Joe knew something about this hike had been different. Maybe it’s his high emotional intelligence or maybe my tears are different colors when they are released from the reservoir of grief instead of the reservoir of exhaustion, but regardless, I could tell that he knew.
I sat in the car and relayed the story of Hermit’s and heard something I was about to hear more than I have ever heard in my life: “You did everything that you could”. The day passed with a lot of napping and slack lining and eating and I didn’t think much about the missing man because I didn’t know that he was missing yet. I did everything I could, remember?
It was the next day, Monday, 11PM and I was doing homework like the tireless part of the machine that I am when I received a call from Unknown. Immediately I thought, “well dang, I haven’t been prank called since high school” and I answered, half expecting to hear Stephen singing some Alabama fight song. What I heard instead made me sit up straight and close my eyes.
“Hello, this is Ranger Ryan O’Leary, I understand you are the hiker that reported another hiker in distress yesterday.”
“Yes, did you find him?” I replied.
“Unfortunately no, but someone has filed a missing persons report that matches the description you gave. Could you tell me about your encounter with the hiker?”
I complied and relayed a story I would soon seem to tell more than any other story. The ranger asked a few questions about his physical appearance, mental state, intentions, and other things that I could only make a guess at. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.
At the end of our conversation, Ryan asked me if I could identify photos of the hiker if they were sent to me. He emailed me two jpeg’s the family had provided him and asked me what percentage I was confident that it was the same man. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. Maybe 60%? I apologized for not being much help and then Ranger O’Leary told me he would be in touch and said good night. As soon as we hung up I laid my head down on my knees in front of me and furrowed my brow to keep the tears at bay that threatened to come streaming out of my eyes once more. My roommate asked me if I was okay. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.
Falling asleep came quick and painful. I tried to wrap the silence of the night around me and drift into the safe haven of that subconscious oblivion, but all night long I was in the Canyon on the Tonto layer of Hermit’s Trail screaming “I don’t know!” as rangers barraged me with “Where is he? You were the last person to see him. You have to know where he is! Tell us where he is!”
When I awoke, it was the beginning of the fog. I felt it creeping up around my elbows, holding them fast to my body, wetting the back of my neck when I least expected it. The last thing I wanted to do was go to work at housekeeping.
All day long I made those beds like I was making a life raft to keep me (or him) from drowning in the fog that encroached upon us. It was long, I was so tired, I hated it, it was therapeutic.
That evening another ranger called me and asked me to relay the story again. I complied.
The next day the fog was thicker. I looked out of that cloud at my friends all around me saying “You did everything you could” but all I could see was the moving of their mouths and my ears remained empty. I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe. But I could sure as hell make beds so I stuck to that. I looked at Ralf (the missing hiker), if I make the perfect bed, will you finally lie down and get some rest? He smiled.
During the service that evening, I received a phone call from Ranger O’Leary. The son wanted to meet me, wanted to talk to me, wanted closure. How do you encompass the nailing of someone else’s coffin without turning into dust yourself? It was my choice. He left me with a phone number. I called.
Omar and his wife met me in the Bright Angel lobby that night. I had been there for over half an hour chewing on the end of a pen and regurgitating words I have yet to reread in my journal. I saw them clearly in the fog, rising up from the catacombs hidden beneath our feet. We embraced. Bethany, a park ranger with glistening eyes met us too. We stood in the lobby for about 20 minutes as I retold the story again. Again, again, again. Everything about me wanted to leave but I held those nails in my hand and I knew we could both leave lighter if I just handed them over.
The winds picked up.
“Did my father say he wanted to get out of the Canyon?” Omar asked.
“Not exactly, he just seemed like he didn’t want to try and cross the river anymore,” I replied.
The clouds thickened.
“So, if you were concerned enough to report him,” please, please, please, “why didn’t you beg him to come out of the Canyon with you?”
Lightning struck the tree branch above my head.
The whole world around us shook, the sky stained purple with blood pouring out of God’s wrists, thunder betraying the war hidden beneath our rib cages, hair blown so fast it cut streaks across my face. Omar stood in that storm, arm outstretched, holding a gun cocked and loaded, pointed right at my chest.
“Why didn’t you beg him to come out of the Canyon with you?”
I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.
