I knew I was in trouble when I reached the ridge of the last dune. The road was nowhere in sight. No car, just miles of desert fanning out in all directions. Twilight had turned into night hours ago. I was lost, disoriented and freezing in the middle of an ocean of dunes and I was getting seriously worried. We had been tramping across the frozen sand searching for a way out. Then it started to snow.
I suppose I should explain.
In 1969 I moved to the Vineyard from California. In those days when I wanted to revisit my family out west I drove across country with my two dogs and constant companions, Shoes and Mantis. The dogs were born on Music street in West Tisbury and loved to be in the lead for any adventure, whether on the Island or on the road. I thought of my dogs recently, which brought to mind the Vineyard and a journey we took off-Island in the late 1970s.
This particular trip took place in February and the dogs and I had stopped in White Sands, N.M., arriving around 2:30 p.m. It was just a few hours before nightfall. The sky was leaden and it carried the feeling that snow might be on the way. The pure white gypsum sand dunes were a brilliant contrast to the brooding sky. I opened the back door of the car and the two travel-weary dogs leaped happily. The air was biting as I reached for my jacket and slung a backpack holding my 4X5 camera gear onto my shoulders. Reaching into the trunk I took hold of my tripod. It was a giant Gitzo, towering over 10 feet into the air when extended, stable and solid as a rock. It was my first professional tripod.
As we headed off into this surreal landscape, I took some sightings of the surrounding mountains, confident of finding my way back. But in just two hours I had to admit to myself that I was lost and we were in trouble.
With nightfall, the wind picked up, and the temperature dropped from the low 30s to around 17 degrees. Fast-moving clouds brought occasional flurries, adding to the drama. An old television show popped into my head. In this television series, Lassie, the fictional canine hero and wonder collie, would always come to the rescue and save the day. She seemed to understand her human companion’s every word and worry, bringing him through to a happy ending. I thought that my dogs were every bit as bright as Lassie, so I got their attention by repeatedly asking them to “find the car, come on now, let’s find the car.”
Their questioning looks only re-enforced the reality of our situation.
Carrying the full load of gear began wearing me down. I kept switching my Gitzo from arm to arm, getting momentary relief as the tripods’ legs skipped or dragged briefly behind on the hard crust of frozen gypsum. I considered leaving it behind as my energy continued to flag but decided against it.
Around 4 a.m., we had been walking for almost 10 hours. My feet felt hobbled. I could barely put any weight on them. I found a patch of brush and we lay down behind it, breaking the chill of the wind.
When the barking began, I thought that the dogs had smelled coyotes or some other night creatures nearby. Growing anxiety and their warning growls were soon replaced by feelings of relief and gratitude. A shape took form in the darkness. It was no hungry four-legged creature. Rather, the form of a park ranger resolved itself slowly, shouting in our direction as he closed the distance between us.
The park personnel had found my car after the park had closed and realized that I must be lost. The ranger who found us said we were lucky. He had found our trail etched in the frozen sand by the tripod legs of my Gitzo. I had been walking in circles the entire night and by his estimate, the tripod had carved a trail in the sand around 25 miles long. Happily, those miles were now behind us.
For years to come, that Gitzo stayed by my side. I still have it almost 40 years later, along with a beautiful carbon fiber version. Those rambunctious dogs continued to lead me for many more years, forging trails of their own while I brought up the rear, always looking for that next shot. More careful and more prepared than before, at the end of the day, I never again failed to bring us home.
Michael Zide now lives in Western Massachusetts, but lived on the Island from 1969 to 1982. He will return to the Island to give a talk at the Consenses event at 3:30 p.m., Wednesday, August 20, at the Grange Hall. The talk is titled Finding My Island, Traveling With Outlaws.