Saturday, April 7, 2007

a mystery

The day after I took my solo hike up the hill, Kat and Peleg came with me and we hiked up the hill again. We didn't set off necessarily so they could view my sculpture, high up the side of the hill, but as we got started we realized that they could see it if we continued and it became a goal. But we took our time and enjoyed other sights along the way as well.

At one point about halfway up Peleg wanted to sit for a minute. I noticed an outcropping of rocks that looked like a nice place to sit so we walked a little further to reach it. And as we got close I noticed an arrangement of rocks, obviously stacked deliberately by some previous hiker. I pointed it out to Kat and Peleg and said that somebody else must have been making Andy Goldsworthy's because this one wasn't mine. This was a simple stack of flat pieces of stone, resting on top of an outcroppings anchored in the ground. It looked a little like a Frank Lloyd Wright building, I remarked. I was thinking of the Falling Water home in Pennsylvania.

We sat on the ground, me nearest the stone sculpture and rested and talked. And then I looked again at the stone sculpture and noticed there was something hidden inside looking like a piece of rusted metal. I told Kat and Peleg I had found something and then gingerly reached inside, trying not to touch the rat's nest that was also hidden within the stones. I pulled out a flat can, with a hinged lid a little larger than a deck of cards. In the sunlight the finish of the can looked magical. I could make out just a few letters, not enough for me to identify, but we all thought it lws probably a can of chewing tabacco.

I passed the can to Peleg and then he to Kat, and as we continued to chat about other things suddenly Kat said, "Leave it to the girl to open Pandora's box." She had opened the can and then pulled from inside a scrap of paper about the size of a fist, mostly decayed, and discolored in places by the rust, but covered with handwriting in pencil. We all tried to read it but couldn't make out the words. Then Peleg wondered if any of us could find a date and I realized there was a postmark in the corner. The paper had been an envelope. My eyes weren't good enough to read the date so I handed it back to Peleg and he made it out: Oct. 16, 1926.

Eighty-one years ago some guy had hiked up the side of the hill, had a chew, then decided he'd have some fun with the empty can. He scribbled some note on an envelope he happened to have in his pocket and then placed the can at the bottom of a stone scupture he built both to protect the can and to mark it out to future passerbys. And there it sat for eighty-one years: winters, and summer and springs. Slowly rotting away, but slowly, because of the desert climate. Left alone in this obscure part of Death Valley away from the main section where the park gets most of its visitors, two miles from the main road, and halfway up a random hillside. And the day before we found it I walked right by and didn't even see it.

I brought the can home with the slip of paper inside. With some better light and maybe a magnifying glass I'll see if I can figure out the message.

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