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After another half-hour I began to suspect that traffic on this road was something less than bumper to bumper, and since it was now past six o'clock I doubted that it was going to pick up. The sun was dipping lower and there was a slight breeze through the sage. The country was stark and silent. Sage-covered hills meandered off to the north on both sides of me. The road was pocked with animal holes. A jackrabbit scurried out of a bush and across the road. A mile or two farther—I was still moving fairly briskly—a startled deer swished the brush no more than 20 feet in front of me and crossed the road in two bounds. I watched it bounce gracefully off through the sage.
I trudged on, my pace slowing a little, but buoyed by the confidence that I was nearing the ranch. I saw a grove of aspen, which meant that water was somewhere about, and on investigating I found a feeble little creek gurgling about 100 yards off the road. It appeared to parallel the road for some distance. Water was not going to be a problem.
By 8:30 I was certain that I had gone more than six miles, but there was still no sign of a ranch house. I had seen a few grazing cattle and even a fenced water hole, so maybe it was over the next rise. Maybe it wasn't. Doubts began hardening in my mind. I knew that in this type of country cattle frequently graze 50 miles from the home ranch. The most alarming thought was that I had missed the turnoff to the ranch back at that fork I passed. That meant that this road was taking me into terra incognita. There was a town up ahead, but it was 30 or 40 miles off. Now I was getting worried and frustrated. I would walk for another hour and if I still found nothing I would head back.
I passed a small grassy meadow. It was a natural campsite; a bluff protected it from wind and there was soft grass and stream water. I made a mental note of the time and decided that it would be best to return there if nothing turned up. I collected some rocks and piled them on the road so I'd recognize the place if I came back to it during the night.
My feet were getting sore, and I knew that I had walked at least 10 miles, probably more. I was certain now that I had missed the turnoff to the ranch. At least the moon was out and it was light enough to walk but it was unlikely that any cars were going to show up. I cursed out loud, which succeeded only in arousing a few ravens that were about, and turned around.
In less than an hour I was back at the campsite I had spotted. It was obvious now that I would be spending the night somewhere on this perfidious road. My anger was focusing on the road; it was on the map, it was an established link between somewhere and somewhere else, yet it was silent as stone, empty as a ruined cathedral, as tough and unpromising as the earth around it.
I still had my coffee-can drinking cup, and I drank several cups of water for dinner. I was beginning to appreciate my jacket. The temperature often drops 50 degrees at night in this country, and it was getting chilly. I collected a pile of dead sage branches and built a tepee of twigs to start a fire, a technique learned from guides on previous, better-planned wilderness expeditions. I had just six matches with me.
I stuffed notebook paper and cellophane from a cigarette package under the twigs and lit a match. The cellophane burned out. I tried again. Same result. I tried the paper twice. It also refused to burn. I moved the twig tepee, thinking there might be a breeze I had not detected. This time the paper got going but the twigs wouldn't catch. I was failing the test of the outdoors. I made my final match last by lighting a cigarette with it (that burned all right), then lighting a second cigarette off the first, and then a third. Still the twigs wouldn't catch. No fire. It was too cold to sleep without one. My feet were blistering and my walking speed had slowed considerably, but I knew then I would have to head back down the road toward the car. At 11:30 I set off once again.
Walking had become painful, and to take my mind off my feet I counted steps. I estimated my stride at about a yard, and decided that I would count 1,760 strides, which should be a mile, and then take a 10-minute break to rest and rub my feet. I counted off the strides—one mile, two miles, three. The breaks became longer and it became harder to get back up after each one. A mad chorus of coyotes yapped somewhere off in the dark silhouettes of the hills. After three miles my knees began to stiffen, and for the first 10 or 20 yards after each break I staggered from one side of the road to the other like a boozy cowboy. The exhilaration was long gone now. So was my drugstore-outdoorsman's notion that I was going to walk out of this myself, that no one would have to rescue me. I was now willing to be saved. The air was cool and pleasant and, despite everything, it was a strangely satisfying place to be—the long dark shadows of the mountains, the bright moon reflecting on the meandering stream, the sudden flustered flurries of birds or small animals in the bush. But my feet were giving out, my shoes weren't going to last indefinitely. It would be hot again tomorrow.
There was one long uphill stretch on the walk back. By the time I reached it, my pace was ponderously slow and I was pausing after each half-mile. Then something truly strange happened; if I were religious I might call it a miracle, or if I were humbler it might make me religious. At some point on this hill a bird fluttered up from the road in front of me, flew squawking for about 30 or 40 yards, then landed on the road again. As I came stumbling up it repeated the same routine—fluttering, fussing, then landing ahead of me. It never flew behind me or off to the side. The bird must have repeated this 15 or 16 times; it seemed to me that it was with me for nearly an hour. When I reached the top of the hill, which wasn't easy, the bird was gone, without a sound. In my weariness and fevered imagination it seemed to me that it had been nagging me up the hill, scolding and imploring and fussing at me until I made it. Then, the job done, it silently withdrew. A fantasy of the footsore, perhaps, but there it is. And let the word go forth from this day forward that any tired, lame or discouraged bird has a friend in me.