tagRomanceTrack Meet in Purgatory Ch. 01

Track Meet in Purgatory Ch. 01


The opening that Lynne had noticed in the face of that house-sized boulder proved to be a niche that was more than large enough for us both. We entered it, and we dropped to the ground. Looking about, I saw that we were in an alcove where a huge chip—eight feet long and about five feet deep—had broken from the boulder's bottom corner as it had fallen, eons ago, from what had then been the edge of the butte above. The ceiling sloped from about six feet high at the rear to about five feet at the opening.

Now we'd been out of the wind and the rain for a few minutes, but we were both badly chilled. And we weren't warming up, in spite of the shelter we'd found. It didn't take us long to figure out that our cotton shirts and our jeans were the reason; they were sodden and cold.

I told her, "We have to get out of these wet clothes. I think we'll warm up if we get them off and get our warm-ups on."

She looked me in the eyes. "I don't have anything on under my shirt," she said. "Can you handle that?" She paused awkwardly. "Uh… I mean…" She paused again, fumbling for words.

Smiling at her again, I said, "I know what you mean, even if it came out wrong. I promise I won't look."

We took our packs off and dug out the warm-up gear—fleece pants and jackets. Turning away from each other for modesty's sake, we stripped off the wet clothing—which, in my case, included my underwear. Once the soaked articles were off, we replaced them with the fleece articles. We made the change none too soon. I was definitely too cold, but Lynne was shivering visibly and there was a blue tinge to her lips.

Miserable, arms folded across her chest, she looked at me, looked into my eyes. "Jase, I'm so cold! Are we going to die here? Tonight?" she asked. She was fretful. I saw no fear in her; only deep sorrow at the possibility that our lives might be cut short before they had really begun.

I pulled her toward the rear of our refuge and, seating myself with my back against its rear wall, I pulled her down close to me. I took her into my arms, hoping that the combined heat of our bodies would make us both more comfortable. "We'll warm up faster if we stay close," I said. She put her own arms around me and snuggled against me, tensely but gratefully, on my left. Slowly, her shivering subsided, and she relaxed. I realized then that she'd been dangerously cold. I didn't know it then, but now I know that she was on the verge of serious hypothermia: She'd almost gotten so cold that her own body's ability to generate heat wouldn't be enough to keep her alive. But we'd warmed her up in time. I was warming up, too, but I hadn't been as chilled as she.

We sat there in the middle of the refuge we'd found, holding each other close, in order to pool our bodies' warmth.

We have some shelter, now," I told her. "And we have each other. We got into this together, and we're going to get out of it together! We'll have a long, miserable night, but we'll be alive when it's over. I won't let you die, Lynne! And you won't let me die!"

She smiled, and said, "Deal! You've got you a deal, Jason!" I returned her smile. I could tell that she was still worried about the coming night, but now she knew that we had hope.

The rain hadn't stopped while we'd recovered from the chills the storm had brought us, but it had subsided to a gentle patter and the wind was now just a breeze. No rain had penetrated our shelter, and the coarse sandy earth under us was dry. The unbroken cloud cover to the west glowed above the horizon, suggesting that the sun wasn't below the horizon yet. I looked at my watch and confirmed that it was seven-thirty, or about half an hour before sunset. There was still plenty of light, but it would fade quickly now; our long night was only beginning. The wind and rain had stopped almost completely. And then I noticed something about our boulder.

"We may be better off than we thought," I told her hopefully. "Let me up so I can check."

She moved so that I could get up. I stepped out into the open. It didn't take me long to make up my mind. I rejoined her in the alcove, sat back against the boulder again where I had been a few moments earlier. She looked at me questioningly as she moved back into snuggling position.

"It's a lot warmer in this space than it is out in the open. Feel the boulder. It's warm! The sun must have heated it up before the storm."

She looked up at me and, after reaching back to test what I'd said about the boulder, she said, "Maybe this won't be as bad as we were afraid it would be!" She smiled and went on. "But I'd rather keep warm by leaning against you than against a rock! You're softer!" She wiggled in a little closer. Having just been out in the open, I could now feel the heat radiating from the boulder. And I realized that the dry sandy floor of our space was warm, too. It wasn't hot, as the sand we'd walked through that afternoon had been, but it wasn't cold, either.

