The Bright White Light

Those of us who have spent the majority of our lives traveling by hook or by crook through lofty and wild realms have many things in common. We have all been directionally discombobulated. We have all been tired and hungry and bug-bit and blistered and grungy beyond belief. And we have all faced both objective and subjective danger, whether that danger has visited us on our backcountry forays via gravity, ice, roiling whitewater, flash floods, avalanches, wild animals, poor planning, bad decision-making, debilitating hangovers, heat, cold, wind or, my personal sack-shriveling favorite, and the subject of this installment of “Smoke Signals,” lightning.

The first time I hiked the Colorado Trail, I found myself camping near the old Beartown site in the San Juans in the midst of, no, not the Jagermeister Girls, nor even the Senior Ladies Bridge Club, nor even my most debauch, scumiest drinking buddies, nor even a motley crew of fellow CT thru-hikers. No, my life does not set up that way. What I found myself camping in the middle of was a large and boisterous Boy Scout troop that spent the entire late afternoon and evening doing one high-decibel Boy Scout thing after another: reciting the Scout Oath and Law infinitum, working earnestly on merit badge projects that required much in the way of hacking, chopping and yelling and tying several screaming Tenderfeet to trees.

After the Scouts FINALLY!!! (HALLELUJAH!!!) began to settle in for the night, I enjoyed the company of one of the Scoutmasters at a dilapidated picnic table. As we spoke, a seriously mean storm swirled in from several directions simultaneously, and, in the gathering twilight, proximate flashes and deafening booms began to re-define what until that point had been a relaxed vibe, the boisterous Boy Scouts notwithstanding. The Scoutmaster, who had already told me he was a professor of meteorology — whose specialty was, yes, lightning — did not so much as flinch or wince. His calm demeanor was the only thing that prevented me from assuming a teeth-chattering fetal position under the picnic table.

I believe I eventually said words to the effect of: “I guess you are well versed enough regarding the vagaries of lightning to know if we were in any imminent danger.”

His response will stick with me forevermore. “No one knows enough about lightning to know if they are in imminent danger during a storm. All I know is that we are right now in the middle of a lightning storm, and nothing we do will effect whether or not we get struck. Lightning is defined by its unpredictability.”

He went on to say that, based upon a full career of peer-reviewed statistical interpretation, he had pretty much concluded that just as many people get zapped by lightning while doing all the supposed “right” things we read about in mainstream outdoor-recreation-oriented magazine, while uncountable, unknowable numbers of people doing the supposed “wrong” things venture upon their merry way blissfully untoasted.

“It’s almost like lightning has its own personality,” the professor/Scoutmaster said. “Most times, that personality is, though intimidating, fairly benign, even playful, in a sadistic sort of way. Other times, however, it seems vindictive, like it really wants to kill someone, like death is its goal, like the bolts are being purposefully aimed at people.”

Great. So much for Nature being indifferent toward our fate.

After the professor/Scoutmaster hit the sack, with the flash/booms still pummeling the biosphere in every direction, I rolled a joint and managed to get said joint lit despite the wind. I kicked back, clad in Gore-Tex from head to toe, and pondered the Scoutmaster/professor’s words from the perspective of my own personal greatest-hits lightning-based stories, from a perspective that at least entertained the notion that there’s this all-powerful Sky Daddy consciousness — let’s call him “Zeus” — way up high making mortality-based decisions about whether or not to sizzle such-and-such hapless person down here on terra firma or just scare the living beejesus out of him or her. And perhaps ascertain why.

1) Though I grew up in the climatologically agitated area where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, a place where almost every home sported a lightning rod atop its roof, the first time I ever seriously considered the concept of corporeality in the context of lightning was during my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. At that time, the AT meandered its way through much of Connecticut by following the Housatonic River. Like most thru-hikers, my day-to-day itinerary was planned in advance by studying the hyper-detailed AT guidebooks. It was a bit on the early side when I arrived at my pre-determined destination one day, but, given the fact that it was a pretty little riverside campsite, I opted to park it for the evening anyhow. There was one tent already pitched at the far end of the cleared area, and, soon after my arrival, a head popped out. I know how this is going to sound, but I’ll say it anyhow: That noggin belonged to a very homely woman who, I learned later, was a retired elementary schoolteacher who, I also learned, was a seriously proficient long-distance backpacker, having completed just about every noteworthy trail east of the Mississippi. But, her backpacking acumen did not mitigate the woeful reality that she was challenged on the physical-appeal front. Big time. And I guess I should point out that AT hiker standards in that regard are usually not very high.

As we chatted, a squall blew in. In those days, I did not carry a tent, only a small tarp, which I suspended over a rope tied between two tall pine trees. As darkness descended and sheets of rain began to fall and thunder began to rumble, the homely elementary school teacher asked repeatedly, with quite a bit of enthusiasm, if I would like to take refuge with her in her diminutive tent, which she also shared with her hyper little Sheltie. I politely declined, babbling something inanely Muir-ish about preferring to experience the heart of the storm on its own terms.

She finally gave up and retired to the relative comfort, if not safety, of her four nylon walls, while I hunkered down under my little tarp, which was being whipped mightily by the suddenly ferocious wind. I was soaked clear down to my skivvies in mere minutes, a reality that negatively affected my comfort level as it simultaneously positively increased my personal conductivity factor. Just as I began to second guess my decision regarding the homely schoolteacher’s invite, a bolt flashed down from a sky that looked more like something out of “The Wizard of Oz” than it did anything I would expect from, of all places, pastoral Connecticut, and exploded the top half right off one of the tall pines lining the campsite. The simultaneous BOOM shook the ground. Before I had even begun the process of regaining what little composure I had, another bolt exploded the top off another pine — this one closer to my tarp than the first. Then a third bolt exploded the top off a pine even closer to where I sat now urinating my pants. The strikes were progressing in a very orderly fashion right toward me, with just enough time between flashes and booms to allow me to consider how death by lightning would actually feel, whether it would be quick and painless, like flipping a life-force OFF switch, or whether it would involve lots of undignified screaming and writhing on the ground for 15 minutes in searing agony. While the former certainly held more appeal than the latter of those two hideous death alternatives, it also might include attempts at mouth-to-mouth by the homely schoolteacher, so I guess a little undignified writhing agony didn’t sound so bad.

Then a fourth bolt exploded the top off one of the pines to which I had my tarp tied! The sizzling remnants of branches rained down upon me as fine as sawdust. The resultant thunder unceremoniously removed several fillings from my already-iffy dentition.

Then a fifth bolt exploded the top off the other pine my tarp was tied to!

Somehow, Edvard Munch presciently peered into the future, to the shores of the Housatonic River, for his inspiration when he painted “The Scream,” for I’m certain that’s the form my visage took as yet another round of blackened mulch fell onto my tarp. Matter of fact, I believe I sported “The Scream” expression for some weeks following.

When the storm passed, the homely schoolteacher slowly emerged from her tent, almost as shaken as I was. All she could see in my direction was a partially collapsed orange tarp, with two boot-clad feet sticking out, toes pointed skyward. “You dead?” she asked, very, very tentatively. “I don’t know,” I answered. “Is this heaven?”

“No,” she chuckled, “it’s Connecticut.”

She suddenly seemed quite attractive.

So, what was Zeus (who, I should point out, could have snapped his fingers and turned the homely schoolteacher into Elle Macpherson (or turned me into a non-dickhead, though that might have been beyond the capabilities of even an omnipotent deity), thus mitigating my moral conundrum before the fact) thinking during that squall? I had spurned what was probably a perfectly sincere invite from the homely schoolteacher to share her shelter during a frightful storm, an invite probably based upon primordial genetic encoding that makes terror easier to cope with when you huddle close to a member of your own kind, in this case, another stinky AT thru-hiker. Yet I had turned that invite down because I wondered if there weren’t perhaps ulterior motives at play. I made a probably unfair pre-judgment, and that pre-judgment was further bruised by my utter inability to look past this woman’s unfortunate appearance.

But Zeus, though peeved enough to near-bouts scare me to death, apparently did not consider such inexcusable transgressions on my part to be capital offences.

OK. Lesson learned. Next time a homely woman offers me shelter in her tent, my ass is in, face first.

2) My wife and I were in the middle of an eight-day backpacking trip from Wolf Creek Pass along the Continental Divide Trail over to Elk Park. When you’re hiking in the highest parts of the Rockies in the summer, it is always extremely prudent to not be, as but one random example, in the goddamned middle of an endless sea of 12,000-foot exposed tundra at the exact moment the storm front that has been obviously building up for the previous several hours settles directly above not only yourself, but more importantly, your spouse.

But, according to My Plan, we were supposed to be down to Weminuche Pass by lunchtime and, by god, that’s where we were going to eat our lunch, come hell, high water or risk of what would clearly amount in a court of law to negligent wife-o-cide. Despite Gay’s rational trepidation, rather than seeking shelter, I marched us across one last exposed section of tundra, after which we would descend into the trees and the psychological salve that forest provides during a storm. More importantly, we would stay on schedule!  With full packs and tired legs, we literally sprinted across the tundra, into the sparse foliage of the Krummholtz Zone, then down into the spruces. The trail was steep, rocky, muddy and very slippery. The going would have been treacherous under the best of circumstances, which, given the acrid smell of ozone permeating our nostrils, these assuredly weren’t.

At one point, just as I was starting to relax the teensiest little bit, I rounded a bend, just out of view of my wife, when a rogue bolt struck a tree not 50 feet in front of me. The percussion knocked me on my ass so hard there was dirt in my crack. I do not exaggerate when I say that I was separated from my bearings. I did not know my name. I did not know where I was or how I got there. Just then, Gay caught up with me and, in the nurturing, sympathetic, empathetic way that defines the feminine gender, she asked what in the world I was doing taking a break at such an inopportune, to say nothing of uncomfortable, juncture. Her words scarcely registered. Hell, whatever language she was speaking scarcely registered. Then she looked at the smoldering remnants of what had been scant seconds before a healthy blue spruce and the love of my life exclaimed, “Look, that tree just got struck by lightning!”

