Senior Seminar, Part IV
Sargento. Solo. The key event for the time in Mexico was Solo. When Zeigler spoke of it, both during his recruitment speeches and for our preparations, he became almost solemn, reverent.
People had experienced life-changing insights, visions (read: hallucinations), raptures, whatever. Life-changing sounds good until you learn the price.
Solo is time spent alone in the wilderness without food; three days in our case. I looked forward to changing my life, to the new horizons that would open up after such an experience.
Pam would supply us with water each day. We would put our canteens out where she had access but wouldn’t risk meeting up with us. We took our sleeping bags, matches, pencil and notebook (most urgently critical for scribbling our ketosis-induces musings), and knives.
It was vitally important, we learned, that we be spaced far enough apart that we wouldn’t see each other. It wasn’t enough to stay in our own private zones; we had to feel in every respect that we were completely isolated.
We trekked out past the estuary to shallow bay. Across the water we could see the dunes that melted into the sandbar leading southward towards Shipwreck Island. My camp anchored the Southern end of our desert Maginot Line guarding this unnamed bay. Pam and I agreed on a canteen-refill location then she and the rest of the team trudged on.
Sargento. Solo, Day 1. The choices for a camp site proved limited. When on the hunt for that perfect beach home in the empty Sonora Desert, location is everything. Even though the view is unmatched when the sun goes down the need for a warming fire becomes urgent. Climbing up over the dune to the leeward side I found my place.
Tucked between hunched shoulders of drifting sand I set up my three-night homestead to the sounds of the hissing grass. I spent time collecting a small mountain of firewood then getting a nice fire going. It was about the only entertainment available.
I wrote a few lines in my notebook, stared out at the sea, stirred the fire, opened the notebook then closed it without writing, stirred the fire, stared out at the sea, estimated the remaining hours until sundown.
The Great Revelation must require the full three days but I was struggling to wait.
Hunger ran up and kicked me in the gut. The rules stated that you couldn’t take any food along on Solo but one could, I found out (because I asked), eat something obtained in the wild. My mind searched its catalog of potential food sources but came up empty. Serious survivalist would scoff at that but 1) I was not one of those and 2) would not have eaten most of the items they identified. Such knowledge would have been wasted in any case.
None of us knew it then (or even for a very long time afterwards) but Solo was the third link in our group’s unscheduled experiential learning which had long-term repercussions for me and others.
Sleep ran from me that night, cavorting just out of reach until late.
Sargento. Solo, Day 2. I awoke feeling hungry but not oppressively so. I debated build up the fire but decided to hold off.
I stood on the top of the dunes scanning the world. Way up at the northern end of the bay I saw the figures of two people, together, heading way.
Tide was out so the bay was mostly sand, rocks and…what was that? A big juicy crab! I snagged that little devil right up, visions of an actual meal running through my head. As I turned back to camp I spotted Kevin several hundred yards away. This wasn’t supposed to happen.
He was waist-deep in the channel, sharpened stick in hand, stabbing furiously at, well, I hoped it wasn’t his own feet.
This was one of those defining moments. You know the type. Usually you don’t know it is one of those moments at the time. I did. I looked at the crab, at Kevin flailing away, then at the spot where the other team members headed to.
I thought for a long time, perhaps three or four seconds, then I hid Mr. Crab behind my back and then casually walked towards Kevin. His back was to me so he didn’t see me. The wind and waves beyond the outer dunes kept him from hearing me so that when I got to the edge of the remaining water in the bay I had to shout at him.
Kevin looked up from his hunt, turned around then raised his hands in a questioning half-shrug. I slowly revealed the huge crab and suddenly I was his (Kevin’s, not the crab’s) best friend.
And by such means did Solo end for Kevin and me. It was all the crab’s doing.
As we discussed the ways and means of crab cookery without any cookery I mentioned the others I had seen wandering off to the north. Hey, we already broke Solo so we might as well join the party.
Kevin and I worked our way up the beach, past a few other Solo camps still presumed to be occupied. At the upper end of the little bay we found Dave’s camp and half the team, now that we had come along.
Ray, Vince, and Laura preceded us to Party Central. Dave, however, had managed a feat never before imagined on Seminar. Yet another for our team, and we weren’t done.
Early that morning as Dave was scouring the beach for anything palatable he spied a small Indian fishing boat puttering just off the shore. In desperation, he waded out chest deep, shouting and wishing he’d studied harder, in very bad Spanish, “Trade for fish!”
Dave took off his sneakers and waved them in a trade offer but to his complete amazement the fishermen simply tossed him a half-dozen fresh-caught salmon, without even slowing down. He rapidly gathered up the fish then used his sleeping bag stuff sack to hold them. The sack was anchored by rocks at the water’s edge. With the tides in perpetual motion the treasure demanded regular, round-the-clock monitoring.
The abundance of fish and the attention they required no doubt factored in to the invitations to Dave’s nearest neighbors to share his good fortune.
We spent the remaining daylight hours puzzling over the right/best/any way to cook the precious fishies. At one point I lamented the lack of aluminum foil. Kevin noted that he had a foil space blanket in his pack back at base camp.
From this seed a plan evolved. An away team would sneak to base camp after midnight to retrieve the foil blanket. Those not going on the expedition would be charged with fire and fish maintenance. It was a great plan except for, well, several things.
First, and worst, was that said blanket was not made from any type of metal. It was, in fact, Mylar: plastic with a shiny coating. Had we put the material anywhere near a strong heat source it would have melted and emitted toxic fumes. Any fish contained by the “foil” would have been ruined and likely poisonous.
At that point none of us had heard of Mylar, space blankets being a fairly new invention, so we forged ahead in happy ignorance. The planning stage completed (I’ve explained every one of the details) we settled into a routine of spending a day at the beach without any food.
Vince spoke of having tried heroin one time and how frightening it was. Ray talked about sailing across the equator. Kevin mostly added little of value. Dave mentioned playing La Crosse. I never played but it sure looked fun. Add that to the list of activities I couldn’t afford to do.
At one point Ray cut my hand with his knife. It was a complete accident but he kept apologizing all day.
Waves, only yards away on the other side of the dune, harmonized with the hissing wind in a relentless monotony, which then joined the chorus of empty bellies to hang a sea anchor to the sun, slowing it to an eternal pace. Had Shakespeare’s Henry V Dauphin been at the fire he would no doubt have cried, “Will it never be night?”
Several of us rounded up an impressive mound of fire wood in anticipation of a mostly-sleepless night.
Finally, the sun set followed a short time later by the cold-hearted orb that rules the night. The departure time was based on the moon’s position. The Away Team saddled up and headed out into the coal-black night.
Sparks hissed into the night as I tossed another stick into the fire. It was a good fire, as it should be: I kept it fed but hungry. We didn’t need a great deal from it. February, yes, but this was the Sonora desert along the Sea of Cortez. The nights felt cold after the heat of the day, especially on the beach, but we were in no danger of exposure.
I watched the sparks climb into the air as though they wished to be with the stars but their little embers consumed their fuel completely in seconds rendering them puffs of ash driven by the sea winds. Their dreams of joining the stars only a flash of chemical energy then forgotten by all.
Ray and I kept up the effort at conversation but the length of fire duty began to drawn down the reserves of interesting events in our quite, mostly boring, short lives. Reaching deep for something to keep the silence from overwhelming us I came up empty. Just as I sighed and shrugged my failure two figures appeared suddenly in the small ring of firelight.
Two adult figures. Not who we were expecting at all.
Ray’s face was a triangle of three large circles. Oh, man. We are in trouble.