Gigantic curtains of stone towered on either side of me, divided by a river of whitecapped blue sky. The river, only an inch or two deep and flowing merrily along in splishes and splashes against my boots and dampening my socks, belied the patient chiseling it had done through the epochs to create this amphitheater.
My attention focused upward, through sheer luck I narrowly avoided stepping into a five foot diameter pothole. I warily eyed its dark depths as I skirted it while listening to the hike leader warn people to keep an eye out for the watery holes. Of course, his warning came when we were already thirty yards or more into the canyon.
“They’ll swallow you whole,” he admonished with a giddy lilt, likely secretly hoping someone would fall in. Ray was like that. A grumpy curmudgeon whose greatest amusement was to watch others flail in vaudevillian slapstick tragedy, he was mostly grim and carried a chip on his shoulder when sober and was boisterously belligerent and argumentative when having drink, which he took to with relish when the day’s work or hike was done.
The night before, we had camped in a nameless canyon spot, and as shadows inched down the walls, a two-liter plastic jug of whiskey was passed around the company. It was a wedding party after all. Dave and I had missed the ceremony the previous day due to car troubles on the 191 pass on our way to Colorado two days prior. We had had to locate and then field replace the distributor on my 1969 Pontiac Ventura, which had seized up and spun around, puncturing the main coolant line to boot.
The group consisted of Ray and Patty’s friends and families. All their friends were climbers, most of them ex-Mountaineers, who had quit the organization in disgust at the ‘soft, lax, and dangerous’ training regimens for contemporary members. As the whiskey fueled their restlessness, many began to free climb the walls about us, like crickets in a box scrabbling to get out. One man, a wiry and gnarled old-timer spider-climbed an overhanging ledge upside-down, with bare feet and fingers in a feat that young men forty years his junior were unable to match due to their lack of strength and dexterity.
Ray was in fine form, slurringly egging along all and sundry to ever more challenging feats. Ray and Dave didn’t get along so well, and Ray kept handing the jug past his newly minted stepson to his own kids, irritating Dave. Dave called out Ray about how he was all mouth and no action. Piqued, Ray scrambled up a nearby wall to a narrow ledge fifteen feet up and proceeded to turn around, drop his pants, and moon everyone.
Patty decided she didn’t like Dave prodding her new husband to take silly risks, and loudly announced he was cut off, sending Dave into a small whining fit and back to his backpack for a beer. Ray secured further revenge by successfully convincing Dave it was tarantula mating season, and gleefully watched him spray almost an entire can of bug repellant in three concentric circles around his sleeping bag.
The hijinks culminated the following afternoon when after a grueling hike/climb/scramble of more than a thousand feet up and over the rim, one of the party asked Dave’s newly consummated girlfriend for his rock back. Tired and dehydrated, she didn’t understand his question. Pointing at her backpack, he reiterated his request.
Puzzled, she dug through it and at the very bottom was a child’s head-sized rock, easily one stone or more in weight. Angry, she heaved it at him and missed, and it rolled over the edge and tumbled down, missing someone by mere feet. Ray jumped down her throat, ignoring her indignant protestations.
She muttered “Fucking assholes,” over and over as we sat in the baking sun waiting for the truck to come and pick us up.