The pavement was damp and the neon sign gave a feeling of virgin drunkenness. Although it was pitch dark, this was clearly the Navajo nation; there was something in the air. Or perhaps it was the thrill of fleeing her Southern Illinois and hitching a ride with a strange man named Otto Springfield she’d met online two months prior. She took a deep, excited breath and followed him into the truck stop.
“Menthols,” Otto requested, then in Spanish spoke to the attendant. As she pointed he added in English, “like the truckers use?” Otto completed the order by adding a half dozen scratch off tickets, two whiskey nips, a buck knife, and a t-shirt with a howling wolf under a cold moon. Outside, Otto stripped his white v-neck and slipped on the wolf shirt. As he clinked the last few drips from the gas nozzle, they locked eyes. Her path was veering, smashing through old barriers and bounding over dreams sprung from her step-dad’s attic. She was excited.
“How much was gas? I can get the next one? I saved up almost 300 working in the diner. That should be more than enough, right?”
For his answer Otto turned the ignition.
“Well I’m sure as heck glad I won’t have to serve cheeseburgers to farmers anymore.” He didn’t say anything. “You know,” her voice bounced, “I was thinking, I always wanted one of those windows in the kitchen, that like extend out of the house? And you can put your plants there? I always wanted one of those… I can’t wait to get to Oregon. I just love those trees, and forests, and I want to see more mountains and the coast!”
“Maybe we should stop,” Otto said. She was agreeable. He pulled his truck to the side of the road and put his hands on the steering wheel. He thought about what he was going to do, about what the best actions were to achieve that. Then he knocked on the cab window behind him and opened his door. The highway was deserted and the sky spilled stars. The Milky Way like a gash, gruesome and hemorrhaging stars, an asteroid disintegrated toward the horizon.
Otto opened the tailgate and the sheepdog bounded forward and stopped, attacking his face with kisses. “Good girl, ok, come on, hey. Sit.” The dog snapped to obedience. Then, he told it to hop down, sit again, and wait. Elizabeth walked to the rear of the truck and continued about her dream house in coastal Oregon, or the mountains, she wasn’t picky. Maybe one then the other… he brought his hand to her auburn hair and put a strand behind her ear, that felt odd. He put his hand on her small waist and pulled her in, their lips touching. He turned her around and kissed her neck. The word thin came to mind, not like her waistline, although she had an almost comical Barbie-like figure. No, it was thin like a container. Thin, like there was an exterior, then too much space before the soul inside began.  
He made her sit and undressed her. He held her cold toes and pulled off her odd styled Levi Jeans, her underwear pragmatic. Again, he thought of a path. He eased her back, kissing her neck and removing the rest of her clothing, then attending to his own attire. He guided her back into the carpeted and covered truck bed. He pushed away the dog hair bed. Shelves were built into the hull, climbing and camera gear, nutrition bars, and protein drinks were neatly packed in all available space. As blunt as an anvil, he put his head between her legs, one hand gripping her butt and the other stretched to her feet overhead. Startled, she squeezed her legs and giggled. He waited, and with a hand, he directed her.
In the driver seat, with Betsy the sheepdog between them, he held his hand in front of his face, inhaling the aroma, curious about the situation. He had been utterly driven to that rather juvenile act, that mutual fellatio. It was the only act he could consider with her.
“I’ve been to Chicago once,” she spoke, apropos of nothing. She told him she liked it and listed a few more cities she’d seen. “But I’ve never been east of Kentucky. I wish I was from New York City, that’s so crazy! Like, how can people live in some of these places? I mean, I know people live in New York, duh, like billions. But it’s like, huh, you live in Rome? Right? Or, like, you live in the Lost City of Atlantis? Like, you live in a vacationland, or something.”
That was the first time he had kissed her. Two months prior he had put an add on a rock climbing forum, looking for a road buddy to cross the country. He was traveling from Vermont to Oregon with stops in Utah and California. Any passengers along that route to share in adventures and expenses, his add read. Elizabeth responded and peppered him with communication, sending pictures of herself with a baby cow, under a Ferris wheel, and with her infant cousin. Two months went past and he rolled through a springtime Illinois, sick and heaving with fresh green color. She cajoled him inside and sat him in front of her dad with a cup of weak coffee to talk to her three older brothers.
“I’m a climber,” he answered from the center of a looming half circle of stiff wooden chairs. It was so odd that he just sat there. Elizabeth standing, bubbling out of her shoes in excitement while her family chewed tobacco and dully insulted him.
“You get paid for that?”
“Why would you just climb something?”
“What’s at the top?”
“And you just go back down, up and down?”
“That aint a job.”
“Yeah, Pa, and I’m like, a jumper,” they roared in laughter.
