I asked Michelle if she really wanted to try the same trip again considering the discomfort we’d endured last time. She insisted she wanted redemption. I couldn’t argue with that.

We left late and drove into the night and camped in piƱon, juniper, and sand. I slept deeply and dreamed disconcerting dreams but couldn’t remember to share them. We were on the road early and at the trailhead late morning. Clouds loomed over Bryce and the Paunsaugunt plateau and I eyed them both warily and wanting, it was hard to decide, and then started out between willows towards the river.

We found the place where we had fallen in three months prior and it didn’t resemble that prior river. We paced around trying to understand where the ice was, where I bashed my leg into it, where the banks began, and couldn’t figure out any of it.

December in the desert is very different from April in the desert.

Later we met Elizabeth who was hiking the Hayduke Trail. Michelle noted how clean she looked. “It’s impossible,” I said. “I’d be a completely desert-colored amalgamation of human and stone by that point in the trip.”

And it rained and the desert needed it and we stepped under an alcove to wait it out. It felt sacrilegious to avoid the thing the ground needed most. I should have laid in the sand absorbing it until it stopped.

“How many cows die on public lands every year?” Michelle wondered aloud.

“There’s one,” I said.

A few hours later I pointed and said “There’s another.”

“So at least two,” Michelle said.

“At least.”

We camped where the water ended, or rather began, and it was hard to fill a bottle. I dipped my cup in the shallow water and let it fill slowly avoiding the sand. There was a third dead cow within noseshot, so I filled upstream from it.

In the morning my second vaccine dose finally kicked in. Either that or the freeze dried food didn’t sit well with me. I sweated intermittently and pretended I was fine.

We walked through a place named for the hundreds of cows that once died there. I started to notice a theme.