October 5, 2013
Author: Chilton Williamson

Excerpt from The Hundredth Meridian

War-talk was running high when they threw the loaded packs in back of the Gold Pony and left Flagstaff, headed north across the Navajo Reservation. Television and the newspapers had nothing to say about anything except the towering evil of Hubbub Ihnssain, while National Public Radio had suspended “All Things Considered” to concentrate on One Big Thing: Even the scandal of the Christian broadcasting stations had been temporarily set aside. And the President of the United States was appearing almost hourly in the Rose Garden with the rock band Guns ‘n’ Roses by his side to proclaim that Hubbub was the Anti-Christ come to earth as the Good Book predicted. To the Three Amigos, it seemed the right time to get out of Dodge and down in the Big Ditch.

On the way across the reservation, Tob drove carefully to avoid running over sleeping Navajos taking time-out from celebrating the coming war. Their hogans, patriotically draped in red-white-and-blue, looked festive, as if the defeat of Kit Carson and his men had recently been announced. At the Monument Point trailhead above the North Rim, Mr. Peanut’s green Chevrolet pickup truck with the Park Service decals on the doors stood parked. Mr. Peanut was a girl ranger from the Bronx called Doreen who had the perfect peanut shape, though lacking the top hat, cane, and monocle. “She’d look good with the top hat in addition to her pack,” Cor said. “If she could carry a pack, I mean.”

From Monument Point they had a view into the tangled green depths of Tapeats Creek, overlooked by Steamboat Mountain, on its way to the muddy Colorado; across the main gorge, the Owl Eyes stared blankly from the shadowed wall below the South Rim at Great Thumb Point. The sun was dropping toward the southwestern landline and the air at 7300 feet of elevation felt chill. The Three Amigos hoisted their packs and grinned at one another.

“Cocktails will be served on the Esplanade in two hours and a half,” Tob suggested.

It was steep climbing off the Kaibab, down through the Toroweap to the top of the Cocononino Formation, where they traversed below the rim another mile before switchbacking to the Esplanade, its rocky bays glowing in tender shades of orange and rose beneath an ultraviolet sky where early stars quivered. They hiked in silence for the most part, Cor keeping close behind Tob, Chib lagging a hundred yards in the rear. The Three Amigos had traversed the Esplanade halfway among the crooked piñon and juniper trees and were already in sight of the dolomite turrets overlooking the campsite when a brilliant light flashed in the ecliptic of the vanished sun directly ahead, a high-atmospheric explosion whose detonation was absorbed by layers of darkening sky. It was a beautiful explosion like that of an artistic Chinese firework, fiery debris hurtling in arcs of smoke away from the central fireball and drifting earthward, lazily. Cor was too young to remember the Challenger, but Tob and Chib exchanged knowing looks.

“It’s started already,” Tob said. “Chalk one up for Hubbub, I guess. That one must have come from Nellis Air Force Base near Vegas. The government doesn’t know how to operate its own toys, anymore.”

Twenty minutes later they had reached camp and were setting up kitchen on a ledge beneath an overhang of rock when a shadowy figure appeared in the trail: Mr. Peanut, her ranger’s badge glinting in the light of the full moon, with her ticketbook in one hand and a flashlight in the other.

“Oh, it’s you,” she said when she saw Tob. “What’s that you have hanging out on the rock there?”

“That’s the Bonnie Blue Flag,” Tob told her. “I carried it with me all through the Civil War, fighting for the Confederate States of America. And since.”

Mr. Peanut shone her flashlight on the flag. “You mean, it’s something Southern?” she asked. “Well, I’m afraid you’ll have to take it down right away, sir. It might offend somebody. I’m offended.”

“The last time you had me take something down, it was my shorts hanging out to dry.”

“Don’t be sexist, sir. You’re on Federal property, remember. And may I see your permit, by the way?”

