Nearing the end of the trail, I began to ascend, as it narrowed and zig-zagged close to the edge of the cliff. Rocks and pebbles scattered from above; so I bent down to grasp the side of the incline with my right hand for balance and comfort, partially scaling the terrain. Always afraid of heights, I kept my eyes on the ground, although in this case, the drop-off to my left wasn’t as frightening as some I’d experienced.

I moved quickly, sweat cool on my back, and soon reached the top, a large flat expanse, where I saw a family sitting on the tabled rock – a woman, two children, boy and girl, and a man. As I rose and the top of my head came into view, she saw me and motioned to the empty space next to her, offering a seat. My son had already taken a perch close to the edge to look at the vista and think of something wonderful I hoped.

“Your hand is bleeding,” she said, pointing as I sat down.

Indeed, it was; between my finger and thumb, I hadn’t even noticed. “I probably snagged it on a rock.”

“They are sharp,” she added, digging in her bag for something. She was around 40, I’d guess, Asian, and dressed as if she was golfing, hiking or maybe, even playing tennis. All purpose. She pulled out a band-aid and handed it to me. I started to unwrap it, when she touched me lightly on my arm.

“Wait;” back into the bag she went. Her husband or partner, as it were, was talking to the children. After a little rustling, she came back with another provision, a small square packet containing one of those disinfectant towelettes.

“Wow,” I said, “You’re the ultimate mom.” As a single dad, I’d picked up a few things over the years, among them great admiration for parents, male or female, more prepared than I.

She smiled from underneath the brim of her sun hat, wordless; and as I took the package, I noticed her hands were ring-free. I tore the corner, unwrapped the towelette, cleaned off the wound, and affixed the band-aid. She watched, to ensure efficacy; I suppose. It wasn’t bleeding very badly, so it would more than do the trick. “Thank you so much,” I said, for probably the second or third time. I reached into my backpack for some trail mix and offered her some, which she declined, politely.

It was a lovely day, mid-60s, with a slight breeze, with the desert sun providing balance. We’d walked through mostly shady slot canyons and the warmth felt good on my face. The view ahead was peaceful and serene, as badlands rolled out in front of us, subtle shades of red cliffs and yellow mudstone.

“Yes, Death Valley is nice,” she said; “This is the perfect time of year. We’ve been here before, in April; it was very hot, too hot.”

“Where did you come in from?”

“Los Angeles; this is our second time. You?


“That’s a long way,” she added.

I paused, “Yeah, I suppose. My son and I met in Vegas for Thanksgiving. He flew in from college, and then we both drove up.”

“That’s nice.”

It was. He and I had enjoyed many national park trips while he was growing up. It became something I never thought I’d embrace so fully – nature. Hiking and horseback riding and being outside together, talking on trails that wound through magical places. He veered off a bit during his teenage years and was coming back to it and I was grateful. That was the cycle of life, I suppose, or part of it.

Her children were maybe 8 and 11, perfect ages, I thought, for this little hike to the aptly named, Red Cathedral. The wind tugged at my eyes and caused me to squint behind my Ray-Bans, stinging just a bit. It was around noon by that time, and the trail was still relatively unpopulated; so, we remained there: me next to her on the rock, her partner and the children to her left, and my son still in front, still gazing. No one was in a hurry to go anywhere.

She told me a little bit more about their trip. Like us, they had arrived the day before; they were only staying three days.

“I will be back,” she added; “I love the desert, it is always changing while never changing.”

I liked that.

“I think we better be getting back, they are getting restless,” the man finally said, standing up, referring to the children. A wise move, since they had been patient so far. “There’s not a lot of room on the trail, so we’ll have to figure out who goes first,” he added, talking to everyone involved, except me, of course.

“I want to go first,” the girl piped up. The boy followed suit, a tad behind the beat.

“Okay,” he said; “You go first, and then you, and I’ll follow you.”

The woman turned to me and said, with softness in her voice, “I’m always last.” The children collected their things and began the descent.

“That’s okay,” I said, and then, after a slight pause, ‘It’s okay to be last sometimes.”

I thought about how the last are often first, how love knows no bounds or reason. She stood up, as they turned the first corner, children kicking up little clouds of dust in their descent. She didn’t start until her partner had reached the same spot, steadying herself looking over her shoulder at me, with a slight nod and the smile of a giver, embracing, but not quite accepting, her place in the world.


Doug Hoekstra is a Chicago-bred, Nashville-based writer and musician, whose prose, poetry, and non-fiction have appeared in numerous journals; Ten Seconds In-Between, his latest collection of short stories, earned a Royal Dragonfly Award for Best Short Story Collection of 2021 and Next Generation Indie Book Award Finalist 2022.