Written by Thom Garrett
Edited by Danna Colman
They called him Gil. He had had a name once, but it seemed to have slipped his mind. The local kids used to call him the Monster, and that later became the Gila Monster, which evolved into Gila the Monster. More recently, those modern lazy kids shortened it to Gila, and then they just called him Gil.
“Don’t go too deep into the desert,” they’d say. “That’s where Gil lives! He’s a cannibal, and he hasn’t eaten anyone for weeks!”
At least that’s what he’d heard on his rare trips into town for supplies. He liked being an urban legend, especially if it meant people would leave him alone. He wasn’t crazy, and he wasn’t a sociopath. He just loved the desert.
Gil loved the desert for its sense of eternity contrasted by its ever-changing ephemeral beauty. He religiously met the sunrise every day, sitting in silent meditation just outside his adobe hut. He would watch each day begin, transfixed as gray turned to blue and then blue to purple and purple to flaming hues of red and orange, igniting the stones and sand all around him with those same colors. Every day it was the same sun rising over the same desert, but he never saw the same sunrise twice.
Like others before him, he felt called to be a hermit but driven to be a scientist. Most days he would walk, following no path or pattern, and he would see and observe, collect and catalogue, question and understand everything there was in his own private universe. It was not unusual for him to stand, as if turned to stone, for an hour or more, watching a lizard sunbathing on a hot rock.
He carried a canvas sack over his shoulder large enough to hold stones or bones or pottery shards he might find along the way. His evenings were spent in careful examination and identification of the treasures he’d found strewn across the sand. And he was never without his sketchbook, the most recent of dozens that he filled with meticulous, almost photographic pencil drawings of it all.
That day in the heat of summer, Gil sat on a stone sipping from his canteen at the end of a box canyon. He had wandered here by following a dry creek that led to a ravine. From there he had dropped down into a gully that became a labyrinth of twists and turns, leading to further twists and more turns, always dropping lower and lower. His drive always to see around the bend prompted him to climb down sheer walls, and more than once he had to release his precarious grip and fall, hoping he wouldn’t break an ankle as he landed.
It was a rookie mistake, and he knew it. It wasn’t the first time he’d been lost. That was an occasional event that challenged his skills, but he had a knack for finding his way home. This time, though, he had committed the cardinal sin of the desert. He had gone down where he couldn’t get back up. Even if he knew where he was, there was no way he could go back the way he’d come.
He sat in the heat, sipping sparingly from his only water, and looked up at the band of blue sky framed by the orange walls of the narrow canyon. As he watched, clouds gathered like enormous white boulders. The billowing stones piled higher and higher as they slowly approached from the far edge of his view. They rolled toward him, and were transformed into gray mountains and then dark, flat-topped plateaus mirroring the landscape around him. Beautiful, but filled with frightening power.
With the life-giving rain, so essential in the desert, there would also come flash floods, utterly destroying anything unfortunate enough to lie in their path. The worst place to be in a desert storm was right where he was, a box canyon. Rain would fall and trickle across the rocks. Trickles would become creeks, and creeks would flow down to form temporary rivers. Rivers would converge, and then, like the hand of God, that water could tear down cliffs and roll boulders the size of cars. There was no surviving a storm like that in a place like this.
Gil focused on the problem at hand. He couldn’t stay where he was, and he couldn’t go back the way he’d come. He had to find another way. He was a competent climber, and he knew how to read a cliff to plan the best possible ascent. As he studied the surrounding walls, he could see that they had been scoured by water for centuries, one flash flood after another eroding the sandstone surfaces, effectively erasing any handhold safe for climbing. There seemed to be a boundary about fifteen feet up where the walls became craggy again and more easily climbed. That must be the waterline from repeated floods, not too deep but easily enough water to drown him if he weren’t crushed by debris first.
Studying the cracks and crags above the waterline, he soon chose the best path for his ascent, quickly memorizing where the tricky bits would be. It would be an easy climb once he got started, and this route had one distinct advantage. It had a ledge just at the water line that looked to be two inches wide. Big enough to stand on, and more importantly, big enough to use as a first handhold to hoist himself up to start his climb. If he could just reach it.
