Wednesday, March 1, 2023




It was a new concept for Gladys Horner....the notion of a hike, taking a long walk simply for the sake of taking a long walk. That had never been part of her experience. It was a bit embarrassing, listening to Jimmy’s excited talk of what they would see, while feeling no excitement of her own.

What was the attraction, she wondered. Still, she was there with him, preparing to undertake his latest adventure, another slice of what he called “fun.” What else could she do?

In a matter of minutes they had left the campground behind them. Beyond the pine studded hillside they moved along the edge of an open, sagebrush-covered desert that stretched as far as they could see. 

They had scarcely begun when Jimmy’s quiet caution won Gladys’ immediate attention. “Keep your eyes open,” he said. “Watch where you’re walking. Rattlesnakes like to come out in the morning to warm up in the sun.”

Rattlesnakes?” She stopped in her tracks, scanning the ground before her. “You’re serious aren’t you?”

“It’s nothing to worry about. Just follow me and you’ll be fine.”

Not surprisingly, feeling ‘fine’ would take a while. For the next few minutes she walked carefully in Jimmy’s footsteps, thinking of snakes and little else. 

They were twenty minutes from the hot springs and rattlesnakes had finally been forgotten, when Jimmy paused to scan the area. After a few seconds, still without a word, he handed his binoculars to Gladys and pointed toward a rocky outcrop in the saucer-shaped swale below them. 

“Antelope,” he whispered. “Eight or ten of them.”

She raised the glasses, adjusted the focus, and for a few seconds saw only sagebrush and dry bunch grass. Suddenly, a pair of the slender and skittish animals filled her eyepiece and a broad smile came to her lips. “They’re beautiful," she whispered.” Seconds later, still watching them, “It feels like we’re spying on them.”

Though there was no path to follow, they stayed in the open high ground just below the tree line.... strolling slowly, always on the look out, never knowing what they were looking for. While Gladys scanned the horizon, all the way to the snowcapped mountains miles to the east, Jimmy kept his eyes on the ground ahead of them. It may have looked like he had snakes on his mind. But in fact, he was engaged in a high-desert treasure hunt.

“Look at this,” he suddenly exclaimed, pulling her to a stop. He was pointing toward the base of a gnarly sagebrush plant. There, half-buried in the sun-baked ground, a speck of black obsidian glistened in the sunlight. Noting the crescent shaped depressions on the shiny surface, he was sure he found what he was looking for.

“See that?” he asked. “That little black rock? Why don’t you dig it out and see what you’ve got.”

A rock? In the middle of a God-forsaken desert? What was that about? When Gladys hesitated, he motioned for her to go ahead. With a broken piece of sagebrush limb she poked at the rock until it lay exposed on the surface. Though it was scarcely larger than a quarter, she could tell there was something unusual about the dark, shiny stone.

“What have you got there?” Jimmy asked.

“I’m not sure. It’s kind of different.” Rubbing the clinging bits of dirt from the stone she handed it to him.

“What you have is an arrowhead," he answered, handing it back to her. "Actually, it's half an arrowhead. See how the two sides have been chipped away to make them sharp. And those little notches? That’s where it was tied to an arrow shaft. The blunt part on the other end is where the point was broken off.” 

Gladys ran a finger over the still sharp edges. “You mean someone made this?

“That’s right. Probably someone who had a family to feed, who needed a deer or a jack rabbit to keep them going. I suppose he spent an hour or two shaping this piece of obsidian into a point and putting it on the end of the straightest arrow he could find. Then he went hunting. From the looks of it this one didn’t do him much good. He probably missed his target, hit a rock, and the point broke off. I hope he was luckier with his next shot.”

Later, sitting in the now-warm sun as they finished their backpack lunch, new questions had captured Gladys’ thoughts. She studied her obsidian treasure once more, wanting to put it into context. “How long ago would that have been, when someone made this? 

“I imagine it would take an expert to know that,” Jimmy answered. “Though maybe even an expert couldn’t tell for sure. They’ve found artifacts out here in the desert that have been dated back ten thousand years. So I suppose anywhere from a hundred years to ten thousand probably covers it.”

Laying back, with her rolled-up jacket for a pillow, she closed her eyes and let that truth sink in. Hundreds of years before, perhaps even thousands, someone had walked across that same ground, carrying the same stone that now rested in her hand. 

It would have been a time when the act of shaping a piece of obsidian into a weapon was not a recreational activity, but a matter of survival. Tiny sharpened objects, like the one she held, might have been the difference between life and death. And to think all that had been revealed by the sight of a single bit of black rock sticking out of the desert ground.

The overhead sun had moved further west as the couple continued their circular hike through the open desert country and started back into the wooded hills. For half an hour Gladys followed passively as Jimmy led them up an unmarked dry-creek bed toward what she hoped would be the campground. In truth, a gnawing fear of being lost was gaining a hold on her thoughts. 

They were deep in the woods, surrounded by pines and junipers, with no trail or apparent landmarks in sight. How could he know where he was going? Finding a tiny campground in that vast expanse of mountain timber seemed to her a long shot. Yet he walked confidently on, never offering a hint of doubt until, with an audible sigh of relief, Gladys rounded a dense thicket of pines and nearly bumped into the now familiar restroom.

Later, they sat in the bright afternoon sunlight in their folding chairs, watching ground squirrels scamper from tree to tree, while Gladys recounted a day of firsts....of antelope and arrowheads, and thankfully no rattlesnakes. Before long they were dozing off, perhaps dreaming of a time when an earlier people had used an earlier technology to make their home in that same place. 

At one point she roused herself long enough to ask, “Should we go sit in the springs for a while?”

“It’s too early,” Jimmy answered without bothering to open his eyes. “Hot springs on a hot day don’t feel nearly as good. If we wait until it cools off it’ll be better. Cold air and hot springs....that’s what gets you feeling alive.”

Feeling alive.” Gladys repeated the words to herself, aware of how they seemed to sum up Jimmy’s life view. 

For him it seemed that life was a sensory thing be felt and experienced. Perhaps that was the root of his ‘having fun’ mantra. For reasons she could not explain she found comfort in that knowing that in Jimmy Brooder’s company she would always be an active participant. There was no place in his world for an idle onlooker.

That evening, after their chilling return through the darkness from a warm and soaky half hour in the small pool, Gladys was prepared to push her ‘idle onlooker’ label even further aside. 

Setting her hot chocolate on the counter she took the flashlight and boldly made her way alone through the dark forest to the restroom. Once back in the camper she excused herself, climbed up into the sleeping space and pulled the curtain closed behind. 

Minutes later Jimmy turned off the lights and crawled ‘upstairs,’ probing in the dark for his sleeping bag. What he found was a disorienting and very unexpected surprise. Gladys had unzipped their sleeping bags, turning them into a pair of large blankets that covered the mattress.

“What have you done?” he asked. “Where’s my sleeping bag?”

“I decided we didn’t need it.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.” Holding back his side of the blankets she tugged him closer. There would be no ‘idle onlooking’ as she took the lead in helping him feel even more alive.

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