Tom slowly removed his sunglasses as the storm clouds rolled over the western mountain range. The clouds appeared to creep over the canyon with a cancerous opaqueness that blotted out the day's golden glow. A smile, which came across more like a sneer, edged itself onto Tom's rugged face as he watched the last of the tourists scurry toward their vehicles before the inevitable downpour erupted.
The darkened sky caused the countryside to take on a gloomy atmosphere from which Tom gathered solace. He felt a kinship with the earth, the way the clouds devoured the bright day, like his moods devoured him and mutated his perception. It was as if the world related to his grief and wept for him.
The locals joke about Nevada having 360 days of sunlight, and Tom remembered how uplifting the sun used to make him feel, but things have changed. When Tom fell into one of his sullen moods, he loathed the sun. The way it burned so brightly in the sky, it reminded him of one of those people you meet that are too damn happy for everyone's own good, but a hundred times worse.
Tom removed his Harley Davidson black leather boots, matching vest, T-shirt and acid-washed jeans, leaving only his cotton boxers and a gold cross that dangled on a chain around his neck. A cool breeze swept over him as the sun disappeared from sight. The temperature was well in the eighties, normal for this time of year, but the breeze felt refreshing against Tom's tan flesh. He tucked his clothes deep into a small alcove in the side of the mountain where he knew they would be protected from the rain. He rested his back against an already cooling rock that jutted from the mountain's peak to form a natural chair of sorts. This was the spot where Tom could go when the world seemed to spin too fast or life was getting the better of him. It was where no matter what was going on, he felt the most at peace.
The storms never seemed to last long enough to match Tom's moods. He used to love Nevada, the hot dry weather, sunny days, breathtaking landscape, long meandering drives on his motorcycle, rock climbing and, of course, the bright lights and flashy casinos of Las Vegas. The city has changed. Tom knew it was not anything the ever-expanding money hungry casinos had done or the multitude of migrant workers or even the huge influx of retirees that were increasing each year; it was him. The sun just did not shine as brightly as it once had, the landscape lacked something and the drives were just not as enjoyable as they once were when his best friend, Eric, was still around.
Over half a year had passed since Eric's death, but Tom could not let it go; he felt he never would. The friends and family members who had once consoled him with comments like, "It was not his fault" and, "Eric's death was an accident" had faded away to leave him to find his own truth. He should not have been reckless during the climb or pushed so hard. It seems such a stupid idea, now, to race to the top, even though they had climbed this very same mountain countless times. He should have double-checked the eye-holds they roped through for support. Tom felt he just should have done more. Damn himself for pushing too hard. Why wasn't he the one who died. Tom would give anything to trade places with Eric. Tom slammed his fist down on the mountain's unyielding service, but the vivid images of Eric's lifeless body would not fade so easily from his memory.
The rain began to pour from the sky. Its cool tears cleansed the mountain and washed away Tom's feeling of guilt away. Tom took a deep breath, allowing the myriad scents that spring forth from the earth during the first few minutes of a downpour envelope his senses and spread throughout his lungs. He could smell the dampness in the air, the sparse foliage that grew about him and the earth itself. Tom savored the life that surrounded him for as long as his lungs would allow before he exhaled the words, "God, why wasn't it me?" Then a peaceful sleep overtook him.
Tom always slept a deep restful sleep while he was on the mountain. He felt it allowed his mind to wonder and work out whatever it was that bothered him. This time it felt different though. Just before he drifted off, Tom could have sworn he had heard the sound of the wind as it catapulted through the canyons.
* * * * *
Eric surveyed the Mojave Desert from his perch on the Keystone Thrust Fault, just 20 miles west of Las Vegas. A scrawny sandy brown rabbit bounced between outcrops of sparse foliage off to his left. It moved with an instinctive grace and natural purity that seized Eric's attention. No matter how many times he came to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Eric always found some nuance that would captivate him. It was like the place yearned for him; calling to him like an old friend who has gone, but never forgotten.
Eric closed his eyes and listened to the soft sounds of nature that were at work around him. He could hear the slight rustle of the tumbleweed as a dust devil guided it across the ground and the wind as it wiped through the multitude of canyons. As he let go of the inhibitions of life, Eric felt he could almost hear the soft padded feet of the rabbit as they touched the earth. He took a deep breath and let the dry desert air fill his lungs and drain the moisture from his tongue.
