The red dirt was too heavy and hot to make much dust as we jiggled and jounced our way into the camping spot. Blistering, unrelenting, dangerous heat. One hundred and fifteen degrees. The car’s temperature gauge crept up to warning levels. Jagged red and orange sandstone escarpments loomed above, our saviors, because when the sun began to set, the crags would swathe us in blessed, life-saving shade. A fifteen inch desert iguana climbed the creosote bush next to the car and began his threatening pushups; this was his territory and he wasn’t prepared to share. Jumping cholla, beavertail and barrel cactus seemed to lean toward us, thirsty and treacherous. My sister and I slowly emerged from the cool safety of our car. Forty camping spots in Hole in the Wall Campground and only one was inhabited, ours.
The wind whipped our hair and lashed our faces, sucking the last moisture from our skin. We went to the back of the little teardrop trailer and opened the galley to gulp some water. The water was hot. This campground was hot. Hot like the surface of the sun, hot like the scorched earth, hot like a blast-furnace wind, hot like charred flesh. We opened the doors on the trailer to let the gusts howl through, deluding ourselves that such violent air would make it tolerable inside. How could anything survive here?
The sun lowered in the sky and shadows, taunted us, and brought none of the expected relief. The wind raged. We desperately shed our clothes – down to bras and underwear – stripped of our modesty by the desert inferno. We could have danced naked in the desert night and no one would care, because no one was there. The visitor’s center, off in the distance, was closed for the season, no use to an empty park. Off in the cactus, we heard the rattle of snake-imitating insects, syncopation to the rhythm of the gusts. No light, just stars and stars and more stars. The Milky Way streaked across the sky. The earth, like a celestial oven, baked the life out of its anxious inhabitants.
We lay on our backs in our trailer, the doors open, playing word games to distract from the heat and conquer our increasing primal fear. There was very little between us and death out there. No one knew where we were, no cell service, no one to come to the rescue. We were increasingly aware that diminished supplies, questionable equipment, and our own intelligence and physical strength tentatively held nature back from our destruction.
We finally drifted off to gentle sleep, then snapped awake – a sound…not a natural sound, but familiar, out of place – the sound of an engine. We peered into the night and one tiny set of headlights slowly, slowly grew closer, bigger, brighter, fading the stars. The lights approached the thirty-nine empty camping spots; we wiggled into a few more clothes. The lights kept coming, the sound of the engine louder despite the wind: a dark, windowless van – closer and closer. It entered the campground and the lights flew up and down on the rutted road. Slowly, slowly, the van drove to the far side of the campground, but didn’t stop. It kept moving, following the circular campground path. It drove at the pace of a desert turtle, stopping to look at each individual campsite, rejecting one-by-one. Thirty-nine empty spots, and the driver, whoever he was, came to a halt in the spot right next to us, separated by no more than ten feet. The engine shut off and we could hear it tick. Furtively, we moved door latches into place and silently shut the windows. As the wind howled, we huddled, locked in our tiny metal trailer, sweat soaked the sheets and pillows and we passed minute by minute on full alert. Not a sound came from the van: no light, no voices, no opening of van doors. Nothing. No sleep that night, as the dangers of the desert dried to dust, no fear greater than the fear of our own species.