The moon, a pale wafer above the western horizon, remained up for a good hour after sunrise next morning, as if to keep the restored flag with its single white star company. The Three Amigos ate a good breakfast before making camp secure against Raoul and Ramona, the marauding ravens, and also Mr. Peanut, should she visit them again. They stowed the food supplies in the tents

away from the deer mice and Tob, after consideration, hid the booze with them. (Mr. Peanut, a teetotaler, had a prepared cautionary lecture, approved by the Park Service, on the dangers of drinking while hiking.) Then they packed the empty water bottles into the day packs and hiked off the Esplanade to Surprise Valley and from Surprise Valley down to Deer Creek, where a party hiked in from a passing river trip was eating lunch. All the passengers carried American flags sticking from their fanny packs, and had their ears glued to the transistor radios they brought along.

“What’s the score?” Tob asked. He had in mind the Broncos-Packers game.

“We just nuked Baghdad! And a bunch of towelheads set off a string of cherry bombs outside the Israeli embassy in Los Angeles!” one the river clients told him.

“WAY-TO-GO, U-S-A!” another shouted, and they all joined in: “WAY-TO-GO, U-S-A!”

“War ain’t a football game, folks,” Tob told them, at which they all quit cheering and looked at him through narrowed eyes.

“You’d look good as a towelhead yourself, buddy,” a fat middle-aged man said, “what with that beard and all.”

“You mess with my Pa, I’ll wipe you up with a towel–you big mound of cold pig lard,” Cor promised him.

Following the creek, they hiked on down to the river and Deer Creek Falls, plunging 120 feet to a clear cold pool edged by water-polished pebbles and monkeyflower, whose windblown spray stung like sleet. Tob and Chib pulled off their boots and shirts, plunged into the pool, and swam up under the falls, while Cor sat on the beach cooling her feet in the water. When they emerged, hugging one another and guffawing, Mr. Peanut was waiting for the Amigos with her ticketbook out. Since she was known to be a weak hiker whose practice was to lurk, like a troll under a bridge, in easily accessible spots along the trail, the ranger’s appearance out of nowhere surprised them.

“Sir,” Mr. Peanut began, ignoring Chib and addressing Tob directly, her faint mustache quivering, “it is absolutely against regulations to bathe in a pristine waterway, as specified in Article 73, Section 29(iii) of the Rulebook. This pool is utilized by four native species of fish, twelve different species of invertebrates, and thirty-eight species of insect life, all of which have been shown by federally sponsored studies to be adversely affected by human perspiration and other bodily excretions. The Federal government is committed to preserving pristine natural environments wherever they exist, within the United States, the Middle East, and everywhere. All fines are payable to the National Park Service, which dedicates the money to its NPS First! emergency fund. NPS accepts payment in dollars only, not rubles or Euros..”

She wrote Tob a ticket for $450, which he tucked into the front of his dripping hiking shorts. His practice room at home was papered with similar citations, which he had so far avoided having to pay by claiming one-sixteenth Hualapai ancestry on his mother’s side.

The Three Amigos returned along Deer Creek where the patriotic boaters were attempting to retrieve one of their party who had fallen into the 150-foot-deep crevasse, up through Surprise Valley, and back to the Esplanade, 4000 vertical feet above the river, in 90-degree heat reflecting from the cliff wall. They arrived at camp late in the afternoon, brought out the supplies from the tents, and sat in their stiff salt-rimed clothes, shaded up beneath the overhang, to drink beer before Tob started supper.

“This is how life should be,” Chib told the other Amigos. “Your play is your work, your work is your play, and both work and play are forms of prayer. For the person who really knows how to live, all of life is prayer.”

“I wish I had my guitar,” Tob said. “That would have made it absolutely perfect.”

“Mr. Peanut would have written you another ticket,” Chib told him, “for breaking the pristine silence the Park Service created.”

The sky was still golden in the west when the first space objects appeared, hurtling high overhead like white-hot stones hurled by giant catapults, traveling west to east. “Looks like Taking It.com for Hubbub,” Tob observed, chasing his beer with a swig of whiskey.

“Or maybe it’s North Korea doing Washington from behind,” Chib suggested.

“Do you suppose they’ve got all that stuff up there going round and round and they can’t bring it down when they want it?” Cor asked.

