compass said was south. She became disoriented. Every tree and rock started to look the same. The plant life in New Mexico had a ragged look to it, the trees clutching with roots deep in the ground, their limbs and posts uptight and tense. Gina’s sister always said that if the trees here could sweat, it wouldn’t be because of the heat, but because of the stress.
“Their life is one constant stress test,” Natalie had said on one of their hikes together, her high-volume ponytail bouncing at the crown of her head. “I bet if they were human they’d have ten panic attacks a day just thinking about water.”
Natalie liked to personify the nature around her. She called things Mr. Boulder or Mr. Hawk or Lady Squirrel. If Gina didn’t know her, she would never have pegged her as outdoorsy. Her little sister liked dressing up in six-inch heels and to redo her lipstick and contours twice before going to work in the billing department of the university’s hospital. She’d gone to Texas for her undergrad and lost her New Mexican accent, which convinced their step dad Barry that she’d never go hiking again—that she’d lost her passion for wilderness as well. She hiked more than he did, however, and could read the sky and weather and trees better than either of them. She just did it in smoky eye and pink leopard print, that’s all.
“Well, get an eyeful of that,” she’d said to Gina upon summiting a mesa west of the city a few weeks before. The afternoon sky stretched before them and it seemed at that moment like the earth was much smaller, like the air was pushing it, smashing it, swallowing it to make room for the sky. Natalie gestured northeast to Taos, where a dark spotted place highlighted the unblemished blue. “But we have Mr. Grumpy Clouds coming our way. Probably shouldn’t stay up here longer than an hour if we want to stay dry.”
That was the hike when Gina told her sister she’d signed up as a rescue volunteer for a northern New Mexico NGO affiliated with the Red Cross. “Well you should know all this stuff, then,” Natalie had said, shoving her sister in the shoulder. “You keep your head down too much, Gina. Look at that sky. It’ll tell you a lot more about where you’re at.”
Gina did in fact have to pay for a few classes before being called up on that first mission to find the hiker in the Jemez Mountains, but it was the important basic stuff—CPR, how to keep in contact, call signs and codes, lost person behaviors. The last training session was mostly maps, names, desert and mountain vectors charted on the projector. They even had a retired border patrol agent drive up to give them the basics on signcutting. It was mostly just shoes versus animal life, but Gina had been fascinated. It was much more interesting than memorizing codes for the walkie-talkie.
That last day of training classes Gina had sat next to the agent during the sack lunch. She found out he’d been part of the Yuma 14 rescue operation and retired two years later. When she’d read in the newspaper about the deaths of those men and boys in the Arizona desert in 2001 it hadn’t felt as close and frightening as it did when he reluctantly told the story from his end: proud coyotes taking people north across an unfamiliar border and leaving them to die. Bodies scattered across the Sonora as if the sun had tripped in its course and spilled them out from the sky. More than anything else in the training course, that conversation had been a lesson to her that not all search and rescue parties were successful.
“Things are different up here in the highlands,” he said with a mouthful of potato chips, “but the principle is the same. I like to help out at these sessions when I can.”
She’d nodded, too horrified to eat her turkey sandwich. From then on she made sure that Natalie and her step dad did all the right things before departing for a hike. More water than you think you need, tell people where you’re going, when you’re expected back. Make sure your phone is fully charged in case you get service out there. Don’t go alone.
Natalie had been so happy for her. “You have a real knack for hiking. This’ll be so good for you.” They perched on top of the mesa watching the northeastern clouds carefully creep their way toward Albuquerque. “Gives you something to work toward.”
Gina blanched. It shamed her to think this was true, that what gave her aimless life purpose was waiting for others to endanger themselves. She only had focus when men and women and children wandered from their campsites. And she didn’t rely on the sky as much as Natalie told her to. Most of the rescue parties she’d been in took place in the forests where she couldn’t even see past the leaves. She thought about this as she wandered in search of Fenton Lake, lost in the early afternoon. She hoped she wasn’t about to give someone else a purpose.
She’d done almost all the right things—everything but going alone. Gina found a rock under one of the trees and sat to rest her feet. She set her backpack down on the dirt and unzipped it for her water bottle. It was getting chilly earlier and earlier now that it was November, but she was every bit as thirsty as she was in the summer. When she was done drinking she pulled off her thin gloves and slapped them against her pants. Little puffs of dust emptied from the cloth like ghosts.
