It started with the slightest pinprick in the back of my skull — an awl tip auguring in. At first, I shook it off.
My people do not get headaches. We are Yankees. Headaches are reserved for lesser specimens with delicate constitutions. Hangovers are the territory of lily-livered lightweights who pop Advil like Pez. In my people’s world, tins of Bayer aspirin grow rusty in the back of the medicine cabinet. If you ail, you undo the damage through toil and penance. You think all those meticulous woodpiles stacked beside New England homes are only about staying warm? Think again.
Which is exactly what I did — think again — when I felt another sharp stab in my head. I knew what it meant: onset dehydration. This was not one I was going to be able to walk off. Walking had gotten me here in the first place.
I was teetering several hundred feet above the ground, on a precipitous trail in the Arizona desert, several hours into a hike that I had thought would be a “stroll” — at least that’s how it had been described on one hiker’s blog. (Another Yankee maneuver: Never spend good money on a trail guide, especially in a place where you’re a tourist, when you can get all sorts of “useful” information for free.)
It was my last full day of a two-week stay in Tucson, where I was visiting my friends Lesley and Dean, who moved there from Portland 17 years ago. My friendship with Lesley dates back to 1982, when she was performing around Portland in the improv duo Abrams & Anderson. I worked in a record store that often sold tickets to her shows. I was utterly star-struck, but that didn’t stop me from marching up to her at one of their post-production parties to announce, more than ask, “So, you want to be my friend, or what?”
Miraculously, she did.
So began an extraordinary friendship that has spanned the better part of four decades. It started with late nights at Horsefeathers and next-day diner breakfasts. (I can still see our cigarettes hovering over our grease-and-egg-yolk-smeared plates at Difilippo’s on Congress Street. Did we use those plates as ashtrays? Please say no.) There were pink Converse hightops, cutthroat games of Trivial Pursuit and caterwauling to The Roches. We sported shoulder pads and shags — my Rod Stewart to her Melanie Griffith. (All you whippersnappers know that your man buns and skinny jeans are going to someday look just as ridiculous, don’t you? OK, maybe not as bad as my fuchsia shag. Still, don’t get too cocky.)
But mostly there was endless talk of how she was going to become a famous actress and I a famous author. We spoke on the phone every day, sometimes multiple times, as we felt the urgency to share every thought and revelation. (“What if I described my writing as a cross between T.S. Eliot and Rickie Lee Jones?” I’d ask her.) Grounded in her solid relationship with Dean, Lesley weathered my countless infatuations and heartaches. She appointed herself my literary executrix and read and archived every line I wrote. She consoled me when I didn’t get into Yale’s MFA playwriting program. She and Dean hired me at their fledgling ad agency when I couldn’t find a job, and shared their home during all my moves and floundering. Pre–social network, she crowd-sourced the purchase of my first computer, for my thirtieth birthday, by asking family and friends for donations — in person. Dean and Lesley headed west the year before I got married, but in a last gesture of girlfriendliness, Lesley took me wedding-dress shopping at Amaryllis, on Exchange Street, once the go-to clothing store for Portland’s It Girls. She got me there by bribing me — as she always did whenever shopping (or other unpleasantness) was involved — with a reward beer when we were done. Together, we chose my dress. The next thing I knew, my friend had moved away.
We’ve managed to stay in touch across the years and miles. We counseled and consoled each other through our mothers’ illnesses and deaths. We gave support during our various career twists and turns: her move from comedy to academia to the clergy; my ridiculous belief that I will still someday be the next big breakout author. (Yes, despite the fact I sounded the death knell for my writing career in my last column, I’ve once again unquit writing — and resumed torturing the English language.)
Don’t get me wrong: maintaining a friendship through fiber optics and satellite signals has not been easy. We’ve had our share of crossed wires, hurt feelings and months-long silences these past 17 years, but we never gave up on the conversation. There was always more to say.
Which is why we had planned this extended stay — so we could do more than just hurriedly catch up, as happened during the handful of previous visits. Lesley and I wanted some unhurried time together, so, in a very un-Yankee-like move, I impetuously booked a flight. She was so excited by the prospect of seeing me that she sent a check to help defray my travel expenses. Of course, I tore it up — though I’m keeping the pieces in the bottom of a keepsake box, in case I someday need to tape them together. (Kidding.)
The visit went by in a blur. She worked, as did I, and I hiked every day in the national park just a couple miles from their house. The three of us ate at their favorite restaurants, but also took turns making dinner. She and Dean even smiled their way through my meals. The two of them got up early one morning to drive me an hour-plus across town so I could look at birds — acorn woodpeckers and brindled titmice (Be still, my beating heart!) — in Madera Canyon. We played a dominos game called Mexican Train, during which I heatedly accused Dean of cheating to help his wife — thus keeping our cutthroat tradition alive. On Thanksgiving weekend, Lesley and I recorded an interview for the StoryCorps project (which is why so many of our old memories are fresh). The three of us sat around their fire pit one night and I insisted we sing cowboy songs so I could howl at the moon and lose my senses. I got to see my friend pastor at her church, and I served as liturgist for one of the services. During my stay, Lesley was in the midst of planning a citywide anti-gun rally, which included representatives of many denominations and a survivor of the Gabby Giffords shooting. She wrote an editorial calling for compromise between the two intractable sides, and let me take a quick pass at it. When it appeared in the paper the next day I was star-struck all over again.
On my last full day she had a huge workload and I had a hankering to do a final trek in that saguaro-studded park I’d come to know so well. I chose a hike called “Phone Line,” read a few posts about it, and had Lesley drop me off on her way to work.
En route, she peppered me with questions. “Do you have enough water? Food? Are you going to be warm enough?” I yes, yes, yessed my way through her interrogation, waving off her concerns. What I was thinking, but didn’t say, was, I know what I’m doing out here. I pack my daypack with the precision of a Navy Seal. Don’t you worry about me, sista. I’ve got this covered.
And I did, until my “stroll” turned into a tangle of vertigo-inducing switchbacks that made my stomach drop with each step. The blog I read said the trail crossed a park road, but where the hell was it? I didn’t want to turn around at that point. There were now too many drop-offs between where I stood and where I started. My legs were shaky. I was taking baby steps. I had no cell reception. I was scared.
And then the headache began.
Although I had consumed plenty of water, the altitude, the exertion and the anxiety had sapped me. I didn’t want to go on. I was mad at myself for being such a lily-livered coward — as well as a smartypants. I felt utterly forsaken.
Fortunately, I had a couple electrolyte tablets in my first-aid kit. (They were packed right next to my heaping helping of hubris.) I popped one in my water bottle, ate a hardboiled egg and some airline peanuts, studied the map and got my bearings. It took a while, and a little backtracking, but I eventually had tarmac under my feet again, a cell signal to call for a ride, and only a couple miles to trudge to the park entrance.
That’s where Lesley would pick me up and dust me off, as she had — literally and figuratively — so many times over the years.
Elizabeth Peavey dances on a cliff edge here each month. Learn more about her other acts of derring-do at elizabethpeavey.com.