It’s obvious what Zeus was thinking: If you’re going to tempt fate, make absolutely certain that your spouse is not in the line of fire with you.

But there was another, perhaps less-obvious, lesson I think Zeus was trying to drive home by way of that near-miss. That very day was our tenth anniversary, and the place we ended up camping (as per my writ-in-stone itinerary, I would point out) was one of the most wonderful we have ever visited, and we have visited beaucoup wonderful places. The wildflowers were in the height of bloom, and every inhalation was a veritable interface with a Paris perfumerie. Though we of course did not know this before the fact, had we not dashed through the bowels of that storm, we would not have arrived at the best anniversary spot any couple has ever in the history of marriage enjoyed. I think Zeus was trying to drive home the point that, sometimes one ought to tempt fate. And, if you make it to the other side, the rewards are often well worth the fear factor. Of course, that’s easy to say when catastrophe was not part of the post-experience rumination.

Zeus, apparently fully understanding my cranial density, stayed with me on this one for several decades. I have passed that blue spruce — which, because of the lightning strike that almost struck me, had long since begun the inevitable process of decomposition — twice since I was knocked on my keister there in the middle of the trail. A week before these words hit print, Gay and I will have celebrated our 25th anniversary. Lot of water under the adventure bridge. But it has been a long time since we last sprinted through the tundra during a storm. Our life together has become borderline sedentary. I cannot help but wonder if we too have not begun the process of inevitable decomposition. Maybe it’s time to go back out into the storm. I think Zeus would understand and approve.

3) I once hiked the 850-mile Arizona Trail from the Utah border to the Mexican border. The very night before I commenced that on-foot journey, I camped near Jacob Lake with my late dog Cali. The weather had been so intense that the nearby town of Kanab, Utah, had received in one three-week period in August more precipitation than it had ever received a single year in its entire history.

Cali and I ingressed my Bibler just as the sun was setting. Then it came, like some shit out of the nastier, wrath-of-god sections of the Old Testament: A lightning storm like no other I’ve experienced or even heard about. After more than an hour of lying on my back, teeth-clenched so badly my jaw ached for days, I decided to start counting the flashes. I stopped at 800 — and a high percentage of those were of the multiple-simultaneous-flashes variety. The storm continued unabated for at least an hour after I stopped counting. It is no exaggeration to say that more than 2,000 strikes flashed in my immediate here and now. I came within a whisker of panicking. It was everything I could do to resist dashing out of the tent and into my truck. But I knew — I just knew — that, if I did, I would get fried. So I just stayed in my tent and had a chat with Zeus and his celestial ilk, something I only seem to do when shit’s hitting the fan.

He said nothing, though I might have detected a snicker through the deluge.

When I finally left my tent the next morning, the air was post-precipitation sweet. The birds were tweeting. My dog ran hither and thither enjoying the earthly aromas. And I sat on the tailgate of my truck, PTSD’d, and the only thought swirling in my head, and it swirled and swirled and would not leave, was this: I realized how much I loved my life and how blessed I was to have had the million million experiences — good, bad and ugly — I have had and how it said something probably too profound for my lizard brain to comprehend, much less articulate, that, despite all those visions of the bright white light, I had landed on my feet, mostly unscathed.

And, know what? Like those of you who have spent the majority of your lives traveling by hook or by crook through lofty and wild realms, I wouldn’t trade a single interface with the bright white light for all the supposed comfort and safety the world allegedly has to offer.

Later that day, I shouldered my too-heavy pack yet again and started yet another long walk into the great unknown. Zeus pretty much left me alone all the way to the Mexican border. He was probably far too busy messing with you.

Got a backcountry lightning tale you’d like to share? Sure you do!  Please write it down and fire it off to mjfayhee@mountaingazette.com 

Trail Booty

Trail Booty: When lost gear is foundThe latest in outdoor gear presents a problem. In some ways, the resources used to make our gear conflicts with the low-impact lifestyle we mountain dwellers try to follow, but that’s not the biggest issue. People who venture outside seem to lose more stuff than anyone else. There is even a name for this problem. When we fail at following proper Leave No Trace, we call it Trail Booty.

I was thinking about it hard one afternoon while sitting on the roof of my apartment. A line of prayer flags recovered from the side of Engineer Mountain, where they had blown off the summit, were tied up and flapped gently overhead. The Patagonia pullover I was wearing was found forgotten on a trail somewhere in New Mexico. I had found my Sanuk shoes in the middle of Highway 50 while driving out of Gunnison, and the Prana hat on my head I had found in a parking lot in Summit County frozen into a muddy ball. I ran the hat through the dishwasher and have been wearing it most every day since. I have eaten Gu packets dropped by mountain bikers, drank eddy beers plucked from rivers, reclaimed gloves frozen stiff and alone on Loveland Pass and clipped into abandoned climbing gear only to bail on it, leaving it behind again just a few short feet higher. I assured myself that someone else would soon be by to clean the gear I found then discarded.

Maybe that person would be the same person who found the helmet I lost while paddling the Lower Canyons of the Rio some years before, but probably not. Maybe still it would be the person who found the pot I accidentally left behind at a camp in the Gila Wilderness. By the time I noticed it had been left, it would have taken two days to recover it. It was now Trail Booty.

Of all those in the backcountry, nobody knows the concept of finding and collecting lost gear more than a forest ranger. Most often, they are the first into an area at the start of a season and the last to leave. They cover more ground and spend entire seasons working in perhaps just one area and, by the end, know it well. For them, trail booty is nearly as important a perk as the pro-deals they get through their employer. In the spring, as the snow recedes from the valleys and appears to slide up the mountains, leaving just a crown at the top, the slopes along popular alpine routes become a shopping ground of lost gear. Dropped alpine axes, bottles, gloves and helmets can be plucked out of alpine grass and the exposed rocks after they were lost to the void by someone up above only a season before. Clothes moved by storms and stuff sacks blown away stand out among the rocks like garbage.

After a little rinse, a trip to the local gear resale shop will turn your third ice axe that is too short for you and a few fire-blackened pots and pans into a couple of bucks in your pocket. It turned out to be a good haul and a good thing, because that brand-new technical shell you have been looking at is still $240 after the pro deal.

John Cameron writes from wild spaces and high places around the Four Corners. He hangs his hammock in aspen groves and calls it home, but his bag is never unpacked. His last story for the MG was “The Leisure Sports Roadshow,” which appeared in #179.

Like the Turtle Lake Boulders

Mug of loveI hand the CocoMocha to the petite window washer woman who can’t get enough of them and I know he’s come in. The Steaming Bean’s screen door slams behind him and he strolls in nonchalantly, making his way to the small table at the far wall, where he likes to sit facing the street, in case he sees someone he knows, where he can plug in his computer and write who-knows-what for about an hour on Thursday afternoons.

After turning on his computer, he comes to my counter, mug-with-the-missing-lid in hand.

He opens his mug that was red when he first bought it, and glances inside, gauging its dirtiness and how much he cares about new coffee mixed with old yerba matte. Handing it to me he hopes I’ll offer to clean it so he won’t have to ask. I do, of course, as I’ve seen this small but surely important macho game before. I take his mug and he quietly says, “Latte, please.”

“Sure! Let me rinse this for you.” I take the mug and smile a little too big and observe, not for the first time, his dark-like-the-canyon-walls-of-Cascade-Creek eyes. Returning my attention to matters of caffeinated importance, I notice the obligatory outdoorsy/semi-hippie sticker coming off his coffee mug. I take a little extra care as I courtesy rinse, holding the errant sticker corner on with my thumb, so as to not encourage its disintegration.

It says something about trees being the answer. Answer to what? Anything? Everything? Global Warming? To our economic problems? Shade issues in the Smelter Dog Park? The log home shortage in La Plata County?

I smile then, sincerely appreciative of anyone who bothers to bring in his/her own coffee mug to the shop. I’m an actual believer that every small recycle/reuse/reduce effort makes a difference. Call me a hippie if you want, it wouldn’t be the first time for me, a woman who was raised in Durango, graduated with a natural resources degree, has been a river guide for a decade everywhere from British Columbia to Arizona and lives out of her truck for six months a year.

But I digress. My thoughts return to him, the man who smells deliciously earthy like the Turtle Lake Boulders outside town standing on the other side of the counter. He’s got that mountain-man charm that I love. He’s wearing Carhartt pants with a flip-knife in the right pocket, and Chacos to compliment, though it’s early November in the San Juan Mountains. He’s rocking a dark simple beard (the kind that falls somewhere between intentional it-makes-me-look-rugged effort and pure unabashed apathy), small black-rimmed glasses, and he’s tall and slender. I’m, of course, a sucker for curly hair just long enough it has to be put behind his ears every time he laughs.

It seems to me he’s my favorite kind of man, the sort who would be able to survive a few nights lost in the Weminuche (not that he’d GET lost). Sure, I’ll be delighted (no, quite seriously) to make a latte in that many-stickered dirty mug. It will give me some reading material while I steam the milk, and that’s always nice. What else will I learn about him today? What is he not going to say that he would like me to know?

He likes Native Glasses. Did he get the sticker from the new glasses he bought last year at the Gardenswartz Extravaganza sale? I bet he bought more socks than he needed too, huh? I always end up with a new headlamp, for some curious reason — like a girl needs three headlamps.

OK. I like Native too. But only when they’re on Steep and Cheap and it happens to be payday tomorrow, and I can’t physically restrain myself. My debit card leaping from my wallet before I know what happened. I type the card’s numbers rapidly while saying out loud, “Sure this is justified. I really need new sunglasses and it’s such a great deal. Perfect for that snowshoeing trip around Molas next weekend … ”

What else has he got? Southwest Adventure Guides. Does he know one of their guides and he/she bestowed 12 stickers on him and told him to put them everywhere? Or did he grab a handful from the checkout counter free basket at the outdoorsy shop around the corner because he just liked the look of them, and he always sort of wished that he was a mountaineering guide?