I saw Bethany outside of the storm, squinting her eyes, unable to see through all te fog that chaos that stood in the middle.
I saw Omar’s wife, watching with eyes contributing to the flooding river beside us. She was in the fog but she was immobile.
I saw Omar, finger settled on that trigger, searching my gasping throat for any reason to pull it. I had plenty to give.
And then I saw Ralf, he floated in the thick air between us, unaffected by the turbulent storm, and tapped his son on the shoulder. Omar leaned in to him. I saw Ralf’s mouth barely move to utter the phrase I kept seeing but not hearing; “she did everything she could. My son, she did everything she could” and the storm vanished, leaving us gunless in the still, deadened fog.
“How could you have known,” Omar said.
We took the next hour at least, pouring over a map of the Canyon. I pointed out every hunch I had come up with and Omar provided even more. The ideas we tossed were absurd considering the situation. Had someone descended with gear and food and water, sure, they could have made the 30+ mile trek down Bright Angel and across the Tonto and into Hermit’s. But I wouldn’t have tried it, and I’m the one everybody always worries about ‘trying it’. Bethany did all she could to subside their concerns without providing real hope and I did all I could to make them believe their father was consumed by something beautiful. We ran circles around that map and at the end my eyes blinked with such weight I almost believed I actually had walked those miles we considered.
The conversation slowed and we all knew that sleep should be chased even if never caught. Suddenly, Omar looked at me across the table and grasped my hand. It broke my heart.
“Hannah, thank you so much for talking to us. We know you didn’t have to, but it brings me peace, it helps just to see your face,” he began, “I don’t want you to feel any guilt over this.”
“I’m sorry,” I broke down.
“No, that’s exactly what I’m talking about, we have been living guilty for the past three days. You must promise me that you will not bear the guilt of my father’s life. Please. Promise me.”
I promise, I promise, I promise.
“I know that you would have helped him if he had asked for it. But he didn’t. And there’s no way you could have known. My father was too proud to ask for help and that is not your fault. Okay? Promise me. That is not your fault.”
I promised him a hundred times over, half trying to convince myself that just saying those words meant anything at all. I don’t know how to be the truth.
“We all must remember that goodness can come from this pain,” he spoke to himself now, “we must remember that there is beauty in spite of this. We can’t become angry with ourselves or with that Canyon. We can’t hate this place.”
I went home that night and the one’s that cared were there and we all sat in my room eating chocolate while I cried about how Omar had absolved me. I didn’t tell them that that I could still hear Ralf pacing outside of my door. We talked of things that you can’t see but can only feel. We talked about enemies that seek to destroy good, we talked about spiritual warfare, we talked about how none of us were prepared, we talked about how beautiful the Canyon is, we talked about how hearts break slowly over time and then suddenly all at once, we talked about his end.
The next few days went by with no contact from NPS. So many people told me that I should distance myself, that I should disconnect from this, that this tragedy wasn’t my own. But all I could see was this fog around me and even though my arms were outstretched, nobody could see that I was drowning, nobody could see that their mouths moved without sound, that I was a witness to someone’s grief I didn’t deserve to know. Ralf stayed there the whole time, in every face that came up out of the Bright Angel, sitting on every bed I made, listening. They never found him.
Every time I go running on the rim trail I stare out into that abyss and ask him why.
“I told you not to trust me,” he says.
“But you didn’t tell Ralf,” I say.
“You asked to learn, I am teaching you.”
“You aren’t teaching me, you are breaking me.”
“Explain to me how those two are different.”
I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.
It took time, good friends, and a trip to New Mexico that felt like breathing and running away at the same time, but the fog has lifted. I still haven’t gone further than two miles back into the Canyon but the fog has lifted (for the most part). Sometimes it still comes back and I have to stare at everyone with wide eyes hoping they see how blurry their own outlines are. Most of the time I just go for a run.
Bethany called me last week to offer counseling but I turned her down in favor of the friends who have been spreading out my weight so that no single person has to bear my over exposed heart alone. They’ve been good to me. Part of me thinks they will never find him. Part of me thinks he fell in the river and will be resurfacing any time now. Part of me thinks if I go down Hermit’s again I’ll find his corpse waiting, hands outstretched. In a hug or in a chokehold, I will never know.