To a northerner’s eye, this corner of the Chihuahuan Desert looks desolate, like some vast empty lot forsaken and left to sprout weeds and scrub brush. If you look more closely, though, you’ll see it’s not barren. Here, too, the ageless struggle to survive continues. Gaze up into the faded blue sky and you’ll see a turkey vulture circling lazily with the patience of death itself. Down on the ground, lizards and rodents, scorpions and snakes scurry and slither in the unrelenting dance of hunter and prey. If you sit and wait patiently, which is not easy to do in the brain-baking heat of a spring afternoon, you might even see one of the larger denizens — a puma, or a mule deer — moving through this deceptively bleak environment, exploiting the niche Nature has afforded it.
There is a perfectly straight black line down the middle of the thorn scrub landscape, showing that the ultimate predator has also staked a claim. But although humans have been industrious enough to place a highway here, it seems at first they are not so foolish as to inhabit the place.
But then, as the asphalt shimmers in the sun, a lone figure crests the horizon. Riding a motorcycle that costs several times more than most inhabitants of this New Mexico county earn in a year, the man is racing at full throttle, achieving speeds approaching two hundred miles per hour. It’s unclear whether he is momentarily taking advantage of the straight and deserted stretch of highway to test the vehicle’s capabilities, or is really in such a hurry to get to the small border town at the end of the road. In either case, he is pushing both his own limits and the machine’s.
A desert box turtle begins crossing the highway. Having waited out the winter in hibernation, the creature has been coaxed it out of its burrow by the late-April warmth, and evidently it has business on the other side of the road. The creature is, by nature, in no hurry, and steadfastly crawls toward its goal. The rider of the motorcycle spots the reptile traversing the road, and for a few seconds it appears he is planning to run over the turtle, but at the last moment, he veers abruptly out of the way.
This is a mistake. At such high speed the rapid jerking movement interrupts the motorcycle’s gyroscopic stability and causes its rear to fishtail violently. The man fights desperately to steer his machine, and as he rides the thin edge between control and calamity, the adrenalin-soaked battle for balance feels very familiar. The motorcycle leaves the road. While this reduces the speed, it also makes any chance of control impossible as the machine bounces over the rough terrain. Separated from his bike, the rider becomes a projectile, passing through and obliterating two large yucca plants before landing in a patch of creosote bushes. He is fortunate to be alive, though he feels far from it as he lies on the ground, awash in pain.
“Fuck!” he screams. “You stupid asshole, Shane!”
Self-recrimination is nothing new for Shane, but since it is currently counterproductive, not to mention historically ineffective, he abandons the exercise and instead inventories his injuries. On top of sundry contusions and sprains, his left arm, he realizes, is broken.
With his operable hand, Shane removes his motorcycle helmet, then pulls the glove off his right hand using his teeth. Slowly, he struggles to his feet, but when he places weight on his right leg, the knee buckles and almost sends him back to the ground. He does a frantic little dance on his uninjured leg, his fractured arm dangling at his side, and manages to retain his balance.
It feels to him, from experience, that the kneecap has popped out. He looks around for his motorcycle, which is fifty yards away, lying on its side and still idling.
“This ought to be fun,” he mutters, and hops toward the machine. He is halfway there when his foot catches on something in the soft soil, and he trips. He twists in mid-air to ensure he doesn’t land on his broken arm, and with practised expertise keeps his head forward, allowing his back and shoulders to absorb the impact.
As he lies there, summoning up the energy to rise again, he notices there are now three buzzards circling overhead, gliding in and out of the sun’s glare. The scavengers’ presence actually causes him to laugh.
“How about that. Just like in the movies.” Not much of one for reading, Shane loves cinema — especially old Westerns — having devoured film after film during the extensive travel involved in his past profession.
He watches the lazy aerial display until its significance hits home, then he rolls over and struggles to stand up again. By now glistening with perspiration, he manages to hop over to the motorcycle without losing his balance this time.
Despite his injuries, his first priority is to turn off the idling engine and examine his bike. He’s obviously not in any condition to try to right the motorcycle and ride it, but he loves the Ducati nevertheless and regrets any damage it has sustained. He ascertains that, in fact, the motorcycle has fared far better in the accident than he has. Relieved, he turns his attention to the saddlebags.
“Shit. It figures.” Shane realizes that the motorcycle has landed on the side where his cellular phone was stowed. The easiest thing to do now is sit and wait for help, but based on the paucity of vehicles he has encountered on this particular highway, it could be a while before someone happens along.
He decides to try moving the motorcycle, reasoning that he need only raise the bike far enough to access the saddlebag underneath. He looks around for something to use as a lever, but the scrub brush of the Chihuahuan Desert offers no usable timber. Shane opts to use his head like a bull — an animal which, coincidentally, he has been compared to in the past. The best spot for leverage seems to be the seat, so he tries to get his head under it. Unable to achieve good purchase, he decides to make a hollow in the ground to allow for a better angle of leverage, and begins scooping out the soil with his good hand.
His digging dislodges a striped bark scorpion from its burrow. Unaware that this particular arachnid’s sting is almost never fatal, Shane lurches backward in a panicked reflex, jolting his fractured wrist. The pain — which had previously subsided to a tolerable throbbing — spikes beyond endurance, and he passes out.
When he regains consciousness, the scorpion has disappeared. He climbs to his feet and pats himself down with his one operable hand to make sure the creature has not crawled inside his clothes or some bodily crevice. Satisfied he is in no immediate danger of being stung, he is nevertheless reluctant to resume excavating. He looks around for something to use as a digging tool, cursing when the search proves futile.
The heat is oppressive, and Shane feels his face beginning to burn, so he picks up his motorcycle helmet, puts it on, and lowers the tinted visor against the glare. This reminds him of his resistance to using a visor in his former profession, and that remembrance makes him smile, despite his dire situation.
He looks down at his hole and pokes around with his boot to unearth any critters that might lie in wait. Even so, he has no desire to stick his hand or his head into the depression. Finally, he uses his teeth to pull on his glove, trusting the thick leather will protect him against scorpions, and cautiously resumes digging.
Nothing crawls out to disturb Shane’s excavation, and soon there is adequate space for him to get his bare head beneath the motorcycle seat. Removing his helmet, he pulls his broken arm against his belly, distributes his weight as evenly as possible, and — emitting a grunt — lifts with his head and shoulders.
He is elated to feel the motorcycle lifting, but it is evident that he will only be able to raise the bike a foot or so. Still, he can see that the flap of the trapped saddlebag is now clear of the ground. Straining to support the weight, he uses the elbow of his injured arm to shove his discarded helmet underneath the vehicle’s frame before relinquishing the weight and exhaling with a loud whoosh.
“Woo-hoo! You the man, Shane,” he hollers, permitting himself a little horizontal victory dance. Pivoting onto his good shoulder, he reaches underneath to unfasten the flap of the saddlebag and fishes through his belongings, retrieving the cellphone by touch alone.
When he looks down at the phone’s screen, he realizes there is no signal in this remote place. All his effort has been for nothing. He erupts in a scream of rage, but manages to refrain from hurling the offending phone into the scrub brush — no small feat, for Shane’s rage-filled attacks on inanimate objects are well documented. Instead, he covers his face with his good hand and begins to sob.