We should have listened to the Ranger’s warning: “Be sure you’re on the trail no later than sun-up.”
Crossing the ridge at high noon hadn’t been in our original plan, but then, neither was sleeping in. The day was perfect at Caprock Canyon – a dazzling turquoise sky stretched wide across the sprawling vistas of red sandstone. Not a cloud to be found – and that was the problem. Instead of basking in the beauty of the landscape, my friend and I sizzled like two hens in a Sunday oven.
The dwarf shrubbery along the ridge was no help, offering only a pittance of dappled shade. Was it possible to crawl under those little branches? Desperation made it seem plausible. It was only our abrupt arrival at Haynes Overlook that averted a crazed attempt.
We didn’t dally long at the top. The heat had extinguished our appetites despite nearly five hours of hiking. Under the shade of a lone mesquite tree we ate fruit for its sweet juiciness in our parched mouths; posed for a few “triumphant photos,” and prepared to descend.
Backpacks, water bottles, binoculars and cameras secured, we resumed our hike. Only a few steps into it, though, I tripped, slightly losing my balance but staying upright. Looking down, I discovered a solitary, black, rubber boot sole laying in the middle of the path. It seemed strikingly odd and poignant – the dark semblance of a single footstep left behind.
I glanced down at my own boots which over the years had crossed many a mile. Though worn, the tan soles appeared intact. I inquired of my friend. The sole was not hers.
The mystery intrigued us. Who did it belong to? What had happened? Were they alone? And how did that sole-less individual get down the mountain? Or had they? Every hiker knows good hiking boots are essential. They are a hiker’s best friend, allowing not only confident footing, but protection against twisted ankles and, God forbid, blisters.
We left the sole where it lay poised as in mid-stride, but its haunting image and beguiling mystery accompanied us on our descent.
The trail, now a treacherous narrow, two-foot wide gorge, was not only steep but its baseball-sized rocks were sharp, slick and loosely anchored along the depression’s base. Navigating safely demanded dedicated attention, and gingerly testing each rock’s stability before giving it full weight. Our knees quivered and thighs ached as we painstakingly made our way, often sliding several feet in a sea of stones after a slight misstep. Pondering the dilemma of the lost sole’s owner provided a pleasant diversion from our own precarious situation.
“Another person would have had to go down the mountain and bring up another pair of hiking boots,” my friend postulated. The images of our five hour hike flashed through my mind – the three thousand foot ascent, the blistering trek across the ridge and now the gorge. I was silently thankful our friendship had not been put to that test. “Maybe they would just send someone up,” I suggested. “Maybe a helicopter.” Not reasonable, of course, but I would have welcomed one at the moment.
The sun-saturated rocks felt like glowing coals beneath our feet. “Yow. I can’t imagine having to do this virtually barefoot,” I said. My friend agreed.
A sudden false step and the rocks beneath my boots gave way. I slid upright a few feet, landing with an unceremonious thud as bottom met ground. Stunned and shaken, I was relieved not to have smashed knees or limbs into the protruding rocks, or somersaulted down the three thousand foot incline. Good boots, I thought.
A flash of light in the distance caught our eyes. It was the sun dancing off our car parked at the trail head. Journey’s end was near. Level ground beckoned us, our feet joyfully reuniting with the soft red dirt. We faced the mountain giving thanks for a safe, though hot, trek and wished our sole-less traveler well.
Walking across the sun-softened asphalt I felt a myriad of small stones caught in the crevices of my boots. I scraped the bottom against the concrete, trying unsuccessfully to pry them lose. Lifting my boot I discovered a network of tiny nails protruding. Funny. I’d never noticed them before. The same was true of my other boot. Enlightenment dawned slowly. I rested my boot atop a small cooler.
“It was me,” I said in disbelief, pointing. “I lost my soles. Not just one, but both.” My friend’s astonished stare turned into a bout of uncontrollable laughter which continued off and on for the next several days amid an onslaught of “sole-less” jokes.
It is the little ironies that offer life’s best lessons. My soles still wander Caprock Canyon , while I am left to ponder what would I have done had I known.