Freaks of Nature

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The giant sequoias inhabited me, and I don’t want them to leave. These mutants — with their fire scars and boils protruding unapologetically on their red skin; with their unreachable branches, their impossible girth and height — are the impenetrable towers in command of the Giant Forest located in the heart of the Sierra Nevada. One could only dream of climbing them. One could only dream of owning them, too. Many entranced settlers have tried, but have ultimately failed to claim ownership over the goliaths that long ago claimed themselves along with their mesmerizing, green kingdom.

To get to the big trees, we had to twist up the Generals Highway with its endless hairpin turns and rolling foothills covered in playful poppies and gangly lupines, which look like cornhusks with bright purple bulbs. The highway runs alongside the Central Valley, climbing toward the Sierra’s snowy peaks. We drove slow enough (or else!) to notice what was buried in some of the tight curves — slender streams of water spilling alongside jagged cliffs. Sean pointed out pine trees on some of the highest cliffs with tips slipping into the clouds. Once we had reached an elevation of 6,000 feet, I had to remind myself to exhale the large gulps of the thin mountain air I held in my lungs. I tried to read what I brought for the long drive (Patti Smith’s newest book, “M Train”) and managed to take in no more than two pages in my wordless marveling.

I remember the first one I spotted. Even in a forest filled to the brim with firs and pines, the Sierra giants are easily identifiable. I let out a big eek, like a child laying eyes on the Disney World castle for the first time. As trite as this sounds, seeing that first sequoia was a fairytale come true. It was enchanting, yet at the same time I invited its freakishness into my heart immediately, accepting its enormity. I grabbed for my phone and recorded the drive through the Giant Forest, trying to still the view, instead of shaking with excitement.

When we arrived at the Giant Forest Museum parking, I rocketed out of the rental car, but froze in my footsteps. There were three massive trees congregated together beside the lot. I stood there with my mouth hanging open. Sean urged me to hurry up so we could start a trail, as there would be plenty more trees to see. I couldn’t help but want to greet and study every single one, which was just as hideously beautiful as the next.

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Just outside the museum stands the ginormous Sentinel tree, which is “average” in height compared to others. The Sentinel is covered in barky boils. Carved into the right side of it, is a scar shaped like a church steeple.

The Giant Forest was named by John Muir, the famous Scottish-American explorer, writer, engineer, environmental philosopher, and early advocate of the American wilderness. He is known for his preservation efforts of Yosemite Valley, Sequoia National Park, and other areas. Muir along with others, such as George Stewart, the editor of the Visalia Delta newspaper, who led the movement to create the national park — hell even the U.S. Calvary — have worked hard to protect the sequoias and the land they stand on.

I learned that many people have been bewitched by these beasts. Settlers into the 1890s set up shop and built hotels, stores, gas stations, among other facilities. Finally, the Sequoia National Park was created to protect the giants, ending all Sequoia logging activities. Still, it wasn’t until the 1970s people began to truly realize that their presence was affecting the trees’ ecology and beauty.

So many of the trees have names. Let’s see. There’s Clara Barton with her numerous craters. Presidents Lincoln and Washington. And the fallen Michigan tree.

And let’s not forget, General Sherman, the largest tree ON EARTH. General Sherman is estimated to be somewhere around 2,200 years old with a height of 279 feet and a weight of 2.7 million pounds. I couldn’t wrap my mind around General Sherman.

The giants have that way about them — of boggling minds. The first people to stumble across (and keep stumbling) the giant sequoias had to prove to the skeptics that these things actually existed. A number of trees were sacrificed, chopped into bits, and sent overseas to museums who even with proof had deemed them a “hoax.” What oddballs. What freaks.

Many of the trees in the Giant Forest as well as the 75 groves in total have sequoias with shimmering black bark and hollowed out trunks damaged by fire. General Grant is a tree with a massive fire scar. Sean took a picture of the pine tree located next to General Grant to reference just how large the scar is, and how staggering it is for something with that much damage to live on. However, I learned natural fires occur in national parks all the time, and actually, the giant sequoias depend on these fires. Like phoenixes, the sequoias that actually fall (more likely to fall from toppling as opposed to fire) recreate new life and live on through their offspring.

