“Gunter owns a castle,” Nola told him once she’d drunk from her first beer. They sat at their picnic table, prodding steaming paper plates with plastic forks in the thickening dusk. “He inherited an airline.”

“And he’s camping?”

“He and his fiancée, they rented an RV in Seattle, a big dream circuit.”

“So fucking dirty zis travel.”

“He’s named after Gunter Grass.”

“Who?”

“He quoted Rilke: ‘I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world.’”

“Sounds like an A+ bullshit artist.”

“So? All human beings lie.” Nola stuffed her plate and utensils deep in their garbage bag and opened another beer. She sat on a camp chair, ankles crossed, facing the canyon, back to him.

Over the generator rumble from the RV area above, a poorwill trilled. He fetched his mini Martin and Nola’s uke from the car. Sat on the tabletop, feet on the bench, tuned. A passing longhair in straw hat and camo shorts raised a thumb. He sang, “Keep on the Sunnyside,” his standard putting Phoebe to bed as a child. He sang, “Silver Snails and Golden Beetles,” Noor’s favorite from their band. Fingerpicked “Wildwood Flower.” All that music bottled up. “Orphan Girl.” Fuck. Nola, clutching the bottle in both hands, had not moved. When he finished the first verse of “Ukulele Lady,” she pushed up from the chair but walked past him and her instrument. She dug in her pack at the passenger side of the car, then leaned on the roof and stroked a Bic to flame at a cigarette in her mouth.

“I thought you stopped.”

“You thought a lot of things.” She stayed next to the car to smoke.

If you like a ukulele lady,
Ukulele lady like a-you.
If you like to linger where it’s shady,
Ukulele lady linger too.

She lit another. Christ. She had quit for the boys’ pregnancies. Then they had quit together for good, he’d believed, three years ago, after his dad died of leukemia. He strummed. He picked without singing: “Hobo’s Lullaby,” “Big Rock Candy Mountain.”

“Where’d you put the headlamps?” she called. “I’m ready to head to Gunter’s.”

She wandered up the road into the enclosing dark while he stored food in Tupperware, scrubbed their pot at the washstand, stowed their valuables in the car. He considered driving back to the park entrance with his phone. Instead, he retrieved from his toilet case one of the two joints Noor had given him. Huffed it in the open—hell, when in Colorado—startled by a grasshopper that landed on his shoulder. It clung, cleaned its front legs. He clutched it between his thumb and forefinger, admired its compound eyes, waited for it to dribble what his father had called “tobacco juice,” from its mouthparts, and then heaved it high. “Warp speed, Mr. Sulu!”

Smoke still snaked from campfires along the way. Tents glowed blue, yellow, orange, from the light inside. Laughter: “Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck.”

“Shh, darling.” A woman giggled. “Quiet.”

In the distance a baby wailed. Generators hummed.

A guy alone, half shadowed, read a book at a table in a white globe of lantern light. He had a long beard like God’s, like Jim’s mother’s Old Testament version of God. Maybe summers God lived by himself in a campground reading The Book of Days. How about me and Noor? he wanted to call to the man. How about them apples?

“Evening,” he said to a couple walking a leashed bulldog.

The woman jumped. “Whoa, I thought you were a ghost.”

“Close,” he said.

“Even Sherlock didn’t see you.”

He found comfort in the sound of his own boots on the pavement. Stars. A meteor broke loose of the zillion other tiny lights, streaked in the brilliance of its own destruction. As a girl Phoebe had called them “failing stars.” Phoebe.

In answer to the burbled hoots of a great horned owl on the slope to his right, five hoots ballooned from the canyon below. No coyotes. The clap of outhouse doors. The rising thrum of generators. He stumbled on a crevice in the asphalt. “Shit.” Flipped on his headlamp. “RVs Only Beyond This Point,” the sign said. “Full Hookups.”

Humps of lighted windows swelled in the black shapes of trees. Over the generators he heard jazz. He heard what sounded like a car chase.

As he passed these hulks, Jim saw no one outside. Two of the RVs towed cars. Had DirectTV dishes. Through windows screens flickered. Old people played cards. Sat by bottles. Then he heard the voice, too loud, that could only be Gunter’s: “On the Road is zee U.S. eggsplanation. You bet your greenback dollar. Travel whips you everyday new. Big truth, screw Mount Rushmore.” The voice and the music came from the last in the line up this dirt track, silhouetted in orange. The massive vehicle read, “CRUISEAMERICA.COM” above the windshield, “Call 800-RV4-RENT” high on its mural-covered aluminum side. In back a stack of burning logs glared over the faces of eight or nine gabbing people circled in chairs, waving bottles and marshmallows on sticks. Nola peeled a bottle’s label, grinned at a very heavy blond woman in a tank top, marshmallow extended to flames, who said, “My far and away favorite was your second, Arc of Territory. If I had it you could sign—“

Jim pivoted. Took the long way back. A trail of impermanence at numbered sites. Smoked the second joint lying on his back on the picnic table. With his eyes tight shut, sent messages to Noor he believed she received: “Counting down.” “Pack your valuables.” “Love has our backs.”

