The Valley Hamlet
The first thing, above all else, that I noticed when I woke up, was the pain inside of my head, a deep throbbing in my forehead, a metronome with which to wake me. I might not have so readily questioned this abrupt wake with pain, had I not found myself several feet from the side of a dusty highway, strewn like litter caught under a dead, prickly black bush. I did not have any recollection of how I got here or even where I was presumably coming from or going to, which I could only attribute to the pain in my head. As luck would be, if it could be called that, there was a road sign within reading distance, Highway 50 East. Though I had never travelled this road before.
I lay there for a while, maybe half an hour, before I sat up and began to survey my surroundings, noting the suns gradual rise from the horizon, putting me at dawn. Both ends of the highway stretched for eternity, and the highway itself was featureless, save for the periodic road signs and distant speckling of what could have been vehicle debris or dead wildlife. Tangled underneath the prickly bush behind me was a dusty brown hiking bag and a few useless, torn scraps of a road map hung within the gnarled branches. There was a watch on my left wrist, useless now, the glass impacted and the mechanics dead, but I left it there all the same.
Had I been hitchhiking? Was I sleeping at the time this all happened? And why didn’t I wake immediately? I could only speculate on what situation I had been in, everything from a friendly prank to something far sinister.
The contents of the bag did little to illuminate my current situation but did give me an idea of where I might have been going; a layered hiking jacket, a thermal lined bush hat, a telescopic hiking stick, First Aid kit, a notebook and pencil, a trail machete, a full water canteen and a sleeping bag. I had clearly intended to, or had been hiking a trail, which could have explained this environment I had woken up in.
The sun was now making its way overhead and the heat gradually became more unbearable by the hour. I assumed I had most of the day light to find help or even just a glimpse of it, night fall was not going to be very pleasant if I found myself out here by that time.
To the South of where I stood, I could see what appeared to be a faint dirt road, starting midway across the desert and leading off parallel to a wall of low mountainside to the South West. There was little chance of me finding help if I followed the Highway, I hadn’t seen a single vehicle pass in the time I had been awake. I would have more success pursuing the dirt trail, perhaps leading to a ranch or a homestead of some sort.
Under a midday sun I started walking. I took the lining out of my hat and wore the shell to stop the sun giving my painful head any added nausea and took out my hiking stick. The ground was surprisingly firm and flat for the environment, sporadic growth of the dry black bushes as far as I could see in all directions, but naught else of concern. This made my journey to the dirt road painless and swift and I was upon it within a couple of hours. I took the opportunity to arrange the jacket from my bag into a makeshift umbrella, hooking my hiking stick into the hood and draping the material over my head and around as much of my upper body as possible. The heat was becoming a nightmare combined with the dry, stale air and I had already consumed half of my canteen due to the road appearing closer than it actually was, although the water did serve to remedy the pain in my head somewhat. I pressed on expecting to arrive at the destination of the path within the next hour.
Using the bushes and their shadows against the pale dirt, I could see that the sun was on its return to the horizon. I began to realize that although my head was feeling more stable and my thoughts clearer, perhaps my perception of passing time had dwindled. By this time, I was soaked through with sweat and a layer of dust kicked up from the ground that smelled of wet clay, the makeshift umbrella had gone back to being a jacket, which I had worn as if it were many degrees cooler, buttoned up, hood on over the hat and my hands in the sleeves. I carried on down the road, trailing the mountains that appeared to be getting darker than everything else in front of me. As the sun made its slow journey back to the earth, I became increasingly nervous about encounters with any wildlife that may be around and how much my senses could be dulled, come the night.
Had I made the right choice against walking the highway? The road appeared to lead nowhere or was made for only vehicles to travel the distance. If I stopped now and turned around I would be back where I started with no water and no cover from whatever the night may bring but if I kept going, where would I end up?
I tried to keep time by counting as night began to fall, but as night fell, strange sounds began to erupt in the distance and so my concentration wavered with each whoop or howl or clicking noise. By now the mountains were to my West covering my path and I from the expiring Sun. The night arrived and I had not yet encountered a single predator despite the increasingly active orchestral effort all around me, nor had my bare skin been touched for too long by the Sun’s heat to cause any surface burns. The night was surprisingly cool and at some point, had become gradually quieter leaving only the scuffs of my shoes in the dirt and my breathing and I was thankful for it. I pressed onwards for a little while longer, the dirt road becoming less cohesive as I walked. Soon after, I could not ignore the aching in my feet and despite my natural caution to doing so, laid out my sleeping bag. Keeping my rucksack close to my side I placed my coat over my head and tucked it into the sleeping bag, a precautionary method against any small insects or animals that might have become curious during the night hours. It had become apparent that this ‘road’ had begun and ended into nothingness and its origins occupied my thoughts until falling asleep.
