Karl Bergman stood in the roseate glow of dawn at the Mexican border and the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail.
One of the five wooden pillars marking the PCT read 2,627 miles to Canada, but only the first sixteen miles were on Bergman’s mind. Sixteen hot, arid miles that would daunt a camel. Twenty-one miles if Hauser Creek had gone dry, which his trail guide noted happened often this time of year. His dog, Blazer, sniffed the monument’s sunken vertical beams, lifted his hind leg behind the tallest one, and peed. Bergman squinted south through the border fence. He half expected illegals to pop up out of nowhere, but all was quiet. The stars had disappeared; sand and sage stretched before him.
The beginning of a long-distance hike was normally a heady moment for Bergman, an experienced outdoorsman.
But he didn’t feel the anticipation he’d had when he thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. Here the beginning sections were desolate and water availability a constant challenge. And he was uneasy, what with illegals trying to escape from Mexico into the United States, never mind all the other stuff about Mexican drug gangs and rival cartels. It looked like a forlorn land, and he was eager to be in mountains and forests and the Sierras, much farther north.
Bergman knelt down and adjusted the dog’s saddlebags. “You ready to move out, boy?” He scratched the Belgian Malinois, mixed with a touch of shepherd. Bergman could feel the rising sun’s warmth pushing away the last of night and was glad the animal wasn’t too furry. He stood and planted his trekking poles on the marked path that headed north, and Blazer, sensing purpose in his master, moved ahead smartly.
He looked at the dog, but he thought about his wife, Linda. Six weeks ago, he’d gotten drunk and fought with her. He yanked a mirror off the wall, smashed it over a chair, slammed the door, and drove off—clean across his neighbor’s front lawn, taking out a mailbox. An hour later he was arrested for DUI and disturbing the peace in a neighboring Massachusetts coastal town. He’d lost his license, again, and Linda—“Pack your shit!”—kicked him out. All over a couple of six-packs. Stupid thing was he’d reduced his drinking, and it was the first time he’d gotten drunk in over six months. He had been getting better.
The terrain was a flat, parched land of dun earth and sagebrush scrub. Dusty. The walking was easy, and Blazer took time to sniff rocks and tumbleweed. Bergman watched a helicopter buzz above the wire fence that separated Mexico from the United States. When he approached the town of Campo, a little over a mile north of the border, he stopped and watched two Border Patrol vehicles, spotlights still on, searching for illegals. He expected to be questioned and fingered his hiking wallet, which contained his permits. No one challenged him, though, and he and Blazer continued on until they stopped a mile north of Campo for their first water break.
“You thirsty, Blazer?”
Bergman bent down and removed a wide-rimmed Nalgene bottle from the dog’s saddlebag. Blazer lapped the water. “Just a little now—we got a long day, Blazer.”
Bergman looked back on Campo, a forgotten village cramped under the strengthening sun, as he unclipped one of four water bottles from the front of his pack belt. He stowed two more plastic liter bottles in each of the side pockets of his pack and an emergency bottle inside. Nine liters of water to hike twenty miles in ninety-plus-degree weather. His body hadn’t adapted to the heat yet; two days ago he’d flown in from Boston, where the temperatures hovered at forty-five degrees. He turned from the morning sun and felt the cool water slide down his throat. His pack weighed twenty-five pounds, but that didn’t include water, and each liter weighed over two pounds. Bergman, a Gulf War vet, was forty and as fit as he’d been in the army. He did push-ups and sit-ups every day, even after a hangover, and kept his weight at 180 pounds, packed solid on his sinewy frame.
They reached Hauser Creek in the afternoon. Blazer nosed around and found a trickle of water, but Bergman didn’t like the looks of it and didn’t bother pulling out his Aquamira treatments. After a long drink of the blackish water, Blazer rummaged through scrub and returned with a tattered poncho. “Watcha got, boy?” Bergman examined the blanket-like cloak; though stained and raggedy, the purple-and-brown stripes looked fresh and vivid. “Someone’s been through here recently.” Blazer scrounged further and found a crushed 7-Up bottle. His tail wagging, he brought it to Bergman. “Uh-huh.”