The museum offered a lot of information on the giant sequoias’ impenetrability. There was a John Muir quote on a wall near the exit that particularly stuck with me. “Everything in nature called destruction must be a creation — a change from beauty to beauty.”

I felt an electric surge down my spine as the trees’ profundity washed over me. Feelings of awe and respect called to all the little hairs on my arms. Tears streamed from my eyes and down my cheeks. Sean squeezed my shoulder. I cried the entire way from the museum to the car. I couldn’t stop.

I know what it’s like to have a piece of me destroyed by fire. Little do most people know, I lived in Southern California for a couple of years, and in 2003 my family’s home was taken from us in a wildfire. I remember the flames licking the mountains, the cold sweat that clung to my forehead. I remember shaking my mother awake, tearing through my clothes, grabbing for my photo albums. After weeks of living in Ramada hotels and camping on friends’ couches, we drove back. Trees with chard limbs haunted the landscape. When we sifted through our home in the dust and rubble, nothing stirred, and no one said a word.

We think clothes, pictures, cars, items of sentimental value define us. But in the end fire burns everything like it’s made of paper — scrolls unfurling and curling into themselves. And even though I knew this, I was still left reassessing who I was and what I was made of without my beloved earthly possessions.

These sequoias are naked to me. They’re defiant. I hardly know these trees, and I love them. And my love for them inspires me to be open and bruised and big.

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Garden of two goddesses

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Just us girls. Camping in the wilderness without the Seans. Two Seans. I have a Sean, and Alexa has a Sean. It just ended up that way. I told her when she was single that she didn’t necessarily need, but could use a Sean to keep her warm at night. It wasn’t hard to look. We all grew up in the same town a few miles away from each other on blocks named after trees. We’re good people. Or at least I like to think so.

But back to camping and rocking out in nature with our vags out. Not really. I mean, our vags are in our pants, but they’re as swampy as a bowl of French onion soup after hiking all day.

I built a fire for the first time ever, and we roasted seasoned vegetables over it. Mushrooms, zucchini, broccoli, red peppers. Alexa used lemon and garlic powder to season the vegetables and slapped them down into a homemade tin foil bowl. She wrapped them up tight. She calls these things “hobo pockets,” which as a word is mildly offensive, but quite wonderful as a meal.

I feel full and toasted around the edges. My center is as mushy as the potatoes we gobbled up. We weren’t sure the potatoes were ever going to cook. But they turned out to be worth the wait.

I’m thinking about that phrase “having a friend at the end of the world.” I know there’s a movie with a similar title. But I’m not talking about the movie. I’m talking about Alexa and me. We’re two friends, and it’s not the end of the world, but if it was, I think I’d be okay on this melded, moss-freckled rock in the heart of the Shawnee National Forest.

Alexa came up with the idea to go camping without our doting, lovely boyfriends, so we hopped in her car and drove the five hours, just to say we set up camp and lived. And lived we did.

At first the ground was hard and refused our stakes. We forgot to bring a hammer. We used our hands, grunted with our entire bodies. Alexa used her car’s window scraper. And I used a wine bottle, which wasn’t the brightest idea. We dragged the tent farther into the campsite, and eventually we landed on a spot that would take.

Unfortunately, the only camp site that was available when we arrived was the one next to the outhouses. This is our luck. And so, the wind wafted the worst smell known to man, his own excrement, of course. Nothing hangs on the nose more than our own shit. It’s kind of funny, actually. Alexa and I like to think of ourselves as regular older poopers, and the campsite fits. And the thing about bad smells, as Alexa reminded me, is that you get used to them the longer you’re around them.

Alexa packed up a real feast: pita chips and hummus, buns, vegan sausages, and loads of vegetables. She bundled everything together in a basket like it was a Christmas package for us to unravel together. Complete the scene with an open fire.

I am overcome with gratitude and s’mores-layered love for my friend who always thinks ahead and crosses items off lists. This is a very true characteristic about her. She’s punctual, prepared, and sometimes a little anxious about how the future will play out.