And a Bread sticker. Well, sure. We ARE in Durango. Everyone has a Bread sticker. It’s the essential “I’m-no-tourist” branding. Could anyone live here more than a year and NOT have a Ska, Bread or Bubba’s Boards sticker on at least their car, if not also computer, Kleen Kanteen and reusable, insulated (great for cocktails on a long weekend’s Westwater trip) coffee mug?

The Bread sticker says, “Just so you know, I venture beyond the confines of 11th and 6th street main downtown drag, from time to time, and I like their parmesan asiago loaf. I consider myself a local, thank you very much. Will I be seeing you at Monday’s Pint Night at Lady Falc’s?” (Everyone knows the Thursday’s pint night is for the college kid amateurs.)

I see he’s wearing a well-used Marmot jacket. I bet he wore it hiking Engineer Mountain on his last day off, starting too late in the afternoon and coming down the hill in the dark. He was stumbling over rocks on the descent in the three-quarter-moon’s light. I imagine he’s wearing a Telluride Bluegrass Festival T-shirt under his jacket. And I try not to imagine him under that shirt. I bet he’s got climber shoulders. I feel myself blush slightly as I pull the espresso shots.

When I’m done, he takes his mug, gives me a nod in thanks and drops me a dollar in the less-than-clever-but-it-works “Tipping’s not for Cows/Support Counter Intelligence” tip jar (thank you, every bit helps, as I’ve got a cell bill due in three days).

He then gives me some hesitant and lingering kind of look. I quickly project that he’s flirting with me, but I let it go, as I’ve got a soy mocha, spicy chai and double Americano demanding to be made. (Oh, right, I’m still a career barista/boatmun here.) Maybe I’ll get on Craigslist later and drop him a “missed connections.” I’ll see if he’s a loyalist to the List like I am.

We can talk about how much cheaper rent is in Grand Junction, read each other’s haikus in the Haiku Hotel and discuss how there’s always that same $2,200, circa-1990, 18-foot bucket boat Riken for sale that no one ever seems to want.

For now though, I hope he enjoys that latte, minds the errant sticker, and maybe I’ll run into him on my Colorado Trail post-work mountain bike ride this afternoon. I’ll meet him at the bridge. He’ll bring the Pinstripes and we’ll read the Mountain Gazette out loud to each other.

Codye Reynolds lives (for the moment) in Durango, where she plays, skis and slings coffee until water season returns, sending her to Idaho rivers and career boating. This is her first story for the Gazette. 

How to Wash Dishes

How to Wash DishesThe closest liquid water to the lookout is one-and-a-half miles down the steep switchbacks at Copper Lake. Instead, gather snow from the north side of the rocky knob to melt for drinking, cooking and washing. Pull an aluminum pot and two plastic buckets from the cabinets under the eastern windows and walk the few hundred yards out to the snowfield. First, scrape away the top layer of accumulated dust, pollen and small insects. By the time summer has begun and you have resumed your duties at the lookout, the snow has metamorphosed many times over. The grains of snow are large and coarse, gently abrasive against your fingers and knees. Under the first few centimeters, beneath the detritus, the snow is compressed into ice.

Squatting on the snowfield, sunlight’s glaring reflection bouncing into your face, work methodically — scraping, digging for dirt-free snow, scooping it into plastic buckets. The pot against the snow is a metallic reverberation, the loudest sound you have heard all morning. Every so often, you look up and the world comes back into focus — a curious raven circling overhead on a backdrop of bluebird sky, the sweet footprints left by a marmot just inches from your own, the wind sweeping over the snow, cooling the back of your neck.

With the bottom of the pot, pack the snow down and, when both buckets are full, carry one in each hand back to the lookout, shoulders stretching from the weight, arms laden with a welcome obligation. The chores necessary to live here are subtle joys that transform your life from the ordinary to something like a sanctified existence.

Later, you have made your dinner, eaten your fill, and are ready to wash dishes. First, lick your plate. Run your index finger along the curves of your bowl, scrape the burned noodles from the spoon with your teeth. Then, using the mug that reminds you of your elementary school lunchroom, scoop some of the half-melted snow from the big pot into the smaller saucepan. Heat the pan until all of the snow is melted and the water is warm. Squeeze one drop of soap onto the dishrag.

As you run the soapy towel over the contours of your plate, look out the eastern windows to watch the Picket Range turn pink with alpenglow. The light on the ridges spreads along a gradient from amber to rose, and it seems impossible that you are here, at this moment, as shadows creep up hillsides and another day in these mountains comes to an end.

You cannot imagine ever forgetting the cool evening air on your face, the faint sound of the river that courses through the valley 4,000 feet below you, the amusing totter of the ptarmigan as she parades her chicks around the outside of the lookout. But you know this to be true, just as you know that someday everyone you love will die, just as you know that the volcano to the south will erupt and mudflows and ash will overrun the path you walked to get here. At some point, despite the fact that you try to remember, you will forget.

This realization brings you back to the porcelain plate in one hand, the wet dishrag in the other, the soap slick on your skin. To rinse, you must return your attention to the chore and carefully hold the plate over the wastewater bucket so as to not drip anything onto the floor. Once it is clean, balance the plate on its edge, held between the burner and the back of the range so it can dry without being disturbed by mice.

Washing dishes, collecting snow in buckets, sweeping the lookout floor of dirt tracked in on the soles of your boots — these are mundane tasks elevated to sacred acts by the 34-million-year-old rock underfoot, the fragile and tenacious heather gardens that cloak the surrounding slopes with their pink flowers, the glaciers that occupy spaces made imperceptible by their venerable ice. There are no false pretenses; you understand that what makes your actions unique has nothing to do with you — you could very well be someone else.

You are not always aware of your condition; one cannot be constantly in awe. And so, there are evenings, when the sun is casting its last rays on Mount Baker’s ice, and Mount Shuksan’s shark-finned summit is wrapped in wispy clouds flush with twilight, that you look up from a paperback and become embarrassed for your inattention, for succumbing to the simple need to remove yourself from the world, to maintain some separation. Your heart, like a bucket for gathering snow, cannot take all of it at once.

Months later, when winter has come and you have returned to your other home, the one where water flows from multiple taps and there is even an automatic dishwasher, you find yourself rinsing a plate. There are still mountains outside the windows of your kitchen, but they are less immediate and, to see them, you must look past chimneys curling smoke into the cold air and through a grid of electrical wires. You pause, take a sip from the cool memory of your mountains and then return to the task at hand, the sacred work of living.

Abigail Sussman patrols the northwestern portion of North Cascades National Park in the summer and migrates south to Gunnison, Colorado, in the winter. Her last story in MG was “Hitchhiking With Skis,” which appeared in #161.

High Water Lines

High Water Lines“You oughta go look down by the bridge — that ol’ boy got some equipment wet.”

“He don’t have much sense anyway … ”

The old-timer’s club had been at the town store, drinking coffee and waiting for the café to open, when I walked through their circle and heard these lines.

High Water

Now, at a breakfast table near mine, one asked another, “You gettin’ any work done these days?”

“No, just waitin’ for the river to drop outta my hay meadows. Gettin’ all my irrigation done though.”

“Irrigation and fertilizin’ too,” said another old man.

Sometimes, it’s best for a dirtbag writer/river rat to keep his head down and ears open for a little high-water wisdom from some long-time neighbors of the last free-flowing river in the Colorado River system.

Plates of eggs, potatoes and bacon arrived, the old men’s conversation drifted to other topics, and within hours I’m in a shuttle van cruising past the flooded property by the river bridge, marveling at the assortment of tractors, stock trailers and trucks half-submerged by the Yampa River at flood stage. I am eying the sacrifice and idly considering the decision process that led to this so-called “flood damage.”

Put it down to “don’t have much sense,” or to misplaced trust in past high-flow marks? No time for research, because (to misquote old John Muir) the river is calling, and some of us must go.

One thing about group river trips — you never know who you’re going to meet at a campfire, and I happen to be sitting by a guy named Geoff one night. He lives on a property that has river frontage in the Yampa Valley, and I make plans for a visit.

Lines

A week later, and I’m back in the valley, on a hill overlooking two ways of living with a river in flood. Describing a river’s path through the landscape, it’s natural to face downstream. River left, a mature grove of cottonwoods; river right, a few cottonwoods with their lower foliage browsed off at cow-reach. River left, no sign of erosion; river right, a desperate attempt to the river’s advance into a pasture that cattle have mown to lawn height. Left, a riverside fringe of young cottonwoods with water flowing between the trunks; right, a fleet of earth-moving equipment transports a pile of dirt to the undercut riverbank, adding to a new levee.

Right, a large sign advertising the ranch headquarters as an investment property. Left, a conservative mention that the property is owned by an organization whose mission is “to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth” — and about here I could turn this exploration into a self-righteous screed about right and left, with an I-told-you-so finger-shaking at the failings of the Old West land use model vs. the New West vision of land as “view shed” for a telecommuting populace of uplinked do-gooders. Luckily for all of us, as my new river pal Geoff showed me around the ranch on river left, the history of the Yampa Valley (and of ranching in the Interior West) cut through stereotypes of right and left, old and new ways.

The Yampa River leaves a canyon just upstream, meanders through the valley’s meadows, and picks up speed again farther west. Taking the path of least resistance, it adjusts course by testing the banks for weak spots. When high water pushes the river from its banks, old decisions pay off, or rise to haunt the current owners.

River left is the Carpenter Ranch, begun by a cattle baron from Texas and sold to the Republican scion of a shoe-factory owner from Chicago and points east. The young Republican became a homesteader, his town’s first attorney, a player in local and state politics and a lobbyist for Western ranchers’ interests during the Great Depression. This “new” Westerner eventually became the first manager of the Taylor Grazing Act, which attempted to codify the use and conservation of grazing lands managed by the federal government in the Interior West. (The Act’s successes and failures will be listed at another time.) In the decades that Ferry Carpenter owned the ranch, a decision to fence the river off from his prized cattle herd inadvertently created a home for river otters, an idyll for birdwatchers and a safety valve that allows the Yampa to renew the ranch’s bottomlands by spreading high-water flows through a healthy riverside grove of narrow-leaf cottonwoods, box elder and red-osier dogwood.