"God, why wasn’t it me," he exhaled as thoughts of his friend, who died six months earlier, invaded his mind. The action of exhaling those exact words came to him like he had said them before, even before they had left his lips. It was one of those unexplainable feelings that he was reenacting some action or seeing some event that he knew he had never done or seen before. He seemed to get those feelings of dejavu from time to time when he thought of Tom. Eric's mind replayed the surreal scene of Tom falling. He tried to bury the memories and let his friend's death go, but it clung to him, wearing him down with its burden.
* * * * *
Tom woke to the sound of his own voice screaming Eric's name. A horrible feeling of vertigo overwhelmed him. The mountain seemed to swarm about him, jutting ever so close then thrusting itself away with increasing speed. Tom clamped his eyelids shut and reached for the familiar security of the mountain. It was there, as he knew it should be, hard and confirming, lending its sturdiness to help orient his body. Then suddenly the feeling was gone; shut off like some tilt-a-whirl ride at a local carnival.
A clammy sweat oozed from Tom's pours and he knew he should get out of the sun. The storm had passed, taking the natural cover from the sun's rays with it. Small pools of water still gathered here and there in the dips and cracks of the rocks, but even they would evaporate within the hour. Tom put his clothes on and descended the mountain to where he had parked his motorcycle.
* * * * *
Eric's eyelids shot open and his head involuntarily cocked toward the rock formation slightly above him and to the left. He could have sworn he heard someone calling his name: not just calling, but screaming. And not just someone, but Tom!
Eric listened intently, letting time drift by as his mind raced with the possibilities that his friend could still be alive. No other sounds came, nor would they, he knew this but could not help but listen anyway.
"You've been in the sun too long, she's playing her tricks on you," Eric said to himself more to hear his own voice than for reassurance. It was inconceivable that Tom was alive, just wishful thinking.
Eric snatched up his water bottle and began his trek down the mountain. He liked the comfort that his knowledge of the terrain afforded him, but this time he felt that increasingly familiar feeling that he had done this before. Of course he had, he had traversed this mountain range countless times, but that wasn't it, something felt different. The memory was fresh in his mind, like he had just descended the mountain not more than five minutes ago. He shook the bizarre feeling from him, discounting it as another trick of the sun and headed home.
* * * * *
The wind wiped through Tom's hair as he drove his midnight blue Harely Davidson Dyna-Glide Convertible down State Route 160 at just under 80 miles per hour. He felt the power of the motorcycle between his legs and the fresh air as it swept past his face, even the sun's rays felt comfortably warm on his body. Tom let a smile drift across his face when Red Rock Canyon came into view.
He pulled on to the 13-mile scenic drive that ran through Red Rock canyon and parked at the Bureau of Land Management Visitor Center.
* * * * *
"So you want to know about the old Keystone Thrust Fault, ah sonny?"
Tom thought the old man's breath was suprisingly fresh through the black toothed grin he sported. The man's gnarled right hand clutched the small glass counter, while his left hoisted a white styrofoam coffee cup that he used to spit his tobacco in. The man, one Simon McKinley, looked weathered and dried up; a man who had spent a lifetime in the hot Nevada sun. He was kind enough in nature and offered to show Tom the exhibit in the museum on the Fault.
It was early, just after 6:00am, and the Visitor Center had its open light on. Tom had never noticed it open this early before; someone was sure getting a jump-start on the day. He wouldn't inconvenience them too long; Tom just needed to gather some information pamphlets. He liked the mountains best in the morning, while the sun wasn't too hot and before the visitors started clamoring in around 9:00am. It would be a good day for a climb.
Simon seemed to straighten and pick up a bounce to his step as he neared the exhibit. Tom followed the diminutive man past displays of unique geologic features, plants and animals of the Mojave Desert.