As a whole, Alexa is one of those people who has a feeling but can’t quite put her finger on how genuinely beautiful of a person she is. She has had to grow up very fast in household with a single mother with severe untreated depression. In the beginning of our friendship, I recall a cynical, but loving Alexa who doted on her mother and her every whim.

Eventually, she loosened the string around such a tightly bound tangle. She, as an only child, did this much later than some. But like all of us, there comes a time when we have to let go of our parents’ hands for their sake and our own. I know this from Alexa and myself, and well, a lot of people.

I realize as we roam the Garden of the Gods wilderness — dry, dusty, and laundered in long, thick brush —  that I’m proud of my friend and myself for getting along in world we define as our own.

Last night, we ventured down the gravel road leading away from our campsite. We let our heavy heads sag from our necks as we surveyed the stars that were so close to our faces they could stick to our flesh. We were standing on the inside of a purple marble. The stars blinked. And some of the blinking stars turned out to be planes.

I peered into the pitch black road. I was suddenly cold and hyperaware of the darkness, but held onto the lantern, the stars and planes, and the length of time it took for me to realize that I couldn’t possibly die alone in that moment standing next to Alexa. She would be there to help testify the life I lived and the life she played a significant role in.

(Alexa. Wearing a checkered hoodie and green rain boots, about to walk her her golden retriever in the rain. It’s the image I’ve come to associate with her more than anything else.)

But this trip has given me so many more images to preserve like jam. There was a moment last night when we were talking. We had a bit of wine, and all of a sudden Alexa broke out in a sweat and laid her head on the picnic table. She told me she was scared she would pass out. I was overcome with a sick, frozen fear, and my mind raced. We were after all in the middle of nowhere and without cell phone service. How smart of us, I criticized in my head.

I ratcheted back and forth to conclusions. Food poisoning. Altitude sickness. Some wild bacteria. I finally reached the conclusion where I would be no where and nothing without her. I asked her if she needed me to run for help. But she assured me she just needed to rest her head for a while.

I thought maybe it had been my fault. I had been telling her about my family and struggles. Maybe it was too much to hear. That noise makes me dizzy too. Sometimes I feel I say too much and the weight of words fall on Alexa, who takes the brunt of my conscious fears and levels of distrust. I said nothing and wondered if I was too heavy of a friend, and then Alexa lifted her head, and said, “WHOO, I think I just needed a good sweat. I feel better.”

She felt better, and I felt drunken relief and sober joy.

In the morning, we finagled out of our tent and drank cold coffee. We decided to drive down to a gas station where we’d have service and could call our boyfriends to tell them we were alive. Alexa drove, and we kept cracking jokes to cover up the wrong turns. But soon enough, we both admitted to each other we were lost.

“I don’t remember that barn, do you?” we asked each other. We drove alongside rows and rows of Illinois’ finest fucking corn that started to look like a blurry sea.

Alexa and I have a habit of getting lost together. One time, we almost got locked in a forest preserve, another one in rural Illinois, past dark. We saw a deer on our wrong way back to the car. And Alexa couldn’t getting over me calling it “a total deer.” In most cases, our wrong turns tend to be worth it.

As suburb folk, so much of Illinois is beyond our reach. Barrels of hay, windmills, and busted down barns. Driveways that run deep into low hanging greenery. Dusty, desolate towns. Men on tractors and underneath cars, covered in the grime of work. Women sitting in lawn chairs, smoking. Kids waddling around in diapers. We drove through one town that was completely dedicated to something called “Mule Days.” Signs with mules are displayed on lawns across the town of Enfield, Illinois.

Alexa, a vegan, made quick, painful eye contact with the cows we passed in trucks. I could tell she was also getting nervous about being lost, and told her that we always find our way.

2 and a half hours later, we eventually found our way back. We didn’t waste any time on our embarrassment as we threw water and snacks into Alexa’s back pack. She let me carry the camera, and I let it dangle on its strap from my shoulder.

