The Devil’s Corkscrew

The Devil’s Corkscrew

      —for M.E.

By Thom Schramm

We found it best in monsoon times
to head down after three, when the late sun
begins to skim its blades along the plateau top
and shade tilts off the canyon rim,
then camp a night under the cottonwoods
not more than halfway to the river, looking out
of course for scorpions and shooting stars
that entered our fields of vision—by then
depending for perspective on the rim,
which seemed to hold a giant eye
we lived within. From there we had a chance
to wake in time to reach the corkscrew before noon,
when we would lose the safety of
triangular cascades of shade and need
to concentrate to keep our misery at bay,
plus hope no windbursts would suddenly plow
across the sky the sort of storm that swept
a tour group through a gorge and killed them all
except their leader, who was found
injured on a ledge, his clothes torn from him.

At daybreak, coming down the long approach, we saw
the distant corkscrew, which appears   
to open up the inner gorge, making
it reachable for some from such a steep downgrade,
and just before we turned into its threads,
near a smooth tongue of gray rock formed when
lava met the sea that once filled that place,     
we found a puddle, nearly mud
but still deep enough to be a limbo
for tadpoles near the end of metamorphosis.
We watched them wave their shrinking tails
until an old man arrived from below,
wheezing with asthma he told us he tried to beat
by hiking early on hot days. “Turn back —”
he joked, “You’re both too young to die,” then rose
slowly into the distance, like a ghost.

Soon we traversed the scarp along
the corkscrew’s trail, which swung us wide at first
but tightened in the bottom half, where our descent’s
momentum peaked as the sunlight
increased, though more than once we had to stop
to stop ourselves from plunging off the acute ends
of switchbacks. Through the final serpentine
turns, dizzily we passed into the gorge
and heard the river’s roar in the hell-hot sun.

Thom Schramm's poems have appeared in journals such as The American Scholar, New Letters, Ploughshares, and Poetry Northwest. He is the author of the poetry chapbook The Leaf Blower and editor of the poetry anthology Living in Storms: Contemporary Poetry and the Moods of Manic-Depression.

Featured image courtesy National Parks Service/Michael Quinn / CC