The road began from Highway 60 as an inviting blacktop, with the greasy coal black of new asphalt and a tight, bright yellow line down the middle. My 9-year-old and 5-year-old boys were giddy with the thought of spontaneous exploration. This is what dads do on camping trips. They provide little adventures, little secret places, big memories.
Around the first corner, the asphalt ran 200 feet before tailing off into a wide, manicured gravel road. The quick degradation of surface should have been a harbinger. This is the Arizona wilderness below Globe, Arizona, the crossroads between the unforgiving snarl of piñon forests and the smoldering knife gallery of the high Sonoran Desert. I should have envisioned pre-Columbian maps, with warnings scrawled on the unknown seas west of Europe:
Monsters Be Here.
Those maps were warnings to city arrogance and parochial ignorance and physical and mental weakness and unpreparedness. They were made for my lineage.
We were looking for a mine. The boys wanted to see a mine. I got directions in Globe to the Gibson Mine. We drove three miles on a gravel road to find a gate blocking the road long before the mine.
We turned around and came to a fork in the road. Home, left. Surely a mine to the right. The road was good; the minivan felt solid. What the heck.
"Do you want to go find a mine or something?"
"Sure!" my oldest son barked.
"Sure!" my youngest son echoed.
Okay, I thought, I'll take them up for a little adventure, come back down and then call my wife from Superior to tell her we're running a little late. Things come up when the boys go camping. A three-hour tour, at most. It was 11:30 a.m. on a hopeful Saturday.
We wove along a piñon-lined ridge two miles to a junction. To the left, it snaked down into dense piñon and scrub. It had a twinge of mystery.
Down, around, past a few small intersections, up, around, past a few other small intersections, down, around and up to a gate with a large sign that read "No Trespassing!" To the left of the gate flew a large American flag. Surely a militia compound of some sort. Let's get out of here.
Back down, around to the top of another road that dropped down through a tunnel of high scrub. A half-mile down below, I saw the naked, gray trunk of a cottonwood. There must be a creek. Perhaps a long-dead mining settlement. A nice place for lunch and exploring.
We found the remnants of an ancient barn. The boys thought Dad was awfully damn smart. I was on a roll. But I still needed to give them a mine.
Back up and down and around past what I thought were turns I hadn't taken, around, down, up, stop, turn around, back down and through, until I came to a sign that read "Highway 60 6 Miles."
Okay. This road doesn't look familiar, but we have a way out. And surely we'll see a mine along the way.
No mine. At what seemed like four miles down, we came to a gate across the main road that said "Road Closed." There was a thinner, rougher road breaking up off to the right. Okay, this must be the way. We must have to go over this ridge to the left.
Maybe two miles up, we arrived at the top of a high ridge from which the road led nowhere close to where I thought I needed it to go. Maybe I was wrong and turned around. Maybe this still was right. I didn't want to go all the way back. That was at least 10 miles. And I didn't know for sure the road out. I continued on, looking for a sign or a landmark I recognized.
"This is pretty, isn't it?"
"Yeah," said my older son Andrew. "Shouldn't we be getting home?"
"I want to go home," Evan said.
"That's what we're doing. We just need to go around over this side over here, and that should take us back around the mountain. It's a shortcut."
I didn't know what the hell I was talking about. I think I was buying into the optimism I was using to keep the boys festive. Or maybe I was trying to convince myself that this was still fun. We weren't that lost. It wasn't that late. We'd find a junction and a sign and a better road and be out of there. That's how it works with roads. If they're bad, they get better. They always lead somewhere. There's always something and somebody on the other side. That's how it works in the city.
We meandered down a ridge to a junction. Mays Gap, six miles to the left. Government Springs Ranch, six miles to the right. Government Springs Ranch seemed to ring a bell. I had a somewhat detailed map of the area. No Government Springs. God, I wish I had a topo. But this road here looks like where we are. Maybe. Oh, it has to be. And if it's right, we're only about three miles from hooking back up with the other road right over here, behind the Pinal Mountains. And down there a mile or so is a real mine.
"Okay. Let's go see a mine," I said. "And then we're on for home."
The road thinned and degraded as we snaked down the mountainside. By now it was one lane, with nowhere to turn around. I eased the van between granite, cranked and dodged washouts, riding high on whatever dual ridges I could find. We made it to the abandoned mine.
Next to the mine stood a small corrugated steel shed. On the shed, spray paint scrawled: "Fords Go Home. Toyotas Rule."
Just drunk kids talking smack.
We're fine. I can see a piece of road up there on the edge of the other ridge. It looks wide and smooth. That must be the better road. And next to it is a corral of some sort. A ranch. A nice rancher. His phone. We just need to go a mile more down this mountain and then up that ridge, and we'll make it to that road, and that road will take us quickly to Highway 60 and then to Superior, where I'll call Mom and everything will be totally fine.
"Are you sure, Dad?"
We slowly weaved down. One hundred feet below the mine, we came to a tight switchback above a 300-foot drop. The road was just wide enough for the car. But the road was made of mine tailings, notoriously loose. We drove through with ease. No problem.
