Canyon Requiem, Part 1 - July 27, 2011

Cochiti Canyon, June 18, 2011

The morning of the Santa Fe Search and Rescue training was hot at first light. My husband, Chris, who is a member of the SAR team and a certified EMT-Intermediate, had developed the scenario a week before and scouted a location: Graysen and I would be lost and injured in an overgrown canyon, and the team members would have to find us, offer appropriate medical care, and carry us out using their rugged off-road gurney.

Gray, who had just turned 7, was more excited than he would let on.

We left the house early in our Landcruiser (“The Moose”), which was loaded with various necessities like Chris’s search and rescue gear, first aid kit, a tube of fake blood and a dozen donuts. Gray was grinning ear to ear about those donuts as well as his upcoming role as a bleeding victim.

“You’ll put this on my shirt?” he asked, holding up the blood and looking at his dad.
“Yep,” Chris replied. “You’ll look like you have a tree branch poking through your chest!”
“Cool,” Gray said reverently.

Cochiti Canyon, behind Dixon’s Apple Orchard, was just feeling the touch of morning sun when we arrived. After navigating the one-track road that wound along a precipitous drop into the canyon below, we descended into lush green shade. The shallow creek bubbling through the canyon beckoned birds, butterflies, and us. A rather motley crew.

We parked and unloaded, then set out to pick the spot where our faux disaster would unfold. In a tiny side canyon we found it—a large old tree limb with a nice stub of a branch that would be handy for staging Gray’s impalement. Chris set to work cutting a hole in Gray’s white tee with his fancy EMT scissors and squeezing fake blood along the edges of the hole. He squirted a bit on the tree branch as well, then helped Gray find a comfortable “impaled” position on a mossy boulder.

“I want them to have to cut the branch away to get him out,” Chris explained to me. “You know, since you can’t pull something like this out in the field.” The tree limb was longer than Gray, and presented a good challenge for his rescuers. 

Once the scene was set, Chris went back to base camp to coordinate the search, leaving Gray and me to wait. I lounged on the boulder, watching a butterfly turn through the air above me while Gray played racing games on my Droid. My view of the road below was obscured by thick trees and shrubs—we probably weren’t more than about 40 feet away but couldn’t actually see it from our cocoon of greenery. Thin clouds intersected the blue in the small slice of sky above us, and a light breeze filtered down from the mesa above.
It wasn’t long before we heard the search team. Voices reverberated off the narrow canyon walls. I heard my name, then Gray’s, but stayed silent. We’d been told not to answer just wait for them to find us. So I listened, evaluating distance, and determined that they were heading in the opposite direction. Gray continued to play his racing game, and I turned my eyes back to the sky.

It wasn’t long, however, before the voices were closer. The searchers had turned around.
“C’mon, buddy,” I whispered. Voices carry well in canyons. “Time to get impaled!”
He settled himself back on the rock and I positioned the branch so that it poked through his bloody shirt.
But only for a moment.
“Need more blood,” he said, suddenly standing.
He walked over to my camera bag and pulled out the tube of blood. After he settled himself on the branch one more time, I squirted the sticky red gel all along the impaled area while Gray scrutinized my work.

Must get the fake blood right, you know.

As soon as he was set up properly, I found a comfortable spot next to him and assumed the persona of a disoriented mother with a head injury. Moments later, people were walking up the side canyon, pushing thick brush out of the way.

It took a little over an hour for the two of us to be triaged and hauled out together in that burly off-road gurney. Our view, as we were carried out of the side canyon, was of the hot blue sky intersected by tree branches and the underside of our rescuers’ chins. It was a bumpy ride around thick tree trunks and over tall fallen logs, but if I actually had been suffering from a head injury, and Gray from a branch in his side, we wouldn’t have noticed. The level of professionalism—even in how well they played along with my pathetic attempts at acting disoriented, and Gray’s blatant replies of “Fine!” to their queries about how he was doing—was more than commendable.

After climbing out of the gurney at base camp, and while the team debriefed, I suggested that Gray change his shirt. Moments later, I had to laugh when Gray walked over with his hands in his pockets wearing what we began to call his “injury shirt” (by then not only bloody but also cut open up the front during the medical assessment) over the top of his clean one like a flannel.

He, however, failed to see the humor in the situation. Faux impalement + blood splatters = very serious stuff.

We were done by noon but before we could make it out of the canyon we saw a small dog trotting up the dirt road looking extremely fatigued and thirsty. He came right up to us, seemingly relieved to see humans, and without much encouragement he jumped into The Moose and settled himself on the space between the two front seats as if to say “cool, let’s go find my family.” I tried calling the numbers on his tags. Left a message both places. Then, after we turned around to drive back up the canyon, in the hopes of finding his family, we lost cell reception. Augie, a blue heeler mix, was patient with us as we stopped at every occupied campground until we reached the end of the road.


On the way back out, I remarked to Chris that the canyon seemed like a tinderbox—despite the green. The undergrowth concealed the topography of the canyon floor, and blocked the upslope view of rock walls on either side. Growing up those very walls, to the tops of both mesas, were towering ponderosas. Chris wondered aloud what the protocol would be if a forest fire sparked while a search was under way.

“I don’t know,” I shrugged. Considering the drought, it wasn’t an impossible scenario. 

We drove on in silence, thinking about fire. When we passed the handful of houses in the canyon I thought wistfully, and with hesitation, about having a summer place there. A little home beneath the pines. Falling asleep to the sound of wind in the branches, the evergreen scent greeting me in the morning.

Then we passed the spot where we had a picnic in the rain several years ago. Where the girls twirled in their summer dresses, and the boys balanced on fallen logs.

Past that was the pullout where I once sat for over an hour photographing beetles and butterflies on the towering wildflowers. I sat in awe on that long ago day, watching the tiniest of dramas unfold on the curving flower petals.

As that spot filled with memories fell away behind us, another opened up. The creek intersects the road in at least two dozen places up the length of the canyon, and in the sheltered patches of damp dirt alongside the water swallowtail butterflies linger, proboscises sunk in the mud. Drinking. On previous visits, when we didn’t feel the urgency of reuniting a lost dog with his family, I had stalked those butterflies, shooting photo after photo as they stood, perfectly still, looking like little yellow fans stuck in the ground.  

If we didn’t have Augie to think about, I would have stalked them once again.
But we did. Augie needed to go home, despite Gray’s repetitive pleas to keep him. So we passed the drama of beetles and butterflies. We passed the picnic place with the balancing logs. Passed out of the shaded beauty of the creek and finally climbed back out of the canyon to cell reception, voicemail, and Augie’s reunion near Cochiti Lake. His relieved owner had been climbing in Bland canyon when Augie wandered off. Bland is adjacent to Cochiti canyon but still, quite a hike for a little dog.

I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened to Augie had we not stopped and scooped him up.

After several goodbyes, we drove back to town. What we didn’t know then was that we had left the canyon forever. That in just eight days it would be gutted by fire. Nevertheless, all we could think about was just that—the air was still clogged with smoke from Arizona, and as we crested La Bajada we spotted a small plume that would soon be named the Pacheco fire.

And that evening, I kept my eyes to the mountains, wondering if—when—the night sky would be lit by bands of arcing flames.

Coming soon: Canyon Requiem, Part 2.

Photo Captions from left to right.

#1 "Despite his obvious 'wound,' Graysen was all smiles the day he was 'impaled' on an old tree branch."

#2 "Graysen Riedel, 7, plays a racing game on his mother's Droid while awaiting 'rescue.' The stick of impalement is behind him."