The area around her was familiar in that much of the plant life was the same as the trail she had meant to hike. How long until someone realized she was missing? Gina pushed the panic deep into her stomach. No, don’t think about that, stupid. She would find her way back to the main path soon enough. She just had to keep a level head and watch her step. Tripping over loose rocks was one of the reasons the people she’d searched for couldn’t get back to their camps. The border patrol agent said as much during his training session—adding an injury to disorientation was often fatal.
She remembered fanning out between trails during that first search in the Jemez Mountains. She and her partner were told to look for the most likely spots, for a picturesque lookout point, that maybe the hiker had fallen. It took them a few hours, with other pairs within personal hailing distance, to find the man’s body. He was lying there on his side as if he’d curled up for a nap. His left arm cradled a rock to his chest like a teddy bear. It lessened the blow when they rushed to his side and discovered he was dead.
He’d only been missing for a day—one single day. When she radioed in the code that they’d found him and the medics bounded to their location with the stretcher, she thought of this man planning his trip the week before. Carefully laying out what clothes to pack. Packing the chocolate chip bars instead of the peanut butter ones. Dropping the cat off at a friend’s house, remembering to switch off the air conditioning, thinking how the leftover soup in the fridge probably wouldn’t last.
Their hike back to the van was less urgent and hurried. She kept the TV off for days in case the news did a report on the man. The thought that maybe he had a little sister like she did, that maybe he called her to promise pictures of his trip, frightened her with its likelihood.
The sun set in the west. She knew that much. She hated all these trees, knew she’d be so much better off emotionally if she were in the desert itself. She was beginning to feel claustrophobic with them crowding around her. Gina knew the plants and landscape of the desert better, had basically learned to walk on the deserts around Albuquerque. While Natalie had spent her time looking up at the stars, Gina focused on the ground beneath her feet in search of a place for herself. It was nearly impossible to avoid the sky out there, but she did it, kept her nose in the dirt, busy looking down at the plants and the rocks. Only Nat could get her to raise her head.
Her step dad Barry used to call her a bloodhound because of the way she explored the terrain as a kid—a hand on every rock, her face in the bushes. “How’s my Nose?” he’d ask.
When she was thirteen being called the Nose was a huge deal. “God, don’t call me that,” she said when he’d hollered for her out the window of their Honda Civic in front of school. She knew he meant it affectionately, but it gave the other kids an excuse to tease her. Gina the Nose didn’t lose her nickname until she grew breasts.
“Everyone makes fun of me because of you,” she’d said to Barry a few weeks later. “You’ve ruined my life.”
Barry’s face twitched, clearly trying not to laugh. It infuriated her. “You can’t pick me up from school anymore, and I’m not going to the movies with you today either.”
“What?” He spread his hands. “Gina, we always go to the movies on Sundays.”
“Not this week. Not ever again.”
“You can’t break tradition just because I made a mistake.” He gave a half-smile, hopeful in his tan square jaw. His dark hair was already starting to pepper from the stress of bringing up two little girls as a single dad. Their mother had died when Gina was nine.
“Mom would never have called me that in front of my friends. I can’t believe you.”
Barry’s face sagged at this comment and Gina’s outrage tempered. For the last few weeks they’d been going to the movies to see Toy Story 2—this Sunday would be the fifth week in a row they sat in the back and mouthed the lines to each other, giggling and scarfing down popcorn. They had seen countless blockbusters and flops together over the last two years. This time had been precious to her and she didn’t realize it until the moment Barry nodded and said, “Okay, if that’s how you feel. We can watch your sister at practice instead of the movies today.”
He didn’t call her the Nose again. Sometimes Natalie did but it was rare and usually after eggnog at Christmas.
Gina took a sip of her water and looked around the forest, feeling like she’d woken up in a fairy tale, deposited by magic in an unfamiliar landscape. The sun, from what she could tell through the leafy greens above her, was nearing noon. How could I have been this stupid? she asked herself, pulling her phone from her pocket and turning it off airplane mode. It was something Natalie had taught her—keeping her phone in airplane mode made the battery last longer, especially out here in the wilderness where it searched for service like a puppy for its mother. When the phone reoriented itself, there were no new icons indicating a phone call or voicemail. Not good. Maybe it couldn’t reach service to even check. When she first realized she was lost and that her compass was broken, Gina had called Natalie, but her sister was working and didn’t pick up. By habit, Gina hung up when her sister’s light voice told her to leave a message. Now when she called she didn’t even connect, didn’t get a chance to leave a voicemail. She should have remembered that. I’m such an idiot.