I woke abruptly, it was still dark but no longer quiet, and yet again noises had found me. The curious sound of night bugs; buzzing wings and mating chirps and nondescript whistles, pings and gurgles. I wasn’t quite sure if this is all that had roused me or if it was something else, I felt anxious, like I was unwelcome here. I stretched for a while, taking off my boots and letting my feet sink into the top layer of dust and dirt on the road where it was soft and calming. This failed attempt at sleep gave me assurance that although I was tired and hungry, my body wished me to press on to find help.
I walked the night, wearing nothing but my boots and trousers with everything else crammed into the bag. I could smell myself now, the heat had done its worst and I dreaded the idea that it would only be a matter of time until a hunting creature picked up on the scent. Save for the occasional howl or hoot however, I still did not encounter any creatures, nonetheless I kept a sharp watch for any shifting shadows in the deep blue landscape. With time now lost and the far end of the road now reached, I guessed that I had walked for several miles. I could now make out the faint black outline of hills in front of me against the deep blue-black of the night sky, connected to the mountains in the West by a wide sweeping arc of rock stretching for miles. Pressing on for perhaps another two, maybe three hours and I had finally reached the foot of the hills in front of me. Once again, I took out my sleeping bag, this time rolling it up and placing it against the rock. I drank from my canteen, leaving a little bit for the morning and I sat there with my back up against the sleeping bag, until the light came.
With the new daylight I could see that the hills in front of me were not overly steep, nor treacherous, but instead kept at a rough 50-degree angle of dry grass and rock for one or two hundred meters until near the peak where the rock erupted from the grass and became an awkward series of rocky ledges for another 100 meters. I took to the hill with haste for the sake of finding a water source before the day was behind me.
My ascension of the ledges was labored and painful, though I persevered and before the mid-day sun I had reached the summit, some two hours later. The peak itself was unremarkable. The view from the direction I had come, despite its vastness, was almost completely bare from that height, but behind me to the South was a narrow corridor of stone, around five feet in width with steep, rising sides that left only a strip of light to illuminate the path from above. The walls of this corridor were completely smooth like riverbed pebbles and the rock was much darker than that which I had climbed, it was slightly cold to the touch. I began to wonder if the road that had led me across the wasteland to this point, might be connected to this path somehow. I sat down at the entrance to the corridor on a strip of fresh, bright green grass and finished the rest of my water, watching the landscape for a while to divert my attention away from my cramping, empty stomach.
After walking the corridor for a brief time, the ground began to gradually dip downward in a steady slope. The ground here was not well trodden and many times my feet had caught the wrong edge of a stray rock, twice causing a painful tweak to my ankles. Further onward the path began to arc loosely to the left and as the path began to straighten out once more, the wall of stone to my right gradually fell away. Ahead of me, a cul-de-sac of blackened rock hills reaching out from both sides of where I faced in wide sweeping gestures coming together ahead of me, into a steep and featureless valley save for a narrow almost-dead river that spouted from somewhere beneath me in the hillside that led off into the nothingness beyond the far reach of the valley. Below me was a very confusing combination of landscapes. A small pasture of thick green grass was spread out over the right side of the cul-de-sac, covering a large portion of the black rock nearby and almost appeared to have been draped there like a towel judging by how out of place it looked and the curious fashion of where it sat. Running parallel to the pasture was the river that appeared to completely divide the grassy area from rest of the cul-de-sac and the dusty black-rock ground on the other side of the river. Sitting close to the left wall of this vast arena, a modest collection of half-timbered farmhouses circular in formation surrounding a central structure that I couldn’t discern from my position.
I picked up my walking pace to a trot as I navigated the still unsteady path that began to circle the hills before doubling back on itself a hundred meters later towards the river. Once I reached the valley floor, I picked up my pace towards the farmhouses with aching legs and painful feet and a dull throbbing in my head from dehydration.