We climbed jagged steps and grabbed hold of tree trunks to help us along the trails. Our calves began to scream, and perspiration clung to our lower backs. The stones, which were formed millions of years ago, have lizard skin. The red and silver patterns swirl and twist and shine like molten lava. Some stones reminded me of layered paper flowers. The largest boulders could each be their own landmark. They sit on top of each other in clumsy, yet sturdy ways. Leaning, bowing, bending, rolling stones piled and piled one on top of the next.

I didn’t know what I was doing, really, but I snapped picture after picture. We ran into a group of people who were resting next to their horses. I asked to take a picture of this man and his horse. Alexa laughed and told me it was like I had never seen a horse before. I’m pretty much this way in every new setting. It’s all context.

A small creek kept us company while we ate lunch — peanut butter and banana sandwiches. I paced back and forth to prevent the flies from getting too cosy on me.

By the time we arrived to the campsite, we were stumbling underneath the weight of our exhaustion.

Right now we’re sitting next to each other on rocks and writing. I’m sipping wine from a coffee mug, drinking away my body’s aches. It’s getting darker, and after the taste of the stars last night, I’m hungry for more. They could be dessert.

This is the land of the gods, and we’re two awkward, but strong goddesses keeping a close eye on our steps.

Spike, the badass flower

Titan Arum

He has name. His name is Spike. I saw him with my own two eyes, and he is a massive, glorious beast. Spike is the name of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s goliath “corpse flower,” or the Titan Arum. It took 12 years for this flower, which is actually a collection of flowers, to reach the height 68’’. Let me just say, it’s simply humbling when you realize that one of those dainty flower things can be taller, wider, heavier — not to mention smarter — than a human being.

One Friday, my sister, friend, and I stumbled upon the idea of going to the Chicago Botanic Garden. We weren’t even aware of the hype, or Godzilla-like specimen that awaited us. Once we arrived, it was clear though, the people had come for Spike. His ribbed, purple face was plastered all over the gift shop. He was on shirts and bags. On cooking aprons and postcards. He was the star of the show. Little kids were tugging on sleeves and whining, “Mom, I want to smell the stink.”

What stink? We wanted to smell the stink, too.

Then, there he was. In the center of the Semitropical Greenhouse, reaching toward the glassed in heavens. People were crowding around him, snapping selfies with the monster.

My sister, friend, and I stood with our mouths agape, taking in the near six foot “corpse flower.” The Titan Arum, native to Indonesia, has a rotting flesh smell that attracts pollinators. And not cute little bees, butterflies, or hummingbirds. No, this flower with its nightmare bloom has its heart set on dung beetles and flies. The tall center part of the bloom, the spadix, heats up to help disperse the odor far distances. The spadix heats up to 98F, the same temperature as the human body. Since the flower’s natural habitat is the rainforest, the greenhouse had to be kept to humid temperatures of 75 to 90 percent saturation at all times.

The time of our visit was important. The flower was set to bloom any night (it blooms at night), possibly the evening of our visit. Once we got our fill, we wandered over to the other botanic displays, all lovely and presentable in their own right. But our thoughts lingered on Spike. We stayed until closing. Though the rest of the grounds were hard for us to scope out, the lights were still on Spike when we returned. We took one last whiff and crept to my car in the darkness.

Over the next week, my sister alerted me that there was a Kardashian-like cam on Spike at all times. “Still hasn’t bloomed,” my sister informed me at the end of each day. Then on August 24, Spike stopped working overtime.

When the botanists were asked why the flower did not bloom, they responded, “We’re not entirely sure. In nature, plants have the choice of reproducing or surviving. Spike ‘chose’ to survive, having run out of energy to complete reproduction.”

The botanists talk about plants as if they have actual “choices” to make, and this by far sticks with me beyond anything. Maybe there’s something inside me that is still cheering Spike on; that is grateful Spike ‘chose’ to save his energy for himself rather than relinquish his true power in front of the cameras and hungry people eager to see him perform — to emit a smell so foul that eyes would water, grandmothers would dry heave. “Summon the flies!” we all cheered.