Natalie was probably on her lunch break now, or nearing it, she reckoned. She’d keep her phone off airplane mode and on the loudest setting just in case Natalie got through. She stood and took a deep breath, looking around: trees, vegetation, clutter. If she went northwest she’d hit the scenic byway and could follow the road from there. She hoped she hadn’t overshot the lake. It was a good plan if she hadn’t overshot the lake. Lake Fenton was only a few walking hours from La Cueva after all. Gina wanted to take out her broken compass and smash it with the heel of her shoes. She tried to find a clearing where she could orient herself to the march of the sun.
At first she had been pretty excited to suddenly have time for exploring when she lost her job. Her first thought when she realized the photography studio where she worked the front desk had phased her out of the schedule was not disappointment, but relief. It was surprisingly stressful, mostly due to customers who panicked when they got the bill for their glamor shots. Her boss coached her on how to handle those phone calls.
“It’s not hanging up on them if you say ‘Goodbye,’ ” Nancy told her. Nancy was part owner and ran the administrative side of things at Dazzle’s. “Even if they say one little cuss word or get a little loud, that’s all you have to say: ‘Please call back when you are calmer. Goodbye.’ ”
That’s how Nancy dealt with her employees, too. Instead of outright getting rid of people she simply reduced their hours week by week until nothing was left. Gina saw her hours diminish like a sunset and had been glad the day was over.
Yet even before this she felt untethered. She felt weak, inconsequential. Right out of high school she’d landed a good job at a dental office and decided to forgo a four-year degree and its attendant debt. But then the office reduced its staff and she was forced to work in retail until something better came along. By that time Natalie was off in Texas working hard at growing into an adult. Gina started to feel younger than her little sister, dumber and ignorant when she came home for holidays. Natalie seemed full of purpose.
After Natalie’s first semester in college she came home for Christmas and the two of them hiked the easy paths around the Sandias.
“Everything’s so different,” she’d said.
Gina laughed at her. “What are you talking about? You’ve only been gone for four months.”
“It just feels changed, you know?”
“It’s colder than when you left.” They rounded a corner and started their ascent up the trail.
Natalie pursed her lips and followed after her sister. “Yeah sure, maybe that’s it.”
“Or maybe you’re the different one.”
Her sister had scoffed at this, but Gina could spot the difference as soon as little Nat had popped enthusiastically off the Greyhound with her leopard-print bag. It was in her eyes, the way she seemed to notice things for the first time—that fire hydrant, the Brazilian restaurant on the corner, the hubcaps on the cars that whipped by, true colors. As if her eyes had two outlines, one of eyeliner and one of vision.
“I want to take something back to Texas with me,” Natalie said when they reached the high point. The sisters stopped and dropped their packs.
“Like what?” Gina asked. Together they walked over to the vantage and saw a smoky little Albuquerque blinking away in the late afternoon. Points of light at street corners became more visible even as the sun still shone bright on the far side of town.
“I don’t know,” Natalie said, “I only—”
Gina saw her sister totter in the air for a moment, saw her take a step too far. Her sneakers slipped with a soft crunch and a moment later Nat tumbled feet-first down the slope.
Gina screamed even though the angle was soft and she ran, slipping and sliding, after her. Natalie groaned to a halt next to a larger rock and tree.
“Ugh god,” she said, rolling over.
Gina’s hurried flight caused more rocks and dust to fall over her sister, who cringed. “Are you okay? Nat, can you hear me?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “But my hand kind of—ouch!” A pinky finger was broken. She brought it up to her eyes and laughed shortly. “Not bad for my first visit back home.”
Gina helped her to a sitting position. She was dusty from head to foot, leaves in her hair and sticks clutching her sweatshirt. She wished there had been snow to break her fall.
“So gross.” Natalie was trying to move her finger, which bent pathetically in the opposite direction.
“Did you hit your head?” Gina moved her shoulders around for signs of blood.
Natalie shrugged her off. “No, I’m fine, really. Just my finger. Help me up.”
Together they trudged back up the slope, Gina leading her by the elbow. Natalie started limping. “My foot hurts. I think I broke a toe on that rock.” She groaned and spat out the dirt in her mouth.
