I hope it’s true what I’ve heard—that Kentucky has green grass and water. I’ll be disappointed if I travel all that way only to find more desert with less and less water each year.
I expressed some of these thoughts to Charlene over breakfast.
“I’m pretty sure it’s okay up there,” she said. “But what will you do if it’s not?”
“I don’t know. Keep going, I guess.”
“Someplace green where there’s no fighting, no disease and plenty of good clean water.”
Charlene smiled like I was a little kid talking about fairies. “Sounds like you’re looking for heaven.”
I pretended to be very interested in picking shell off my hard-boiled egg. But why shouldn’t I look for heaven? Hadn’t I spent enough time in hell? “What are you looking for, then?”
“Home. Peace. Maybe figure out how to get along with my family.”
“And if that doesn’t work?”
She stood up and brushed the dirt off her pants. “Like you said the other day, it’s a big world.”
We loaded our gear and continued along the road we had been following the day before. It wound around low peaks, took us back and forth along switchbacks and sometimes veered and split so that I had to consult the crude map we had gotten in town. It didn’t always help.
When the sun was nearly overhead, we stopped to eat and rest the horses. We had been gaining elevation all morning and although the roads weren’t very steep, it was still hard work. So I set out a picnic for us and watered the horses in a nearby stream, while Charlene uselessly sunned herself on a rock.
About an hour after we got back onto the road, we hit the highest elevation of the day.
And then we began following a switchback down toward the valley on the other side. We hadn’t gone very far before we came upon a rockslide. I jumped down from my horse and took a closer look, but it was pretty obvious we weren’t going to get over or around it.
“We’ll have to retrace our steps,” I said. “There was another road about a quarter mile back.”
“But we don’t know where it goes.”
“Are you saying you’d rather go back the way we came? Go west?”
“I’m sure all roads on this side of the mountain lead to the valley eventually.”
Charlene seemed skeptical, and her doubt was well-founded because the other road wound around and narrowed, heading downward but also south. We wanted north. There was nothing to do but keep an eye out for other trails, but they were all so small and overgrown that I was reluctant to trust them.
So south it was. It would mean a longer journey once we were in the valley, but it couldn’t be helped.
When we finally got our first good view of the valley, we were on a high ridge. We reined in and sat for a moment in silence.
“They sure got a lot of snow,” Charlene finally said.
“I don’t think that’s snow. It’s the arenas blancas we heard about.”
Charlene squinted. “Looks like snow to me.”
“Well, let’s just hope it is, otherwise I have no idea how we’ll get across. I don’t see any sign of water.”
We continued down toward the valley and I checked my map again. The vendor had sworn there were some villages, so it would just be a matter of finding them. I could only hope we weren’t too far south. But if we were, we’d just have to follow the foothills north. If we had to skirt this whole desert valley that way, so be it. I had no experience with trackless desert and it would be easy to get lost and die out there.
On the valley floor I felt no better about the arenas blancas. They were beautiful, like nothing I had ever seen in my life, but they frightened me, too.
By now the sun was low in the sky, casting the shadows of the mountains across the valley. There would be no time to find the villages on my map.
“We’ll make camp here,” I said. “In the morning we’ll go to the nearest village and figure out what to do next.”
“How far do you think we are from a village?”
“You mean will we get there in time for breakfast?”
“Lunch would be fine.”
“Well, don’t get your hopes up. They’ve got no rail and they’re wedged between mountains and desert. If you can get a decent bowl of posole, you’ll be doing good.”
“Posole sounds nice.” She shivered in the growing darkness, then helped me build a fire.
I’m looking at this map again tonight, trying to figure out where we are. I don’t think we’re very far south of where we meant to end up. Now that we’re on level ground, we should be able to reach a civilized place quickly. Maybe even in time for Charlene to get a meal.
Tonight I can look out over the valley and see the white sands glowing in the moonlight. I wish I had asked more questions back in town. Is there a way across? Will we have to go around? What’s the safest way? I suppose someone in the next town will know.
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