He half-woke when Nola unzipped the tent, felt her knees as she squirmed into her sleeping bag. Wondered only briefly if she read a poem to Gunter.

 

5

Binoculars at itchy eyes, he watched a cooper’s hawk launch into sunlight from a Douglas fir below his ridge, the only tall tree. Stellar’s jays. Caught himself humming “Keep on the Sunny Side.” Spooked a mule deer. Mistook the faint squeal of his calming lungs for distant wrens as he descended this switchback trail to the campground road.

Glinting vehicles with plates from Michigan, New York, Georgia, Oregon, already rumbled for the exit.

“Morning,” a shirtless man said, chest tattooed in swirls. He and a pajamaed woman carried toothbrushes and toothpaste from a restroom.

Only two RVs remained in their special stalls graded in pinyon and juniper, generators silent. Where Gunter’s had been, a chipmunk dashed from a spilling garbage can clustered in empty bottles. The fire still smoked.

He considered walking to the campground store, trying for a connection yet again, but they had to be at the Balcony House tour gathering spot in an hour and a half. The drive would take a big chunk of that. Their campsite as he left it, no sign of Nola having stirred, Jim sat for fifteen minutes at the picnic table, drank his fifth cup of coffee of the day with his back to the road and the sun, and sent Noor this message, hard, with his eyes closed and his hands clenched: “Believe. Believe. Believe.”

The sun blazed a diagonal across their tent when he called, “All right, party animal. Rise and shine.”

She had slept in her clothes. Yawned with a groan. Knotted a blue bandana at her neck. Dragged untied boots up the road to pee. Wearing Ray-Bans, sipped a mug of coffee he French-pressed. Chewed a granola bar as he drove the high road across the mesa. “I’ll pull myself together,” she said. “Hell of a bacchanal.”
 

 

Under wide hats, greased with sunscreen, they gathered around a tall, braided ranger, Debbie, at a turnout on the farthest asphalt loop in the park. A paved trail behind her descended into a deep canyon of red stone. Debbie smiled around every word, a spiel not unlike one Jim himself had made those years before at Bandelier. “This is a strenuous tour,” she said, “that includes climbing eight different ladders, one thirty-two feet long, sliding through a number of very narrow passages, and managing the steep trail out. There is no shame in deciding you are not right for this tour. Spruce House. Cliff House. Much less challenging. Any smaller kids are under the strict supervision of their parents.”

Nola sat on a wall, her Klean Kanteen clutched in both hands. Jim stood at the back of the group of twenty, people of all types, many he would have bet would suffer coronaries at the slightest physical challenge. A stooped, gray-haired man leaned onto a carved cane. Two overweight teenage girls giggled under a selfie stick. The fatter boy with them held fingers behind their heads, shrieked, “Photo bomb.” A girl five or six kept tugging off her Yellowstone, bear-eared hat. “Julie, damn it,” her father whispered. “Keep that on your beautiful noggin.” No one left.

On their adoption trip to Bolivia, Nola and Jim had taken their sons and their new two-year-old daughter—they had to stay in the country for three weeks for court hearings—on a wildlife tour to Refugio Los Volcanes. They had hooked up with Nick’s Adventures through their hotel in Santa Cruz. Nick drove them in a ten-year-old Ford van into a valley straight out of Jurassic Park. Phoebe, in new pants and shirt, hair still uneven in its orphanage cut, clung to his head as she rode his shoulders down a rainforest trail along a river. “Papa, Papa,” she chirped. And then he tripped, and she tumbled over splashing rocks, and never had Nola moved so fast, snatching up the crying girl. But minutes later, Phoebe reached both arms to him again, “Papa. Papa.” They hugged beside a living path of leaf-cutter ants, two lanes, one line headed out empty handed, the other headed back toting sails of green.
 

 

In two stops down the steep trail, Ranger Debbie talked about the fires that had burned through the park, about the migration of people into this area, about “their transition from hunter gatherers to farmers.” When a man asked, she said, “I’m an immigrant, too. From Tallahassee. Been here on the mesa eight years, my home now. I don’t sleep in the cliffs.”

Debbie pointed as she walked. “The Ute Reservation is just over there. The canyon is the boundary between them and the park.”

The sheer canyon plummeted, bottomless. Stone scraped his shoulder as he walked, keeping his eyes on the narrow, shadowed trail. “Noor,” he whispered in the hollow cavern of his brain. “Noor.”

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