“Nah,” said Spike, and then he fucking quit.

When botanists learned that Spike would not bloom, they opened him up. They tried their best to harvest the pollen, or perform in front of viewers “the delicate procedure of removing the spathe by cutting around the base of the flower just above where it attaches to the stalk of the plant.” (This sounds to me like performing an autopsy on the still living, but what do I know? Apparently, there is a slight risk to the procedure, but it’s not entirely harmful to the plant.)

Gardens typically divvy up pollen so that other plants may thrive. It turns out Spike had very little pollen to offer. And his female flowers weren’t ready to receive pollen. And guess what: there was no rotting meat smell. Instead, a “slight smell” only if you held it up very close to your nose.

The Botanic Garden was simply floored that people, 75,000 to be exact, would come from miles around just to see Spike bloom in person and from their computers and phones. My sister and I were among the many texting each other updates on the flower’s progress. Spike is a natural born conversation starter.

Spike would have been the first Titan Arum to bloom in Chicagoland, but he didn’t. And it’s a crying shame because he raked in a lot of attention. Can you see where this is going?

The garden has seven other flowers just like Spike. “Spike, who?” read the Chicago Tribune headline on September 29. Now, in comes Alice, who debuts today at 7 p.m. The extremely rare sibling of Spike is now powdering up and getting ready for her big show.

These flowers are entirely unpredictable. In nature they only flower once in 1000 days, and the bloom only lasts for three days. Very few people have ever seen them flower. There is fairly little research on them though they were officially discovered in 1878 by the Italian natural scientist Odoardo Beccari. I think one was featured in a Simpson’s episode.

Spike in the meantime, lies dormant in a freezer, ready to bloom another day (or not). To which I say, that’s okay Spike, you do what you gotta do.

Sources:

chicagobotanic.org/titan/spike_titan_arum

bioscigreenhouse.osu.edu/titan-arum-faqs

nbcchicago.com/news/local/Why-Chicago-Botanic-Gardens-Corpse-Flower-Didnt-Bloom-323375051.html

chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/home/ct-titan-arum-corpse-flower-blooming-botanic-garden-20150929-story.html

bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Titan_arum#p004gx80

Quiet discoveries: Visiting Navajo National Monument

My partner and I were the only ones on the desolate Betatakin hike, one half of the Navajo National Monument in Arizona. I learned Betatakin translates in the Navajo (or Diné) language to “house built on a ledge.”

One of my first observations in my travels through Navajo Nation was that most of the homes were underneath, on top of, or near massive rock formations and hills as opposed to in the open fields and on flat stretches of land. The proximity to the mountains and formations is important. According to traditions, the mountains were placed here by the Holy People, and the Earth People were to live in a way that achieves harmony and balance. I have gathered that positioning is everything to the Navajo, which always was and remains relevant to this country’s history.

The Betatakin trail has three routes. It was one of the quietest hikes I’ve ever been on. We could hear the whiney flies and this elusive insect that sounded like maracas, and that’s pretty much it. I forget how deafening silence can be. The sand was a redish powder that’s soft to the step.

The information distributed throughout the trail was high quality even in comparison to other botanical gardens I have frequented—recently being the Phoenix Botanical Garden and the Chicago Botanical Garden (both great places). My reasoning here is because not only were the plants and shrubbery named, but they were described in great detail for their livelihood and usage. For example, the Hesperaloe, an aloe plant with scraggly hairs, was used by Natives in shampoos. The plethora of information makes sense, given that the Navajo and Hopi peoples were some of the earliest pioneers of natural ointments and medicines. I regret not partaking in a guided tour, which I wasn’t aware of until later.

And I don’t know if this was a feeling that I had but every plant, branch, tree, and bush on the trail seemed to have a place. I felt a little like I was walking into an exhibit or a store, where everything was specifically arranged. And I felt a little like Abu from Aladdin about to disturb the sand gods from their slumber after I pocketed a small stone that was layered like Neapolitan ice cream.

