George looked up at the sky. The black clouds flowed towards the mountain peak like paperclips to a magnet. He knew he was going to get wet. This was not the leisurely hike he had planned. Sunrise over the desert looked so perfect. The drive through Tijeras pass into Albuquerque had gone from light into shadows, but he knew the sun would catch up to him before he reached the trail to hike up Sandia Peak.
George knew better than to hike alone, but he had hiked the La Luz trail from the peak to the valley several times. The cornucopia of views made the eight-mile trek worth the effort. Rocky Mountain cliffs, rock slides, pine forests and the desert floor offered up a feast for the senses to anyone willing to brave the drastic altitude changes.
I knew better than to do this. All the landmarks look different, but they always do when you come from a different direction. George was not sure how he lost his way. He had started at the trailhead and followed the first sign. The first mistake was following a coyote a few dozen yards off the trail, so he could get the perfect camera shot. He was sure he backtracked correctly. The trail he found looked just like the one he had left. True, there was no reference point, but how many trails could there be? After forty-five minutes the trail ended and George had his answer. Looking around all he could see was sagebrush, sand, rock, and scrub oaks.
There he stood, clouds gathering at the peak, the unknown trail dropped back into the valley below. From his vantage point he could not see the parking lot he had left. Above he spied the switchbacks going up the cliff side of the peak. If he walked straight ahead he knew he would hook back into La Luz, but there was no trail. If he backtracked, he may or may not return to his car. The clouds above assured he was going to get wet. Low ground in the desert was always in danger of flash flooding. Lost on the cliffs was preferable to that horror.
George started moving forward. The ground rose as he forged his path. He knew he was in the rattlesnake’s domain, and the occasional snapping of locust would cause him to jump. Occasionally, a well-hidden cactus would reach out to his ankles. More than once he had to stop and pull its spines from his ankles and socks. Bloody spots began to form on the white cotton from multiple encounters with the barbarous plants. Two hours later he found a trail, but he knew this place. He had walked this part of La Luz many times. Unfortunately, George knew he had around six miles to the peak.
Sore, exhausted, and parched George continued. As the elevation increased his oxygen dropped off. He chastised himself for such a rookie mistake. Of course, this was going to be tougher. Trekking from the peak’s ten thousand six hundred and seventy-eight feet to seven thousand feet below was easier. The oxygen increased as you grew more tired. Now here he was, already exhausted and the air was growing thinner the higher he went. He sat down on a large rock and rested his elbows on his knees. He did not want to continue. Looking up he was nearing the rocking switchbacks. The Sandia Crest House was only two or three miles away. The longest miles were behind him. From his left he heard running. A young woman in her twenties ran by on her way up the hill.
George was not about to give up. He was not a tri-athlete, but he had done his fair share of treks. This mountain, a mountain he had known for years, was not going to defeat him. He got up and began to walk again. Fifty yards later he sat down again. Fine, if this is what it takes. I’m no quitter. George found his third resting rock when the thunder clapped above.
It can’t be that close. I’ll okay. George continued up the steep switchbacks. He was close enough now he could see the tips of the towering antennas at the top of the mountain. I’m within a mile. Then the beeping started. George knew that sound well. It was a sensor that had been setup at the peak to warn of an impending lighting strike. The crack of lightning and thundered rocked George’s environment. He tried to quicken his pace, but his lungs and body would not submit. By now he could see the bottom of the crest house. The lightning strikes were increasing, but his body protested each step.
Rain began to fall in sheets. George wanted to panic, but did not have the energy to do so. God, if this is how I go, please let it happen quick. The air-filled with ever quickening beeps and then cracks of thunder. George reached the top of the trail and only had a few yards left. The sensor began to go off once more. This time the pings were slower. Looking around, the parking lot was mostly empty.
George forced himself to ascend the steps to his rest. He promised himself hot chocolate and a view of the city and the storm from the safety of the snack area indoors. The warmth of the gift shop welcomed him. He stepped inside and closed the door. In his mind everyone stopped, turned, and applauded. However, the mostly empty building offered only quiet solace from the storm.
A worker came over to George’s table. “I just wanted to let you know we are closing early because of the storm.”
George looked out the window. The rain had blocked the view of the city. He turned back to the worker. “Is the tram closed?”
“It is, but that wouldn’t matter. Nobody should be on the trails in this weather. We’re closing in twenty minutes.”
The worker walked off. George wasn’t sure what to do. He had planned to take the tram back and walk to his car. Maybe he could get a ride down to the Highway 14 and call a friend. He began to search for someone who might look friendly. His eyes immediately locked on a friendly face. A blond-haired woman in a blue wind-breaker stood there smiling. “You need a ride, stranger?”
“How did you know?” George motioned to the seat across from him, and Shelly took it.
“I heard about the weather, and you told me you were hiking today before we go out tonight. I thought I should drive up here when I couldn’t get you on your phone.”
George shook his head. “The signal dropped when I got lost. I turned it off to save my battery.”
“You got lost?”
“It’s a long story. What do you say we go get my car, head to my place and let me clean up, and I’ll take you to a terrific dinner?”
“That’s what I was hoping to hear.”
Maybe getting lost on the trail wasn’t so terrible after all. George took Shelly’s hand and they braved the storm together.