Copyright © 2012 by Richard
All rights reserved
A bright moon rose silver-white in the east, over the barren
foothills crowned with red-hued rimrock. A moon impossibly large.
Impossibly bright. The brightness hurt his eyes, making it too
hard to identify the familiar lunar features. He turned away
to the opposite horizon, where the setting sun still lit a thin
scrim of golden-red clouds. In the twin light in between he
could clearly see the tall amber grass waving in the warm breeze
like a wheatfield.
In the midst of the sea of waving grass sat a ragged line
of mismatched vehicles, strung out like toys dropped from the
sky. There was no road. The tire tracks had already been erased
by the resilient spring of the grass. He had no idea where he
was. Where they were.
Tom Quetzal stood on a rough splinter of weathered lava rock
atop a knoll a quarter mile above the vehicles. He had climbed
up into the sagebrush to inhale the fragrance of sage and juniper.
A wildlife biologist by trade, Tom was familiar with this environment.
His specialty was sage-juniper grasslands. Only the pale gray-green
shrub surrounding him was not sagebrush. He had crushed the
leaves in his fingers to release the familiar pungent aroma
and was met with a bitter, faintly turpentine smell. On closer
inspection, he discovered that the leaves were wrong. For one
thing, there were too many lobes. It was not sagebrush at all,
but something else. Something he had never seen before. An imposter
filling this ecological niche. And the rabbitbrush was not rabbitbrush
either. He had scrabbled farther up the rocky slope to a group
of juniper shrubs and pierced a ripe berry with his thumbnail
and examined the scaley branches. It was not juniper. It was
something he had never seen before. And he suspected that the
mountain mahogany sprouting in umbrella-like clusters on the
rimrock far above was not mountain mahogany at all.
Tom had plucked a few berries and folded them into a tissue
in his pocket. He wanted to see if they would germinate in a
different environment. Then he climbed down and shook some seeds
from the faux sagebrush into the palm of his hand and added
them to the berries. The breeze bore the clear, descending trill
of a bird he could not quite identify. Almost a canyon wren,
he thought with bitter amusement.
Below him his wife, Gretchen, was talking quietly with their
new black friends, the Saunders. Together they sat in folding
chairs on a patch of carpet thrown over the grass beside the
Saunders' pickup-mounted RV. Tom's own camper van sat three
vehicles up, at the head of the line, like a ghostly white whale
leading a parade of beached sea creatures. The other occupants
had all gone ahead on foot, following a gravel trail around
a hummock to the shelters. Or what they believed to be shelters.
Twelve small cabins newly built of rough-hewn wood stood beneath
the bare branches of a cottonwood grove along a clear flowing
stream. Curious. Twelve cabins to match the twelve stranded
vehicles. A coincidence? Tom thought maybe not.
With the first hint of chill in the air, Tom started back
down through the moonlight, following his faint matted trace
through the tall grass. Slowly he went, placing each footstep
with care. It wouldn't do to sprain an ankle on this rocky volcanic
As he descended, Tom considered again how they had ended up
in this forsaken place. He could barely recall the Navajo campground
at Canyon de Chelly, although they had awakened there just that
morning. In another life, it seemed now. He pictured the tall
shade trees. The numbered campsites with fire pits and picnic
tables. The tribal cafeteria where he and Gretchen had eaten
huevos rancheros for breakfast. But mostly he remembered the
bustle of people coming and going, the traffic, and the constant
background noise of civilization. All were gone now.
When had it all vanished? he wondered. They had been
motoring south from Chinle on the straight, lonesome two-lane
blacktop of Highway 191, through open Navajo country with its
sparse settlement of shacks and hogans, when they were stopped
by road work. Their van was first in line. The flagman was a
big, round fellow in a yellow hard hat and vest with a yellow
bandana tied around his face and tucked up under his sunglasses.
Protection from the dust, Tom had assumed.
Tom climbed down and tried to talk with him. "How long?"
The man did not reply.
"How long a wait?"
The flagman shook his head slowly, holding his gloved thumb
and forefinger an inch apart to indicate a short pinch of time.
Navajo, Tom assumed, as he climbed inside through the side
door of the van. They waited with the side door slid open. It
was hot and quiet. He watched the arrow-straight contrails being
drawn east to west across the indigo sky. Gretchen made tuna
fish sandwiches and they ate a late lunch while other vehicles
pulled up behind them. He could remember the black BMW right
behind them, with an attractive young dark-haired woman leaning
against the fender while an impatient young man paced up and
down irritably. Then an eighteen-wheeler pulled in behind them,
blocking the rearward view of later arrivals. Its idling diesel
engine seemed to bruise the still air.