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Overall, I’m honored to have had this experience on a landmark that will hopefully continue to shape the history of a land that never really belonged to anyone expect for the Native peoples. Looking over the multi-layered cliffs, sifting my shoes through the soft sand, and marveling at the forest sitting in the bowl of the canyon filled me with a profound appreciation. I bow my head in humility to this experience. And not because I think any Navajo person is better than me or I feel personally indebted, but because these are the voices of history’s most spiritual and land loving people who deserve the respect and recognition.

My partner and I enjoyed the bramble trees, rabbit brush, Douglas fir and the whole host of other named and unnamed plant life. I was intrigued by the four or five different lizards poking out of the rocks and sand. I tried to record a lizard who kept extending and collapsing his limbs, making it look like he was doing push-ups. Silly buggers.

The trail was a steep one that winded downward. We were careful with our footing and obeyed the signs warning against venturing off the path. The trip was worth it for what was waiting for us at the bottom. Not only was there a full, green forest sitting in the middle of the 560-foot deep canyon, but there were cliff dwellings, left by the Ancestral Puebloan peoples, in the alcove above it. I could feel my heart rocketing around inside my chest at the sight of such a small village. My eyes roamed the sandstone blocks and climbed the ladders from room to room. Seeing a piece of history locked behind a glass box in a museum is one thing, but venturing down a trail to find discover it is an entirely new experience for me. There’s not much left for me to say except for that it was truly breath-taking, a phrase that I try not to use often.

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It was an hour before we came across another group, two older women who were following a Navajo guide. I overheard the women talk about my partner and I who walked up the steep rock steps with ease. One woman huffed her exhaustion and said, “Climbing is a young man’s sport.” And the guide goes, “I don’t know, but I feel like some women can do it better.” I smiled at him and telepathically gave his heart a little squeeze for that sentence.

On our way out we stopped by the visitor’s center. There was an elderly woman decked out in her most intricate patterned tribal gear. She was sitting in a chair, carefully working on a rug. She stared up at me with these big, earthy brown eyes, and I suddenly felt awkward and stupid standing there, not saying anything. I wanted to ask her questions and complement her art. I don’t know, I guess I didn’t want to feel like a bumbling tourist.

By the entryway, there was a man who was painting. On the table were small paintings on scraps of canvas. He had painted red rock formations, hogans, buttes, among other natural scenes on the Navajo land. Some were in front of sunsets; others were cast against a sky dripping with stars. His name is John Bahe Smith. Again, I wished I would have asked him questions about himself. What is it with people too afraid to ask questions about human experience? I regret my silence. But he seemed pretty happy about the sale, and I was happy to give a talented artist my money. I can’t wait to frame my new treasure.

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On the back of the piece John wrote:

Fork Stick Hogan
The Holy People made the first hogan—from the beginning of the world—and faced it to the East.

On climbing mountains

The sleepy shop owner who just sold us a fly swatter looks at us with eyes like damp leaves when we tell him we have never hiked in the Smoky Mountains before. His jeans have large holes smeared in green like fresh open wounds, but he still has a tinge of nostalgia in his eyes.

I run my fingers over a cedar coaster that sits in the palm of my hand. Sean takes a practice whoosh with the new swatter, whacking dead an imaginary fly. We tell the shop keeper we enjoy his work. We mean it. He tells us it keeps him off the streets. He rolls his head back and laughs like a ruffian.

We can tell that he’s comfortable with silence as he assesses our city nerves. We dart our ping pong eyes around the shop at all the items he borrowed and made from the trees. Propped up against a table, is an intricately engraved mantelpiece. I can make out the carving of an eagle dipping in and out of grooves in the slab of wood. On the tables, there are piles of pine cones, empty nests, flaps of leather—bits and pieces dispersed, yet orderly, like a mechanic’s shop.

“Give me your map,” he finally says. I fumble the map before handing it over to him. He begins to trace the trails on smooth paper with his rugged fingers. He flips it upside down. He might as well be closing his eyes, reading braille. “Here. This one will feel like it doesn’t end. It’s a tough, old trail, but it’s the least crowded. And when it ends, you’ll sure as hell know.”