Two more tight switchbacks. Endless washouts. Small rockslides like three-foot snowdrifts. The car tilted left at new angles. Thorn bushes began screeching down the sides of the van. Andrew quivered, "Dad, are you sure about this?"
"This is cake. You should see some of the roads your grandpa and I took up above the cabin in Colorado. And that was in a station wagon."
I was lying. This was by far the worst road I'd driven in a passenger vehicle.
We came to a 50-foot stretch of heavy, loose granite. I drove in. My right front wheel began to spin. We puttered to a halt. This was bad.
I made the kids get out and walk to the other side. For 30 minutes I moved and dug rock from in front of the wheels and replaced small rocks with big, strong, flat rocks. Finally, I got the car back from the slide, built up speed and bounced through the rock field. The boys cheered when I made it. I was on a roll again. High-fives all around. Now we just cruise up to that ridge and up and over to that better road.
I had no excuse for my certitude about salvation than sheer stupidity and wishful thinking built from dread. I had become a sort of religious zealot in his august years. My august happened when the sun dipped low over the valley below. A cool wind kicked up the mountainside. We must go now to the promised land.
Up the ridge to the top, all full of promise. We rolled slowly over the crest, and there was the corral. The fence posts, cracked and gunpowder-gray, leaned at wretched angles of disrepair. This corral was abandoned decades ago.
The road I had seen was this road, softening and widening for a moment through high pasture. Oh God. Two hundred feet beyond, the road dropped back into granite, then apparently into a small valley. Oh God. The sun perched on a mountaintop; the light fluttering as it fell through pine. We must go on. I can't make it back through that road at night. I can't. The engine was groaning. My exhaust system made a breathy "haaaaaa" sound, clearly a hole in the muffler. We must go on. It's our only hope.
I rolled down the road, braking, bouncing, hitting the best line I could. "We'll be fine. We're all right. This is pretty, isn't it? This is cool, isn't it?"
I rounded a large rock and, for the first time, could see the final descent into this small valley. It was a 200-foot rock field, the worst I had seen on the worst drop I had seen. I had to stop. Game over.
Moments before or after I decided to give up, my transmission gave up, too. My engine died as I tried to stop the car on the hill.
My power brakes were lost. I couldn't stop. I buried my foot in the brake and yelled, "Hold on!"
We began picking up speed. Where the hell was the emergency brake? I couldn't remember; I couldn't look. I tried to pick the best line over jagged, two-foot rocks. The boys screamed. The power steering was dead. I cranked hard left, hard right, bounced and lurched and smacked and bounced higher.
"Dad, stop!" yelled Andrew.
One last massive smack, and we rolled free into the effluvial dirt of the arroyo. We rolled to a stop, with "service engine" lights blinking and blaring. The transmission was gone. The sun was almost down. The climb on the other side was worse. I slammed the van into park, jumped from the vehicle, yelled "Holy shit!" to the mountains and began walking in circles.
"We're fine. We're fine. We're fine."
"Are we okay?"
And then, as my breathing slowed, our assets came to mind. We were alive. We were uninjured. We had plenty of food; we had plenty of fluids. We had heavy sleeping bags; we had all our camping gear. Night was coming. Hiking out would be death. We can stay here, nice and warm, cuddle up in the van, tell stories, talk guy talk, then hike at first light the eight or 10 or 12 miles to the highway that I wasn't sure I could find.
We'd find it. Tomorrow's a new day. A better day.
But what about Evan?
Evan is 5. In my mind he is a little bird. He is frail. He doesn't eat. His mind is in the past and the future and clouds. He spent the whole trip talking about Star Wars. He wants to be a Jedi. He wants Andrew to be his Jedi master. I'm on the Jedi Council, he says.
Okay. I can work with that.
"Tomorrow," I said, "will be like a Jedi test. We will see how strong you are. We will see if you have what it takes to be a Jedi."
Andrew looked at me, smiled and immediately began playing along.
"Yes. We'll see if he's strong enough to be a Jedi."
I began unloading the van, pulling out sleeping bags and food and laying down the seats. As I did, Andrew came to me with a sick look on his face.
"What about Mom? Is she going to worry?"
I thought through several scenarios. Hopefully she'll think I'm inconsiderate enough to have camped another night without calling her. Most likely she will do what I would do. She'll grow increasingly frantic as night falls, and her mind will spin faster and faster with images of boys and husbands falling off cliffs and lying half-dead in a valley, crying for help as the night air turns freezing. As I thought, I became more terrified of what was going on in her head than of what was going on in this valley.
"She'll be worried a little," I said. "But she'll just figure we stayed another night. We'll just hike out, give her a call. Everything will be fine."
Andrew didn't totally buy it.
We climbed in the car, cuddled up and ate applesauce. The sky went dark, and we talked about the day. The boys faded off by 9 p.m. I stewed until about 10 p.m., then drifted off from exhaustion.
I awoke at 3 a.m. and self-flagellated until first light. What an idiot. What an idiot. Your stupidity has put your children in danger and, for sure, your wife at wit's end. You are the poster boy for stupid, arrogant city folk up from Phoenix, thinking they know what the hell they're doing and they don't. You deserve to die.
