Nature of Trust
The sun’s heat is relentless as I watch a hawk circle overhead. Observing that bird soar effortlessly in the clear blue sky distracts me from the pain in my ankle, at least temporarily. It also keeps my embarrassment somewhat confined.
Our tour group—or rather the slower walkers bringing up the rear— are about an hour from the carpark on one of the less difficult walks within the Kimberley, making our way towards a spot that promised swimming and beauty and serenity. We’d already crossed a creek and scrambled up some rocks, all without encountering another human being. Having spent almost two weeks in one of the remotest parts of Australia, the feeling of being isolated and cut off from civilization was well and truly entrenched. But now that I’m lying on a rough, dusty track doing my best not to scream, that sense of inaccessibility becomes very real indeed.
One minute I’d been walking along enjoying the vast environment. The next I was on the ground with my left ankle wedged between two barely noticeable rocks. I attempt to move, gritting my teeth against the resulting pain, glancing at the sky again while waiting for it to subside. The circling hawk is joined by two other birds, kites by the look of them.
“Are you alright Emily?” James asks, his dark hair falling forward, worry etched on his handsomely rugged face. He’d been walking behind me on the track, keeping me company as he has done practically since the tour started. Something I mostly appreciated and welcomed, even though I’m perfectly happy on my own.
“Where does it hurt?” Lucas, one of the tour guides—a wiry man with greying hair sticking out of his almost-permanently attached Akubra—asks.
Both questions are impossible to answer. I hurt everywhere and my pride is even more dented and twisted.
“I’m fine,” I say, trying to sit up. A sharp jolt spears through my ankle, causing me to hiss, something I really didn’t need right then.
“Just lie still for a minute,” Lucas says. “I need to check you out first.” He kneels by my feet and runs his fingers over my ankle above my sneaker-like hiking shoe, making me groan in agony. Looks like I should have brought those ankle-supporting hiking boots after all.
“Can you move your toes?” James asks, his green eyes full of concern. I nod, wiggling them inside my shoe.
“Does this hurt?” Lucas asks, pressing on the side of my ankle.
I shut my eyes for a moment, clamping my mouth closed as the pain intensifies ten-fold.
“Yes,” I gasp, before sitting up and noticing my left ankle looks a bit swollen. “I’ve probably only twisted it,” I say, “I’ll be fine.”
Lucas and James exchange a look I can’t interpret.
“We’ll need to head back,” Lucas says. “We have a more extensive first-aid kit in the bus than the one I’m carrying.”
“I’m sure I can continue walking,” I say, not wanting to admit I may need help.
“The Flying Doctors can’t land here,” Lucas says, looking around. I frown, wondering why he was talking like that. “Not that you probably need them,” Lucas continues after seeing my expression, “but they could land near the carpark, if required.”
“I’ll walk,” I say.
“Then both Lucas and I will accompany you to ensure you get back safely,” James says.
I nod, realising I’m not in any position to argue. “Do you think those—” I gesture towards the birds of prey still circling overhead, “—consider me roadkill?”
“I have no doubt they can see you,” James replies, chuckling, “but I think you’re safe enough for now.”
# # #
Every step is a hard-won victory, getting me closer to the bus. My entire left leg throbs. I can hardly put any weight on my sore ankle, and my hiking shoe feels way too tight. I’m hot, sweaty, and covered in dust. Stubbornness is the only thing propelling me forward.
Leaning on my hiking pole, now doing duty as a temporary crutch, I study the ground in forensic detail. If only I’d looked where I was putting my feet before I fell. If only I had brought those more expensive, ankle-supporting hiking boots, I wouldn’t be in this awful predicament. I long to scream leave me the hell alone at the two men standing beside me. Why didn’t Lucas berate me for my clumsiness? Why didn’t James blame me for cutting his adventure short?
But they do neither of these things. Instead, they simply help me as much as I’ll allow. This, of course, annoys me all the more.
Taking another tentative step forward, I grit my teeth, my shoulders curling towards my chin, as shards of pain shoots through my ankle up to my knee. I know my misery is the price I must pay for my inattention, but oh how I resent it.
I straighten my spine, fresh determination spreading through me. I will make it back to the carpark on my own, even if it kills me.
# # #
Many agonising minutes later we top a short rise. My legs wobble as I look down the rocky slope. Boulders are scattered in a haphazard jumble. Low lying shrubs and thorny grasses are everywhere. Nothing is flat, it’s all angles and big drops. My stomach churns and my palms become even clammier. I breathe in and out in harsh mouthfuls as I vaguely remember crossing that now near-impossible terrain with barely a care in the world not so long ago.
“You’re doing fine,” James tells me.
“You can do this Emily,” Lucas says.
I’m too tired to argue, so nod instead.
“Take one step at a time,” James says quietly, “and lean on me any time you need.”