The lightshow between moonrise and sunup was spectacular, a half-century’s worth of space R&D circling the planet at incredible speeds and coming, finally, from all directions to score the dome of the heavens with long rips and tears of fire. As with the explosion the previous evening no sound was audible, but at daylight a pall of dust mixed with smoke shrouded the world at high altitude. “Cheney’s oil fields could be on fire by now,” Tob said at breakfast. “Come on, man–eat up! I’d like to make it over to Thunder before Nuclear Winter sets in.”

The Three Amigos, carrying their empty bottles and a light lunch, took an hour and a half to hike down the switchbacks and across Surprise Valley to Thunder Spring, a water-wall dropping ninety feet to a series of pools set in a green oasis of oak and box elder in the Muav Formation beneath the Redwall to form the headwaters of Thunder River. They climbed up among the exposed tree roots to the bottom of the falls and sat on the bank to eat, taking the cool spray on their faces and watching as a variety of tiny bird flew straight into the cataract. Looking for bugs underwater, Tob explained. The Amigos had just popped the three lunch cylinders they’d chilled in the icy water when they heard heavy breathing at their backs and, looking round, spied Mr. Peanut leaning on her stick. No doubt she’d hiked from Deer to Tapeats Creek by the river trail and followed the drainage up to its junction with Thunder River, rather than go the long way around through Surprise Valley. One way or another, it had been an exceptionally energetic 24 hours for Mr. Peanut.

“Hi there,” Tob greeted her. “Care for a cold beer? You like you could go for one.”

Mr. Peanut’s eyes were dull with fatigue and her sweat-darkened shirt stuck to her belly and back.

“I’m on duty, sir. Are you aware that the Surgeon General has determined that drinking alcoholic beverages while hiking causes dangerous dehydration in pregnant persons, and–?”

A sonic boom followed directly by an aerodynamic whine interrupted her, followed by a terrific concussion as some large aluminum thing crashed onto Great Thumb Point, taking out a sizable chunk of cliff that included the Owl Eyes and sending it crashing into the river below. Mr. Peanut appeared oblivious to the disturbance.

“According to Article 54, Section 41 (vi), of the Rulebook, all nonbiodegradable–as well as biodegradable–refuse must be packed out by the undersigned permittee. I have to remind you that the Park Service, a branch of the Federal Government, is dedicated to protecting pristine natural environments wherever they–“

Tob stood and placed his empty beer can on end on the ground. He flattened it with a single stamp of his hiking boot and chucked the compressed medallion at Mr. Peanut. “I’m not pregnant,” he told her, “but, here–you carry it out.”

In camp that evening the Three Amigos sat over filets mignon and red wine, observing the aerial bombardment that had intensified to the degree it seemed as if all the so-called civilized nations on earth–as well as some less civilized ones–had resorted to flinging every available piece of mechanical scrap at one another, in a total war between a dozen and a half competing super-junkyards. Now the visual display was no longer silent but accompanied by remote booms and a confused underlying roar, like that of a giant forest fire sucking the oxygen from the atmosphere. Even past moonrise, the horizon around glowed with the light from distant conflagrations burning beneath shelves of greasy cloud advancing from the west to blot the unfathomable, sempiternal pattern of the brilliant stars.

“I told Barbara to join us down here if things got really bad up top,” Tob said worriedly. “I hope she’s on her way by now.”

Before now,” Cor corrected him.

Nobody slept well, from worrying about Barbara. They were up several hours before sunrise to strike camp and load the packs for the climb out. The sky was not as active as it had been throughout most of the night, but the glow beneath the spreading smoke pall was pervasive. The Amigos drank a cup of coffee and shared a chocolate bar between them before they got on the trail, marching steadily in the track of the headlamps.

They had crossed the Esplanade and started up the switchbacks rising to the north rim when a light appeared ahead and far above them, but below the paler sky where it rested on top of the black canyon wall. The light bobbled steadily downhill until presently Barbara appeared behind it in the trail, carrying an enormous pack on her back and in her hand a guitar case.

“Hello, dear,” she told her husband, holding the battered case forward. “I knew you’d never be able to survive without this. It’s terrible up there, by the way. You can’t imagine how terrible.”

Tob accepted the guitar from her and turned about to face the Esplanade, already paling in the early light .

“Suppose we go on back to camp,” he suggested, “and I’ll make us a real breakfast.”