In the Still of the Night

12 09 2010

The cold chill running down the spine is the last feeling desired camping on a dark, moonless night in the backcountry of the Arizona desert. It doesn’t matter that three of your close friends are by your side around a warm campfire in the chill air; doesn’t matter that your faithful dog is snoring away, curled on her pad next to you toasting by the fire. This campsite was picked for its isolation. Planning a camping trip, the group wanted to pitch tents on the far side of Picacho Peak in the middle of the Ironwood Forest National Monument.

“Camping!” always ends with an exclamation mark when my camping group, the “Gang of Three,” plans a weekend under the desert sky. Once a month Steve, Kelli, and I, plus occasional friends, gather our gear, pack our vehicles and head out from Phoenix—to the desert in the winter in the mountains in the summer. Riding shotgun in mine is my six year old chocolate lab, Hershey, the official Gang of Three camping dog. Like most chocolate labs, once out of puppyhood there is mellowness to her demeanor.

Ironwood Forest National Monument is located between Phoenix and Tucson Arizona-Sonoran Desert. About 20 miles west of the interstate, the National Monument is not near anything. The Bureau of Land Management warns of no facilities, abandoned mines and primitive roads. “Be prepared to rescue yourself,” warns its Web site. Knowing this and undeterred, our caravan headed south from Phoenix on the two-hour journey to our preselected campsite. A dozen miles west of the interstate, we leave the pavement behind; a dozen more and we pass a sign warning “road maintenance ends.” Churning our way across the soft sand at the bottom of wash, we climb the far bank and pass a nondescript sign stating “Ironwood Forest National Monument.”

Staring into the breathtaking Arizona desert sunset, we slowly move down the rutted road with GPS receivers glowing in the growing darkness. We pass an abandoned mining town, mining equipment painted a mottled ghostly brown by the shadows. Slowly rounding a bend with the GPS showing our destination approaching, we see a bright and leering warning sign: “Warning. Drug and human smugglers may pass through this area.” That, we knew in advance and didn’t care.

Darkness upon us, we pitched our tents, started our camp fire, ate our dinner, and settled back in in our chairs with cold beers, chips, and salsa. As the temperature dropped, Hershey curled up next to me on her camping pad. First she lay with her paw pads facing the fire and as they warmed, she would turn over with her back facing the fire. Unlike many dogs camping, Hershey is quiet. To that very moment, I could never recall her barking while camping. All that changed in an instant.

As we talked, drank, and laughed, Hershey slept, snoring quietly. Outside the perimeter of the campfire light the night was pitch black, even the nearby mountains were merely a deeper black in the darkness. Suddenly, Hershey’s head popped up, her eyes brightly alert. From deep in her throat came a low warning growl unlike any noise I had ever heard from her. She stared across the road deep into the darkness to something we could not see, hear, or smell. Our conversation and laughter stopped instantly and we all stared at the dog. We could tell this was serious.

Hershey stood up and I grabbed her to hook up her leash. Steve, a gunsmith by trade, moved to his truck and took out a pair of handguns. Handing one to me, he moved deeper into the darkness saying “I’m going to sweep around behind whatever that is.” With the leashed growling dog, the rest of us moved away from the fire into the darkness behind one of the vehicles.

We knew about where Steve was located, but he was moving quietly, so we could not hear him at all. Time seemed to drag, and Hershey’s growls grew more ominous and louder. Kelli turned to me and said, “I’m getting a little nervous about this.” Her friend, Bill, just nodded. Hershey who dropped to a sitting position next to me while still growling suddenly leapt to her feet and increased the growl volume. From the darkness we heard Steve’s voice shouting, “Identify yourself! I have a gun and I’m not afraid to use it!” He repeated the warning in Spanish. Only the quiet of the desert night answered him.

It was silent again and after waiting what seemed a lifetime, I shouted, “Steve, are you OK?” He responded by shouting, “I can see you! Stand and identify yourself! We just want to know who you are and you can go on your way!” He repeated it firmly in Spanish. Nothing but darkness and quiet. In the darkness, we could clearly hear Steve pull the action on his pistol. The three of us looked at each, other our faces showing something between concern and fear. Hershey continued her incessant growling.

From a new position, Steve shouted one more time, “I can see all of you well enough to aim; identify yourself, now!” This time we heard a rustling in the underbrush; braced for whatever would come next, we froze as the night’s quiet was slashed with a long, baleful, “Mooooo.”

Hershey immediately barked three times, wagged her tail against my leg, sat down, and looked at me with her, “Did I earn a treat?” expression. Our laughter echoed from both sides of the road against the nearby mountain. Tension relieved, it was back to the campfire, the beer, the chips and the salsa. For Hershey, it was back to the sleeping pad with a treat to chew.


Sometimes a lust for life isn’t lusty

12 05 2010

My friend Cheri passed last week. I learned about it today when I called for a weekly conversation about life, politics, jobs, and ironing. Answered by a strange voice, and I thought perhaps my voice dialing had misdialed.

“Oh, I was calling for Cheri, I must have misdialed.”

“No, this is her father.” Not necessarily surprising, as her mother had just spent the winter with her, maybe her father was here for the spring.

“Oh, uh, hi, is Cheri home?”

“When did you last talk with her?”

“Hmmm, about two weeks ago. I called her last week, but she didn’t call back. Sometimes we went for a couple of weeks without connecting because of her schedule and mine. Then we’d connect and it would be as if we had not been out-of-touch.”

“How do you know her?”

“We’ve been friends for almost two years. We, uh, well, we started out dating, but it didn’t connect that way. We’ve gone camping a couple of times. But we’re just friends. I’ve been there for her when she needed someone. Is she ill?” But I knew the answer before he said it.

“I’m sorry to tell you this, but Cheri is deceased.”

I pulled off to the side of the street in the Amex wide driveway just across from the Mayo Hospital. I didn’t know what to feel. I wasn’t in shock, yet. It just seemed that this was a call I expected and I dreaded for any number of reasons. Cheri has passed to the next world.

It’s hard to eulogize a friend where the bond between is so severed. She died sometime over a week ago, the day before we would have normally spoken. Apparently it was a day or two before she was found. She may have had words with her boyfriend. I hadn’t yet met him, but knew of him in a detached way. Her father told me that there was an email from a man beckoning her to call and not let “last Saturday” stand between them. Ultimately it seemed he reported her missing to the police, and she was found…but not at home.

Perhaps that’s what hurts so much. Her life ended alone, without anyone around her. Once before she her demons had nearly overpowered her. She called me, and I spent the day at her side in the ER until her friend Laura arrived nearly six hours later to take the night vigil.

Cheri was a blessing-giver in a meditation group. We both shared a lust for life, but she sometimes had to fight off challenges to her positive energy, her warm smile. In recent months, it seemed that the darkness had been brushed aside with the positive energy of the gongs and her group.

I guess now she has found her peace and the demons can no longer suck her energy. My sadness is more than just a loss of a friend. I had always reminded her that she could call any time, any day, and I would be there to listen or there to be with her. “Cheri, you have people who love you. You’re never alone. No matter how dark your spirit, we’re here to light your way.”

Cheri leaves two cats, her parents, a sister, the warmth of her smile, electricity of her touch, a an empty space on this planet.