But the kids don't. First light came, and I herded the boys from the car. They sat on the cooler, cocooned in a sleeping bag. It was 29 degrees.
I jacked up the car and placed some large rocks to support it, so father wasn't crushed and children didn't die of starvation or exposure.
The undercarriage looked like a silver-black reflection of the awful road. But nothing leaked. I was hoping for only a transmission leak, something I could fix with my duct tape and some siphoned brake fluid. I gave up, lowered the van and pulled a backpack from the rear. I loaded the pack with water, buns, peanut butter, matches and coats and lifted it to my shoulder. I told Evan it was time to prove he could be a Jedi. It was 6:30 a.m.
Andrew took Evan's left hand, I took his right, and we began climbing the steep grade through the rock field.
We climbed back past the smooth patch of road and the corral, and I revisited the last of my numerous mental mistakes. Back down to the valley floor. The hard climb up to the mine. The long, hard, steady climb to the top of the ridge. Evan, wearing what he calls his "fast shoes," never complained. He just occasionally asked for Gatorade. He would drink, say "My energy is strong again," and begin again his charge up the mountain.
The soft little bird was a warrior. He grew stronger as Andrew and I marveled at and praised his resilience.
Eight o'clock. Nine o'clock. Ten o'clock.
We reached the ridge and began a fast hike to the "Road Closed" sign three miles below. Eleven o'clock.
We marched past the gate and down the road, the road that promised Highway 60. Why was it closed? As long as it wasn't a collapsed bridge over an impassable canyon, we would be fine.
We pushed on down the road. Andrew said his legs were feeling "wobbly" and "stiff." Evan needed Gatorade more frequently. We were beginning to peter out.
After two miles, we came to a junction. One sign pointed to Highway 60. We walked past another gate, into a swale and then up to the top of a small hump. There, about 100 yards across a pasture to the left, was a house and barn.
Three strands of barbed wire separated us from the pasture. There was a corral to our right.
"All right!" I said. "We've found a house!"
"Yes!" Andrew yelled.
As we celebrated, six dogs came charging from the house. Five small ones, one huge one. They barked as they ran.
Evan and Andrew screamed. I grabbed Evan, lifted and swung him into the corral. I helped Andrew up over the fence and then turned, pulled out my knife and waited for the dogs to arrive.
Before they reached the fence, a man emerged from the house and yelled to the dogs. The dogs stopped and began meandering around with their tails wagging. I pulled Andrew and Evan from the corral, and we walked to meet the man at the fence.
I explained our problem. He told us to meet him at his gate. He'd drive us into Globe.
"Yes! Thank you! Oh, man. Thank you so much. Guys, tell him thank you."
They already had.
He drove us to a motel in Globe. I called home from the lobby. I was hoping my wife was still at home, hopefully just a little mad and a little worried.
I got our answering machine.
"If this call is regarding the whereabouts of Robert Nelson, or Andrew or Evan Nelson . . . ." She said she could be reached on her cell phone. I called and couldn't reach her.
My hands began shaking. I called her sister in Gilbert. My wife had left at 4 a.m. with a neighbor. They had driven to meet with the Pinal County Sheriff. They had search and rescue crews out looking for us.
The motel clerk gave me the sheriff's office number. I frantically told the dispatcher who I was and that we had made it safely to Globe. Within a minute, the dispatcher reached the detective in charge of the search, who then reached my wife.
"She's been notified. She knows you're all right," the dispatcher said a few minutes later.
It took 20 minutes for my wife to arrive from north of Roosevelt Lake, where she'd been searching. A sheriff's office detective arrived first, asked some questions and was kind enough not to make me feel any more like a fool.
My wife arrived. She was quivering as she jumped from the truck. She ran and hugged the boys. We hugged.
"I'm so, so happy to see you," she said. "I've never been so scared in my life."
"I'm so, so sorry this happened," I said. "I'm an idiot. I got lost. The signs were weird. But then I was stupid. I mean, I think it's my fault. I'm an idiot. But we're fine. The boys are fine. Everybody is fine. The car is not fine. I mean, it really isn't fine. But everybody is fine."
"I don't care about the car," she said. "I only care about you guys."
"Yeah, screw the car," I said. "Everybody is fine."
Our neighbor drove us all back down toward Chandler. Traffic stopped near Apache Junction. There was a fatal multicar accident up ahead.
But we were fine. And never before had we so deeply appreciated the fact that we were all fine and all fine together.
We finally arrived at our home in south Chandler, just another tract home among millions in the Valley, built of bad pine and Styrofoam and chicken wire and mud. I have complained often about the soullessness of this house and this suburbia.
It felt full of soul that evening.
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And then we put the children to bed. And then my wife and I talked about what's important in life.
And then she fell asleep.
And then I began thinking about the van. And the cost of having it towed. And the chances that it actually was towable. And the cost of having it fixed, if it could be fixed, if it could be towed. And the embarrassment of telling the story.
As midnight approached, my skewed priorities in life slowly got back to normal.