Mary Sojourner shows how the people who hike out of a desert canyon are always different than those who’d hiked in.

HE KNEW he was magic. He knew he was a fuck-up. My lover was a smart, funny rock climber with Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice tattooed over his heart. I was older. We both knew it couldn’t last. “It’s not the difference in our ages,” he said. “It’s the difference in our generations.”

His favorite words to me were, “Slow down.”

He said them in the low furry voice that had earned him the name badger, said them when we were scrambling over high desert basalt, sitting on the edge of a plaza in an ancient Hopi ruin, driving each other crazy with expert touch. “Slow down.”

Badger knew I’d been the divorced mother of three kids. “You had to be on warp speed,” he’d say. “But those days are over. We’ve got all the time in the world.”

Of course we didn’t.

Right before Badger headed into the rest of his life – in a 1980 black Toyota pick-up with The Drudge Skeleton* painted on its side in silver – he, my best friend Everett and I drove to a trail head into a little sandstone canyon in the Verde Valley.

It was a soft late afternoon in early June. We walked into the wash that led into the canyon. The rosy sandstone had yet to go scarlet. Shadows ate what was left of the day’s heat. Ev brushed against an acacia and cussed. He held out his hand. Blood streaked the back. “Good lad,” my lover said, in his Renaissance Faire voice “now you’ve been blooded.”

Ev rolled his eyes. He was twenty years older than the kid. He hikes solo off-trail in the Tetons and Wind Rivers, in the bleached-out country in the Kofa, into slits in the Mojave rock that looked like portals to hell-on-earth. He had little patience with sorcery and derring-do.

The gentlemen charged ahead into the canyon mouth. I’d never known either of them to hike gonzo. I figured their testosterone molecules were jousting. I dropped back. I knew better than to get caught between a middle-aged stag and a young buck. Besides, I loved watching my lover’s ass and shoulders as he moved.

The canyon walls rose higher. Badger scanned the shadowed rock. I knew he was hunting magic – or a route he could free solo. I knew Everett would eschew the magic, but match Badger move for move. The first time he’d heard the kid refer to a scary moment on a climb as an orgasm, Ev had snorted. “Jesus, at his age I was so loaded all the time that everything was an orgasm. I didn’t need to be a wizard for that.”

Magic was holding off. No sun-gilded hawks flew overhead calling out our names. No hummingbird led us into an alcove filled with glowing petroglyphs. No icy shadows beckoned us ahead into terrible peril. The trail was easy.

Ev and Badger went around a curve. I stopped and leaned against the warm canyon wall. I listened to night on its way – the first yip of a gang of coyotes, an evening wind shaking the brittlebush twigs. I felt sadness starting to creep in. I was on a tricky route – a traverse I wasn’t sure I was ready for. If Badger and I were going to stay loving, I was going to have to do it without a belay.

Slow, I thought. Let him leave before you start missing him.

It was almost dark by the time the guys skidded down a talus break in the canyon wall. Ev led. Badger was laughing. “Hey,” he yelled, “I let him lead. That way I’d have something to land on if I fell.”

Badger took the lead on the trail back. The sky had gone thin aqua, a scrawny moon drifting up from the canyon edge. Nightwind carried the cat piss scent of juniper. I was directly behind Badger, sensing the trail under my feet, hoping that in the months to come I’d keep knowing how to navigate in the near-dark.

Badger stopped and turned. “Hey, you guys,” he called back, “that wasn’t too bad for a hike without an orgas…”

The bushes to my right exploded. I froze. A full-grown javelina stomped on my foot, stalled out and launched down-canyon. Badger clawed himself up the side of the wash. I turned and saw Ev on his ass in the dirt. Badger slid down to the trail. “Oh fuck,” he said. “Oh holy fuck.”

Ev grinned – a Dirty Harry smirk. He knew that I knew what he wasn’t going to say – How’s that for an orgasm, boyo? I knew that sharp as Badger was, as skilled a strategist at gaming, he knew what Ev was holding back. And he knew he’d lost.

What he didn’t know, as the two guys got slowly to their feet and we walked back to the Drudge Skeleton, was that I too was keeping my mouth shut. It was only later that night as Badger and I lay in each other’s arms that I whispered into his warm skin. Slow. Slow. The contest is over. The javelina won.

* The Drudge Skeleton is a card in the game Magic: the Gathering: “The dead make good soldiers. They can’t disobey orders, never surrender, and don’t stop fighting when a random body part falls off.” From Nevinyrral, Necromancer’s Handbook, a perfect description of a rock-climber’s 1980 Mazda pickup.