River right is a ranch that placed most of its holdings under a conservation easement, a decision that precludes the slice-and-dice hobby ranch cycle that has boomed and busted many mountain valleys of the New West. (Many readers may name a favorite valley as victim of this plague, while others will need to buy a grizzled mountain denizen a few beers for further diatribes on the subject.) Still, the river eats away at the owner’s investment, with only the newly built levee between river and pasture, in a holding pattern that sends the river’s cutting action to downstream neighbors. The few cottonwoods are aging, and no saplings crowd the riverbanks.

High Water Lines

When a river drops, it’s tempting to repair damages, congratulate winners, blame losers and ignore lessons that high water offers; but this tale of left and right riverbanks confounds sound-bite politics. The current owner of the Carpenter v on river left is the non-profit Nature Conservancy, with a stated mission to “conserve the natural and agricultural heritage of the Yampa River Valley.” The ranch on river right is run for profit, and has signed conservation easements that are monitored by the Nature Conservancy and the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife. Both sides are still working cattle ranches, creating opportunities to apply lessons that may help keep the river and its valley healthy.

In this year of flooding in the Rockies, late summer is a good time to walk the high-water lines of your favorite river. You’ll see flotsam from past decisions, in the roots of doomed trees exposed by undercut banks and ruined machinery. Look closely, though, for cottonwoods and willows sprouting from the rich soil left by receding floods. If you get to the High Country, walk a creek to timberline. Notice here, too, that high water has fed lines of new life on the banks, while setting a fresh course to follow. Talk to some neighbors about what you found, and listen for the freely shared observations of old-timers over early-morning coffee. These may cut across political lines, and could help remind us how to live beside our last free-flowing rivers.

[Writer’s note: My tour guide of the ranch on river left was Geoff Blakeslee. As the Conservancy’s “Yampa River Project Director,” it is his job to measure the pulse of the river, the valley, its inhabitants, and to show a dirtbag writer around the Carpenter Ranch. I appreciate his patience. The Ranch hosts research projects, and is open to the public for bird-watching and education. For more on Ferry Carpenter, read his “Confessions of a Maverick,” State Historical Society of Colorado, ISBN 0-942576-27-6.]

Senior correspondent B. Frank’s last piece for the Gazette was “In the Zone,” which appeared in MG #180. Author of “Livin’ the Dream,” Frank splits his time between the Four Corners and the Borderlands. 

Way of the Mountain #181

Way of the Mountain PoetryCatch two of Denver’s star performance goddesses, Zsudayka Nzinga and Bianca Mikahn, as well as rap/DJ phenom Thrax, at Shroomfest31 in Telluride, Aug. 18-21. Nice to see poetry woven into a conference on fungal allies.

Summertime. Time to take poetry outdoors. Through windows. Out into the open air. The Japanese would float poems down creeks on paper boats, catch them and read them aloud to those within earshot.

What’s a comparable ritual in our day? Trolling poems like cyber bait hoping to snare the lyric valuables on YouTube? Whatever you’re doing, take it outside. That’s the way of the mountain.

Art Goodtimes, Cloud Acre

 

Lesson

The classroom guest
instructed the students
to first remove the left,
then the right shoe,

sniff the small, fragrant interior
of each and describe
their discoveries
in three brief lines.

“Ahhhh”, said Marta, eight,
to seven and a half year old Tomas,
“this time they have sent us
a real poet”

— Barbara Ford
Poncha Springs, CO

On the Mountain
(excerpt)

…Standing on a rim of belligerent stone-
cemented sand, athwart a fast moraine, the old man
is shooting the Moon. You Bastard Moon. You,
you Bastard, he screams … encounters nothing …
late at night, the light goes black, he goes out,
and he comes back from the edge, to sing, blow his flute
… immersed in nothing … comes
back from the edge with a little something
up his sleeve, a little something to leave
for the young man on the mountain.

 — Danny Rosen
Stargazing Mage of Lithic Press
Fruita, CO

Stone Belly #5

Third day of snow, power lines
down all over the mountain.

But Stone Belly gets his juice
from other realms —
wood, hot stews, whiskey,
and fiery chili.

He hasn’t been this happy all year.

— Michael Adams
Fire Giggler
Lafayette, CO

August

august is when the monarch truly is
king, long before fall migrations begin.

august is setting records: how high
can you make your skateboard jump?

how many seconds can you hold your breath?
how many hours can you dance at the dance

marathon holding your partner close, hoping
to be the last couple to survive?

 — Dennis Fritzinger
Earth First! Journal Poetry Editor
Berkeley, CA

Do not dismiss

the many gifts
in cliff
and loam
and fellowship,

the endless shifts,

the unadorned,
the bottom line,

that little bit
of wriggling
required to bring
the little tingle
up the spine.

— Wendy Videlock
Poetry Ace
Grand Junction, CO

Footwork

There’s something satisfying when you put your feet to the ground and see places, log great distances and put up with conditions that for various reasons make you want to cry. And we salute those whose feet, or obsessions with feet, have made cautionary tales for the rest of us.

Mountain Gazette #181 Cartographic...graphic

1) Got an app for that?
Park Service officials will tell you that electronics can make stupid people incredibly brave — almost always a bad combination. Armed with smart phones, GPS technology and all the latest things to keep them interconnected, novice hikers might assume they can do incredibly ill-advised stunts and then rely on the latest upgrade from Apple to get them out of a jam. Sometimes, they call from mountaintops to request guides. In one case in Jackson Hole, a lost hiker called to ask for hot chocolate. There’s also the distraction factor. Last year, a teenager plunged 75 feet off the South Rim of the Grand Canyon after backing up too far while taking pictures. But on the flip side, the Park Service enjoys its own gadgets as well. Two years ago in Yellowstone, rangers busted a group of men who had the noble idea of urinating into Old Faithful. Thanks to a 24-hour camera that captured the fabled geyser online, aghast viewers saw every last detail and reported the urinators to the park.

2) Crazy, eh?
This June the annual Volksmarch at South Dakota’s Thunderhead Mountain drew 10,000 hikers who logged the 6.2-mile trek, where a crew is slowly blasting and chiseling the rock into a very big and controversial likeness of Crazy Horse, the Oglala Lakota chief. The piece is looking to be the world’s largest sculpture when it’s done (while our math here at MG fails to come to this conclusion, all four 60-foot heads at Mount Rushmore would fit into Crazy Horse’s head, according to literature from the Crazy Horse Memorial). The Volksmarch means a lot of feet on the ground, but it supports good things like camaraderie, fitness and food drives. The record turnout was in 1998, when 50,000 hikers made the journey.

3) We’ll get our kicks here instead, thanks
Geocachers and the hotels and restaurants that make a living off them are all pissed off at the Nevada Department of Transportation, which, in the name of safety, recently removed an estimated 1,000 caches along the Extraterrestrial Highway, a.k.a. Nevada Route 375. The agency claims the cachers were “going 2 mph on a 70 mph highway” and doing other risky things, but we figure the throngs of treasure-hunting nerds (we say that lovingly) were just poking around too close to Area 51. That said, there is a movement to send those displaced geocachers and their significant money to California and down onto Route 66.

4)There’s a reason they call ’em sneakers
In some old Denver police stories, we find the saga of a David William Christensen, who in 2002 went about buying several pairs of Keds, in itself not a crime. But three women came forward to report finding the sneakers near their homes or on their cars, each time with a sexually explicit message written on the shoes. Someone, allegedly Christensen, then broke into the women’s homes in attempts to get the shoes back and steal photos of the women, according to police. “Most people, I’m assuming, are not familiar with this fetish,” a police spokesman said, adding that this was the first Keds-specific fetish case they’d dealt with. Upon further investigation, however, Mountain Gazette staff uncovered several sneaker-fetish sites online, with Keds-fetish.com (“the world’s largest sneaker fetish community”) offering 833 high-rez thumbnail galleries. Wikibin adds that sneakers, as opposed to other shoes, offer rubber, laces and the paddling capacity that thrill-seeking guys enjoy. “Women may have a shoe fetish,” the site says, “but it is rarely sexual.”

5) And there’s more …
Speaking of foot fetishes, there’s also the case of a 27-year-old California man who faced misdemeanor battery charges and one charge of child annoyance after sucking the bare toes of unsuspecting women. He approached three women and one 15-year-old girl who were working alone in stores and told them he was a massage therapy student in need of experience.

6) Scary things afoot
Some people hike for relaxation and deepening the connection to the Mother Rock. Others do it for fitness, and in our final category, some do it because they like to get the living crap scared out of them. That can be the adrenaline that comes, for example, from navigating Angels Landing, often hailed as the most dangerous hiking trail in Utah. The 5-mile trip in Zion National Park gets extremely dicey when there’s ice or lightning, and the sliver-wide sandstone footing and sheer, 1,000-foot drop-offs on the last half-mile add a gamble that takes one or two lives each year. Note: If you routinely freak out or lose your balance, this isn’t the place to try to change that up. Fear also can come in bump-in-the-night form, as found at the Great Sand Dunes National Park, where hikers routinely see strange orbs, black triangles and red cigar shapes in the skies. The best UFO watching allegedly comes at the 750-foot Star Dune on a clear summer night. If you like it even weirder, try the Big Tree Loop Trail at Oregon Caves National Monument, where psychologist Matthew Johnson took a bathroom break off the trail and spotted a Bigfoot spying on his family from behind a tree. Researchers say this guy has a pretty solid story that just might be legit.

Tara Flanagan splits her time between Boulder and Breckenridge, where she works as an equine massage therapist. Her monthly blog, “Out There,” can be found on mountaingazette.com. 

Of Fire and Firewater: Canyoneering with a Dragon

Canyoneering with a DragonLet’s say, for the sake of argument, that someone has asked you if you would like to see him breathe fire.

And let’s say, also for the sake of argument, that this someone is not a trained circus performer.

Let’s further say that the propellant for said fire-breathing is Everclear.