I nod again, knowing I’m too stubborn, too unwilling to trust him to help.
Okay, so my history tells me that trusting others is foolhardy. That relying on others just leads to disappointment. But right now, right here, I don’t have much choice, especially if I’m going to get back to the bus in one piece. So, tentatively, I take James’ hand as he helps me over the first, smaller set of rocks. Lucas assists me over the next.
As we slowly make our way down the slope, each rock gets bigger, and more difficult. I place my feet and my hands as carefully as possible, but each step shoots sparks of agony through my ankle, making me hiss and groan.
I manage the bigger rocks by sliding down them, feet first. Sure, bracing myself with my hands, and allowing gravity to do its thing, takes an enormous amount of courage. As does putting my faith in James, standing at the bottom, to catch me. Because what happens if I hurt myself even worse? What if I can’t stop, or land badly, or the myriad of other worst-case scenarios looming in my imagination? All I can do is to trust James completely, hoping he won’t let anything bad happen.
Maybe I should embrace this whole ‘take things as they come’ attitude a bit more. To live in the moment and appreciate all the small things that go unnoticed. And not worry about the future, like that creek I have to cross before I’m anywhere near finishing this punishing hike.
Small things like how comforting James’ firm, steady grip on my arm is. Or how wonderful it is when he holds me steady after I’ve dropped down the next obstacle. Or the absolute silence surrounding us. Even the texture of the rocks, rough as they are, have subtle bands of colour embedded within, like they’ve gone through their own version of hell and come out victorious. It’s not something I would notice under normal circumstances. But now I’m forced to look at every crevasse and crack and bump in detail, each rock is amazingly beautiful. Individual, just like me, but also an integral part of the environment.
When I stop for yet another rest after what feels like forever, I’ve leaned on James numerous times. Surprisingly, the world hasn’t ended. Even more surprising, James and Lucas are encouraging and kind, nothing like the annoyed impatience I anticipated.
Seems asking for help—even accepting said help—isn’t so bad. And I’m beginning to see just how wrong standing on my own, stubbornly refusing assistance, is. Doing so doesn’t show strength, like I thought. It does the opposite. And right now, in the middle of absolutely nowhere, I need as much stamina and resolve as I can muster.
“We are nearly at the bottom,” Lucas tells me calmly.
“Good,” I respond.
This introspection will probably disappear the moment I spot the carpark, but while it lasts it’s a lovely distraction from the increasing pain in my left leg. It keeps my mind occupied so I can continue to do what has to be done. Getting back to the relative safety of the bus.
And Lucas is right. The rocks are smaller, a little easier to navigate, a slight improvement over what we’ve already been through.
Three agonisingly slow rock-scrambles later, I can see the creek. It coils its way through the landscape with a tenacity I admire. It bends and weaves its way around any obstacle, tumbling and falling over the ground in an obvious path of least-resistance.
Before, I hadn’t noticed how beautiful, or alive, the area around the creek was. It had just been another marker, another thing I had to get through, to reach our destination. But now, the banks along this inconsequential creek contrasts starkly with the surrounding dry, dusty, and very rocky terrain.
No matter how beautiful, I still need to cross that creek. On an ankle that can barely take my weight. With a flimsy hiking pole acting as a crutch. Sure, James is still beside me, and Lucas is just ahead. Nevertheless, I have to get across to reach the carpark.
# # #
My legs shake and my heart drops to somewhere around my knees as I study the crystal-clear water beneath me. James is behind me. Lucas stands on two separate rocks, legs spread, perfectly balanced, in front of where I am swaying on my own boulder in the middle of the creek. Every stone, every pebble, and every waving weed is clearly defined as the creek water rushes past on its relentless journey. Sure, Lucas has chosen a narrower, shallower crossing than the previous one we took, but that doesn’t make this crossing any easier for me.
“Step on that stone there,” Lucas tells me, pointing to a flat stone barely above the water. “I’ve tested it, and it’s stable.” I stare at the rock, seeing the slightly green sheen on top without responding. “After that, it’s just a matter of stepping on that rock there—” he points to another angled boulder closer to the opposite side “—then James will help you up the bank.”
Lucas makes it all sound so easy. A walk in the park, really. A simple matter. Nothing to worry about at all.
“So far you’ve been a real trouper,” Lucas continues. “You’ve faced every obstacle with stoic determination.” He catches my gaze, his expression serious. “I know you can do this Emily. And James and I are here to ensure you get across safely.”
“We’ll do this, together,” James agrees.
Truth is, I’ve been a churning mass of emotion for this entire tortuous journey. And I’ve needed these two men so much, and so many times, I want to scream and hang my head in shame. I feel my face scrunch up, as yet another pain shoots through my ankle and up my leg, though I don’t hiss or groan. I’d given up doing that ages ago. Better to pretend I’m doing fine than worry James, or Lucas, even more. Nevertheless, taking those few small steps feels like I’m being asked to weather a raging storm while sailing the southern ocean.
