Even in the late afternoon, the desert heat was withering and our hike slowed to a slog almost from the start. We followed a dusty trail through jagged lava fields and thickets of mesquite bushes. Craggy mountains sat in a haze on the horizon, gray as ghosts. Everywhere in between was stark, flat and bleak.
My father’s leg didn’t seem to cause him pain, but his limp shortened his gait and I had to glance back to make sure he was keeping pace. Watching his bad leg scrape along the desert and his body drip with sweat, I wondered why he had bothered to take me to such a hostile place: it had to be crawling with rattlesnakes, scorpions and black-widow spiders. Nothing seemed worth all this trouble. I wished I’d gone to the beach with Eleanor. Wouldn’t we all be happier sipping margaritas by the sea?
A half hour later, we climbed a hill of low-lying scrub and scree and gazed at a sea of sand dunes, sprawling west in rippled waves and star-shaped ridges stacked hundreds of feet in hues of ochre and pink. This was not the blunt, baked background of the Texas plains or John Ford’s Westerns but a wilderness of color to marvel at, like the Sahara of Lawrence of Arabia or the deserts of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings.
I pulled out my camera and panned the lens across the vista, snapping shot after shot.
'Have to say, Dad, I wondered why we were going to all this trouble,' I said.
'You’ll like the next place even more.' My father took a drink of water from his canteen and passed it over. Then he pointed east to what looked like more of the same dark and flat landscapes we’d just walked across.
I wasn’t thrilled to trudge again on another dusty trail along creosote bush and lava fields, but the landscape started to come alive. The late afternoon sun had cast an orange and purple haze all the way to the mountains. Big-horned antelope appeared around patches of scrub, grazing between the cottony spines of the cholla cacti that shined in the shadows like furry lightbulbs.
We scrambled up a ridge of petrified lava, and I saw what my father had wanted to show me – a dark, desolate and inhospitable landscape that seemed to belong to another planet or time. I was instantly awed. I peered into one massive circular crater as deep and forbidding as it was wide, but there were ten more surrounding us and hundreds of black-cinder cones dotting the landscape. I felt like TV’s Jonny Quest looking out on a hostile planet with his scientist father, half-expecting a pterodactyl to soar out of the crater and pierce our ears with plaintive, high-pitched squawks.
My father pointed to a crescent of shade inside the steep western edge of the crater, saying, 'Somewhere to cool off.'
The rocky slope was slippery so I helped him over the lip and he sat down. He took off his shoes and socks, rolled up his pants and began to massage his leg. I tried not to gawk, but his foot was sliced with thick, pink scars.
'Are you OK?' I asked.
'A little rest, that’s all,' he said, forcing a smile and rubbing his hands around his ankle.
I didn’t want to sit, so I climbed to the rim to gaze again at the vista. It wasn’t only that everything was bleak and otherworldly, but seeing all the dark craters, haloed cones and powdery gray dust on my feet made me feel as though I was on the moon. I was walking in the footprints of the Apollo astronauts without having to fly in a rocket or sheath myself in an oxygen-filled spacesuit. I wished now that Eleanor had come along.
'This crater is the biggest one,' my father said when I returned. 'It’s called Elegante.' He pronounced the place with a strong Spanish accent, but to me it was the Sea of Tranquillity, 239,000 miles away.
On a small towel, my father had laid out chicken sandwiches and bananas. He had packed the sandwiches in wax paper, folded snugly with creased edges held together with an inch of clear tape, the way he used to wrap my school lunches.
For years after my father left, I had nightmares about being stranded on the moon and in other dark, faraway places. Even before Apollo 13’s aborted mission and death-defying return through Earth’s atmosphere, I worried the astronauts might get stuck on the moon or lost in space. How long would an oxygen tank last in space and could anyone save a stranded astronaut? Did Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin know the White House had prepared statements to read if they perished on the moon? What would they tell their children: Eric, Mark, James, Andrew and Janice?
'Do you ever get scared out here, Dad?'
'Sometimes,' he said. 'It’s a harsh place, it attracts strange people.'
'All kinds – poachers, drug runners, artists and adventurers. You know, people living on the edge.'
'Like you,' I was tempted to say. I wondered if he thought of himself that way.
'Did you know Armstrong and Aldrin and other moonwalkers came here to train?' he asked.
I shook my head, imagining them lumbering down the craters in spacesuits and riding the lunar module through the volcanic ash. 'Maybe they come back here when they miss the moon?'
He laughed, his eyes scanning the landscape again. 'You couldn’t blame them, that’s for sure.'