And finally, let’s say that the majority of this vile substance has already made its way into the convulsing liver of the person asking the question about fire-breathing, rendering the spongy matter within his cranium less than entirely functional.

Do not say, “Yes. Yes, I would like to see you breathe fire.” Or there will be trouble.

Summer of 2002. Girl gone, down the tubes of destiny, following some other poor fool whose life intertwined with ours just a bit too familiarly. But this breakup, like others, carries that one happy side effect: reunions with the free-wheeling folk who had hovered on the periphery of one’s perceived domestic bliss all the while, waiting patiently for the inevitable dissolution of a bond whose half-life is clear to all but the schmuck in the middle of it: nasty, brutish, short.

JC, beautiful crazy bum seraphim. Calls up out of the blue with pitch-perfect timing. Has been living in a pickup truck while working construction in Las Vegas; in the Yosemite Valley climbing and living on two bucks a day; in Thailand, clinging to wildly improbable 5.13 lines by day and doing some wildly improbable partying by night, possibly involving lines of another sort; in Soldotna, Alaska, homesteading on a patch of land purchased for a song. Back in Salt Lake for a bit.

“Hey, Phillips.” The comically laid-back stone drone. “Wanna go down south and do some canyoneering?”

A bolt from the bright blue. Perfect. Yes. “Hell yes. Where?”

“Elderly Canyon.”

We converge later, pore over maps, and I realize we’re talking about Eardley Canyon, in the southern part of the San Rafael Swell. Elderly Canyon sounds better, though, bringing to mind images of walker-rocking, stoop-shouldered, fearlessly rappelling octogenarians, so we stick with the moniker. Looks like a great ramble: Five raps — none too long — a couple pools, natural anchors and (sigh) bolts galore, and a nice walk through a gradually narrowing canyon to precede the technical bits. Top it off with a night of camping and drinking at the canyon’s exit and a slog back to the car in the summer heat — foregoing the recommended shuttling of cars — to burn out the hangover, and you’ve got a winner.

A few home-rolled cigarettes later and we’ve decided this trip won’t be complete without CW. Pure brawn, pure Jedi, total abandon meets total ability. Without a hint of hesitation, he agrees to join us on this walk through the sandstone of time. He’s busy, with many irons in many fires, but he’s down as always. Born down.

Three days later, and my poor, belabored 1991 Subaru is motoring due south down Highway 6, a metal mini-prairie schooner unsteadily hurtling toward the “San Rafael Reef,” named such by the pioneer navigators whose terminology had its roots in nautical frustration. Navigational hazard? Yes. Kick-ass geological wonder? Yes. Also a nice place to forget about the vagaries of a faded relationship never to have faded (“I do”), revel in the simple power of long friendships and the uncaring, unsparing, welcoming embrace of the bare wild desert.

Food? Got it. Went to Albertson’s pre-trip, loaded up on EZ Cheez (re-christened “ain’t got shit to do with cheese”), crackers, sardines, jerky, beans-in-can, Pringles and some kind of gummy substance in the shape of a foot. Backpacking food that ain’t got shit to do with freeze-drying. Also not light or remotely compact. Also damn tasty.

Water? Some, yes. Mostly water suspended in alcohol. How better to ensure the body’s smooth functioning under relentless skies the temperature of the sun?

We don packs, JC and I having opted to use dry bags with straps for the whole journey, since there are a few swims on the route. Trouble is, these dry bags have nothing but simple shoulder straps and have absolutely no back pad, so my backpacking stove is at risk of becoming part of my anatomy by about 20 minutes into the hike, sticking violently into my short ribs and spurring me like a mad cowboy with every step. CW strides confidently and athletically ahead, flask in hand, as JC and I strike uncomfortable bargains with our onerous and ill-balanced loads.

We start down the funnel into Eardley Canyon, dubbed Straight Wash. Straight Wash is pretty straight. But, step by wavering step, we pad further into the unfathomable stretch of geologic time, entering the contouring confines of Eardley. We peel back layers of the Earth’s wild chronological ride as we descend into the canyon’s belly. Touching the striations of the rock delivers a sensation not unlike plugging into a wall socket with one’s bare hand: there is an electric resonance to the desert, a buzz of sheer power that is palpable if one sees and hears its language of rock and blood. Ed Abbey’s bedrock and paradox: A desert is a place of essence, an oasis of pure life in its alternate yet simultaneous valences of short time and death and love.

Friends walking together down a canyon make a music surely the rock can hear. We joke, remembering crazy trips while creating another. We take breaks, washing down mountain ranges of ain’t got shit to do with cheese atop crackers with Jim Beam and, in saner moments, gulps of pure agua. Hand-rolled cigarettes complete the assault on our health. Yet the camaraderie and joie de vivre pulsing through us form a powerful antidote to this fusillade of chemicals.

As the canyon narrows more, we reach the first rappel. The pool into which the rappel leads seems pretty shallow, as does the angle of the pour-over. We hem and haw a bit, fussing with gear and donning wetsuits. JC begins to run rope through anchors, but CW gives us — and safety — the middle finger and slides down, wetsuit-clad-ass first, relying on the braking force of friction alone, and soon emerges from the pool’s far side, unscathed, beaming and hurling anatomically- and politically-incorrect insults at us for our prudent hesitation.

So we slide.

Note: Don’t bring a nice, expensive wetsuit on a canyoneering trip. Bring an old, sun-bleached, natty one, sold on eBay by shark-bit surfers and widows and widowers of overbold canyoneers. Or rent, making sure to practice a few times before its return the unknowing shoulder shrug indicating your lack of responsibility for the suit’s deteriorated condition.

A delightful — if frigid — series of pools ensues, and we follow the course of the canyon’s creator, water, as it slides, molecule by molecule, from pothole to pothole, caressing and carrying bits of sand inexorably down, sculpting a gravity-driven architecture of geomorphic chance.

“Christ, it’s cold,” I chatter, hip-deep in the third pool. The deep shiver — full-body, utterly involuntary — of the early stages of hypothermia is part and parcel of this oddball endeavor of following the meanderings of a slot canyon, come hell or high water. But we move steadily down, emerging eventually, gratefully, into a broad, sandy and sunlit wash.

Jubilation! We re-warm, laying out piles of gear, exposing it and ourselves to the desert sun’s desiccating touch. JC produces what remains of the alcohol: equal sloshings of Beam and Everclear. Plenty, as it turns out, to catalyze a fair bit of irresponsible backcountry behavior. A big-ass fire, for starters. True, we burn everything to ash and scatter the remains of the night into the next morning, but we scour the area of damn near half a cord of deadwood over the course of the evening.

It’s maybe 11 p.m. and we’ve predictably plowed straight through pleasant buzz and into ham-fisted, twisted drunk. In a moment of lull between truth-bending, one-upping tales of exploits both vertical and horizontal, we stare collectively into the Paleolithic television before us. That’s when a particular flame-tipped juniper bough catches JC’s attention. I can only imagine the 190-proof math going on in his head as he cast his gaze back to the near-spent bottle of distilled evil.

“Hey, guys, want to see me breathe fire?”

To which, as you have been informed, we answered in the affirmative.

A quick pull off the plastic jug and JC raises the flaming branch to his stubbled face. The ensuing arc of fire has impressive height and volume. These qualities are substantially enhanced by the mini-self-immolation CW and I are witnessing. Seems a fair bit of hooch dribbled down JC’s carpet of facial hair, igniting and taking full advantage of the extra fuel.

“Feels hot,” JC says, matter-of factly, sprawling into the sand and dousing the conflagration of follicle and epidermis.

Blistered up real quick. Sunscreenless seven-hour slog the next day didn’t help matters. JC’s attempt to impersonate a dragon hadn’t ended well. He was staying with his parents for the nonce, so, teenager-like, he invented a plausible story to save his mother from the reality of his desert debauchery. Upon hearing the story, she was ready to sue a certain maker of camp stoves that require priming, JC having pinned the rap on a cranky Optimus or Svea.

JC carries just the slightest of scars, amazingly, from his circus act at Eardley’s terminus. But it is there nonetheless. The scar traces a moment, written into flesh, acting as an exclamation point of experience: the fun and folly of a fire-lit dance with firewater.

And the best trips are the ones that leave scars and spin stories, don’t you think?

Aaron Phillips teaches Environmental Writing at the University of Utah. His last story, “Cumulus Dentatus, or Why I Believe in Winter Storm Warnings,” appeared in Mountain Gazette #176.  

A Spiritual Journey of 43 Steps

1

The airplane is not much bigger than a cigarette, and its wings appear to be fastened with staples, like an art project my kids would bring home from school, but we’re spiritual people, believers in the Great Journey, and so we cross the tarmac with our backpacks and bpa-free water bottles, heads bowed, as if in prayer. Jillian, the heiress, waddles like a penguin in black polypropylene. Charlotte, my old college friend, flip-flops, her toes pedicured cherry red. I am wearing Harley boots for courage and an amulet of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which I rub for luck whenever I fly. Up the wobbly steps we climb. Every seat is both window and aisle. We sit, squeezing our knees. The Xanax-coffee buzz I am nursing fills me with equal parts optimism and apathy. I no longer worry I will die in an airplane. I still worry I may die in a sweat lodge, but I am, as the cliché goes, living in the moment. Perhaps, already, I have absorbed a few lessons of Native American spirituality.

“Where’s Taliyah?” I ask.

Taliyah is the medicine woman who will lead us in Native American practices. Charlotte points ahead to a stocky woman with a blue down coat draped over her head, like a comforter thrown over a lamp.

“What’s she doing?” I ask.

Charlotte says: “She doesn’t like to fly.”

2

It was Charlotte’s idea to sign up for a women’s hiking trip run by a wilderness tour company with a Native American bent. Most of these “journeys” last a week, but we working mothers want Spiritual Enlightenment delivered over a four-day weekend. In the end, only three women signed up, perhaps because, at $1,400, the trip is expensive, a splurge by any definition. I swing the finances by getting a grant to write an essay about the trip. This is the academic version of singing for your supper.