Throwing my shoulders back, I set my eyes firmly on the rock Lucas indicated. I plant my hiking stick in the creek bed. Lucas takes my hand in a firm, steady grip. But when all my weight goes on my left ankle, agony shoots throughout my body. I can’t help but make a sound, something between a yelp and a groan before my right foot lands on the designated rock. Shifting all my weight, standing firm, I clamp my eyes shut for just a moment, waiting for the pain to pass.
James heads across the creek, stepping from rock to boulder to stone with envious agility. I’m aware of his presence nearby as my weight shifts slightly, my hiking pole going back and forth, while I’m contemplating the next step. I barely notice when Lucas drops my hand because all my energy, all my concentration, is on that angled rock.
Just as I lean forward, my foot slips. I let out a startled gasp as my hiking stick slips through my fingers. James’ arms go around my middle, arresting my fall and steadying me.
“I’m sorry,” I say breathlessly, breathing hard through the excruciating pain. “I’m so sorry.”
“I’ve got you,” James says soothingly, “and there’s no need to apologise.”
I gulp, my eyes burning with supressed tears. I give James a short, sharp nod, trying for decisiveness, but probably landing somewhere near pathetic. “Sorry,” I mumble.
“You’re doing just fine,” James says.
# # #
I sit with my foot resting on a camp stool, my back leaning against the picnic table beside the bus in the carpark. The rapidly melting ice, wrapped in an old shirt, both of which Lucas produced from inside the bus, surrounds my still throbbing ankle.
James is still beside me, sitting on the same bench, occasionally showing me one of the photos on his phone. Lucas left a while ago, heading back towards the rest of the tour group while we wait here for their return.
The desert rose surrounding us—a pinkish flower that blankets the area after the recent rains—lets off an exotic scent. Native bees fly past in droves, and the nearby bush rustles as the local animals go about their business. We watch as a big black bird, like an oversized currawong, lands on the pole holding up the sunshade sheltering us. The bird turns its head, staring at us intensely.
James thinks I may have broken something. And seeing that my ankle is almost triple the size of the other one, he could just be right, but the nearest hospital is a two-day drive away on rutted, dirt roads. Nevertheless, I’m hoping my trip in the wilderness isn’t over because I’m not ready to say goodbye to James just yet. Though I know this is a distinct possibility.
I have no doubt what I’ve experienced in the wilderness will stay with me long after my ankle heals. Perhaps I’ll be little bit wiser after this, maybe a bit humbler as well. I’ve probably lost a bit of my stubbornness and maybe some understanding of the random detours life takes us on.
As I take a sip of water, I remember the words my boss said to me before I left on this journey.
“Every member of our team is important, Emily,” he had said. “They each have their own strengths and weaknesses, but together we accomplish so very much.” I had frowned, wondering what that had to do with the quality of my own work. “Your biggest weakness is that you don’t trust others to do their job,” he continued. “This is something you need to improve Emily, otherwise we all fail.”
The black bird tilts its head as it continues to watch us with uncanny intensity.
I twist my hands together, now understanding what my boss had been trying to tell me. How important teamwork is, and how my lack of trust had let everyone down. Having been forced, albeit reluctantly, to trust James and Lucas, I now have a greater appreciation for what a good team can achieve, regardless of the circumstances they find themselves in.
I readily acknowledge I had needed both men to cross that creek. Indeed, without them I would still be making my way back and be a lot worse off too. But James was the one that helped me up that last, gruelling, long rise before the bus came into sight.
Throughout this entire thing, James has encouraged me and allowed me to take as much time as I needed. His constant, steady and patient presence beside me helped me make it back in one piece. Sure, I have a throbbing, sore ankle that probably needs medical attention, but that’s beside the point.
An overwhelming desire to reach out and touch him, to get as close to James as possible, flows through my system. James really is a good-looking guy, something I’ve been aware of from the moment I met him. But now he seems even more…approachable…somehow.
“That was some hike, huh,” James says.
“It sure was,” I agree. “Again, thank you for all your help.”
“Help you didn’t want, not at first anyway.”
I shrug. “But you didn’t take the hint, so here we are.”
“Speaking of taking hints,” James says a tad hesitantly. “You must know I want to get to know you better, especially after our little adventure today.” He takes a deep breath and continues, “So, can we go out for dinner, on a date, once this tour is over?”
My heart beats faster as I study his expression, which is open and trusting and hopeful.
“I’d like that,” I say, smiling.
Just then, the big black bird squawks as it takes to the sky.
I lean back as a sense of calmness settles over me. The lightness in my chest tells me that everything will work out okay.