Gina scraped sand over the spit with her shoe. “Dad’s going to freak out.”
“No he won’t. Don’t be so dramatic.”
As they made their slow way down the Sandias Gina hooked her sister in her arm. Natalie limped along. They paused halfway down to rest and Natalie blinked out at the late afternoon view. “Would you look at that sky? Gorgeous.”
Gina couldn’t see the sky in the forest where she walked northwest—or what she thought was northwest, lost in the trees. Feeling the sun move farther in its course made her move at a trot, panic blossoming on the ground where her feet hit. The fear of staying lost was one thing, but Gina didn’t think she could take much more of being so empty and treadless if she ever got back home. The idea that she’d live to be eighty was daunting. She wondered what her life would be like if she’d been the one who got on the Greyhound and headed back to school.
Now Gina knew she certainly had overshot the lake—she must have. She would have arrived there hours ago or run into the road otherwise. But how was that possible? Wouldn’t she have crossed the river at some point? Was she just wandering around in circles like an idiot? Maybe she had been going southwest instead of northwest. She pulled her compass out of her back pocket and threw it with a grunt into the trees. It made a tinny clink when it landed in the gravel and leaves.
“I just can’t see anything,” she whispered. It occurred to her that it wasn’t the desert that was dangerous; it was the trees. Trees blocked everything and gave hikers the illusion they weren’t alone. It was claustrophobic being in those trees, as if her eyes had sprouted cataracts. At least with the desert you knew where you stood.
“God damnit!” She kicked the base of a pine tree, grabbed a branch and shook it with all her might. “Damnit!”
She should have just gone out to the mesas as usual, trekked the paths rock climbers used. These trees were a death trap. Gina felt for her cell phone again. The battery was warm from its constant search for service. If Natalie could just get a call through, Gina’s nerves wouldn’t be so taut. Just thirty seconds—that’s all she needed. Natalie would know something was wrong.
Their sisterly connection was one Gina used to downplay in their teens. Being a year apart was for some reason embarrassing to her, and the notion of even having a “sisterly connection” ridiculous. But Gina was admittedly uptight. Even now with all her search and rescue training, Gina was the delicate one, ever the dainty sister.
“You have no sense of humor,” said Natalie the summer before she left for college.
Gina had shrugged. “Okay.”
Her sister gaped at her, the Dr. Pepper can halfway to her mouth. “Don’t you need one?”
They had just returned from a morning walk around the Petroglyph National Monument, where Barry was more impressed with how high up the tourist graffiti had managed to get than the actual petroglyphs themselves. Her step dad was helping her make sandwiches while Natalie took a sip and stretched out her cramped feet. That was the last summer the three of them really spent together-together. Things always felt choppy and rushed during the college breaks Natalie came home, not normal, almost false because they knew she’d turn right around in a few weeks and head back to Texas. It was also the summer Gina walked into the living room and found Natalie making out with her boyfriend on the couch.
She stopped and mumbled, “Oops—sorry,” as he pulled his hand quickly out from under her sister’s skirt.
Natalie blushed beet red and Gina hurried into the kitchen. A few weeks later Natalie broke up with him. “But I did it over ice cream,” she said, as if that would soften the blow. She clicked her acrylic nails on the table. “I even paid for his.”
Gina still slept on that couch. It was one of the few things left over after Barry moved a few years before. She didn’t have to pay rent, which was great considering she didn’t have a job anymore, but she had to keep the Spartan home clean for when interested buyers wanted a tour from the realtor. She hadn’t even bothered to buy a mattress. At one point that summer she simply pitched a tent in the backyard and peed in the rock garden if the need struck her in the middle of the night.
God, Nat, please try to call. It had felt like a genuine reunion when Natalie announced she got the job at the university hospital. It would be back to regular lunches and real conversations. She loved Barry, but having a sister was something different than having a dad.
They’d had one lovely year together when Natalie returned as part of the actual Albuquerque workforce, “the trifecta reunited” as Barry said, before a firm in Trinidad gave him a job offer he felt guilty refusing.
“College ain’t cheap,” he said to Gina when Natalie was in the other room. “I took out the loans in my name so your sister wouldn’t start out life in debt, but I’m just swimming in it.”
Three months later he put their childhood home on the market and they helped him move into the dinky one-bedroom apartment across the border in Colorado. “It’s the sex-change capital of the world,” Barry said. “How bad could Colorado really be?” When Gina had walked across the threshold of his new apartment she sniffed—no, it wasn’t a smell. She paused and set down the box of movies and other odds and ends on the floor. It was a feeling, a watery feeling.