The sun was low in the sky. We heard loud croaks overhead and spotted a pair of ravens soaring and tumbling on the afternoon thermals. I put on a jacket and paced along the ridge, trying to keep clouds of gnats away from my face. They didn’t seem to bother my father. He lay motionless, leaning back on the slope of the ridge, watching the sky.
'How long will it take us to get back?'
'Do you want to go?'
'Soon. I don’t want to leave Eleanor on her own.'
'Eleanor’s lovely, Gordo,' he said. 'I’m happy for you.'
We climbed out of the crater and headed back toward the truck. Thunderclouds had gathered near the horizon, with rain falling from silos of dark clouds. In the cooler air, we walked together at a good pace while I talked unbidden about school, my friends and the kind of movies I dreamed of making.
When he stopped to adjust his boots, I walked off the track to pee. I stepped over a lava flow and through some scree to a cluster of bushes. I heard my father yell my name and call me back to the track. He had warned me earlier not to wander off the track, but I didn’t feel I needed his permission to pee. I turned away from the sun, lowered my shorts and took aim at a bush until I was startled by a rustle on the ground and the sound of a muffled maraca. When I stepped back, I saw a coiled snake less than two feet away.
I froze, waiting for my father’s voice and the shuffle of his leg to get closer.
'What’s wrong?' he asked.
I didn’t want to move at all, not even to part my dry lips. Two more short shakes rattled in the air and the snake’s head rose from the flat curl of its body.
'Don’t panic,' my father said.
It was too late for that.
'You need to back away with slow steps – very slow.'
I had to speak to him, so I opened my mouth just enough to whisper, 'No.'
'You have to try, Gordo.'
'Can’t.' I didn’t want to admit how scared I was.
'If you do what I say, you’ll be fine.'
'I can’t promise, but you have to try.'
I stood motionless, my eyes on the nodding head of the rattlesnake. I had no idea if it was about to attack, but I didn’t like the panic in my father’s brusque voice.
'Let me get between you and the snake,' he said. 'I’ve got boots and long pants. They’ll protect me.'
The snake’s head stopped bobbing and wheeled toward my father’s voice. Lurking inside were venomous fangs and a forked tongue, but for a moment its wide-set reptilian eyes and closed mouth looked as harmless as the head of a turtle or ET.
'When I get in front of you, slowly climb on my back,' my father said.
I wanted this to end. But he couldn’t carry me on a bad leg. The last time I rode on his back I was half my age and weight.
'Your leg,' I whispered.
'I will hold you,' he said. 'Trust me.'
I heard him approach and held still, fighting back an image of us collapsing onto the snake. As my father’s body moved into view, the snake’s head turned and fixed its lidless eyes on me. I hurried my father along in my mind, but time passed slowly before his T-shirt moved between me and the snake. I anchored one arm on his shoulder and then the other. My father took two small steps closer to me and squatted.
'Ready?' I whispered into his ear.
He nodded once. His body stiffened and waited. I pushed my forehead against the top of his spine and thrust myself off the ground, clutching his sweaty shoulders. His body shuddered but he squeezed my calves to his ribs and held his ground. I eased my head forward on his neck, which smelled of damp dirt and garlic. I hunted for signs of the snake. The last time I clung to my father’s back was the night the Apollo 11 astronauts walked on the moon, when everyone’s gaze was on the heavens. Now our eyes were on the ground, walking backwards one tiny trembling step at a time. How many more before we were safe?
When we finally reached the path, my father stopped and released my legs. I slid down his back onto my feet.
'We’re fine here,' he said.
'That was stupid,' I said. 'I’m really sorry.'
He looked white but relieved. 'You’re safe now,' he said. 'That’s all that matters.'
We stood in silence awhile, waiting for my father to catch his breath. He picked up his backpack from the track and handed me the canteen. It was almost empty, so I took only a sip and gave it back. I should have said something. I wanted to thank him for saving me but I wasn’t ready yet to say the words.
By the time we reached his truck, the sun had set and the desert had chilled. I heard the click and whir of bats above our heads and a quack my father said was a poisonous toad. Inside the truck he removed his shoes and socks again, saying he needed to rest before we drove home.
'I can drive, Dad.'
'We should wait,' he said. 'You have to see the night sky.'
My father hoisted himself onto the hood and reclined against the windshield. I lifted myself onto the other side, wishing for a margarita or a cold beer, but all he offered was a swig of warm water from a plastic bottle.
In the clear, clean desert air the night sky was already stuffed with stars. The army of saguaro cacti rising across the desert had retreated into the twilight, and grasshopper mice were serenading us with high-pitched howls that whistled like pan flutes.
'Ever see aliens out here?' I asked.