And then what had happened? Tom remembered seeing an
orange pilot truck approaching from far ahead, a red light pulsing
on top. He had thought it odd that it was not leading any traffic
north. And that the windows were all so tinted that he could
not make out the driver inside. But none of that troubled him
much. The orange pilot truck pulled off and swung around to
show its "Follow Me" sign, and Tom started the engine
and followed. In the rearview mirror he saw the flagman holding
up the stop sign in front of the big rig and waving the other
vehicles around the protesting driver. That had seemed odd to
him too, and he had said something to Gretchen. But it all began
to make sense when the pilot truck signaled a left turn and
then veered onto a graded gravel road climbing diagonally over
a greasewood mesa and then down through a mesquite bosque. This
detour was not intended for big rigs. That poor truck driver
would have to wait until the blacktop was open again.
The road became bumpier and dust obscured his view. The trailing
vehicles began to string out. The gravel became dirt and the
dirt became the white alkaline powder of the playa floor. The
pilot truck began to pull ahead faster than Tom felt comfortable
driving. In the mirror he saw the cars strung out behind, each
throwing up a rooster-tail of obscuring dust. And that's
when it happened, Tom thought. In the dust cloud.
The road became a rough, grassy track following the slope of
rounded hills. And the pilot car was gone, though he could still
follow its tire tracks. Tom found himself leading a parade of
vehicles, plowing blindly across a field of tall grass, the
van lurching and bouncing on the rocky soil.
So he stopped. One by one the vehicles bunched up behind him.
People climbed out, some very angry. One young man accused Tom
of leading them astray. But Tom held up his empty palms. There
was no longer a road. Not ahead of them. Not behind them.
The occupants of eleven vehicles milled around in the tall
grass and watched one Latino couple manage to turn their small
Toyota pickup around and try to drive back out. They didn't
get far before a rock dented their differential and they had
to walk back. After that, the assembly turned into an impromptu
meet-and-greet. Tom counted twenty-four people. Twelve couples.
Most of them were young, in their early twenties, Tom guessed,
some even younger. All seemed slender and fit. All appeared
to be intelligent, reasonable folks. All were attractive. Blacks.
Latinos. Asians. But mostly Caucasian. An ER doctor and his
nurse wife from Omaha. A male nurse and his accountant wife
from Phoenix. A carpenter. A mason. A blacksmith and farrier.
Two couples operating small farms. Mostly, Tom liked them all.
Tom and Gretchen were especially drawn to Herb and Cecilia
Saunders, despite the racial divide. Probably it was because
of their ages. The Saunders, like themselves, were in their
early thirties and seemed more mature than the younger couples.
Sure, like the younger ones they bemoaned the loss of a cell
phone signal, but they were not lost and at sea without their
iPads and smart phones. Herb worked as a civil engineer out
of Detroit. Cecilia practiced as a hospital nutritionist in
the city. And Cecilia, they confided, was pregnant with their
first child. As was Gretchen.
Several couples followed the gravel path around the hummock
and discovered the cabins. The shelters, they called them. Others
followed to see, but eventually everyone returned to the vehicles
to talk about what exactly had happened and what they should
do next. The discussions grew heated and chaotic, fired by confusion
and insecurity, until an Asian couple from San Francisco, both
lawyers for the League of Small Cities, gave it a civic twist
by calling for each person to present his or her viewpoint,
followed by a vote. In the end a strong majority chose to spend
the night in the shelters. Each cabin had a clean bed, a small
bathroom, and running water. Tom and Gretchen and the Sanders
would sleep in their campers and watch over the vehicles. In
the morning, if the helicopters had not found them already,
they would figure out how to get back to the highway.
A party atmosphere ensued. Everyone seemed to have beer or
wine and even some hard liquor, and a car stereo was cranked
up. A few couples danced in the grass as the sun dropped toward
the horizon. Those with food and propane stoves cooked up a
potluck, which they freely shared with those who had nothing
to eat. Spirits were high. This was an experience that might
never come again. Tom was not much of a party animal, so he
grabbed a couple of energy bars and headed up into the sagebrush
to think things through. Into the sagebrush that turned out
not to be sagebrush.
Now, tromping down the moderating slope with Gretchen and
Herb and Cecilia watching him, his fingers touched the tissue
holding the seeds and berries he had collected, and the dots
began to connect. Tom felt a sad, sickening feeling in the pit
of his stomach. He wondered how many of the other women were
As he neared the campers, his wife and the Sanders rose to
their feet as one, seeming to stare at him in surprise. He was
now on the flat of the valley floor with his moonshadow striding
out before him, and he quickened his pace. But they continued
to gape. "What?" he called out, closing on them. "Are
"Look, Tom," Gretchen cried, pointing directly
at him. Her mouth was drawn into a tight circle and her eyes
were wide with terror.
"What?" he demanded, glancing down at his
arms and legs and checking his fly.
"Look! Behind you!"
Tom spun around, and there it was. Smaller and redder in hue
than the first one, perhaps further away, but dazzlingly bright
nonetheless. Rising slowly above the rimrock. A second moon.