"You're softer, too!" I remarked, putting both arms around her and giving her a little squeeze.

She relaxed against me again, and I relaxed, too. When we were no longer talking, I found myself thinking about how we'd gotten ourselves into this fix. It had started on a Saturday afternoon a month earlier.


"Jase! Jase!" Lynne had yelled as she burst, unannounced and without knocking, through the front door of my parents' house. "Jason! Where are you?"

Fred, our border collie, chuffed a couple of times at the invasion; but quickly subsided when he saw that it was Lynne, and not The Unspeakable Enemy. (We knew that the mailman would never enter the house like that, but Fred wasn't so sure.)

"Up here, Lynne!" I yelled back.

Breathlessly, she continued as she mounted the stairs two at a time, "Jase! Let's go see these next month! After we're out of school!"

When she found me where I'd been hanging out in my room, she shoved a Denver Post article from the previous May, almost a year earlier, into my hand. It was about Picket Wire Canyon's dinosaur tracks, down in the National Forest Service's Comanche National Grasslands near La Junta, Colorado. She had cut the article out, stuffed it into a folder, and laid it on her desk almost a year ago. And then she'd promptly forgotten about it. She'd just found it as she was going through things in a fit of what she called "spring cleaning." I looked over the article curiously, and I decided that I wanted to see those tracks, too.

Lynne and I were the closest of close friends, but otherwise introverted kids—and nerdy. We shared academic, scientific bents. All four of our parents worked full-time, so when school wasn't in session, we spent a lot of time hanging out with each other.

We both liked everything science, but she was particularly interested in the life sciences—paleontology, in particular, so dinosaur tracks were right up her line. My interests were stronger in astronomy, math, and computers. But I thought the life sciences interesting, too. According to the newspaper, the site in Picket Wire Canyon had hundreds of fossilized apatosaur and allosaur footprints. They'd been made, the article said, a hundred-fifty million years ago.

"That's really cool!" I said. "One-hundred-fifty-million-and-one-year-old dinosaur tracks!"

"No, Jase! One-hundred-fifty million!" she corrected me without really hearing what I'd said.

"That's what it says in the paper," I agreed. "But the article's a year old!" I went on to rub it in: "One-hundred-fifty-million plus one is one-hundred-fifty-million-and-one!"

"Okay, Nerd!" she retorted. "It's no wonder you don't have a girlfriend when you make jokes like that!"

"You must make jokes like that, too, Nerdette." I pointed out helpfully. "You don't have a boyfriend!"

"Touché!" she replied, smiling. Neither of us had a love life, and both of us knew it. We both regretted it. But we teased each other about it all the time; it wasn't something we would allow to affect our friendship. "But they're still one-hundred-fifty million years old!"

I went on. "I'd like to see those tracks! But it's a good three- or four-hour drive. And the tracks are over five miles from the closest place where we can park, so that's a two- or three-hour walk. And that's only one way. We'd probably have to spend a night away from home. Will your parents let you do that?"

"Dad wouldn't let me do it by myself. He thinks girls are too weak to do things like that alone!" she said. The emphasis she'd put on the word "weak" was very slight. I was probably the only person in the world who knew her well enough to pick it up—along with the scorn in it. She continued, "But we're both 18 now, and he'll let me do it with you!"

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Lynne was, literally, the girl next door. Twenty years earlier, within days of each other, her parents and mine had moved into a pair of next-door houses on 17th Avenue Parkway in Denver's Park Hill neighborhood, which was peopled mainly by liberal Democratic professionals. Then, a little more than a year later, our mothers had gotten pregnant at almost the same time. They'd had their babies (Lynne and me) just nine days apart that April.

Being our respective parents' only children, we had grown up together. Really together! So much together, in fact, that by the time we were six we were making our parents split the difference and celebrate our birthdays on the same day each year: The day that fell halfway in between, naturally. Which house? There was no way to split that difference, so we took turns.

