Michael took Andrew and me camping in the Gila Wilderness on our first trip to visit him in New Mexico, where he had moved after high school. It is the oldest designated wilderness area in the world and, apart from areas in Alaska, the largest in the United States. Heading into its vast expanse is serious business. Hikers and campers must sign in at the visitor center before they leave, giving their intended length of stay so that the rangers know when to begin sending search parties after them. We made careful preparations and set out well-equipped, with topographical maps, water and food, matches, first-aid supplies (including a snake-bite kit—the Gila is crawling with rattlesnakes), and sun protection.
We hiked across the high mesa in scorching heat for hours, and just as I was feeling like one of those cartoon characters in the desert who is crawling along with his tongue hanging out and starting to see mirages, we came to high cliffs above the middle fork of the Gila River, where Michael said we could begin our descent. Half-sliding, half-scrambling down the steep screeside, we reached The Meadows, the most beautiful place I have ever seen, and the closest to Eden I can ever hope to be.
The Gila River flows for miles through a narrow canyon with high cliffs on either side, but at The Meadows, where we set up camp for three days, it opens out into a wide, flat area carpeted with wildflowers and protected by the canyon walls. The river is wider here as well, with little pools in which we swam amongst the trout, who had not learned to be afraid of humans.
On the second day, fully relaxed and feeling that we would be perfectly happy if we never saw another human being again, we were startled to see a young man walking toward us. He looked as if he didn’t have enough equipment or supplies to be camping alone, and it turned out that he had no hiking experience at all. He also looked mentally ill-equipped to be striking out solo into the wilderness; he had just broken up with his girlfriend and needed to get away from it all, he said, and he seemed anxious and agitated. He had nearly run out of drinking water and we discussed the potability of the river water. As he wandered uncertainly away, we felt vague misgivings, but also relief.
On our way back out, we decided to follow the river rather than trying to climb back up to the mesa. Following the trail required our full attention, since it was narrow and only sporadically maintained, kept criss-crossing the river, and had been washed out frequently in flash floods. About two-thirds of the way back, we found a string tied across the path, the site of a campfire with the ashes still warm, and a note from our lone hiker, now clearly panic-stricken:
Help—I’m lost and I’m not feeling so good. I think I might have drunk some brackish water. I’m going to try climbing up the canyon wall to get my bearings. Please send a search party for me if I don’t make it back.
We fanned out and called for him, and either Andrew or Michael tried climbing up to find him, but in vain. Eventually we decided that it would be best to get out as soon as possible and send help. He had not yet returned by the time we got back to the Visitor Center, so we made as detailed a report as we could. But we never learned what became of him.
Andrew and I returned to The Meadows a year or so later, on a cross-country trip with our intrepid and world-traveled friend Peta. Having traveled on foot through Morocco and parts of the Sahara, she had been frankly contemptuous of the tameness of America as seen from its highways, but even she found the Gila sufficiently wild. This time we hadn’t taken quite enough food in with us, and emerged half-starving, parched, and on the verge of heat exhaustion. We were relieved to see the old Ford Falcon again, and to unburden ourselves of our heavy packs. Not fifteen minutes after we had driven out of the parking area, we came upon the first outpost of civilization we’d seen for days, a gas station-convenience store where advertisements for ice-cold drinks beckoned seductively. I bought a frosty can of black cherry soda double-quick, popped the top, and guzzled it greedily in two or three great gulps.
In an instant I was doubled up in agony. That cherry soda had such a strong impact upon me that I didn’t drink an artificially flavored soda for 25 years afterwards. The exertion, ultra-fresh air, and starvation diet of the past few days had left me completely unprotected from the rush of corn syrup, artificial flavors, artificial colors, and preservatives that assaulted my system. It was a rude return to civilization.