“One travels to escape from it all, but that is the great illusion: It cannot be done, since one travels with one’s mind.”
— Ella Maillart
The man in front of Mona had forgotten to put on deodorant, and the sickly sweet scent of sweat wafted around his perspiring form like that kid from the Peanuts comics. Pig-pen.
When the trail opened up wider again, Mona nimbly side-stepped around and past the man, just fast enough to make the motion not seem borne out of natural excitement, but a desire to be able to breathe properly. Though he seemed too focused on picking his way through the rocky path to notice her disgusted look.
Their hiking party was small in number, but varied in participants. A few were like Mona, amateur hikers for whom these expeditions were no more than a hobby, something to do out of the city that was both relaxing and exhilarating. Fewer still were the professionals, who hiked day and night, roaming the country like ancient nomads, seeking and always finding, though never content. The others were like the Pig-pen man, newbies who had had no idea what they were getting into when they signed up for a walking tour of the desert. Either it was a personal challenge of sorts, a misguided idea for a romantic getaway, or something equally impulsive. They were at the back, huffing like cows being herded into a paddock.
Even the woman with the toned arms and tight stomach, Mona noted smugly. Clearly, she was used to smooth gym work, not the unpredictability of nature.
Their guide was also toned, but in a rugged, uneven manner that bespoke of rock-climbing actual rocks and running up slippery sand dunes. At the head of their small pack, she had reached the edge of the trail first and stopped. Mona heard grateful sighs from behind, and checked her watch irritably. If this was yet another rest stop, she was gonna scream.
“Just around the corner to the left is the path back to civilization,” the guide called, her well-practiced voice piercing perfectly through the hot air for everyone to hear. “If you feel you can’t continue, then that is the road you should take. My partner will be waiting for you.”
Mona thought it must take a great amount of self-control to not express any dissatisfaction with potential quitters. The guide continued, “As this is an off-road hike, we’ll be heading down to the right.” She pointed almost unnecessarily to a steep slope that led to a wide labyrinth of rocky hills. “This is meant to challenge both the body and the mind. These is uncharted territory, even for me. We might find something…or nothing at all.”
Too dramatic. Mona adjusted her backpack irritably, impatiently. She had hoped to be back by six to go clubbing. She liked to chase down physical exertion with an emotional – and medicinal – high.
There were a few moments of shuffling around on the narrow path, as over half the group merged toward the left. Nearly all of them were the huffing cows, and a couple hobbyists, who clearly had filled their quota for the day. Mona might’ve left, too, if she hadn’t seen that the fake toned girl decided to stay. Despite her slight frame, Mona was no lightweight when it came to hiking, and she was determined to prove it. The Pig-pen man also remained, beyond comprehension, as he seemed utterly exhausted. His T-shirt, strained around his stomach and broad shoulders, was drenched in smelly sweat.
Once the quitters had cleared off, the guide waved her hand and began slowly sliding down the slope. “Let’s go, team!” she called.
Mona gave a derisive snort, but followed suit. If she was guiding, there would be none of this we’re-all-in-this-together, buddy-buddy crap. Just walking and climbing. It was the best way to lose yourself. To forget your troubles and responsibilities back in the real world.
Not that she need to, of course, Mona told herself, carefully avoiding a sharp rock. She had a decent life. Friends. Regular dates. A steady income. Co-workers that she actually tolerated. It was just…nice that it didn’t matter out here, in the desert. Where you could die and no one would ever find the body; just a skeleton picked clean by birds and sand, bleached by the burning sun.
Rather morbid, actually. What, was she going emo or something? Mona shook her head, and nearly ran into Toned Arms, who gave her a smile that wasn’t returned. Mona wondered what this girl was trying to prove. What Pig-pen, looking dead on his feet, was trying to prove.
She hated people sometimes. She just wanted to be alone. Which is totally different than being lonely, she thought unnecessarily. Solitude was desired, loneliness was just pathetic. Hiking gave her that solitude, even if it was with other people roaming the semi-wilderness. Despite being “uncharted”, the desert surrounding the city still belonged to somebody, and only tours and those on government business were allowed to navigate the area.