We'd been friends, fast friends, inseparable friends, ever since we were three, though she'd never let me forget that she was older than I—by nine whole days, eleven whole hours, and twenty-six whole minutes. A few weeks before showing me that newspaper article, she'd even scolded me, for having a different opinion about one of our teachers than she, by saying, "The trouble with you young people today is that you don't respect your elders!" I usually gave as good as I got, but that had been a jaw dropper I hadn't had a reply for.

Once we were big enough to open doors by ourselves, we had treated both houses, and both yards—not to mention both sets of parents—as though they all belonged to both of us. I don't remember how our parents at first took our shared habit of barging into either house unannounced, whether accompanied by the other or not. Now it was just the way things were; we each even had a key to the other's house. Neither of us ever bothered to tell our parents when we were going next door; they knew exactly where to find us if the two of us weren't in their house and hadn't told them we were going somewhere else. I suppose we could have taken advantage of that, but we had never thought of doing so. For years, now, they had taken it for granted that each couple owned just half of their only child. But as compensation, they owned half of the neighbor child.

Each of us had called the other's parents by their first names ever since we could remember—though I've been told that when I was really little I'd addressed Robin as "Lynne's Mom," Dennis as "Lynne's Dad," and, for a week or two, my own parents as "my Mom" and "my Dad." She called my folks "Al" and "Julie".

Lynne and I had played soccer on the same team in a City Park unisex league, together.

We'd learned what dirty words meant, and how to use them (as well as when not to), together.

When a bully had picked on either of us, we'd joined forces and kicked his ass, together.

When several bullies had ganged up on either of us, we'd joined forces and gotten our own asses kicked, together.

We'd gone to the same private schools, together. There, we took courses, together, and prepared for the same tests, together.

We'd gone to a local driving school and earned our driver's licenses, together.

We were both long-distance runners on our high school's track team; and, even off-season, we panted and sweated through training runs, together.

If it was an important part of growing up, we had done it together. Hell, it's hard to think of even unimportant things we hadn't done together.

She's a girl and I'm a boy, so as kids we'd each thought that the other had a serious handicap on that account. We'd thought it a defect something like being blind, deaf, or lame. But we'd been able to overlook that, just as we would've overlooked blindness, deafness, or lameness in a friend.

Yeah, parents can't watch kids all the time, and we'd played the standard "I'll show you mine if…" game. We'd managed to avoid getting caught, and it had been sort of interesting. But we hadn't thought it was any big deal. The difference between boys and girls, we'd concluded, was just that they had different arrangements for taking a leak. For some unfathomable reason, boys weren't supposed to see girls' arrangement, and vice versa. We weren't sure what that was all about.

There were the cooties, of course. But by the time that other boys had told me that girls have them, we were already such close friends that I could ignore hers. (I knew that she didn't have to ignore mine, because boys don't have them.) Our close friendship, cooties notwithstanding, did mean that other kids thought we were a little bit weird. Our shared nerdiness gave them even more reason to think us weird. But what the other kids thought didn't bother either of us: We had each other.

Lynne and I talked about everything with each other. Our school had separated the boys and the girls for sex ed classes when we were pre-teens. At that age, we were old enough to get a grasp of the mechanics but young enough to be fundamentally uninterested in what they might mean for us. But Lynne and I talked about everything that those classes covered. After all, I had to be sure that Lynne hadn't learned something I hadn't, and she felt the same way about what I had learned.

Even after we knew that there's more to The Difference than leak-taking equipment, we still talked about nearly everything. We would have talked about everything, but there just wasn't enough time for that! As we went through our high school years, we would have talked to each other about all of the nitty-gritty details of our love lives, if either of us had had one. But nerds don't have love lives, and there could be no doubt that we were nerds. Possibly even total geeks. I was too shy, too afraid of girls; and Lynne was one of those smart girls so many boys are afraid of.

We talked to each other about how much each of us wanted a love life. But it hadn't occurred to either of us that the other might be, or have, what we were looking for. We just didn't see each other that way—we were real friends, not a boy-girl couple! So neither of us happened to think that either set of parents might have objections to their 18-year-old's spending a night on the road with no company but an 18-year-old friend of the other sex.