Fiona, the company’s founder, is traveling with us. She’s a petite woman with wild brown hair and a soft voice and the biggest watch I have ever seen. She looks like she’s about to cry even when she’s smiling. Like Charlotte and me, Fiona is originally from Connecticut, but has washed up in the Midwest. Born near an Indian reservation, Fiona has recently embraced Native American spirituality. Around her neck, she wears a small leather pouch, like she’s going to pay for our gas with trading beads.

The plan is to fly into Cortez, Colorado, and drive to Canyonlands National Park in Utah, where we will camp and hike and learn cool stuff from Taliyah and come back liking our lives, our husbands and ourselves, a great deal more than we do right now. The best part of the trip is that I have not had to plan it. I haven’t even looked at a map. A mother can get like this. Most days, mothers operate like high-speed modems. Has the wet laundry moved to the dryer? Can Madeline spell paleontologist? Did Lincoln wipe his butt? Most days, I am so tired, I don’t want to know anything about anything. Lucky for me, I am a college professor.

3

The day before leaving Indiana, I got into a fight with my husband. Sometimes I wish Peter would have an affair or lose our life savings in a Ponzi scheme, if only to create fresh drama. Instead, we fight the same fight: I accuse him of not doing enough around the house and he says I do a lot compared to most men and I say but I do more, and he says You need to relax and I say I could relax if you would do more. Here’s what set it off: It was nine o’clock at night and I was helping Madeline with her spelling and Peter had been away for three days and I was exhausted, my eyes raccoon-like, and Peter was lying in bed, on the bed, ankles crossed, reading about Tutankhamen, the Egyptian boy prince. The way I see it, if my husband really loved me he would say: “Darling, let me take over. Take an aromatherapy bath. Pick out a sweater from the Sundance catalogue. Pour yourself a glass of Chardonnay.” That he didn’t say any of this made me feel unloved. When I feel unloved, I become unlovable, petulant, a shrew, slamming around the house muttering: No one picks up anything but me. Peter shouts easily, but recovers just as fast. I simmer, like a pot of black beans. Long after we made up, his last cutting blast hovered over my head like a toxic inversion. “You need to get away. Just go. Get out of here.”

4

Another, far more serious thing, happened right before I left Indiana. Near Sedona, Arizona, three people died in a sweat lodge during a “Spiritual Warrior” retreat led by New Age guru James Arthur Ray. Armed with his motto, “Create Harmonic Wealth in All Areas of Your Life,” Ray built a self-help empire so successful followers paid $9,000 to attend his retreat in Angel Valley, a Sedona center offering vortex experiences, angel connections and crystal skull meditation. Earlier that week, Ray dispatched followers into the desert for a “vision quest,” a 36-hour solo without food or water. When the exhausted travelers returned, they crammed into a small wooden structure covered with blankets and plastic while Ray’s “Dream Team” hauled in steaming rocks. People vomited and fainted in the heat. A few crawled to safety. Ray, meanwhile, sat outside in the shade, periodically rousing himself to exhort his disciples: “You’re not going to die. You may think you are, but you’re not.” But three people did. James Shore, 40, and Kirby Brown, 38, lost consciousness and could not be revived. Liz Neuman, 49, fell into a coma and died nine days later. That this supposedly religious ceremony ended in three fatalities was not only tragic, but ironic. The goal of a sweat lodge, according to Ray, is for participants to experience spiritual rebirth.

5

Our toy plane has Tourette’s. Hipishly, we twitch 25,000 feet over the Rockies, quivering above snow-covered ridges that shine in the sun like diamonds or chrome. This is the view I imagine God sees, the heavenly vantage point that reassures him he is an artist of divine proportion. I debate a second Xanax, but decide it will be hard to hike if I am sleeping. Over the engine roar, we chat about our relative fitness and how Jillian and I will keep up with Charlotte, whose personal trainer calls her “the machine.”

“I’ve been in training,” Jillian says. “I can do plank pose for a minute.”

Charlotte does her best to look impressed.

Jillian adds: “I count fast.”

Jillian is a dozen years older than Charlotte and me. She’s 57. Her graying hair is buzzed into a crew cut and she wears thick black glasses and the largest watch I have ever seen before I saw Fiona’s. She’s tall and thin, twitchy like a broom. Her patent-leather black sneakers have a separate compartment for her big toe, like mittens for your feet. I like Jillian right away because I gravitate toward people who complain, exaggerate and prefer chocolate to hiking.

Jillian extracts something from her gear. “Ladies. I brought my eyebrow tweezers for the trip home in case we need some fluffing. A few plucks can make you feel like a princess.”

6

During the flight, we trade family news. Charlotte tells us her in-laws are getting divorced because her father-in-law had an affair.

“How old is he?” I ask. It seems wrong for couples to divorce past 60.

Charlotte rolls her eyes. “Seventy-one.”

“You’d think he’d have given up on affairs.”

Jillian chimes in. “Some people do. I have a male friend who is 75. One day he told me: ‘You know, Jillian. I’ve outlived my dick.’”

7

As we fly past long stretches of brick-colored rock, I do not miss my children, but I think of my children. I remember, with some satisfaction, that, while Peter was lying in bed  — on the bed — I taught Madeline that the geological formation that I am now admiring is not spelled Plato.

8

In Cortez, we met Chance, our guide, our cook. Chance is 36, but looks 26. He’s thin and tan wears a hand-knit hat with dangling ties. Chance says a lot with his hands. What Chance says with his hands is that nothing matters much or rather everything matters, but we’re not going to get upset about any one particular thing. Chance conveys this easiness by turning his hands, palms ups, palms down, like he’s cooking a grilled cheese sandwich that will taste good no matter which side lands on top. It’s easy to look at Chance and believe you’re wasting your life.

Chance asks if anyone needs anything before we head into the wilderness.

“Breath mints,” Jillian says.

Chance nods, poker-faced. He is, I can see, a professional.

“Breath mints. OK. Anything else?”

9

Chance drives his truck. The women climb into a rented SUV. Fiona drives, mom-like, up front with Taliyah. The paying customers, the kids in carpool, are stuffed in back.

“Fiona,” Jillian calls up. “Will we see wildlife?”

“Sure,” Fiona says. She wants her clients to be happy.

“Rattlesnakes?”

“Too cold.”

“Mountain lion?”

Fiona smiles into the rearview mirror. “That’s doubtful.”

Taliyah weighs in. Her deep voice carries the authority of a grandfather clock. “Be careful what you ask for. Be very, very careful.”

“OK,” Jillian says. “We will be precise. We will ask to see a mountain lion at 30 yards, heading the opposite direction, but still offering us a full frontal view.”

Jillian changes subjects: “Did you hear the governor of Texas wants to secede? I say ‘Go for it.’ Take the Bushes and the border guards.”

Charlotte gazes out the window. “That would be great.”

10

We drive past fields of mustard-colored grasses and purple hills, past silos and grain elevators and dead sunflowers that look like charred bodies from a war. The sky is doing that big-sky thing like it’s a huge bowl over our heads, the color of washed-out denim. It’s October and the cottonwoods are golden chandeliers, shimmering in the breeze. In the distance loom red-rock formations, plateaus and buttes. We pull off at Indian Creek, a Mecca for crack-rock climbing. Climbers scale a sheer six-story face of Wingate sandstone. They cling, in various stages of ascent, neon, bug-like, dangling, debating where to place their foot, a hand. We stare transfixed. We are watching ourselves.

11

Fiona stops for lunch at Newspaper Rock, a collection of Anasazi Indian paintings engraved on a 10-foot blackened boulder. Taliyah points out The Four Winds, the serpent, the medicine wheel, the ladder to the spiritual world, the robot-looking man whose antennae show he has attained a high state of spiritual awareness.

Taliyah says she’s from the bear tribe, but she reminds me of a badger. She has a crew and a long braid that reaches down her back. Her skin is the color of coffee with cream, and her eyes are small and watchful. She moves slowly and wears a lot of clothes. It is hard to imagine her being a girl, skinny and running. She likes to laugh, although I don’t pick up on this until later because most people I know with a sense of humor don’t whisper, while admiring petroglyphs , “Oh my God. There is a God. The Great Mystery.”

I want to ask Taliyah about her life, but am too shy. Next to her, I feel spoiled and white and worry I’m going to say something stupid and reveal my inner Pocahontas.

On the back of his truck, Chance spreads out lunch: organic chips, tomatoes, cheese, vegetarian baloney.

“Where’s Taliyah?” I ask.

We spot her blue down coat. She appears to be singing to the toilets.

“She is collecting seeds,” Fiona says.

I nod, as if I had been contemplating a similar harvest.

We stand in the parking-lot sunshine, happyhappyhappy to have made our escape. We’re in the Southwest. We are independent women. We can do the plank pose for a minute. I look into the fields of sage and piñon and soak up the emptiness. Taliyah reappears, saying: “If you see me spacing out, I’m focusing on the rocks and listening to the old ones.”

And I think: If you see me spacing out, I’m spacing out.

12

We camp beneath giant rocks that look like mushrooms. The scenery is stunning but we’re equally excited about the Port-o-Potty. It’s 4 o’clock and we rush to set up tents. Jillian can’t wait to decorate. Charlotte can’t wait to play Kumbaya on her guitar. Taliyah stares at the ground and says, “You can’t tell me where to camp. I need to feel it.”

13

When the tents are up, Taliyah shows us her seeds. Fiona asks how she will know how to plant them. “We will listen to them and they will tell me,” Taliyah says. “The knowledge is in the hands of all that went before.”

Such earnestness makes me feel squeamish, like a teenager watching a sexy movie with her parents. We never went to church when I was a kid, and I never gave religion much thought until my mother’s breast cancer returned for the third time. We were living in Spain and I started to drop into empty churches and gaze up at the Virgin Mary, imagining my prayers rising into the heavens like cigarette smoke. All over Spain, I tossed Euros in fountains, lit candles, pleaded my case. It didn’t do much good. My mother still died at age 68. She was a healthy woman, a practicing lawyer, an ocean swimmer. She was not ready to go. My nieces, good Episcopalians, worry they won’t see Gran in heaven because she didn’t believe in God. My Dad, now in his seventh decade, is suddenly curious about religion. “I’m waiting for you to take the first step,” he says. He keeps asking me if I’ve thought about going to that nice stone church on the corner. Whenever I walk by it, I debate going in, but the doors are locked, and I don’t have much interest in sitting through a Sunday sermon. I just want to sit.

