Journal of the Dead
Jason Kersten
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Journal of the Dead: A Story of Friendship and Murder in the New Mexico Desert* online

Journal of the Dead: A Story of Friendship and Murder in the New Mexico Desert
Jason Kersten
256 pages
July 2003
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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In August 1999, two young men left Boston on a cross-country trip. Four days later, they arrived in White’s City, New Mexico, late in the day. They were tired and still hungover from a night of revelry in Austin, Texas, 550 miles ago. Rather than get a hotel room, they decided to camp in nearby Carlsbad Cavern National Park. Raffi Kodikian and Dave Coughlin stepped out of their air-conditioned car into the Chihuahuan desert heat and gasped.

They applied for a permit at the visitor’s center, which was about to close. The young volunteer at the tourist desk recommended Rattlesnake Canyon, five miles away by car. They’d drive to the trailhead, park and then trek about a mile into the desert to camp. They listened with innocent ears to the rules: pack out what you pack in, don’t set fires, don’t disturb plants or animals, buy a topographical map, tote your own water. In this environment, the ranger stressed, a human needs one gallon of water a day per person. Dave went to buy the topo map at the bookstore, Raffi went to the gift store to buy water.

The store only sold water in pints. That meant that he’d have to buy sixteen bottles to satisfy the requirement. Aside from being expensive, it was impractical to pack that many bottles. Raffi bought three.

At Rattlesnake Canyon, Dave and Raffi parked and loaded up their backpacks. They had two large bottles of Gatorade. They were just going to spend the night in the desert. They planned on returning to the Caverns first thing in the morning before continuing on to California. They decided to leave one of the bottles of Gatorade in the car.

They hiked down into the canyon, enjoying the landscape and the setting sun. Once on the desert floor, they wandered around searching for official park campsites. It was nearly dark when they realized that there was no such thing. They pitched their tent, fixed dinner and went to sleep.

The next morning they packed up and headed out. When they first missed the trail, they weren’t particularly worried. They backtracked. By noon, they realized they were hopelessly lost and their three pints of water were long gone.

It was three long days and nights before anyone went to look for them. When the rangers reached the trailhead where Dave’s car was parked, they looked down and saw a tent on the desert floor. So close and yet so far away. They climbed down to find Raffi lying in the shade of the tent. He pointed to a pile of rocks nearby where he had buried his best friend, Dave Coughlin, a mere six hours earlier. When asked what happened, he explained that they were dying of thirst. In agony, Dave begged him to ease his suffering and Raffi plunged a knife into Dave’s heart.

What happened those four days in the Chihuahuan desert is the stuff of nightmares. Jason Kersten explores this famous case of "mercy killing" with an eye to the moral and legal complexities. Even more compelling to me though, are the maddening "what if?" questions. What if Raffi and Dave had opted for an air-conditioned hotel room? What if the gift store sold bigger bottles of water? What if they could read topo maps? What if the rangers had gone looking for them sooner? What if Dave had held on a mere six hours longer?

This is a book that I read with different eyes than I might have two months ago. My husband and I, along with a friend, made a similar trip in April -- driving from New Jersey to Los Angeles. For those of us who live in more moderate climes, the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona are wild, beautiful and frightening. They tempt and repel at the same time.

Unlike Dave and Raffi, we chose to take a jeep tour into a barren canyon outside of Phoenix. Deep in the desert, we got out of the truck and trudged after a brown, skinny cowboy with a ten gallon hat and boots with spurs. It was a "cool" spring day. We wore lots of sun block, sunglasses, straw hats and sneakers. It was bloody hot.

Our guide claimed that everything one needed to live existed in the desert. He squatted and cut up a spine-covered cactus with juicy innards. It tasted like kiwi-flavored melon. He pointed out plants that could sustain life with moisture and calories. I looked around and shivered doubtfully.

Tenderfoot tourists alone in the desert? We were plump and pink and ignorant. I was glad to have the lean, leathery cowboy nearby. If only Dave and Raffi had hired a guide.

© 2003 by Joyce Faulkner for Curled Up With a Good Book

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