And, as it turned out, none of them had any such concern. Neither Lynne's parents nor mine saw any reason why we shouldn't do what we had in mind, provided that we gave them some evidence of having thought things through by producing a definite plan that they could approve or (preferably, we suspected) make us revise. (Or, I suppose, that would give them reason to rescind permission completely if it was too half-assed.) We spent an afternoon making one, and they approved it on the first try, with only minor adjustments.

We were seniors in high school, about to be graduated. Our last classes would meet on the middle Friday of May. Then we would have three weeks off before commencement ceremonies. We decided to take several days off after we were out of school, to relax and to prepare for this trip.

Then we would leave Denver early on the morning of the following Thursday, to drive down to the Comanche National Grasslands in my Mom's Subaru Outback. The newspaper article gave directions, so finding the trailhead wouldn't be a problem. That afternoon, we would hike down into the canyon, see the tracks, and hike back out. We would stay the night in a pair of motel rooms, for which we would spend our own money. On the following day, we would drive back home.

They did have some questions, for which we had almost acceptable answers. The conversation went something like this.

Parents: "Five-and-a-half miles? Each way?"

Us: "Won't be a problem for a couple of fit long-distance runners."

Parents: "Clothing?"

Us: "Jeans, sturdy shirts, and hats."

Parents: "If you drive down there and hike on the same day, you'll be out on the trail pretty late in the day. What if it gets cold?"

Us: "We'll take our track warm-up stuff with us. It's good warm fleece that we won't have any more official use for."

Parents: "Equipment?"

Us: "We'll throw some bottled water and a couple of power bars each into the packs we carry our books to school in. Oh! And plenty of sunscreen! And we'll each take a suitcase with a change of clothes for the next day."

Parents: "We hear it gets hot in those canyons; better take plenty of water."

Us: "We thought a gallon each, but we'll each throw in another quart." (As long-distance runners, we knew a thing or two about thirst.)

Parents: "Navigation?"

Us (accompanied by teenaged eye-rolling): "It's a canyon! There are only two directions we can go. And the Purgatoire River runs down it. If we forget which direction we're going, all we have to do is look at the river to see which way it's flowing."

Parents: "What if you get in trouble?" (This one was pro forma. They asked it because they were the parents and we were the teenagers. Neither they nor we really thought that we could accomplish this.)

Us: "We'll take our phones with us, of course."

Parents: "Sounds like you two have thought this thing through."

And that was it.

Yeah. Anyone who's ever done any serious hiking can see that our plan had some some mighty big holes. The overall plan for getting there, spending a night, and getting home was fine, but a car trip on well-traveled roads is a little different from a hike on a little-traveled trail in what turned out to be a remote desert environment.

But all four of our parents were transplants to the Southwest from the East Coast. They weren't outdoor people, and they'd never done any hiking in a remote area. Lynne and I had grown up in Denver, but neither we nor our immediate friends had ever done anything at all like this. So We're gonna walk in and then walk back out! seemed, both to our parents and to us, like all the planning we needed to do for that central part of the trip. When our target day rolled around, Nature was going to deliver an unforgettable lesson on backcountry hiking, how to prepare for it, and how much a couple of naïve teenagers can accomplish in the way of finding trouble.


Lynne stirred in my arms, bringing my thoughts back to the present. "I'm going to try my phone again, Jase," she said as she broke out of my arms and sat up. Why don't you try yours, too?" I had a different carrier than she did. There was a chance that one of us could connect. Not a big one, but a chance.

We found that the phones, buried in our packs, had survived the rain; both turned on nicely. But once again, neither could make a connection, even when we stepped out into the open. Cell phones generally don't accomplish anything useful in remote areas, but neither of us had thought of that.

At least, we figured, we shouldn't get any flak about that particular oversight from our parents. They hadn't thought of it, either. We were typical teenagers in one respect: We were more worried about getting into trouble with our parents when we got back than about the possibility—all too real—that we wouldn't get back alive.

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