The temperature suddenly dropped, and he looked up at the sky as the clouds, now purple and swollen with rain, blocked the sun. The first fat drops of rain fell, splattering onto the dusty, dry ground. The thunder in the distance was an continuous roll of kettledrums, and it was getting closer.
His first jump fell far short. He tried again, grabbing for any purchase but only managed to tear the skin from his fingertips. He stepped back and then sprinted straight at the wall, planting a foot on it and springing up from there. Closer, but still inches short. After several more tries, both arms and both hands were scraped and bloody, and he had come nowhere near.
The rain was falling harder now, and the thunder was close. He could see lightning strike higher rock formations. It wouldn’t be long before the torrent rushed in. It wouldn’t be a trickle that slowly filled the canyon. There would be no warning other than a sudden wind as the canyon air was pushed forward by the flood. Then a wall of water would rush in, fifteen feet high and moving faster than a freight train. He had to find another way out.
Gil frantically searched every surface of the canyon wall. He spotted a small jutting rock above and to the left of the ledge. It was like a hook, a perfect handhold, but even more out of reach than the ledge.
The thunder was on top of him now, echoing through the canyon and deafening, so loud he couldn’t think. His heart raced and he began to panic. This box canyon would soon be his grave. The rain was a deluge, like standing under a waterfall. The floodwaters couldn’t be far behind.
He kept staring at that rock, so far beyond his reach but the only possible way out. He covered his ears to block the noise and tried to focus. How could he reach it? He couldn’t! How could he use it?
He pulled the canvas sack from his shoulder and carefully tossed it up, hoping for the handle to loop over the rock. It missed and fell to the ground. The storm surged to its peak, angry and deafening, as he tried again. It caught. The bag now hung down lower than the ledge, low enough to reach.
He jumped and caught it with both hands just as a gale of wind blasted down the canyon. He swung his feet to the ledge and levered his body over them, pushing off from the jutting rock and finally standing precariously, his toes planted on the narrow shelf while he pressed his chest against the face of the cliff.
He heard a growing roar that quickly dwarfed the sound of the thunder and turned his head to face up the canyon. For a split second, there was nothing but sound, and then the monster appeared, devouring rocks and trees and tossing the carcasses of animals. It slammed into the dead-end wall of the canyon with such force that the air was saturated with spray. Gil nearly drowned, gasping with an open mouth for any air at all as he dug his fingers into cracks in the rock, clinging for his life. The branches of a pinion pine, ripped from its rocky perch, swept across the cliff and grabbed his ankles, pulling his feet away from the ledge. He held on by his fingers and managed to regain his footing, only to find that the ledge was now submerged. The water was rising fast.
There was no way he could climb any higher in this storm. The rocks were slick, and the rain was blinding. At his feet, the water churned and swirled like a blender, its deadly debris being smashed to bits between tumbling boulders and the walls of the cliff. He saw an enormous tree trunk, an orange-barked Ponderosa pine, washing down the river of storm water. It was two feet in diameter and twenty feet long. When it hit the far wall, it splintered into pieces, the trunk now armed with sharp spears of broken wood and bobbing up and down like an angry animal. The swirling water was bringing it right at him.
There was a sudden change. The angry roar of rushing water quieted and the world stood still for just a moment. Then the flow of water reversed. The rain had moved on and ceased to feed the flood. There was now less water flowing down than was already trapped in the canyon, and the trapped water pushed back. Like a wave returning to the sea, it rushed out of this box and back upstream. The water level dropped by five feet in seconds, but then it rushed back in again, rising, but not as far. It sloshed back and forth several times and finally rested, an opaque reservoir of rocks and mud, still swirling slowly just below Gil’s feet.
The storm moved on and the rain stopped. The sun even came out and managed to warm his chilled back and hands, and the cliff began to dry in the desert heat. He saw his canvas sack still hanging from the rock, and he gratefully retrieved it, slipping it over his shoulder before he began his climb out. He was nearly exhausted, but the cliff was forgiving, offering an easy path up and out. He collapsed on the rim and rested in the warmth until he had his strength back. He slid close to the edge and looked down at the box canyon that had almost killed him. No hard feelings. Then he stood and got his bearings. From up here, it looked like an easy walk home.