He nods his head simultaneously with our “thank you” like he already knows. He recedes into his shop like a bear into its den. We look back over our shoulders before we exit. He uses a small knife to carve the handle of something—another fly swatter, an eating utensil, maybe a hairbrush. Wood shavings fall to the floor.

An hour later Sean and I are standing where he pointed his finger on the map.

The wooden sign has chipped, white letters covered in splotches of bird poop. It reads, “Ramsey Cascade Falls 4.0 miles.”

Last night, the cicadas pulsed louder than our two voices. Shaking like hundreds of maracas inside our chests, they made it clear that the land in the mountains belongs to them. As we begin the trail, we can feel them watching us from the trees. They don’t say a thing as we crack twigs and rustle leaves underneath our shoes.

The breeze carries a light mist. I pull up my hood. Sean tightens the straps of his backpack. He is excited to break in his new pack. I remember when he first tried it on in our living room weeks ago. He had said in his deep, booming voice, “Trust me, Sarah. I used to be a boy scout.”

I squeeze Sean’s hand. We have little to say as we breathe in the soft, intermingling scents of pine and wet dirt.

The ground starts off with gravel, which is short-lived. The further along we go, the more the earth juts with jagged rocks. The grass gets heavier and begins to wander like wild sideburns on the sides of the mountain’s face.

Sean spots wild turkeys. He scampers after the mother and her two babies. The mother’s fatty wattles jiggle as she huddles her babies close, quickly escorting them away from Sean, who’s running at them like a jolly pup. His backpack bounces behind him.

I can’t take my eyes off the ground. Knobby vines crisscross through the dirt and make their way back to the trees. They dip into a palate of freckled stones. I pick up a stone and hand it to Sean. It’s smooth and looks like it has been splattered with white paint. He rubs his thumb over it before he slips it into his pocket.

This becomes routine. I find a red spotted leaf. It looks diseased. I hand it to Sean. He slips it into his pocket. White pedals float down from a looming tree. I catch one, feel its velvety skin. I hand it to Sean who slips it into his pocket.

I think of the sleepy shop keeper. I imagine him picking up his favorite things and slipping them into his pockets.

We wear our explorer eyes like 3D glasses. We spot thin brooks, gaping like scars between rocks. We ogle at bright, yellow fungi, flickering in the weeds like road signs warning passersby. Sean squints at the water spiders moon walking on top of water. They’re almost opaque; we can hardly see them. I have the urge to call them Jesus spiders. I point at a mud colored gecko on a boulder. It pretends to be dead. I find a cave. I ask Sean if he dares me to poke my head in, and he tells me not to be stupid.

water spiders Gecko FungiTree

Somewhere we read that a couple of hikers carelessly left food on this trail, and a bear helped itself to their leftovers. Bears start off afraid of humans. And then we give them reasons to track us—like littering our remains. Some rangers shot that bear down when it started attacking people. I wonder if the ground shook when the enormous, brown mass collapsed to the ground. I think about the surface area of plants flattened underneath the weight of a lifeless body, the animals around it watching from safety of their caverns, trees, and holes.

I remember all the objects in the gift shops with the beloved smoky beast tattooed on them—blankets, wristbands, shot glasses.

Passing the den, I hope to catch a glimmer of brown, but it never comes.

The trail quickly begins to elevate. I can feel a squeeze in the back of my calves. I grab at branches, roots, and clumpy ledges for balance. I push my palms into them and propel my body forward. My muscles surge with electricity as the steps get bigger, my leg span gets wider. Drops of sweat kiss Sean’s forehead. Somewhere beyond the next set of boulder steps we can hear rushing water.

 Sean pack Sarah climb

This becomes a pattern. We climb and climb until we meet rushing water. We run into little falls collecting into shallow pools. We’re careful not to stumble over the slimy rocks when we dip our hands into the cool water. Sean crouches low over the water, cups his hands to fill them, and splashes the sweat from his face. He replenishes it. I scan his face to see if he looks younger, as if the water is made of secret magic. “What are you looking at?” he asks, and I laugh.

