When I decided I wanted to hike to a spot called the Window in Big Bend National Park, I consulted my FalconGuide hiking book. It said that one-way, the hike was 2.8 miles, approximately 1.5 hours. I didn’t do the math to realize that the round-trip hike was 5.6 miles, approximately three hours. I did it in two hours, 15 minutes, and I only stopped for 127 seconds — seconds of pure terror.
I loved the movie “127 Hours,” based on the true story of Aron Ralston, a hiker trapped by a boulder for five days before he escaped by cutting off his arm. I could tell you all about the movie, how it’s not about survival but about relationships and confronting yourself honestly. But this column is about my hiking journey, not his.
The Window is the pour-off for the Chisos Basin, which means that when it rains, all the water pours off this ledge. The FalconGuide book warned, “Do not approach the top of the pour-off too closely; slippery wet rocks make footing treacherous. A fall would be fatal.”
But really, how fatal is fatal?
I was in Big Bend with my dad, who had always wanted to see the park. Now that my mom is gone, he needed a co-adventurer. Also, neither of us wanted to be in our homes on the anniversary of the days leading up to my mom’s death. So we set out for America’s least-visited national park.
Big Bend combines the Chisos Mountains, the Rio Grande and the Chihuahuan Desert. Each of our five hikes took us to completely different terrains. We’d seen balancing rocks, the spiny ocotillo plant that only blooms after a rain and Mexican mountain ranges. I wanted to do one more hike before we left, but my dad was ready to rest. So I set out alone, late in the afternoon, when there would be lots of other hikers.
The hike is downhill for the first half, which isn’t as easy as you might think. Anyone who’s ever had knee surgery can tell you that going down stairs is much harder than going up stairs. As I carefully made my way along the trail, I thought about how the desert is a lot like grief. It’s hard work. It takes longer than you think. It must be done alone.
I knew I was near the Window when the trail became what the book called “a polished rock course.” Even though there hadn’t been any rain, it was still slippery. Suddenly, I saw the opening, a 200-foot drop-off. Any courage I had left me right then and there.
Standing at the edge with a camera and an orange CamelBak, was a 20-something dude with a scraggly ponytail.
“I’ll move up, and you can come down,” he offered.
“No. I’ll stay back here,” I said. Just looking through the Window was making my stomach flip.
“Sure?” the dude asked. “You just slide down, and there’s this little dip for you to sit in. I’m done, anyway.”
And I thought, “I’ll probably get a better photo for my dad if I slide down like the dude says.” So I slid on my bottom to the little dip.
“Do you want me to take your picture?” the dude asked.
“No, thanks,” I said. I was too afraid to turn my back on the gaping maw of death for the length of time it would have taken him to snap my photo. I was also too afraid to look over the edge at what was supposed to be a spectacular view. I pulled out my iPhone, took a picture without looking and turned around to see if the dude would mind helping me back up.
He was gone.
That’s when I realized I was trapped — not by a boulder, but by fear. For approximately 127 seconds, I sat in my little dip, scared out of my mind. I thought about Aron Ralston. That guy cut off his arm! All I had to do was scooch up some polished rock. I didn’t need to pathetically wait for some hiker dude to rescue me. I could do this myself. I had to.
After a couple of shaky tries, I managed to pull myself to safety. And then I hiked back up the hill as fast as I could, without stopping even once. At the top, I looked at the photo I’d managed to take. Awful. I deleted it. Sorry, Dad.
Being in the actual desert for a few days made me realize that I’m not out of the emotional desert of grief yet. Like that hike, it’s something I have to do alone, something that’s asked more of me than I thought I had. But I’ve walked to that scary edge, pulled myself up and kept going.