Sometimes, I think I’ve founded my own religion, one that has no organization. I take a trip. Stuff happens. I write down what people say. Usually I find a bit of God buried in the words, like a palimpsest, writing under the writing, meaning under the words. When I travel, I see things more clearly, feel things more deeply. It’s like I take my heart out of my chest and let it breathe.

14

Chance fixes dinner. Having a man in coveralls cook for us gives us an erotic charge. Before dinner is even served, we all have crushes.

15

As the sun sets, I walk out to the gravel road and admire the vastness of the desert. The quiet is stunning. The ground is crusted. The rocks are not moving. The rocks have never moved. The rocks will have the last word. The sun drops below the hills. The air thickens. The red earth glows. Jillian and Charlotte approach on the road.

“You almost expect to see dinosaurs,” Charlotte says. “The earth has gone through so many changes. We’re just a blip, a nanosecond.”

Jillian looks grim. “But think of all the terrible things we’ve done to the planet.”

“Yet, ultimately, I feel hopeful,” Charlotte says. “At least in our lifetimes, our children’s lifetimes, this will all still be here.”

Jillian sets her chin against the cold air. “So long as we get rid of Texas.

16

Charlotte and I have been friends since college. Both of our mothers died of breast cancer. We both weathered infertility, although I got off easier than Charlotte, who lost two six-month-old babies in utero before having two beautiful children through a surrogate mother. We were supposed to go to our 20th college reunion together, but Charlotte went into rehab instead. I should have seen it coming. Her father drank himself to death. Those last years, he holed up on Cape Cod, a widower, dying of cancer of the esophagus, shooting bourbon into his feeding tube. Charlotte’s youngest sister, on more than one occasion, discovered him collapsed in his own excrement and vomit.

Such horror is hard to fathom when I look at Charlotte, with her bright blond hair and blue eyes. Charlotte is a feminist and a terrific mother and fierce competitor and I would go anywhere with her — except possibly on vacation — because I am looking at four days of camping without a drink. This bothers me more than it should. Most nights, when the kids are bickering and the pasta starts to boil, I pour a glass of wine, and stop at that, but I’d rather climb in the bottle and swim laps. Packing for the trip, I debated stashing mini-bottles in my duffle, but didn’t, because smuggling booze on a Native American retreat would confirm I have a drinking problem or am a complete asshole.

While Charlotte plays guitar, Chance gives us a tip for keeping warm at night: Don’t hold your pee. Otherwise your body wastes energy warming your urine, energy that could be better spent heating your body.

I wonder how many other ways I have wasted my energy. And, if I hadn’t, how warm I might be.

17

Taliyah rolls her eyes when someone brings up the horrors of Sedona. What she doesn’t say, but what I sense, is that the New Age movement is just another form of white exploitation. Now that we’ve taken Indian land, we covet their religion, pervert it into a caricature for a profit. As if you could learn Native American spirituality from a white guy with a website and a mansion in Beverly Hills.

The oddest part of the Angel Valley story was the ages of victims: 38, 40, 49. They were not young and foolish. They were not old and frail. They were middle-aged. Our age. The age when you should know better. You could dismiss their seeking as just another mid-life crisis, but I bet this shorthand doesn’t do them justice. I imagine they wanted to test their mettle. They wanted to better understand themselves. They wanted to have a spiritual experience, to feel just a little bit happier.

Over appetizers, Taliyah teaches us our first Native American expression: “Giwabna,” which means: “Who’s to say?”

I try it out different ways. “Who’s to say?” “Who is to say?” The phrase grows on me. It seems to concede how little we know. It also feels democratic, like anyone could be God, but it’s probably not your turn today. Taliyah tramps around the campsite, staring into the sand. “I can tell my ancestors walked this land.” This is such a great expression I can’t wait to use it the next time I am Greenwich, Connecticut.

18

We picnic in the dark. I’m wearing so many layers, my elbows no longer bend. Taliyah gives us a sweat-lodge primer. The sweat lodge, she says, is a symbol of the womb, a place of rebirth. The four doors represent the four directions. The fire is the Grandmother and represents the breath of life. There are four rounds, one for each sacred herb: tobacco, sage, cedar and sweet grass. Native people sprinkle tobacco as a way to give thanks. You put tobacco down to express gratitude to the elders and the earth. Pick a flower, put tobacco down. Pick up firewood, put tobacco down. I’ve been awake since 4 a.m. and Taliyah’s monotone makes me sleepy. Her words blur together, something about the stomach being the center of intuition. Something about the sweat lodge being a time to listen to the small, still voice within.

Ever practical, I ask how long the sweat lodge will last.

Taliyah says it will last as long as it needs to last.

This is not what I wanted to hear. I imagine myself, sweating in my Speedo, dizzy, claustrophobic, wet, crawling into a sleeping bag shaped like a coffin.

Charlotte’s face flickers in the firelight.

Taliyah pauses, and Charlotte says: “I’m in.”

19

After dinner, to warm up, we walk down a road going nowhere. Nylon swishes between our thighs. The stars are bright and scattered. Jillian keeps bumping into me in a way I find reassuring. We’re talking sweat lodges. Jillian says: “I would hate to have you two come back and say ‘It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever done in my life.’”

Charlotte says: “She had me with the small quiet voice within.”

Jillian says: “I like to be respectful of other traditions, but I do not like to be cold.”

As usual, I am ambivalent. Maybe something amazing would happen, a vision, a purge. “Maybe we can wrap it up in a half hour?”

“Maybe.” Jillian glares at Charlotte. “If some of us can keep our prayers short.”

20

I can’t sleep. When Yahoo weather said it would be 40 degrees at night in Utah, it didn’t seem so bad. Indiana was 40 degrees at night. What I’d forgotten is that when it’s 40 degrees in Indiana, we sleep in a house. Charlotte snores. Jillian thrashes. It occurs to me a bed is a beautiful thing. Perhaps this sort of gratitude is holy. I debate taking a Xanax. I dream of mini-bottles. I hoard my urine, then drag myself up to pee in the grass. (The Port-o-Potty is so far away, it might as well be in Texas.) A million stars stare down at me, whispering in the cold: Who are you? What are you worth?

21

In the morning, we compare notes.

Taliyah says: “I smelled wild urine around my tent.”

Jillian says: “That was Charlotte.”

22

As the sun rises over the rocks, Charlotte does odd stretches she calls pelvis tippers. Jillian complains about her IT bands. I have no idea what either one of them is talking about. In Indiana, we don’t have as many names for the things that ail us. We don’t have as many cures either. Charlotte has a personal trainer, a guitar teacher, a nanny, a yoga teacher, a house cleaner, a life coach, and her AA meetings. I have white wine.

23

We ready for the hike. Taliyah stays home because her chest feels tight. Chance puts on his Virgin of Guadalupe cap. This ups his coolness factor exponentially. Jillian wears four layers topped off with a black puffer. She’s still cold. Chance’s poop kit hangs on the line, untouched. Charlotte asks if we know how pelicans die. We don’t. She says they go blind by diving. I say I don’t get it. Charlotte says they can’t see the fish and starve to death. And I say, I see.

24

The sun is up. Everything gleams. Jillian rubs sunblock on her ears. She takes a breath mint, rearranges her gloves and dickey. Her backpack is full of clothing. “Let’s face it, ladies. We have no idea what nature has in store for us.” I look up. The sky is a perfect blue. Jillian says: “Now a drink of water, and I will reveal a new layer.”

25

We set out on an 11-mile hike. The land stretches before us, a million shades of ochre and rust. “The machine” is soon out of sight, and we break off into two groups. I will catch up with Charlotte. Jillian, Chance and Fiona will pick up the rear. We will meet at Confluence Overlook, where the Green and Colorado rivers join. With each step, the rocky landscape turns more surreal. There are rocks like pinball bumpers and rocks like wedding cakes. There are Whoopie Pie rocks and drip-castle rocks. The rocks start to feel like people. The rocks start to feel like God. This is not a new idea. The practice of worshipping rocks is as old as Stonehenge. Even my mother, the good Yankee, used to worship rocks up in Maine, bending down after her swims to collect gray rocks with white rings around them. She believed ringed rocks were lucky.

We walk. Time slows. This always happens when I travel and I never understood why until I heard this piece on NPR. Basically, the brain has to work harder to remember new experiences. The smell of a Paris bakery. The sunset at Key West. In new places, your perceptions are more layered and startling and rich, which makes time seem to pass more slowly. This explanation scientifically confirmed the paradox I’ve long intuitively felt: the best way to slow time is to keep moving.

26

When we arrive at the overlook, the Green River is green and the Colorado River is brown and they join together 1,000 feet below us in a paisley swirl like desert sauces on a fancy plate. When Jillian crests the ridge, we clap. She says it’s a good thing she has a body like a gazelle. She says she’s “yummy tired.” Chance makes lunch, then sits on his haunches, like a cricket, and cleans our bowls with dirt. We coo about how delicious everything is. Chance says hunger is the best sauce.

Jillian yawns. “I hope I can stay up tonight for Kumbaya.”

27

The way back, Charlotte and I use our walking sticks like ski poles and slalom over the rocks. We feel light and strong and free. It seems a safe place to confess my worries about drinking. Charlotte ticks off warning signs. If you make rules for yourself, like I will only drink on weekends. (Yes, I do this.) If you can’t imagine doing certain activities without drinking (English Department parties, check. Mother-in-law visits, check, check). If you experience negative consequences, like a blackout or DUI, but keep drinking. (Thank God, not yet.) “You’re probably OK,” Charlotte says. “You’re probably just a stressed-out mother.”

28

Charlotte and I bask on a limestone boulder waiting for the others. A half-hour later, Jillian’s grinning face appears on the horizon.

