Complacency in the Desert Can Kill. I Would Know.
I plummeted over 25 feet in a hiking accident, leaving me unable to move, lost, and alone in the wild.
An hour and a half in, the trail followed a wash cut through high, sandy banks. A wash is a dried-out riverbed, dug out of silted sand, that becomes a fast-flowing waterway on the rare occasion of heavy rain. They say Joshua Tree averages six inches of rain per year. Suffice to say that most of the time, a wash remains a wash. The path here was much wider than it had been, the landscape almost growing higher around me, branches and boulders throwing shadows across the sand. As I turned each corner, my eyes scanned the path on either side for signs of movement, the various shadowy pockets a likely hangout for snakes.
The wash eventually narrowed and reached a wall of rock, where the path dropped away on the other side by a few feet. I recalled my conversation with the ranger, how he had mentioned that there would be some scrambling as the path descended— this was it. I slipped off my rucksack, leaned the stick against the rock and took a swig of water, preparing myself for the clamber down. It was not an unreasonable drop, but it was a decent one, which made me question whether this trail was fairly categorized as ‘moderate’. This part of the trail would certainly be challenging to some. But it didn’t feel too difficult for me; I was glad for a challenge. This was why I came for the Lost Palms Oasis, because I wanted a hike that required a little more of me. Not too strenuous . . . Just strenuous enough.
I dropped my rucksack down first, letting it fall with a gentle thud onto the gritty sand, then threw down my water bottle after it. I heard it crack and saw a small piece of the red plastic lid fly off. Ah, shit. Clutching the hiking stick tightly in one hand I crouched, slid forward on my backside, and—thud—dropped to my feet in the wash.
There came a pang of regret when I realized the drop had indeed broken my trusty water bottle; the plastic lid with its folding handle had snapped on impact, the handle broken right off at the hinge. A shame, as it was the handle which had made it so easy to carry on hikes, allowing me to swing it effortlessly from a couple of fingers. We’d recently been on some grand adventures, this bottle and I—on hikes and drives and travels . . . I guessed that was the end of that.
I really shouldn’t get sentimental about such things.
It was a habit I started young, forming an emotional attachment to stuff. Looking back, I think it was a way to connect myself with things that felt significant. The problem was, as it tends to be when you’re a kid, everything felt significant. I once carved my initials into my favourite wooden chair in primary school so that I could always select it during assemblies, finding comfort in something constant. On the last day of the school year, when everyone was saying tearful goodbyes, readying themselves to shift gear and become high-schoolers, I was feeling particularly sentimental, emotionally unprepared to leave a familiar part of my life behind. And so when it was announced that, thanks to our school fair fundraising efforts, they would be replacing all the assembly chairs over the summer break, I felt no guilt sneaking into the hall, stealing ‘my’ chair and walking all the way home with it, the wooden backrest clutched to my chest and the legs sticking out in front—literally taking a piece of my school life with me. I think I lied and told my parents they were giving them away.
I was always collecting things like this. Even into my teens. A broken pen that once belonged to a boy I had a crush on. A chipped wooden doorstop, nicked from the concert venue where I saw Radiohead when I was 15 and slipped into my pocket, because Thom Yorke had trod on it as the band came out to their waiting vehicle.
What I was really collecting was moments. Moments and feelings that I wanted to keep, that were too good to let go of or forget. It was the same reason why I took so many photos. By the time I moved out of home I had a box full of undeveloped film, more than I could afford to get developed. And most of which, had they even survived expiry, would have contained nothing interesting at all.
They say, in psychological terms, that having attachments to possessions is a way of compensating for unreliable attachments in other people. I mean, obviously it’s so much easier to cling to things. I’d become more aware of my quiet sentimentality towards objects over the years and had tried to work on it. And while I’d never quite shaken the habit entirely, I had become better at recognizing it and letting go.
The water bottle wasn’t valuable to me, but I noticed I was lingering on the memories already attached to it. Places I’d been, adventures I’d had. I’d acquired it from a consignment of kitchenware sent in to the magazine where I worked, and from there I had trotted it around Canada, on hikes and drives, only to see it come to its end right here. Thank you for your service, I thought wryly, and snapped the lid back on as securely as the cracked plastic would allow. I guess this would be its last hike.
I’ ll get another one when I get back into town.
And so, with the bottle clutched in one hand and the hiking stick in the other, I carried on through the wide curve of the wash. Probably less than an hour later, I came to the boulder stack.
It must have been about 10 feet to the top, not particularly high, and the trail seemed to disappear beneath it, like water seeping between the cracks. I figured this was where more of that aforementioned scrambling must begin.