Though judging by all the beer bottles they had passed so far, the restriction wasn’t heavily enforced.
This tour was actually the first that allowed civilians off the mandated paths; clearly, no one cared what was out here anymore. There was something in that, perhaps, but Mona had just picked it for the cheap price.
They had reached the bottom of the slope now, and in a semi-straight line, filed into the hilly area, where the rocks reached far above their heads and were separated by meters of dirt and scrubby bushes.
Pig-pen had quickened his pace, and was now once again in front of Mona. Luckily, the sun was burning off most of the smell, and she only had to take a few steps back to avoid the worst of it.
A shadow passed overhead, and Mona looked up to see a precariously perched rock on the slabs above, not unlike the kind in those old Looney Tunes cartoons. Everyone else apparently noticed it, too, for although no one had been talking, they all somehow went very quiet. Mona shot a quick glance behind her: the path from where they had split from the others could no longer be seen. The guide didn’t seem bothered, however, and Mona was sure this “wild trip into the desert” was as real as reality TV.
Besides the scuffle of shoes on dirt and heavy breathing from the novices, it was extremely quiet. It was as if they were treading on sacred ground, and were wary of the wrath of some malevolent god who would rise out of the hot sand to smite them.
What’s with me today? Mona felt even more irritated. Normally, hikes were blessedly mind-numbing. Just walking and climbing, walking and climbing, walking and climbing.
Again, she wasn’t paying attention and bumped into someone, this time Pig-pen.
“Sorry,” came the low rumble of his voice, though he didn’t turn around to look at her. Mona took that as another excuse to give him a nasty look, and she stepped away to be closer to the guide, who had come to a stop.
Despite this surely being all planned out, the silent, oppressive atmosphere seemed to have affected her, too, and she merely motioned for them to follow her through a winding corridor through the enormous rocks.
Next to this path of sorts was another slope, smoother and shorter than the first. Mona figured it must lead into the greater desert area, and started to go after the guide into the rocks. A movement in her peripheral vision made her stop.
Pig-pen wasn’t following. Mona had thought the man had just been taking a breather near the edge, but after a few moments, he incredibly started walking down the slope. She looked around; everyone else had gone.
Did the man have a death wish? Did he know something that no one else did? Was he just stupid and didn’t realize that it was the wrong way?
Mona considered just leaving the man – it wasn’t her business – but a grudging sense of morality made her go after him. She didn’t want to be blamed for his disappearance or death, should he hurt himself.
It was natural curiosity that kept her from calling out to him.
If Pig-pen knew she was following, he gave no sign. He slid down the remainder of the slope, and began walking briskly toward a tall set of rocks. Fast and determined, as if he knew where he was going. Mona trailed behind cautiously, uneasily.
The man slipped through the rocks and disappeared from sight. Mona paused to gather her bearings. And possibly her courage. She didn’t know why she was afraid. The slope was mere feet away, and the path the others had taken a bit beyond that. Easily reachable. She couldn’t hear Pig-pen’s footsteps, which suggested he had stopped just ahead. It was possible that it was a natural female fear, being alone in a place with a strange man. The thought made her angry. She could take him, no problem. No one had, or would, ever get the better of her.
Mona settled the internal debate by practically running to the rocky space and through it. The area opened up wide in front of her. There were no rocks or scrub, just the wide desert, shimmering with heat waves. And there was Pig-pen, just standing and staring at nothing. There was no way he hadn’t heard her approach, but he didn’t move.
Now it was just awkward, so trying to summon up the irritation she had felt toward the man earlier, she said, “Hey, Mister! You’re going the wrong way. The others went…”
She trailed off. The man hadn’t been looking at nothing. There was something, barely distinguishable in between the wavy sheets of heat. A mirage? It was big.
Mona moved closer, though still keeping a wary distance from Pig-pen. It was still hard to see, but now there was no mistaking what it was.
A town. An old-timey, Wild West collection of buildings and houses and a central main street. With no people or any other signs of current habitation. Abandoned.
A ghost town.