Short Story: Lookout City, Part 3

“All you need is the plan, the road map, and the courage to press on to your destination.”

— Earl Nightingale

[Part 2 here]

Philip took off his baseball cap. It may have been protecting his face from the sun, but it was just too hot to keep it on. The slight wind rustled his thinning hair, and he felt a little better.

Shooting a surreptitious glance around, he was somewhat pleased to discover that though he was far behind the guide, Philip wasn’t the last in the pack. Being tremendously out of shape had been a cause for concern when making the decision to hike out into the desert, but had so far proven to be unwarranted. He was very tired, yes, but adrenaline and motivation was keeping him going.

The path became rocky, and Philip had to focus to maintain his footing. A woman, looking tense, rushed past him, making a disgusted face that she probably thought he didn’t see.

He knew he had forgotten to put on deodorant, but there was nothing he could do about it now. Philip made sure to stay a distance away from the others, though no one else seemed to notice the smell.

The path wound up a ways, and he could see the rest of the hiking group had stopped and gathered around the guide, who stood out easily with her tall frame and bright blue visor.

Philip let the stragglers behind him move ahead, and then took his place at the back, again keeping slightly away. At least he was downwind from everyone.

The guide explained the splitting of the paths, with the left leading back to the city and the right leading further into the desert. A bubble of excitement swelled within him; that was where his destination was. Philip wasn’t entirely sure he’d be able to find the place after all the time – what if it had been destroyed? – but hope was winning out over realism.

Most of the group began making their way toward the left path, stumbling past the others, and the delay gave Philip a chance to catch his breath more fully. He caught the tense woman staring at him with a look of distaste. She was short and fit, probably a regular hiker. Acutely aware of his sweat-drenched shirt, he covered his embarrassment by drinking deeply from his water bottle. It was warm, almost hot, from the sun, but he was thirsty and didn’t care.

Once the group had split, leaving only nine people to enter the wide, rocky desert, the guide waved her hand and began sliding down the right-hand slope. There was no path, because this was an “off-trail” hike.

Philip had had doubts about how off-trail it really was, and research online had shown that though the hike was indeed in previously prohibited territory, it was still restricted to a selected area, lest they get lost. Fortunately, what Philip was looking for was within that perimeter.

Having reached the bottom of the slope, he followed the rest of the group into the rock hills. It was all starting to come back to him now.

In those days, they hadn’t hiked all the way from the city, but the trucks were hard to maneuver through the rocks, so he and a few other crew members would often get out around here, while the trucks took the long way around.

Philip’s memory perhaps wasn’t as good as it used to be, but as they passed it, he vividly remembered the precarious rock on the top of one of the slabs, looking even more dangerous. Just like the hikers, the crew would always go silent when passing through the area. And there was the rock shaped like an anvil! He grinned; they had always called this the Looney Tunes Gorge. Oh, he was so close!

He hadn’t realized he had moved ahead of nearly everyone until the tense woman bumped into him. She made a short, sharp noise, and his elation abated slightly.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, and didn’t look at her. He didn’t want to see another nasty expression on her face.

The guide had stopped, and without saying anything, motioned for them to follow her through a winding rock trail. From examining the map of the area earlier, Philip knew that led back toward the city. He had other plans.

The slope was just nearby, short and nearly flat from so many people using it. Or rather, having once used it. There was a bit of sand built up now, but it was definitely the right way.

He stood there at the edge, regaining his strength and making sure the others moved ahead. It wasn’t explicitly prohibited, but he was sure hikers weren’t allowed to venture away from the guide. Philip gave a wry smile. He felt like a little kid escaping his teacher.

Once the footsteps into the rocks had faded, he started down the slope, excitement bubbling up inside again. The bottom rose up quickly, and he almost slipped. Then his feet were on firm dirt again, and he strode off toward the tall set of rocks. Erosion had made them look thinner and shorter than he recalled, but yes, those were the ones. The crew would race at this part, to see who would slip through the narrow gap first. Philip didn’t have any energy left to run, but he started walking faster.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the tense woman following him. His stomach flip-flopped. What was she doing here? Did she know about the place too? No, she was too young to have worked on it, and he didn’t recognize her, anyway. But if she wanted to get him in trouble, wouldn’t she’ve called the others back?

He had reached the rocky gap now, and decided that he didn’t care. He was an old man now, no longer needing to be held to whims and opinions of the younger generation. If he wanted to see the place, he was going to see it. He would’ve preferred to make the nostalgia journey alone, but there was little he could do about that now.

Philip slipped through the rocks, and the desert was there in front of him, wide and open and shimmering with heat waves. Was it still there? It was so hard to see…

He heard the tense woman’s footsteps from behind, but didn’t turn around. If he had come out for nothing…

The silence and sun was oppressive as he strained his eyes to search the desert. It might’ve been taken down; in fact, it was very likely, but he had so hoped –

“Hey, Mister!” the woman called to him. “You’re going the wrong way. The others went…”

She trailed off, and Philip knew she had seen what he was now looking at. It was there. Beyond the wavy sheets of heat, he could see its big, dark blot on the bright, bleached dirt.

The Lookout City film set.


“Mojave Desert” by Steve Berardi is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

2 thoughts on “Short Story: Lookout City, Part 3

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