Elizabeth defended him, tossing her arms around his neck like a life preserver over the gunnels of a ship. It took a full day for him to wipe the look of confusion from his face.
Elizabeth rubbed Betsy’s chest and inspected her paws. “We had dogs, hunting dogs and mean German Sheppard that once ate a fluffy white Bichon. She was so fat cause of all the corn everywhere. I think she eventually had a heart failure. We buried her near the creek. There’s a little stone marker Pa made.”
Otto said, “Might not make Oregon until late spring.”
“Okay,” Elizabeth said, “I’m here for the adventure. Whatever you think is best.”
“Yeah, the thing is…” Otto spoke, lifting his hand from the wheel and checking his speed, although the cruise had been set for an hour. “I do this every year. It’s not an adventure for me.”
“That’s what makes you my adventure guide.”
“Do you even know where we’re going?”
“Not Oregon.”
“Do you know two-thirds of Oregon is desert?”
“I know that a part of it looks like Twilight.”
“The vampire movie? That was Washington.”
“That’s why you’re my adventure guide,” Elizabeth smiled and touched his hand as he gripped the steering wheel.
He was tired. He shook out a truck stop pill and swallowed it dry. The radio, having lost signal, hissed a quiet static. Betsy stopped panting and made an audible smack of her lips before settling her head on Otto’s lap. He put his hand on her neck and pulled her in, rubbing her cold ears. Elizabeth was humming, staring at the blackness outside. He thought of the austere walls of Zion, those red columns. Otto and Pete, his climbing friend, had made a name for themselves charging the biggest walls in the national park. Pete led the most challenging pitches. Otto followed and took photos, most of which he sold at small galleries and coffee shops across New England. It was becoming a pilgrimage for him, spring, summer, and fall he’d spend out west, climbing and traveling between states and sofas, mostly with Pete as his copilot. Then, during the winter, he worked at a Vermont ski resort jointly owned by his family, developing his photos into canvass, promoting, and selling them.  
“You know, I thought you would have been a climber.”
“I watch all the climbing videos I can find on Netflix.”
“So… that’s why you were on that forum,” Otto said to himself. “Have you ever climbed?”
“There’s a gym in Springfield.”
Otto could feel his heart rate speeding from the pill. He said, “I usually don’t get an apartment, you know. I return to Vermont for the winters.”
“You mean New York?”
Elizabeth had sent her picture so he’d know what she looked like when he picked her up. She was gorgeous. Otto was dubious if the picture was real. Curiosity kept him contact and agreed to provide the ride.
Otto slowly explained, “A lot of times, Betsy and I just stay in the truck.” He looked at her. Her bobbing head slowed as she stared out the dark window. Otto decided not to press it.
The radio static eased to guns on talk radio and he played the only disc he’d brought with him. The familiar songs brought memories and the road began to hypnotize him. Elizabeth settled with the dog and Otto pressed on.
Otto eased his truck off the dirt road in front of the trailer home took a breath. With the engine silent the desert solitude seized them. The pure silence woke Elizabeth. Otto stretched his knotted back and shoulders.
“Come on,” he called, Betsy and Elisabeth followed. The trailer was dark. Otto knocked on the door and waited. It was well after midnight. He tried the knob and told Elizabeth they’d try in the morning. All three of them crawled into the covered bed of the truck and tucked under blankets, Betsy curled over their feet. Otto exhaled and his breath was visible. The night air was plummeting. Elizabeth, quiet now, inched closer to Otto and he opened his arm, she inched closer. He’d never been in love and didn’t believe he ever would be. At 34, he didn’t quite believe in it. But, he had to admit, this felt nice.
At first light Elizabeth woke. As she stirred Betsy woke, made a circle and nudged further between Otto’s legs. With deep long shadows draped over the mountain desert, Elizabeth was speechless. Soon, she was exclaiming, “Oh my God!” and, “I can’t believe it!”
Otto rose, hung-over from tucker’s pills and moderately crippled from the 24 hours of driving. Otto fed the dog as Elizabeth snapped all the photos in a disposable camera. He sat on the tailgate and exhaled, watching her. Perhaps it was the forced companionship of travel, but Otto was feeling a deeper attraction. After oatmeal, instant coffee, and apples, Otto tried the trailer again, to no avail. The shades were drawn. He moved around the unit and scaled the side to peer into a small window six feet off the ground.
“Kitchen looks abandoned,” he said.
“Does he know we’re coming?”
Otto gave her a look. He should, Otto thought. They had that special relationship where you didn’t need to call and there was something special about showing up, unannounced after 2,500 miles on the road, to spend a summer scaling vertical slabs or rock together, starting the conversation exactly where they’d left off. Although, something was amiss. The trailer was deserted. Otto exhaled and walked back to the truck. He fished through the plastic drawers and found his pre-paid cell phone. No towers were in range.