‘. . . there is a bit of a scramble once you get to the valley . . . so as long as you’re comfortable with climbing over rocks . . .’
So up I went, stepping up from one rock to the next, tentatively lifting my legs around scraggy branches and brush tucked in amongst them, collecting scratches on my knees, keeping a trepidatious eye out for snakes as I placed fingers and boots into rocky ledges.
From the top of the boulders the valley fell away, rolling away for miles; it was breathtaking. Soaring rocky buttes that rose high to meet the blue sky, irregular patches of open sandy clearing interrupted by piles of monumental boulders, tiny specks of sage- green foliage tucked in the crevices.
The desert never disappoints.
I sat in the cool shade of an overhang, propping the heels of my boots into the rock, catching my breath and having a drink. Now that my bottle was broken, it was going to be a pain in the arse to hold, so I drained the last of the water from it and stashed it in my backpack. One less thing to carry—I would just use the CamelBak from here on in. I adjusted the blue polyurethane bladder so that the drinking tube was attached to my shoulder strap for easy access. I was now a quarter of the way through my water, but I calculated I still had enough to get me there and back.
To carry on from the boulder stack I first had to figure out where the trail continued from the other side—and then how to get down. The path seemed to split into two, winding separately and intermittently through the valley. The first was down to my left. Here the path looked wider, curving around boulders in a wide swoop, but it would be almost impossible to climb directly down to. This side was more than 10 feet up, maybe even double that; way too far to simply drop down, like I had in the wash. The other route, on the opposite side of the stack, was more accessible. It looked like it would take a little more effort to pick my way around rocks, but it would certainly be much easier to get down to, a sturdy descent rather than the sheer drop directly below me. I’d take this route. I’d just have to get myself across these boulders.
Often, the most dangerous moves are the ones that don’t feel like it: there are no red flags, no alarm bells. The greater the sense of risk we feel, the more careful we are, ensuring our decisions lean on the side of caution. If you do something frequently enough you naturally become more confident. But confidence is just an absence of fear, or a great ability to ignore it.
The problem with confidence is that it breeds complacency, and as time goes on, not being obstructed by fear becomes our normal, something we start taking for granted. I was doing something really risky, without appreciating that I was, because I was comfortable here, comfortable in this place, and in my solitude. And it made me blind to dangers that should have been obvious. I should have sensed how risky it was to try to cross the boulder stack.
Complacency is the well-trod path towards that classic mantra of fools:
It won’t happen to me.
All I was thinking about in that moment was how best to cross. It was clear right away that my biggest challenge was a single large, pale-grey boulder, larger than I was, the surface contrastingly smoother than the craggy rocks around it. It was far too wide to simply stretch a leg over, which meant I’d need to step directly onto it. That’s where things would require a bit of delicacy. But I had faith in my balance. I had faith in my boots, with their high- quality rubber soles. I felt confident.
Leaning all my weight into my left side, I extended my right leg towards the centre of the boulder and let the inner edge of my boot kiss the face of it, pressing the rubber into a small crevice I could see in the rock. It held.
I gave it a little more of a press. Once again, it seemed to hold. So I gave it some more weight, eventually shifting my body into it, preparing to swing myself to the other side, where the rough rocks offered more grip.
Only . . . I had been wrong about the foothold.
The moment I gave most of my weight to the rock, I found the crevice I had relied on was not a crevice at all but a mere dimple in the rock, smooth and unforgiving to even a high-quality rubber sole. It was not going to hold me.
Shit. No. No no no . . . Abort mission. But it was too late to pull back; gravity had now taken over.
And I felt myself start to slide.
It’s strange how moments become suspended in time. Everything during those next few seconds happened so fast, yet each movement left a clear and perceptible etch in my memory. My right foot slipping. My left hip leaning hard into the boulder I was sitting on. The desperate flutter as the fingers of my left hand scrabbled for something to hold on to, but found only rock, as flat and smooth as an ocean-worn pebble. My right hand tightly gripping my hiking stick, thrusting it at the boulder beneath me, failing to find traction, failing to slow my momentum. The words ‘No no no no!’ still beating against my tongue while my brain called a warning to my body: you are about to get hurt. The rock face jutted out so that I couldn’t see how far down I was going to fall or what I was going to land on—I only knew that falling was inevitable.
All of this seemed to happen so slowly, almost gracefully, yet in real time it was no more than a few desperate seconds. A slide and a brief scuffle of dust.
And with that, I slipped off the edge.
Excerpted from THINGS I LEARNED FROM FALLING by Claire Nelson, reprinted with permission by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2021.