I was driving a 300 gallon sprayer on the 18th fairway of the beautiful Cochise golf course that Jack Nicklaus designed and built just northeast of the Carefree in the high chaparral desert of the Continental mountains. I was doing my part in preparation for the Tradition, a major televised golf tournament in April. When I saw the assistant superintendent headed my way, I found a good stopping point and waited.
“Don, it’s going to be dark soon, so I’m sending everyone home. How soon can you be done here?”
“I’m afraid I’ll be another hour, unless you want to let this fertilizer set over night?”
“No, that won’t be good. Tell you what, you’ve got lights on the sprayer, so go ahead and finish. I’ll leave both gates unlocked and you can drive to the shop then go home. Just remember to lock both gates before you leave.”
“Great,” I said. “Thanks for leaving the gates open.”
While I was spraying the fairway I slowed to turn and the sprayer stalled and wouldn’t start again. I climbed off the sprayer, knowing I’d have at least a half-a-mile walk to the maintenance yard. I walked about 150 yards across the fairway to the wash, a dry river bed that separated the tees from the fairway. When I got out in the wash and turned west the sun had set and a beautiful pink sky was quickly fading. Not a good omen without a flashlight or the sprayer headlights I had planned on.
If I were driving, a half-mile would go quickly. It would take a little longer on a bicycle. But one cautious step at a time in the dark makes a half-mile feel like a lifetime.
I walked another 100 yards down the wash to a cart path on the edge of the first hole of the Geronimo course. Night crashed down just as I stood on the cart path. A full moon would have helped, but I got a dim crescent one. The stars were bright, but only if I looked up at them. They were too far away to penetrate the blanket of black surrounding me. With no residual light at all, it was so dark I couldn’t see my feet or the cart path I was standing on. Alone, I had to figure out how to get home. I stood still and visualized where I was and what was around me. It became obvious the only thing I had to guide me was the cart path. So, I started walking with one foot on the cart path and the other on the edge.
Knowing I had a method to walk in the dark, I relaxed a little as I covered the 500 yards to the first green. It was during the quiet darkness that I thought about the wildlife I could run into. Rattlesnakes could be anywhere. I remembered the mountain lion tracks crossing this fairway in last winter’s snow, and the bobcat den in the boulders on my right. If any of them decide I look like dinner, I’ll never see them coming.
I felt the cart path curving, and could picture my location by the first green… There were a lot of curves past the first green on to the tees for the second hole. I walked much slower focusing on avoiding the spiny cactus that lined the cart path edge as it curved to the right. A few steps later the cart path curved the left and slightly down hill. When I reached bottom the path went up and to the right again. The cart path leveled out at the top leaving all the cactus behind me. Two hundred yards later I was at the end of #2 fairway. The maintenance yard was 50 yards directly to my right, but there was no cart path to follow. I lost my guidance system.
With nothing to go by, my only hope was to try the same technique of walking with a foot on the edge of the fairway, and it worked. Only thirty more yards to go. Somewhere across the wash and to my left should be a block wall. If I could find it I should be able to locate the gate. The ground was very rough and I lost my footing a couple times, which threw my sense of direction off. I was holding my arms out, feeling for something, when I tripped, stumbled and fell scraping my hands on the wall. I couldn’t see them, but I could feel a burning sensation from the scratches.
More confident that I had the wall as a guide, I went right to the end and then followed the opposite side of the wall. The open gate was going to be hard to locate. I wouldn’t know when I was there, and I could trip over a chunk of concrete where the gates met. Slowly, I took one step at a time, waving my hands in front of me feeling for the gate. There was nothing. I worried that I was going the wrong direction.
Just as I began to panic I crashed into a gate. My forehead and cheeks hurt from the collision. I shouldn’t have hit it if the gate was open. Maybe I got way off course. With my hands I followed the vertical steel rungs and stubbed my toe on the concrete retainer pad. I grabbed a couple of steel rungs to keep from falling. I was confused. They said they’d leave the gate open for me, but it felt closed and locked.
Exhausted from the stress of getting to the maintenance yard, I leaned against the cold steel and tried to think. Now, I worried they had locked the other gate and I couldn’t drive out to go home. One way around this gate was to go around through the desert to the other side of the maintenance yard to check the exit gate. But, not in the dark. Crossing the desert is difficult to do in the light of day. There was no choice. I had to climb over to find out.
There were no short cuts. I couldn’t climb up one side and jump to the ground on the other side … not in the dark. There was a bar across the middle I had to stand on to reach the top. Swinging my leg up like a ballet dancer’s stretching exercise; my foot hit the bottom of the bar. Several tries later I could do no better. My next attempt I grabbed high on the vertical bars and pulled up as I swung my leg at the crossbar. I slipped off a couple times but finally got lucky and hooked my foot on the bar. Pushing with my free foot and pulling with my arms, I was able to get both feet on the crossbar to stand on the gate. I stood there long enough to bask in my accomplishment, as insignificant as it was.
Getting to the top rung was a bit easier since I could grasp it with my hands and pull myself up as I swung my leg over. I slid down the other side until I was standing on the crossbar. Holding the vertical bars I slid down the lower part of the gate until I was on solid ground. My success didn’t mean much though. It was still black night all around me and I had to find my way forty yards across the maintenance yard full of carts, tractors and other equipment. Somewhere in front of me was the equipment storage building. Thinking it was safer to bypass the parked equipment, I decided to try for the storage building.
On the way I bumped into a rake and shovel sticking out the back of a cart. The sound they made scraping across the metal bed pierced the silence of the night and startled me like the sound of a rattle snake does. I had to stop, breathe, let my heart beat calm down, and collect my thoughts before I could go on. I walked cautiously until I reached the brick building. To avoid the parked equipment I walked around the back of the building with one hand on the wall and the other feeling for tools and obstacles.
When I reached the end of the building I tried to picture where my car was parked. Wherever I went I had to find those gas pumps first to locate the wall where I parked my car. I put my hands out in front of me, wiggling my fingers like a beetle’s antenna. I walked in a direction I thought the gas pumps would be. The longer I walked the shorter my steps, thinking I was almost upon them. Eventually I jammed the toe of my boot into the cement island. I’d found the fuel pumps. Great!
Hand over hand I went from the gas to the diesel pump and the end of the island. Standing there I tried to picture my next move. If I was at the fuel pumps, then the end wall of the maintenance yard would be to my left. Following the wall should lead me to my car. With more confidence now, I reached out in front of me and walked in the direction of the wall. When my hands felt the cement I went hand over hand down the wall. I got too excited and bumped into my car causing me to fall on top of the hood.
I got back on my feet, slid my hand down the side of the car until I touched the door handle. It was locked. With a deep sigh of frustration I reached into my pocket for my keys . . . and they weren’t there. I checked my other pockets, quickly. No keys. Did I leave them on the sprayer? Think! I said to myself. I’ve got to get out of here.
Where could they be? I could think of nothing, but to check the other car doors. The left side doors were locked. The back door on the right side was locked. Without any hope I worked my way up to the passenger door handle and pulled it. Hey! Hey! Hey! It opened.
I rushed into the car and reached across to unlock my driver’s door. Hustling around the car I slid into the driver’s seat and something stuck me in the butt. It was my keys. Anxiously I started the car and pulled the headlight switch . . . Light at last! Light at last! Hallelujah, light at last!