Simon snatched up a tour guide hat that rested on a wooden stool next to the Keystone Thrust Fault exhibit and stood at attention. He recited information that was verbatim from the information sheet that hung under an aerial view of the Fault, "The Keystone Thrust Fault is one of the most significant geologic features of Red Rock Canyon. About 65 million years ago, it is believed that two of the Earth's crustal plates collided with such force that part of one plate of gray limestone was thrust up and over the younger red sandstone. The Keystone Thrust Fault extends from the Cottonwood Fault to the vicinity of La Madre Mountain where it is obscured by more complex faulting…"
Simon gave Tom a wink when he had finished and sat down on the stool.
"Is that what yea be lookin' for, sonny?", the old man chuckled so hard that it inspired a wheezing fit that stretched on for over a minute.
"Have you ever climbed the fault?"
The old man made a muscle with his right arm, then looked at Tom and laughed, "Well, not recently." An act that sent the old man into another coughing fit, which Tom figured was the only way the man could laugh anymore.
"Damn, smoking," Simon finally coughed out. "Smoked for damn near sixty years and now them doctors tell me I have to stop. What the hell do they know." Simon composed himself and motioned
"Where were we, oh yes, have I ever climbed the fault, why yes. Several time in fact, it is the most breathtaking climb in these parts."
"That it is," Tom said nodding his head.
"It is one of the most unique geological formations I have every happened across."
"What do you mean by that." Tom pressed.
Simon leaned back on the stool and rested his back against the wall. He held Tom in a scrutinizing gaze as time drifted by, then he looked about as if confirming that nobody was around.
"You've heard the voices, haven't yea. I can see it in your face." The old man's low and labored voice took on a stern and serious tone.
"Come now, old man, they're just tricks of the sun. You know what too much of the Nevada heat can do to people."
"That she can," Simon replied shaking his head. "But I've heard the voices too and they ain't no heat sickness. In all my years I have never come across such a collision of limestone and sandstone the likes of what's up there. It is as if the pressure of two worlds came crashing together to cause such an upheaval. No, it ain't the heat."
"I've got to be going old man," Tom said rolling his eyes as he turned from Simon.
"That boy that died here six months ago, he be your friend, no…" Simon said before Tom could get out of earshot range. "…Is that who you've been hearin' up there? Take heed, for you might find more than just voices in the wind, if yea be lookin' hard enough," He cautioned.
As Tom exited the Visitor Center he could hear Simon break into another one of his hacking laughter fits, then suddenly it ceased. It took him less than a forty-five seconds to walk to his bike, but it seemed like an eternity in the complete stillness that surrounded him. Tom felt like his was in a vacuum: no warm desert breeze, no scurrying creatures and strangest of all, no sound, other than the deafening echo of his boot heels when they struck the cement parking lot. Tom gave an involuntary shutter as he reached for his bike. When he fired up the V-Twin engine the sound echoed through the canyon sending a small rabbit from its perch on a parking block off to Tom's left, making a dash for its burrow somewhere in the desert. Tom would have sworn that there wasn't a rabbit there a second ago, but the thought quickly left him as a warm morning breeze caressed his face and swept his hair back. Strange, was an understatement, but Tom felt a comfortable peace fall over him and he knew everything would turn out fine.
* * * * *
"Who'd you say you were looking for, Simon McKinley? Oh, sure I remember him, he used to work here, but that was some time ago." The elderly woman behind the counter at the Bureau of Land Management Visitor Center said.
"Some time ago? I just talked to him yesterday," Tom said puzzled.
"That's a laugh, don't you remember the big hoopla with those search parties back in '72? Well, of course you don't, you must have been just a lad."
"Search parties? What search parties, I just talked to Simon yesterday." Tom was getting flustered; nothing seemed to make much sense these days.
"Yes, that is good and fine, but the Simon I knew would go out to Keystone Thrust Fault once a week, religiously. Then one day, he just never returned. Nobody has heard from him or seen him since, like he just vanished. I'm the only one who still works here from that time, but I can tell you that the others and I who were here at that time felt sorry for poor Simon. His wife had died in those mountains a year or so before his disappearance. Some say he couldn't take it anymore and went to the mountains to die. I don't believe a word of it. Simon may not have come to terms with his wife's death, but whenever he returned from his treks up the Fault he always seemed peaceful."
"Well, thank you for your help, I guess," Tom replied as he left the Visitor Center scratching his head in bewilderment.