The next day Otto punched in the small kitchen window and crawled into the unit. Rodents claimed the space. Retreating, they drove north seeking cell phone coverage only to discover Pete’s number was no longer in service. In town, they shared ice cream and streamed a movie via the wifi outside the local library. They bought coffee and walked around the village. Otto led her into thrift stores and climbing outlets and carved from his budget a new wardrobe for her, the new identity she embraced with the fever she’d fled her Southern Illinois with. They found skinny jeans, stripped tights, miniskirts, and t-shirts with ironic designs. He bought her underwear and they showered at a YMCA and drove to a park outside town, humping with an eroded Colorado tributary as the backdrop. They played Frisbee with Betsy and drove north to Arches National Park. They camped in Capitol Reef and watched a storm drop snow on a mountain above while sitting in the sun below by a stream, waiting three hours and seeing a trickle wet the arroyo. They bombed neglected roads in Escalante and hooked southwest to Zion.
“He’ll be here, somewhere,” Otto confided. They took a visitors guide and drove through. Angel’s Landing was an obnoxious, single file line up the narrow spine of rock to the platform above. From the top, Otto put his arms around her waist and pointed to the different routes he’d been on. Instead of the awkward dirt-bag couple they were, they could be anyone there. Pointing to a massive vertical wall, Otto said, “That’s a fun chimney, see that that shadow, basically it’s fist to shoulder width, and you climb that crack, then traverse that line there where it’s a different color. You pitch there for the night and the next spot’s basically featureless. Pete leads that,” Otto said and pulled her tighter against the wind. “We were the first to climb that,” he boasted. 
They descended at dusk and cooked noodles on his stove and watched mule deer drink from Virgin River, their eyes pricked for coyotes. For four days they toured, he took sunrise and sunset pictures and time-lapse photos of the river. He filmed her naked at night and asked her to shave her crotch and they played catch with Betsy in the river, hiding her into the truck when the rangers approached. Otto checked the walls and belay stations for Pete, chatting with climbers.
Otto gave up. Decided to pack it in and move west to tamer walls near the Nevada border where he could teach her to belay. Before this, however, he wanted to explore a plateau he and Pete had explored years ago. To hide Betsy, they left at night and hiked with the moon’s light. At the summit they heard raucous voices from another party, keeping their distance, they slept under the stars off the trailhead.
In the morning they scouted ahead. Beer cans were scattered and a bra hung from a Juniper tree. There were ropes carelessly knotted over the path and carabineers, now untrustworthy, lay scattered on stone. Otto scuffed his boots to announce his presence. A short man sat in a foldout chair slumped forward, a stocking cap on. He wore only a ratty t-shirt.
As he approached, Otto felt his breath leave him and his head spin. Betsy knew before he did. The dog ran forward and put her paws on the man’s lap and licked his face. It was Pete.
Pete sleepily pushed the dog away but. He was disorientated but slowly came to, confused at the dog’s presence and then searching about, finally seeing Otto. They tentatively greeted each other like scorned lovers afraid to get hurt.
Pete stumbled to his feet and rose a hand to his forehead to steady his hangover.
Otto inspected his sloven friend and nearly fainted with shock. Pete’s right hand was gone. Instead of a wrist, palm, and fingers, there was a stump and a silver claw with three curved prongs. “What the fuck happened to your hand!?” Otto felt terrible. Elizabeth approached and inserted her hand into the crook of Otto’s arm.
“You brought a girl,” Pete said, raising his head and almost falling backward. “It’s… what time is it?”
“We went to your trailer, it’s deserted.”
“I left you a note that it’s over, to get lost.”
“What happened to your hand?”
“I wrote that it’s better to lose and never know.”
“You fall?”
Pete shook his head. He smirked, looked off to the side and closed his eyes, shaking his head. “You know,” he looked to Otto and began to chuckle at himself, “I’ve also been doing some crack. Medicinally, of course,” he clarified.
“What happened?” Otto pressed.
“I called you in November. You didn’t answer. I was gonna go east. You didn’t answer.”
Otto tried to recall. He always suffered a homecoming depression. Too much old-money east coast family overwhelmed him, his proper family barraging him with questions of girlfriends and careers, belittling his life choices. He never took Pete’s calls during this period. Maybe during the spring he’d answer his friend so they could plan the upcoming season. But the winter, Otto spent ushering skiers onto chair lifts and scrubbing toilets, studying the years photos.
“Did you say you’re on crack?”
“I called man, again and again.”
Otto didn’t know what to say. “What the hell is going on?”