That night, twenty-one miles north of the border, they camped at Lake Morena under the Big Dipper and a half-moon. Other campers were nearby, but Bergman could tell they weren’t thru-hikers, those hikers who would attempt in the next five or six months to complete the PCT in one go. From where Bergman tented, angled and away, he saw a larger tent, glimpsed a frying pan, saw a flying Frisbee. He was surprised at the lack of hikers compared to the Appalachian Trail. He was starting his thru-hike at the right time of year, early enough before the desert boiled but late enough that accumulated snows would diminish sufficiently in the ten-thousand-plus-foot High Sierra by the time he got there.
Whereas up to two thousand would try to hike the AT, only two to three hundred would attempt to finish the Pacific Crest trek to Canada before autumn snows.
Blazer was asleep when Bergman finished detailing the day in his trail journal. Tired. Hot and bone dry all day. Thirsty, but for water as much as a beer. Although too hot for campfires, several kids toasted marshmallows over a small flame in front of the large tent; hot dog and sausage smells clung to night air. He looked forlornly on the family gathered about the campfire. He couldn’t help but remember the time, years ago, when he’d camped with his ex-wife. At the time, they’d been married less than a year. During a foolish argument, she’d tossed his beer into the campfire, so he got even by throwing her Kodak into the flames.
Now he’d blown it with Linda too. He was at the end of his rope. He couldn’t drive for a long while, and he could only hope that his longtime partner, Tommy, would hold their kitchen and bath remodeling business together while he was gone. Bergman loved Linda. She’d been there when he needed it most. His only chance of reconciliation would be to square himself away over these next months and come back a changed man. By God, he would do just that.
Bergman turned and watched Blazer’s belly twitch and wondered if the animal’s dreams were troubled or pleasant. As a coyote yipped in the distance, he reached over and patted the dog’s side, and Blazer squeaked out a tiny moan. At least she’d let him take the dog. They’d picked out the pup at an animal shelter two years ago. She was as attached to Blazer as he was, but Bergman had named him and always took the dog on hikes. He watched the dog breathe in comfort. As he continued to stroke Blazer, Bergman realized that whenever he hiked, he stabilized. The desire to drink would ebb and soon fold away. The excitement of adventure would take its place.
Like the open backcountry road beckoning under a harvest moon, the unknown trail lured him, and he wanted only to move ahead, one foot after another.
Five days and seventy-five miles later, Bergman saw the body.
It was sprawled under a Joshua tree, thirty yards off-trail on the verge of the Anza-Borrego Desert. Just shy of noon, the body lay faceup to the sun. Blazer approached the corpse.
The parched face, eyes open, was that of a young Hispanic. The right hand gripped a snapped branch, which Bergman assumed had been a hasty weapon. The branch was jagged at the end and stained the color of dried blood. Bergman crouched and looked behind him—he was alone. Only a day, Bergman thought as he recalled the time frame of rigor mortis. The body hadn’t decomposed, so it could have been there less than twenty-four hours. The shirt was pulled up. Despite it being a crime scene, Bergman, cautious but curious, turned the body over with his foot. An X, in caked blood, scarred the man’s naked back, and a hole was ground dead center into the X. Stabbed. The irregular wound was not from a bullet.
Unable to raise a signal on his cell, Bergman made notes as best he could. The man had no papers. Bergman and Blazer canvassed the area but found nothing. On his map, Bergman saw the community of Warner Springs close to the trail, about twelve miles north. He looked up at the fulgent sun and down at Blazer, who lay watching the body from the shade of the tree. Bergman hadn’t planned to hike a twenty-plus-mile day, but plans would have to change if he didn’t want buzzards and coyotes to beat the authorities. He took a bandanna from his pack and covered the head with it and said a quick prayer.
That evening, calling from Warner Springs Ranch, he was directed to San Diego Homicide. He gave a report to the duty sergeant and left the ranch’s phone number. Bergman had other complications on his mind and didn’t want to have to deal with the matter on his cell phone. Later, after attending to Blazer, Bergman lay on the bed thinking about the dead man.
Someone had had it in for this guy. And that someone wanted to send a message.
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