There are so many time in life when those words from Alanis Morisette’s song come to my head. In some ways I think it might be the theme song to my life. Recently I entered my school’s annual creative writing contest for the fifth year in a row. I have never won anything in this contest and as an English major I feel that winning writing contests is proof that I actually know what I’m doing. This was the last time I could enter and I was bound and determined that I was going to get something published. I even wrote poems. Well the results are out and I won something. First place in photography. I hope the photo majors will forgive me, I know their disappointment. To assuage my publishing failures, I have included one of my pieces below. It’s kind of long, but if you could humor me and read it I would appreciate it 🙂
I stand naked behind a scraggly juniper, hidden from our friends the Hardmans, but exposed to the world around me. I glance nervously at the tractors 1/4 mile away hoping the construction workers have gone home for the day. My clothes are folded neatly on a rock. My husband raises his eyebrows suggestively. I quickly pull on my swimsuit and yank my rented black and purple wetsuit from his outstretched hands; the suit’s legs gently slap his wrists from the force.
“Are you guys ready to do this?” I shout to Lina and Nathaniel as a warning that we are emerging.
The four of us look out of place standing on this dusty plateau in our wetsuits. Truthfully if it wasn’t for the warped and splintering signs reminding us to be respectful since Chamberlain’s Ranch is private property, I would have thought we were lost. I stow my wedding ring in an empty Pop-Tart wrapper and shove it into one of the car’s coin compartments before donning the backpack I borrowed from my mother. After locking the car and putting the key in what we hope will be a safe spot inside Noel’s backpack, the four of us stand at the edge of the mighty Virgin River that looks like more of a fat stream.
A five-star hike according to Utah’s Incredible Backcountry Trails, the Zion Narrows is one of the best known hikes in Utah, but is only safe for about three months out of the year. After months of planning we have driven across the entire state, stayed at an overpriced, sketchy RV park, and convinced our neighbors, as well as ourselves, that this trip is worth the dedication of our entire three day weekend away from school.
“I hope it gets better than this,” Noel says and I give a weak smile, praying that the alluring pictures and stirring descriptions that brought us here haven’t been just a bunch of hype.
For the better part of an hour, the four of us navigate around cow pies and cheat grass, reassured by the words of some local hikers that the scenery gets much better. It is a warm October afternoon and by the time we arrive at the head of the canyon and step into the river, the cool water around our sweaty, neoprene insulated legs is welcome. We scramble over fallen tree trunks, following the twists the river cuts through the canyon. Each turn reveals more waterfalls and perfectly seasoned leaves. The towering rocks shade us from the sun, which streams through the curving walls in front of us, reminding me of that inkblot that can either look like a vase or two people kissing depending on how you look at it. Lina takes picture after picture with her camera that she wears around her neck in a waterproof case with knobs that remind me of an Etch-a-Sketch. However, no matter how well shot, when we look at the pictures later, the colors will dull in comparison to our memory.
As the sun goes down and the walls grow higher around us, the water becomes colder and our fascination with our surroundings begins to wane. Our pace quickens in a desire to reach campsite number three before dark. I fish inside the top pocket of my Kelty backpack to double check the location of my headlamp. We slosh through the water, trying to find a balance between speed and cautiousness. After we find campsite number one there is a renewed sense of energy, but it quickly dies when we do not come across another campsite for twenty minutes. Frenzied we search every sandbar longer than 15 feet, frisking each bush for the concealed yellow plastic post that marks each campsite, letting out groans of disappointment each time we are met with a no camping sign. I lead out while the Hardmans bring up the rear and my husband weaves in between, not bothering to hide his angry faces when I look back to cheer him on.
It is dusky when we arrive at our campsite a half hour later, and we quickly set up our tents. Ours is fairly new, bought off our REI wedding registry. The Hardmans borrowed a tent from Lina’s parents – it is yellow and looks like it was made in the 70’s. We strip off our wet clothes and hang them in the trees. Trying our best to keep warm, fashion is not an issue; we wear Chaco sandals with socks. The Hardmans disappear into their tent and remain completely silent. Noel and I exchange worried glances as I start up our Pocket Rocket backpacking stove and he heads to the river with our water pump. Twenty minutes later our Bear Creek Broccoli Cheese soup is still lumpy, but none of us is willing to wait any longer. We eat ravenously, lapping up every last drop. As a brave mouse approaches, Nathaniel hurls a rock at it, not willing to give up any of his food. After two cups of hot chocolate the Hardmans seem happier, but announce that they are going right to bed. Noel and I wipe off the mess kit with baby wipes and try not to blind each other with our headlamps as we crawl into our sleeping bags. We whisper about the stars and the shadows cast by the trees 500 feet above us on the rim. Protected only by black mesh and nylon, I feel surprisingly safe without a locked deadbolt to double-check. We fall asleep quickly, lulled by the soothing noise of the river.