“Might as well come in,” Pete said, motioning to the stones and the collection of empty tin and beer cans.
A climbing accident outside Salt Lake City claimed his hand, Pete revealed. He was learning to ice climb with a friend of a friend, somehow he didn’t trust. “Long story short man, it was choss, shit ice over rot, I hammered and the entire slab flaked. Whipped 20 feet and the slab pinched me off. The doctor said I’m lucky to be alive, cracked some ribs, got some metal in my pelvis. They gave me this,” Pete raised his prosthesis, “It’s great for crags, great for placing gear,” he said.
Pete looked up but Otto couldn’t sustain eye contact. “Sam, get out here,” Pete yelled toward the tent. There was stirring and Pete smiled to Otto before rising and entering the tent. Otto looked to Elisabeth. He wanted to flee.
Otto heard the flick, flick, flick of a lighter and smelled something rancid, like burning plastic. Without thinking, Otto rose and whistled for Betsy, who was sniffing rocks at the outskirt of the camp, and was ready to leave when Pete appeared again.
“Yeah, so. I’ve been in a better position. Sponsors dropped. You’d think I could still swing a pair of shoes or pants, but I’m off the register complete. I’m Pete, by the way,” Pete extended his left hand and Elizabeth took it. “Fun girl,” Pete said, “Sam, get the fuck out here! We have company.”
Slowly the girl emerged from the tent, she wore one boot and, in the crisp morning, she wore only underwear and an old Patagonia fleece with the neck unbuttoned. “This is Sam, I met her in Reno. You know, I can still feel the fingers, people call them ghost fingers. Sometimes they hurt, you know? That’s the weirdest thing. Like, the tip of my finger will sting, but there is no tip of the finger, there is no hand. Right? So how does that happen? It’s really fucked up when it happens during a dream, and I think I still have my hand.”
Otto sat to think and Pete extended a beer, he opened it and stared ahead. Pete started speaking. There was anger in his voice, as if he blamed Otto for what had happened. Pete wanted to go east. Otto apologized. They drank several beers, never finding the groove Otto had assumed was permanent and eventually, Otto, exhausted from the night’s hike, retreated with Elizabeth and fell asleep for the afternoon.
He awoke to jovial shouting. Otto returned to the camp and the air tasted metallic, he thought of tinfoil. Sam was topless in the overhead sun, still in one boot and panties. She swayed and propped a hand against boulder, lost balance, and fell. Pete laughed. He rushed to her, bent over and flipped her onto her stomach. He pointed at the scratches and blood and laughed as Sam tried to right herself. As Elizabeth approached Pete said, “Hey, did he tell you he was my bitch? He was my belay slave? I led everything and he took pictures of me. I’ve been in all the magazines. I was in National Geographic and Outside. I led everything.”
“Ok Pete,” Otto said.
“I could still climb better than you,” Pete accused him. “You know it.” Otto didn’t respond and Pete repeated himself.          
“How long have you been camping here?” Otto asked.
“That’s bullshit. I end up with this fork for a hand and you just show up in my park with this sex ball here telling me you’re better than me? No. I can still climb 5.11’s, no problem. 5.11+, even 5.12. Trad’s even easier, fucking kid you not, man, this fork helps. This spring I’ve already done Sheep, Prodigal Sun, Touchstone,” he counted on his fork, “What else Sam,” she was still on the ground, sitting on her butt now with her legs open, staring up with a look of disgust. She mumbled and Pete said, “With one hand I could out-climb you.”
Otto didn’t respond. He looked at Elizabeth and searched for his dog.
“What you don’t think so? Bullshit, Sam,” he turned for agreement, “Bullshit, huh? I’ll tell you what, I bet I can scramble the east descent faster than you can hike the path. How about that?”
Otto protested but Pete was angry and obdurate, “We need supplies anyway, and I’ll tell you what, if you win, fine, you’re an okay climber, I’ll give you some respect, but if I win, we switch, ok?” he turned to Elizabeth. “We used to swap girls all the time. Foursomes, five, shit, remember that buddy? We had our way, go to Vegas for an expo, bag a whores, bring em to Zion for a week and leave em with bus fair.” Pete trailed off, then said, “Ready, Fucker, Ready? Come on, let’s go. I’m going,” Pete said.
Stoically, Otto watched his friend storm toward the east descent. Pete didn’t look back. Otto turned and walked toward the ledge. Pete walked down the slope, slipping slightly on the dust covered slab. He wanted to say hey, stop, but couldn’t find his voice. Otto turned away. It was a mess. Elizabeth stood with wide eyes. Pete was gone. Otto took Elizabeth by the hand and they packed their gear.
“We can go to Oregon if you want,” Otto said.


J. Edward Vanno is a Southern California based marine biologist.