“Anything would feel damp if you’ve lived in Albuquerque as long as you have,” Barry said to her, holding one end of a mattress and backing in. Natalie followed with the other end.
They had dinner at a Chili’s that night, where over chicken parmesan the trifecta made a pact to have phone dates every Sunday. Maybe that’s when the alarm would go out, Gina reasoned. Sunday morning when she didn’t call Barry he’d worry and ask Natalie about it. Then maybe a search party would set out for her. Now that the sun was advanced on its downward course she was quickly losing hope that she could find her way out on her own.
She stopped and leaned her hand against a tree. It felt brittle and chilly beneath her gloves. I can do this. Okay, the sun is going toward the west. Find a place where you can see the damn thing and orient yourself. She did so. It took a few minutes of searching but she found a tiny clearing, sucked in a breath, and looked up in the desperate way she used to look down.
There it was: the sun, peering at her between pine branches at her ten-o-clock. Put it on your right, and walk south until you get out of the trees and hit the desert. You’ll be fine if you hit the desert. It was a frantic choice, one that struck her a few minutes later as ludicrous. She could be fifteen miles or more from where the trees even started to thin. “Then what am I supposed to do?” she asked the noiseless whisperings of the trees around her. Gina shivered. Out on the rangelands it often felt just as quiet, Gina just as abandoned as the land by the rest of the world—too dry, too bare for eyes that associated the open range for sight with emptiness and death.
She decided to go straight north. She’d either hit the road or a river, which she’d follow in whatever direction she felt like. She just had to find something first. Anything. A sound, a sign, a footprint. These trees were as vacant of animals as the Jemez Mountains had been when the search and rescue party went after the lost hiker, as if the animals absconded at the first sign of death. After shaking hands with her partner, Gina had watched the medical team carry the dead man through the trees on the stretcher. His arm fell loose over the edge, dangling against their steps. Low-hanging tree branches whacked against his palm like he were high-fiving from the grave. Or maybe he was trying in a ghastly way to reach back into the forest to take back what life he’d left there. Is that what Natalie had wanted when she said she’d like to take something from the desert? Had she felt like she’d left something behind?
Gina’s chest began to hurt. I’m so tired. I need to rest.
People want to find the easiest ways across land when they’re injured. That’s how they’d find her, if she went downhill. “I’m going downhill,” she said. “I’ve always got to go downhill.”
Eventually she realized that it wasn’t her imagination—she really was going downhill. Her flashlight bobbed as she stumbled over her own feet, hurrying along. She could feel the trees thinning about her. She knew how thick night could be out in the desert, but among the trees it was almost unbearable. Gina rushed toward that feeling of expanse: north, north, faster.
And then she saw it—blinking lights. A car in the distance.
“Oh my god.” She sucked in a breath and stopped short when she saw the little pinpoints move from east to west. “I found the road.”
A few more minutes of stumbling through the darkness brought her near the edge of the mesa. She gave a cry as she swept out toward the open air. One last tree pressed against her as she passed, branches catching on her pack and pulling her backwards. She ripped out of its grasp with a shout. Her heart pounded and her eyes welled with happy tears. Gina felt like Snow White happening onto the dwarves’ house after her flight through the forest.
The road was maybe two hundred feet below her. I’ll hike down in the morning. She smiled a grin like the one carved from Death’s skull. I’ll just pitch my tent here and hike down in the morning. Oh my god.
Gina dropped to her rear, feeling weak with relief. She slipped off the pack and stretched out, laughing weakly. She heard a car drive by and laughed again. As she lied there on her back, looking up at the unobstructed stars, she thought about how she’d been busy as an ant crawling up and around these trees. It was much better to be here, she thought, stationary. Look at that sky. She took off her gloves and patted the dirt beneath her fingers, fanning it like the trailing dust of an alluvial fan. Jesus, look at that sky.
About the Author: Melanie J. Cordova has stories out or forthcoming with The Columbia College Literary Review, Ghost Town, Blacktop Passages, Red Savina Review, Whitefish Review, The Oklahoma Review,Yemassee, and various others. She is the Editor of The Santa Fe Writer’s Project’s journal The Quarterly. You can follow her on Twitter via @mjcwrites.
Artwork: Emma Rae