A cave can feel like home when fire casts the stone orange, cushions cover the red sand floor, and roasted meat and onions permeate the air. In a cave deep in the canyons of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, I listened to our host play a flute beside the fire, a haunting desert melody in the enclosed space. My mind settled into a calm state, abandoning any attempt to grapple with the circumstances which had landed us here, in this Bedouin cave on Christmas eve. Outside, cliff walls rose towards the sky, where the upper lips of the canyon were connected by the Milky Way and countless stars.
Several nights ago, my companions and I had looked up canyon walls at the stars with mounting trepidation. We had been walking through deserts and mountains for three days without encountering a town, and we were supposed to emerge from this wilderness before sunset. Hot food and cold beer began to seem like an elusive fantasy as the sun slipped below the horizon, our GPS coordinates became confused, and we wandered deeper into a slot canyon with little hope of emerging.
Slot canyons are dangerous at night. We followed a stone corridor which narrowed until our shoulders brushed each side before dropping into a cliff. Our desperation was apparent as we discussed the possibility of using rope to descend the cliff into the darkness below. We eventually retreated, but were still trapped within the canyon. As our flashlights scanned the sandy ground for any high camping positions, I remembered a past flash flood that occurred while I was living in New Mexico. Several campers in a canyon were swept away and found drowned in the branches of a tree. Slot canyons are dangerous at night.
We set our bags down in the sand and took a moment to stave off the mounting panic which creeps easily up sore feet, fills empty stomachs, and digs into exhausted minds. As we regrouped, a soft pitter-patter of sand approached through the darkness. From the night, two human figures materialized.
One figure looked professional. He wore black dress shoes and designer jeans above a black button-up collared shirt. His hair was clean cut and face shaven. The other figure looked like Jack Sparrow. He wore a robe, with long black hair hanging from his head and dark makeup shadowing his eyes. The two men calmly asked if we were lost and offered to guide us from the canyon.
We followed with numb relief as the robed man led us along a precipitous hidden goat path. We followed a small cleft in the canyon wall, two feet wide with a vertical cliff rising to our right, and a sheer drop into darkness on our left. As we heaved ourselves over a chest-high ridge, balanced along a makeshift wooden bridge across a chasm, and descended a hand-made ladder, the events began to take form. The professional-looking man had apparently seen our flashlight in the canyon and called a local goatherd for help. The two men had descended into the canyon and sprinted to us in the dark. Now, the goatherd was leading us from the canyon along a route he used for his animals.
Eventually, the night sky widened as we emerged from the rocky maze. SUV headlights silhouetted figures milling around the vehicles. As we drew near, the goatherd stopped and quickly gave us the number to his cell phone. “My name is Atthaullah,” he said. Atthaullah wanted us to call if we needed anything. With a deep breath, he brought us to the SUVs.
Muscled men in black fatigues carrying assault rifles brusquely dismissed Atthaullah, pushed us into the vehicles, and drove us away. They were not pleased. In the confused darkness, we had inadvertently stumbled into the labyrinth of an ancient civilization- one that would put the magical imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien to the test. By half a millennium before Christ the canyons had formed the city streets and palace facades of the Nabataean Kingdom, where pillars, domes, and buildings of immeasurable wealth were carved directly into the stone. Romans, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, and merchants from across the world would have filled the twisting canyon corridors with a collage of colors and languages. Though the Nabataean Kingdom was expansive, we had inadvertently stumbled into a protected area which includes the remains of the city of Petra. Since the region had suffered an ISIS attack less than 50 miles away several days before, the police were understandably on their guard and had been worried by the report of flashlights near Petra.
At the police station, we sat in chairs and looked up as the police berated us. “No more sleeping in the mountains!” they said. We understood their chagrin and weathered the verbal assault as we had the wind and sun for hundreds of miles. At some point the lesson was deemed satisfactory, the police deposited us at the one hostel in town which served beer, and we drank deep into the night.
The next day, we received a text message from Atthaullah, our savior goatherd. He invited us to visit his cave so that he could show us the right way to enter the ruins of Petra.
That evening, next to the fire as meat and onions sizzled and his flute whispered a desert tune, my mind bracketed the absurdity of these events for later reflection and settled on the moment. Though Atthaullah owned little, he had given travelers far from home a space for friends, food, and warmth on Christmas Eve. Tomorrow, he would lead us out of his cave, guide us again through the canyons, and show us a wonder of the world. I could not think of a more appropriate scenario to coincide with a holiday emphasizing the celebration of life.
For my friend’s take on this journey, see: https://www.theexpeditioner.com/2017/07/11/trekking-jordan-trail-nothing/
She says: “To the grubby hiker, windswept and unshowered, to be served by the family matriarch on what was clearly the best china, and to be seated next to the stove and warmed with blankets and kindness, was like wandering into another world. I am filled with gratitude to the families that hosted us and in awe of a culture so giving to strangers.”