Instead of NPR tangling with my early morning dreams, my eyes are gently nudged open by the rising sun. The air is chill and my mind is unusually clear for this time of day. With the lingering warmth of instant oatmeal in our stomachs, we reluctantly pull our damp clothes from the tree branches and slip on our wetsuits, shivering at their touch. Without mirrors, styling my hair takes less time than tying my shoes. I am wearing old tennis shoes and two pairs of worn Cool Max running socks – we say we are too hardcore to rent the special water shoes and neoprene socks, but really we are just cheap. After gathering our gear we hesitate on the edge of our bank before resolutely plunging into the river. The water is cold and numbs my legs, even with the wetsuit.
The October air is crisp, the colors sharp shades of orange, red, and yellow. The canyon walls reach up around us at more than 1000 feet in some places. The wind blows a shower of golden leaves off the rim that flit from air current to air current. We pause and stare upward at the downpour of color. “Wow,” someone says. We all nod in agreement and I raise my arms, welcoming this rain like someone who has been in a drought – a drought of fresh air and earth. Gracefully the leaves land on the water and are ferried downstream. I want to lie down and float away as well, but fear that I am not carefree enough to do anything but sink.
As the sun rises higher in the sky, we peel off layers and laugh when we lose our footing on the algae covered rocks beneath our feet. The current stiffens as tributaries join our path from side canyons that we regrettably don’t have time to explore. For almost a full day we have not seen anyone. We are surprised to have an audience of laughing picnickers when we clamber over a large boulder and unintentionally slide into a deep pool. As the canyon widens we begin to judge our progress by the people we see. We jovially greet groups with walking sticks and parents doing day hikes with children that look like they are wearing expensive rented space suits. I see a girl wearing flip-flops, gingerly planting each footstep as she squeals and clutches her boyfriend’s arm to ensure that she does not slip and ruin her perfectly curled and ratted hair. I am torn to know that we are close. As the canyon widens it is flooded by more people. We forge past them as they look curiously at the yellow mesh bag bouncing on my backpack: The Wilderness Waste Containment Pouch. While most everyone else delicately steps from rock to rock and clings to the canyon walls, we plow through the middle in up to our hips. People at the overlook stare at us with wonder and glance up the canyon as we splash into their viewfinders.
A man stops us and asks, “Did you hike the whole thing? How was the view?”
“Beautiful” . . . “magnificent” . . . “unbelievable” we each suggest and smile inarticulately.
He stares wistfully into the canyon, “I’ve always wanted to do that.”
We look with him, but the canyon is not the same from the outside, with everyone jostling for photos. Reluctantly, we drag our sodden bodies ashore and push through the crowd of families and elderly couples. Our shoes bleed river water, staining the sandstone walkway and making audible squishing noises. It has been more than 48 hours since the last time I showered, but I smile confidently at each visored tourist that we pass; some smile back, others pretend they weren’t staring. No one stands by us at the bus stop, but their whispers alert us of their interest. We climb onto a shuttle bus, and I unashamedly take up two seats – one for me and one for the backpack that has been eating into my shoulders. My husband and I engage our fellow bus patrons in conversation, secretly hoping it will create an opportunity to brag about our adventure, even though we are vaguely aware that we couldn’t possibly possess the right words to recount our experience. We change in the Visitor’s Center restrooms, tying our wet clothes up in plastic grocery bags and depositing them in the trunk. Sadly, the potable drinking water at the Visitor’s Center doesn’t taste as good as the water we pumped from the river. We climb into the car and begin our trek back to Logan, where I am sure my homework, emails, and dirty dishes are waiting.
When the combination of life’s demands and being cooped up over long winters threatens my humanity, my husband and I forward one another emails from Travelzoo and pour over guidebooks we’ve checked out from the library. My skin yearns for the touch of dirt and the scraping and cutting physical reality of rocks and tree branches. As people, we cannot fight the pull of the outdoors – a vortex with currents that grip all of us at one time or another. Even the timid feel compelled to visit national parks, even if they only risk leaving their cars at viewpoints.
Admittedly, I do not necessarily want to leave the conveniences of my home and survive on tree roots, but somehow I feel more comfortable groping for hand and foot holds on a rock face than I do jostling for position on the metro. In the open, I am free. Free to dream beyond the walls where I live my life, free to think beyond deadlines, and free to be me without limitations. There is something reassuring about the straining of muscles, something unmistakably honest about the mingling of sweat and dust. When I am on my feet I am alive; I am real.