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True Stories by Steve Keely
Death Valley Walk
This is an odd inclusion since it’s written by my former landlady, Ruth Hill, on
the day of my return from Death Valley.
Subject: Bo's Back
Date: Monday, January 12, 1998 3:16 PM
I was shocked this afternoon to hear the back porch door open. I was very surprised to see Bo. We didn't expect to see him until the 18th. We planned to take a little busload of seniors to Scotty's castle and pick him up. But he started his walk on New Years day.
The first thing he wanted was a shower. The first thing he asked about was the missing cat. Then he came in and sat on the floor. I gave him his mail and packages and returned all his books. He was asking me about coyotes when Rick arrived. It seems that Bo had gotten in last night and called our friend Rick Frey, but he wasn't home so Bo left a message for him. It was about ten o'clock and he knows I go to bed early. I would have been glad to go into town and pick him up.
Anyway, he made his Death Valley walk. He told us some of his problems. He had stashed water and food but found out that coyotes can smell water through plastic and dirt and rocks. He had to go without food and water for several days at a stretch. At one point he found a running salty stream and fell into it. He drank quite a bit of the salty water and had diarrhea but knew if he kept walking he would be all right. The only thing he had to eat was some dehydrated Gatorade. At one of his empty caches he found the rocks neatly moved and no traces of plastic. He did meet a ranger one night and got yelled at for being somewhere he shouldn't (I don't know why), and did get a little water and found out that when the rangers find a cache, they destroy them. They are a little fussy about their desert. He was able to make it because at some of his hiding places the rocks atop were big enough that the coyotes couldn't move them.
One morning in a desolate area, he found a full pack with blankets and tarp. He was wiley enough to check the ground carefully before he got close. There were no footprints. The pack had been there for a full year. Then he told us all about the man who left it for some unknown reason. He said that the man was in his fifties and was a hobo who was hitchhiking. He had been conceived on this parents’ wedding night. His father was an osteopath or some such thing. He had been through the big train yards in North Platte, Nebraska. He left the tracks in Reno after the cold mountain crossing and headed south for warmer weather. He gradually told us how he came by all this information. He looked around the area a little bit but was growing weak and had to move on. He took time to go through the pack and found a watch that has an alarm that goes off every evening at six. There was a pocket knife, a few food stamps, a birth certificate and a letter with a photograph.
He read the letter to us and it was most heart rendering. It was from a daughter, Susie, who has been trying to find him for twenty years. She had been raised by foster parents. I think they were his parents. She had a sister she hates that only had bad things to say about him. She pleaded with him to let her see him and get to know him a little. She told him about his grandchildren. She enclosed a copy of a picture from a newspaper of his parents on their wedding day. She found out that she could write to him through an agency that could trace him by his social security number. They would forward a letter to him. The letter was dated just about six months before the day he left his pack. She wrote him her phone number and begged him to call her. We liked the idea that he was on his way to see her when the cold caused him to veer south. Would he have called her? Is she still waiting to hear from him?
Bo suggested going back and making a search of the area. Rick vetoed that but I think that
they agreed not to say anything to the authorities about the letter. They will report the find. There is a possibility that the man wandered off for some reason and couldn't find his pack but was able to catch a ride. There was no money in the pack. I think that Bo may decide to make the call himself.
Bo did manage to find one little spring but it was so slow that he had to decide to move on without water. It was so cold after Death Valley on Westgard Pass that he thought he would have to walk all night but fortunately was able to get a ride with a couple of interesting men. One of them is a man that used to come here for the Lama lessons.
It has been a year-and-half since she wrote. And almost a year to the day when Bo found the letter. I think he can make quite a story out of that.
Aftermath: I wrote the story, lost it during a move, but rediscovered Ruth Hill’s accurate chronicle. What’s missing is the ending. Following the living room recital, I pondered the next call: The ranger, sheriff, media, or daughter Susie. She cried a minute, then asked for her father’s items and to solicit a ranger. I did, and he spotted the sock flag I’d made on a dune near the pack. Two hundred yards away (fifty more than I’d searched) lay the bleaching bones, that is, lower torso skeleton. Varmints had dragged off the rest.
What happened to Hank? Students I sub-teach fire this proper question first. Perhaps no one was closer than me, hence his poor daughter’s determination to meet me. That dark evening, I surmise, he lit a cigarette before sunset, returned to the pack the Camels and matches, and began a walk before bed. The immediate vicinity is a maze of small, sandy humps where anyone can get lost. He walks and smokes, the sun disappears, and he’s unable to see his footprints. He walks broken circles until collapsing in the sand and freezing. Despite a warm reputation, this valley ices in winter.
The notes in his pack substantiated his presence a year before the eleventh day I walked out of the valley. I have chilly recall each evening after finding the pack of a repeated ‘beep’, and it wasn’t until near the end that I discovered the wristwatch pulled from his pack. I walked out; Hank disintegrated.
The story broke in the Bishop newspaper and radio, “Local hiker finds body in Death Valley”, and I was a temporary homicide suspect in the sheriff’s eye, and maligned for mailing the daughter the father’s belongings an hour before the sheriff demanded them. I needed a break from the desert and him, and made a reservation for the Amazon. The day after I left, Susie flew into Bishop and the ranger handed her a bag. She spread the remains of the father she’d never met in the valley where he died.
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