Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Anasazi Strip - Chapter 20

Linda's camp at Bighorn Buttes would have made a nice postcard. She had chosen the area because it was screened from the House Rock Valley Road by two towering pinnacles of brown rock. Behind Camel Rocks was a circular alcove abutting the edge of the northern extreme of the Paria Plateau. The looming cliffs gave Linda the impression that she was sitting in the bottom of a deep canyon.

There were signs that this particular spot had been used for camping many times before. Sun-baked trash was trapped under the branches of sagebrush bushes, tire tracks led in rambling circles across the sandy floor of the valley, and rings of piled rock abounded like the offerings of some fire-mad culture. Linda had never been able to figure out why people found it necessary to make their own fire rings, rather than use the ones already there. The black-eyed rings scarred the landscape like cauterized wounds.

Linda built her fire in a rocky pit that sat on a flat knoll of solid sandstone. She was in the mood for a large, white woman's fire, so she piled on the seasoned pieces of juniper she had gathered on her way to camp. Stepping back from the fire, she watched the crackling light show, breathing deeply of the smoky air. Linda loved camping out in the canyonlands of the Southwest, cooking cowboy-style and feeling more free and alive than she did anywhere else on the planet. She positioned her lawn chair so she could watch the fire while using the tailgate of her truck as a table. She opened the top on a wine cooler and looked up at the starry sky. It would be another thirty minutes before the fire was ready for cooking. Linda was in high spirits.

The bird-watching in House Rock Valley had been truly exceptional. Even though she hadn't arrived there until well after two o'clock, she still managed to spot more endangered birds than she would usually see on a full day of field work. The spot where she set up her observation post sat astride a north-south running ridge called the Cockscomb, a geologic monocline where the fault line edges of the earth had pushed up into a narrow, crumbling pile of mountainous boulders. From this perch she could view the narrow cut between the plateaus; it was a popular rest area along a vast interstate aerial highway, heavily traveled this time of year by large predatory birds. The afternoon had become mildly breezy and with the arrival of the wind came the hawks and eagles, eager to perform their aerial ballets on the shifting air currents and thermals. At one point, there had been five bald eagles dancing across the ocean-blue sky like they were bobbing to celestial music. They rose and fell with a grace that made Linda wish she had wings. At times like this, Linda often remembered a phrase from some poet: "And even the gods were jealous."

All in all, Linda had identified over thirty predatory birds in less than three hours of viewing. That was a record for her. There had even been two peregrine falcons, the last of a dying breed. Linda had almost started to cry when the sun began setting over the Kaibab Mountain. She wanted to keep watching the bird show, so she stayed atop the Cockscomb until it was nearly dark and the birds were just hazy silhouettes in a bruised-black sky. Tomorrow she would have to move to a location further to the south so she didn't have an overlap in the bird populations. She would head over to the Kodachrome Basin, but she knew that no matter where she went, it would be hard to top today's grand showing.

Linda took a drink of her wine cooler, mulling over the fact that she hadn't seen another human since she turned onto the House Rock Valley Road. Jenny Hatch had promised to rendezvous with her here at Bighorn Buttes by sunset, and that was long past. Linda wondered what had happened to her new friend.

Linda knew that the best-laid plans often went astray when confronted with the unpredictable realities of isolated field work. Jenny could have had truck problems; trucks had an uncanny habit of breaking down whenever they were in the middle of nowhere. More likely, Jenny had gotten wrapped up in her archaeology survey after getting a late start and had decided not to drive down from the plateau in the dark. The access road was pretty dangerous even in the full light of day. Linda was not as troubled by the absence of the district archaeologist as she was disappointed. Jenny had seemed like such an interesting person and Linda had been looking forward to some good female companionship.

The moon, nearly full, was rising above the rim of the Paria Plateau. At this stage, she could only see the top of the incandescent globe and it reminded her of an inverted smiley-face. As the moon grew from a curved sliver into a ball of glowing white light, it was like watching a time-lapse film with a week's worth of growth in five minutes – about how long it took the moon to rise into clear view above the plateau. Linda felt like she had just witnessed the birth of a star. She had been invigorated by the day's events, and now she had been blessed by the night. The Killer and the murder in Jumpup Canyon seemed a million miles away. She now had her work to take her mind off what had happened and she had even managed to make some new friends. About the only thing she didn't have was a radio with which to contact the authorities back in Fredonia. That bothered her a bit, but it couldn't be helped, Jenny had the only radio.

Linda stood up and zipped her jacket against the chilly breeze that began to blow through the moon-lit valley. She stepped closer to the fire as a great- horned owl called mournfully from its rocky perch in the cliffs above camp.

Where the hell was Jenny Hatch, anyway?

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