Sean splashSarah falls

We lean our backs against thick trunks that stoop over edges crumbly as pie crust. The trees seem to look down. We follow their gaze that points to the falls. The little falls don’t look so little anymore. The higher we go, the longer their reach. They pile on top of each other and blend into one another. Each fall is a strand, and together they form a luscious, streaming head of hair. The mountains have long hair.

It’s a long way to fall. “Boo!” I psyche Sean out, and he staggers away from the edge with his hand on his heart.

“Hey, um, this is the closest I have ever felt to you,” I tell him. I know it’s not just the adrenaline speaking. And it’s not the proximity to death either, even though with a simple misstep, I could plummet. And I know that Sean wouldn’t be able to save me. The more likely reason is that there’s nowhere else I would rather be but here with him, nothing else I would rather be doing than climbing this mountain with him.

I never thought I would climb a mountain. And if I did, I imagined I could come up with something that wasn’t sprinkled with clichés, but everything I feel is what they say, except more enhanced because I feel it now. I’m here, and I don’t want to be anywhere else. This is true. I feel pure. I feel centered. I feel strong. Look at me climb. See my hands grab hunks of dirt. See my legs propel me higher.

The best feeling of all is feeling exposed. The vulnerability is as tender as a baby. Mountain climbing is intimacy—like a virginity I didn’t know I had until I lost it. It’s something you let go and give back to the earth. It’s as if you’re designed to do it.

I will backpack these feelings with me when I go to work, when I’m miserable in traffic. I will rinse and repeat, “I am strong. I am pure. I am centered.”

When I feel alone at my desk or even with a crowd of people, I will remember what it is like to be completely filled up with the sight of weeping waterfalls guarded by mountains. Or maybe the mountains are the ones who weep. It’s comforting to think they cry too.

The longer we climb, the louder we whine. “Are we there yet?” we pout with fat lips like kids in the backseat of a car. We drag our heavy limbs.

We hear a pounding like watered down thunder. This must be the end, we think. We pummel through the last set of steps. Our legs ache, but we ignore them. We hobble like turkeys to see what is on the other side of a colossal rock.

We sure as hell know we’re at the end. Water spills from every pore of the jagged, enormous rocks assembled in such a way that pulls the falls together. They knot into one, and I can’t tell which fall is which. The head of long hair is braided. The beads of water bounce from one rock to the next. We feel the spray on our faces. My lips tremble. All I want to do is touch it. I draw in close like a mosquito.

Sean and I cross the slippery platform. He suddenly loses his footing and plops down in the base of the large waterfall. I gasp and hold my breath for a second, terrified the current will sweep him away over the top of the falls, all the way down from where we first began to climb. The falls at the base of the mama waterfall are even more treacherous. They drop down soundlessly, but with violence. They would take Sean. There would be no time for words.

Sean stands up and brushes himself off. No big deal, the look on his face tells me. I huddle close to him, but we chuckle at his close call.

We inch closer to the grizzly waterfall. A family snaps photographs underneath the falls. We watch them grinning like children on their first day of school. One of the little boys is wearing swim trunks, wading in a pool of water. He has collected rocks and piled them on top of one another like a miniature Stonehenge. He had quite the inspiration for his pile of art.

Finally, we each reach a timid hand out to greet the waterfall. The water shakes our hands. It rattles through our entire bodies. Our teeth chatter, as we squint and smile against the spray.

Fallskid falls

“Beautiful,” the shy Sean says confidently. To him, this beauty is a fact. He doesn’t question it. And neither do I.

After our initial transfixion, we accept the sight of the waterfall. Sean and I eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and watch the falls as if we do it every day. When we pack our things to leave, I feel a swell of pain in my chest. By now, the waterfall has become a friend.

We look over our shoulders for the last time, reluctant to leave. “Hey, let’s run,” Sean suddenly says.

“I accept your challenge, young warrior,” I say.

Sean and I race each other down the mountain. He doesn’t go easy on me. I don’t go easy on him. We’re not even Sean and Sarah right now as we become one bird that takes flight over the familiar rocks and through the trees we’ve met once before.