Friday, September 27, 2013

Hollerin' Down the Canyon

Over the summer we went camping in the desert. I love that I didn't even have to leave the state of Washington to do this. We camped near Sun Lake on the Columbia Plateau, nestled in a rugged canyon that, according to the handy visitor's center tableau, used to be an extremely large, prehistoric waterfall.

We loaded up the car and crossed the Cascades and emerged in what looked like another planet. I do not keep it much of a secret that I love the desert and my phone is filled with picture after picture of rocks and tumbleweeds taken with breathless glee out the window of a moving car. I could not look enough at it. It was so vast and beautiful and foreign to my everyday life. I startled the monkeys from their sleepy reverie in the back seat and hollered, demanding that they take it in. I wanted them to hold some part of it in their memories because I could not contain it all.

We pitched our tent in the midst of a hot, dry wind that swept across the canyon floor. The walls of rock and dust rose up around us and we tasted the new flavors of air scented with sage, succulents and pinon. We washed them down with lots of cold water and squinted into the wide and magnanimous sun.

We hiked through the canyon on a solitary narrow trail, just we four and all the wild. As we crossed out of view of the campground, the whole world fell away and it was just us. Just the ones who make my heart swell and break. The only people whose opinions matter to me. The only people on earth with whom I would share a water bottle and gladly forego my share so that they could have more.

The wind picked up for a while as we hiked. We were spaced along the trail, according to the lengths of our strides. We hollered to each other and the wind whipped our words away through the brush, unheard. There was no sense to our conversations because there was only the persistent wind in our ears, but it was enough to know we were there, ambling along, hollering down the canyon.

The wind stopped as suddenly as it began and in the ringing of our ears, the clicking, chirping, clacking bugs in the underbrush took over, singing us onward on our path. We could hear each other again, and we were relieved. It was hot, it was hard hiking in spots, it was strange and beautiful and a little terrifying in its magnitude.

My son, with the shortest legs and the least ability to pace himself, had raced through the first half of the hike, hopping from stone to stone, drawing lines in the dust with his feet, and narrating his journey. He got hot and he got tired and he got lots of stones in his shoes. He wanted to give up. My legs are so tired I can't even lift them, he said. I know, I said, mine are tired, too. Look up and out and hold my hand. I'll share my energy with you. This worked for another mile. His hot and dusty hand gripped mine and he skipped and stumbled and chattered beside me. We slowed our pace and stopped to touch the desert plants and then smell our hands, deciding which smelled the best. Sagebrush, we decided, was one of the best scents on earth. Can you carry me? he asked. I can't, I said. You have to do this yourself. And he trotted off  to find his daddy, whose shoulders are broader and stronger than mine.

Beating his chest and about to utter a barbaric YAWP!
while his sister decides if she, too, will remove her shirt.
My husband didn't carry him, either. Instead, he instituted a game that involved thwacking the guideposts as we passed them. You have to scout ahead and find the guideposts, he explained, and when we pass them, they must be thwacked. Again, my son was happy to oblige - to keep looking forward on the trail and to give the posts a resounding thwack as we passed. Soon, the canyon was filled with the sounds of four hands thwacking and one small boy hollering "THWACK!" for each person as they passed.

We made the round trip and small feet scrambled and almost fell in exultant relief as we neared the lake. Five miles in an unaccustomed landscape on short legs and in the heat. My daughter sidled up to me and tears were in her eyes. My feet were tired, too, she said quietly. I was so hot and I didn't think I could make it. I just kept walking because I knew I had to and complaining would do no good. I'm glad we made it. In a gesture that is slowly becoming less frequent, she took my hand and we finished the trail together. I'm proud of you, I told her. You were really strong just now.

I took the summer off from the online world so I could do just this. I did some other things, too, and they were fun and enriching and irritating and exhausting and all the other things that life is. Back in the spring, I was getting weary. I was worn out with traversing this world inside my computer. I backed away and gave it some space, as I promised myself I would do in the beginning of the year. So much of our world seems to be like that wind that snatches away the voices and hides them in the brush. It's a constant din in our ears and in the sudden moments of silence, a whole other world comes alive. I find here, standing at the end of a thing, that I appreciate both the wind and the silence. I have spent these last few months finding space and use for both in my life.

I don't doubt that I will grow weary again, that I will need to be reminded to look up and out and seek the next goal. But for now, it is with refocused energy that I remind myself why I started all this in the first place: to listen to the things that hum unseen in the brush, to smell and taste and observe and hold in my hands the beauty that's to be found everywhere, right out of the corner of my eye.

As for you, dear readers, you are my voices in this space, hollerin' down the canyon. Sometimes you are drowned out, sometimes all I hear is the nonsense, sometimes it is the resounding thwack of another guidepost passed, sometimes it is nothing at all, only a silent tear that escapes as you work hard to keep on walking. Don't think I haven't missed you. Don't think I don't appreciate you. Don't think I haven't thought about you. I've had my rest, soothed my parched throat, and now I'm ready to carry on with the hollerin'.