“Did you see any animals?” Charlotte asks.

“We saw a squirrel.” Jillian turns to me. “How’s the essay?”

I shrug. I have no ideas about an essay. Jillian says: “I hope there is someone in the essay who had a lot of clothing, and then one day didn’t bring it all, and everyone thought she was hearty and stalwart.”

And I say: “I’m sure there’s room for a character like that.”

29

Chance cooks Mexican food. We eat like wolves. After dinner, we build a fire and Taliyah leads a prayer meditation where we pass around a clay pipe and share the thoughts that lie close to our hearts. I babble something about how great it is to spend time with Charlotte. Jillian says her light grows dim when she doesn’t get out in nature. Charlotte talks about finding her inner voice. Fiona confides that her husband doesn’t understand her need to journey and build her business. The funny thing is that I grew up in Connecticut and Charlotte grew up in Connecticut and Fiona grew up in Connecticut. I wonder if women from Connecticut spend their lives trying to fill an emptiness they cannot name.

Taliyah reminds us there is no right way or wrong way to enter the sweat, so long as your intention is pure. Then she drops the bomb: Men and women generally don’t share a sweat lodge, she says, because they are often so moved they orgasm.

30

After dinner, we take our ritual walk. We look like padded robots. Our breath is visible. We’re talking sweat lodges.

Jillian says: “I don’t want to feel like a voyeur. This is important to her, but it’s not important to me.”

I say: “I don’t know who I would be praying to. My ancestors? Her ancestors? Her ancestors don’t want to hear from a white girl from Connecticut.” What I don’t say, but what I also worry about, is that my intentions are not sufficiently pure. For this same reason, I never take Communion. The truth is that I don’t know if my intentions will ever be pure enough to join someone else’s religion.

Charlotte says: “We’re going to have to say something.”

“Maybe we could do a mini-version?” I suggest. “Like, change the entire Native American tradition to meet our needs.”

Jillian nods: “Right, after we get rid of Texas.

Charlotte says, “We’ll just be honest.”

“How?” I ask. I loathe confrontation and will endure almost anything to avoid it.

Charlotte says, “I’ll talk to Fiona.”

“Oh my God.” I grab Charlotte’s arm, suddenly remembering something. “You remember Jack?”

“Your old boyfriend?”

“Right. I’d completely forgotten. His stepfather died in a sweat lodge.”

31

My tent is crisp in the cold and smells like sweat. From the blackness, Jillian screams.

“There’s a spider in my tent!”

“Kill it,” Charlotte yells back.

“How?”

“A book.”

“I want to read the book.”

“A shoe.”

“Yes, but . . . “ Frantic slaps. Silence.

Jillian’s voice rises through the dark: “I have killed an innocent.”

32

In the morning, Charlotte talks to Chance who talks to Fiona. The sweat lodge is canceled. While this is a relief — no death, no orgasm — there’s also little chance for a religious epiphany. This confirms what I have long suspected: Faith is just more hard work you have to muddle through on your own.

33

We replace the sweat lodge with a marathon hike. Charlotte maps 12 miles. She wants to do more, but looks at me and says: “Don’t let me be the person I am.” Chance will come with us. The rest plan a shorter hike. We’ll meet at 5:30, before the rain is expected to start. At the entrance of the trailhead parking lot, a sign explains the amazing geological formations. “The needles were formed by a series of fractures in the rock surface causing movement along a deep underlying layer of salt. Erosion by rain, water, and snow along the fracture lines resulted in a row of columnar rocks . . .”

“I don’t get it,” I pout. I resent how even basic science eludes me.

Jillian peers into my face, calm as Buddha. “Don’t worry. I don’t get it either. You don’t have to get it.”

34

After 20 minutes, Charlotte debates leaving her jacket hidden behind a rock for the trip back. “Guide Rule #2,” Chance says. “Never get separated from your gear.”

“What’s Guide Rule #1?” I ask.

“Carry everything. No, Guide Rule #1 is smile.”

As we walk, we ply Chance for guiding war stories. Mostly, he’s too nice to oblige: “The bad news makes the headlines.” We press harder. He concedes he’s had difficult clients, but “I try to see those moments as opportunities for compassion.”

I turn around and roll my eyes.

Chance laughs. Finally, he shares one of his favorite rescue stories about a guy who banged his knee up badly in Greenland. Chance floated him up with painkillers. At a resting point, Chance asked the blitzed-out man how he was doing. The guy replied: “Man, I can only hear you when I take my sunglasses off.”

35

For lunch, Chance pops a can of kippers. I plant the oily fish on a Wasa cracker and taste the earth. Chance says: “I have another can of kippers if they change your life.”

I look up. A fish rock is swimming over a mountain.

I say: “I’m glad we’re not rushing back for the sweat lodge.”

Chance says: “This is enough religion for me.”

36

All day, we walk. I like the simplicity of this mission. We are not multi-tasking. I am not trying to be a teacher and a writer and a mom and a housewife and a vixen. We pass a chef’s-hat rock, a Dutch-wooden-shoe rock and a rock that looks like a little boy’s penis. I am getting tired, delirious, but don’t complain because Chance runs these trails. Chance once ran across the Grand Canyon, rim-to-rim, 44 miles, 11,000 feet of gain. Temperatures topped 102 degrees.

“I like to think it was pretty worthy,” he says. “But I don’t believe in bragging rights. Don’t tell me about the crazy thing you did. Tell me how much fun you had.”

37

Charlotte disappears again, but Chance sticks with me. I have warned him I have no sense of direction. He says: “I am going to powder my nose. If you get lost, sit down.”

“Sit down?”

“Guide Rule #3.”

The path splits. I take the high road. I decide to take a pee and weave off the path. Suddenly there is no path. I pee, start walking, feel lost, sit down.

Ten minutes later, Chance finds me.

“I don’t want to lead,” I tell him. “I just want to follow.”

We pass a decapitated-Cinderella rock.

Chance says, “The Hopi say every step is a prayer.”

38

The day passes. My feet hurt. My back hurts. My bunion is throbbing. I feel righteous. I feel holy. I need to take a shit. This need to take a shit soon replaces all thoughts of poetry or God. We’re on our eighth mile and I am a desert zombie. I need a breath mint. I’m thirsty but don’t dare drink because if I pee other things may emerge that I am unprepared to deal with. I see giant faces with cracked patrician noses and cursed plants and the oncoming grayness of nighttime. We are running late. Chance picks up the pace. At this moment, I realize the most humble of truths: the grand challenge of my journey is not whether I will die in a sweat lodge, but whether I will poop in my pants. My eyes are fixed on the back of Chance’s calves. His muscles pump, his veins pump. I am not sure why I don’t fall or even why I am here, in the middle of my life, in the middle of the desert. I wanted to test my mettle. I wanted to better understand myself. I wanted to have a spiritual experience, to feel just a little bit happier. Voices circle my head like hawks. Don’t let me be the person I am. I will take a drink of water and reveal a new layer. Keep your prayers short. You don’t have to get it. Carry everything. No, smile. I can only hear you when I take my sunglasses off. Every step is a prayer. If you get lost, sit down. When they can’t see the fish, the pelican starve. This is enough religion for me.

39

From a bluff, we see a road. Then, a car. Then Jillian, dressed in black tights and what appears to be a yarmulke. We whoop. They wave. I see a Port-o-Potty, but it might be a mirage.

40

On the drive home, Jillian reports: “We saw a whole gaggle of Germans, a dead cow carcass and a squirrel. I wouldn’t call it an abundance of wildlife, but it’s something.”

Chance says: “Call National Geographic.”

The moon is fattening up. The sunset is a pink puff.

Jillian says: “If it rains, we’re all getting in the truck with Chance.”

Chance says: “That’s a different fee entirely.”

41

The last night, we hang out in a cave. Now that we’ve gotten the hang of outdoor living, no one wants to leave. I haven’t showered in three days and no longer care. It’s my turn to wash dishes. Squatting, I scrub plates, but the smoke makes me cry, and my tears loosen my sun block, which makes me cry more, and I am laughing and crying and I remember one of Chance’s mountaineering sayings: Do it wrong, do it twice. I decide this is my new motto for marriage. Fiona says we lucked out on the weather. Jillian looks into the starless sky and says: “It’s raining somewhere.”

42

Taliyah asks what we will take with us from our journey. Fiona says she has learned she needs to be true to herself. Jillian says her dim light is shining brighter. Charlotte says that things happen the way they are supposed to if you don’t clutch or panic. I say I’ll have to think about it. There are so many things. Taliyah says, “Being in the hands of the blessed one, I am at peace.”

An hour later, I think of what I should have said: Giwabna.

Who’s to say?

43

The next morning, we pack up, feeling chummy and wistful. As we drive out of the campsite, something feels wrong. My notebook is full. We’ve taken from the land, but given nothing back. I realize this is the one lesson of Native American spirituality I can take with me, a gift from Taliyah, a treasure I will keep in my pocket like a ringed stone from the beach. I say to Fiona, “Before we go, we should put some tobacco down.” Fiona stops the car. We climb out. Fiona taps tobacco from her pouch into our palms. We stand on the dirt road. The air smells like sage. We squint into the hard sun, and everything looks gold and shimmery, like visions, like heat, and I think of my ancestors, my mother, my grandmother, and I think of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and wonder if she sees me, and I think about what it means to be a mother, a woman, trying to have a job, raise a family, keep a husband, build an inner life, and how the bottle won’t do and the sweat lodge won’t do and how we have to improvise, leave home —  Just go. Get out of here — find our truths in the desert. The sun is so bright I can barely see. I release a dusting of tobacco, watch it float away on the warm, dry breeze. It feels like sprinkling fairy dust. It feels like spreading ashes. My heart burns. I smile at my friends. We are women, putting tobacco down, living on the edge of magic.

Lili Wright’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek and literary journals like The Normal School, The Florida Review and Cream City Review. Author of the memoir, “Learning to Float,” Wright teaches creative writing at DePauw University in Indiana. This is her first story for the Gazette.