'Sometimes,' he said flatly.
'Sure,' he said, still stone-faced. 'Some nights I see their lights bobbing on the horizon.'
'Even helped capture a few,' he said. 'But they keep coming by the hundreds – everyone wants to be an American.'
'Oh Jesus, Dad,' I laughed. 'I thought you meant the other aliens.'
'Oh, no,' he said matter-of-factly. 'I haven’t seen any of them yet.'
I mentioned our visit to Roswell and a few of Carl Edwards’s crazy theories.
'A lot of people swear something happened there,' he said.
'Do you still think they’re right?'
'Still? I never knew what to think.'
'But all those articles you saved about aliens. I thought you believed in them.'
'Just curious is all,' he said. 'I didn’t trust the government to tell the truth, especially when they tried to cover it up. But I don’t think anyone really knows for sure.'
'What about Jansky? Your notebook said he believed in extraterrestrials.'
“Did you read everything of mine?” He sounded more surprised than upset.
'Someone at Bell Labs told Mom you might have taken some of their secrets.'
'That’s not true,' he said. 'They had no secrets I was interested in. Maybe someone was mad that I left or thought I was crazy to go.'
'Was Jansky crazy?'
'Not at all. He detected radio waves or signals coming from extraterrestrial objects in space, not alien beings. We’ve only just started to explore the universe and it’s so big and old. Let’s face it, the probability that another intelligent form of life exists right now in the universe and in relative proximity to Earth is small, but the chance of finding them at the very beginning of our search is a whole lot smaller.'
'Like a needle in a haystack?'
'More like in an ocean or a desert – and the needle is moving all the time.'
The truck radio sizzled and startled us, a new voice calling 'Señor Anderson.' I wasn’t used to my father’s new name, but he slid off the hood and grabbed the microphone, saying, 'Si, soy yo.'
The next voice on the radio was Melissa’s – 'Richard, you still out there?'
'Yes, still here, sorry,' he said.
'OK, we’ll leave soon.'
I was hungry, too, and thirsty. I missed Eleanor, but my father lifted himself back on the hood and leaned against the windshield.
'A little longer if you don’t mind, Gordo. It’s so beautiful here.'
I agreed and continued with my questions. 'Did you stop caring about the moon landings after you left?'
'I cared,' he said. 'I hoped we’d keep exploring space by every means possible. But radio astronomy can discover objects much farther in space than the human eye can see through a telescope or a rocket window.'
'So you’d rather be a radio astronomer than an astronaut?'
'Would have been great to be both, don’t you think? But NASA didn’t go far enough, and I think it was hard to come back to Earth.'
'For the astronauts?'
'Everyone – NASA, America, maybe the rest of the world.'
'Is that why some astronauts went a little crazy when they got back?'
After my father left, my mother rarely mentioned the moon, since it had always been my father’s domain and a totem of his desertion. But I often found articles about the Apollo astronauts on my desk or bed, things she had clipped from the newspapers and Life magazine. I studied them as clues about my father’s disappearance, sometimes even cautionary tales about men who roamed too far from home.
Twelve men walked on the moon and half of them changed in dramatic ways once they returned to Earth. That night, I counted them aloud for my father: one had a mental breakdown; one devoted his life to painting moonscapes; and another to paranormal phenomena. Two turned to religion with missionary zeal, including one who felt Jesus’ presence on the moon and later led several expeditions to Turkey to hunt for the remains of Noah’s ark.
'You forgot one,' my father said, chortling. 'The craziest of all?'
'I can’t remember.'
'The one who went into politics,' he said. 'The last man to step on the moon is a senator from New Mexico.'
I heard a scratch on the ground next to the truck. My father looked across the hood and pointed a dim flashlight onto a gray-tailed fox digging for prey, its yellow eyes shining eerily in the faint light.
'Have you ever seen a comet or a falling star?' I asked.
'Only falling stars. But my father saw Halley’s Comet.' In 1910, the last time the Comet passed Earth, he said, the comet’s tail was 24 million miles long and visible in the sky for six hours.
'Must have been amazing,' I said.
'I’ll bet,' he said. 'We’ll get another chance to see it in a few years.'
With hundreds of stars above us I had to strain to find Polaris at the end of the Little Dipper’s handle. My eyes drifted back to our home galaxy, the swath of lights of the Milky Way, brighter and more wondrous than I’d ever seen. Was this the kind of lucidity the astronauts experienced in space? For a moment or two, with our heads aimed at the heavens, I felt again like that boy who shared something special with his father. I couldn’t help but hope that when Halley’s Comet returned we’d watch it together in a place just like this.