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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Annie Dillard in present time: Thoughts on “The Abundance”

I started reading “The Abundance,” a compilation of some of Annie Dillard’s best, most badass, or as editor Geoff Dyer puts it, “genre-resistant” essays.

Overall, I like to write about traveling, so I find this work inspiring and stimulating so far. I appreciate Dillard’s tendency to sidetrack, to run away with something, and turn an observation on its head.

The first story is about Annie’s travels to Yakima, Washington to watch a total eclipse with her husband.

The first sentence that punched me in the gut was about how when we see something in nature so stupefyingly beautiful, we don’t know how to speak up for ourselves. It’s like those questions we get when we’re in the midst of kissing someone we’re beyond excited to kiss: what am I supposed to do with my hands? Oh yeah, and which way to Earth?

I remember driving through Sequoia National Park with Sean. Climbing and climbing and all those hairpin turns. The green valley sinking beneath the weight of mountains. Mountains shrouded in clouds. I shivered, taking them in. But I couldn’t for the life of me come up with a damn thing to say. I was practically drooling. A dog with her head out the window, overwhelmed by the blur of smell and sight. Dillard described this failing of words as something quite endearingly foolish. She also breaks down the “I could hardly breathe” cliché to illustrate the experience we have when we are overcome by awe.

“I watched the landscape innocently, like a fool, like a diver in the rapture of the deep who plays on the bottom while his air runs out.”

It’s interesting that the beginning of the story starts out in a hotel, where Dillard is preparing herself for her adventure in the sky. She sees a creepy painting of a clown hanging on the wall in the hotel lobby. Only, the clown’s features are made up of vegetables.

“The crinkled shadows around his eyes were string beans. His eyebrows were parsley. Each of his ears was a broad bean. His thin, joyful lips were red chili peppers; between his lips were wet rows of human teeth and a suggestion of real tongue. The clown print was framed in gilt and glassed.”

This is obviously not a usual way to depict a clown, which is perhaps why it sticks in her memory so clearly. We’ve seen them depicted the same way for so long; we don’t question the red nose, the frazzled, rainbow wig, the chalky face paint. What about a clown made of vegetables? Is funnier? Is it sadder? Is it a more pronounced distortion of meaning? It is those unruly and juxtaposed things in nature that stick with us, maybe even change us. It is up to us to describe the indescribable. This is what Dillard seems to say when we encounter something that is beyond the confines of language.

When Dillard actually sees the eclipse, she describes its alien-like appearance, its fleeting definition. She and a bunch of other observers who have gathered to watch don’t know how to take it. They scream. She screams. It’s terrifying because it doesn’t make sense to see the world in this way.

“From all the hills came screams. A piece of sky beside the crescent sun was detaching, a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the back. It was an abrupt black body out of nowhere; it was a flat disk; it was almost over the sun. That’s when the screams began.”

It’s suddenly dark, like the sky closed a lid. It’s soundless and unsettling. Like there’s nothing, “no world at all.” It feels like death; like they’re all dead and floating, Dillard describes.

“Abruptly it was a dark night, on the land and in the sky. In the night sky was a tiny ring of light. For the hole where the sun belongs is very small. Just a thin ring of light marked its place. There was no sound. The eyes dried, the arteries drained, the lungs hushed. There was no world. We were the world’s dead people rotating and orbiting around and around, embedded in the planet’s crust, while the earth tolled down.”

She grabs for a definition, but realizes that it isn’t within the common vocab of the human experience. Those especially who lack an understanding of astronomy, she says, will not be able to understand its magnitude in these more tangible terms. But then she goes on to point out scientific theory fallibility, which can’t account for all the sheer wonder found within a firsthand account, an unknowing eyewitness. You don’t have to know numbers and figures to experience the fullness of such a phenomenon. The knowledge you have may actually get in the way, or “blind you” to experiencing something in a new light. With any given experience we have to make sure that we ourselves don’t become eclipsed, she seems to say here.

“What you see in a total eclipse is entirely different from what you know. It is especially different for those of us whose grasp of astronomy is so frail that, given a flashlight, a grapefruit, two oranges, and fifteen years, we still could not figure out which way to set the clocks for daylight saving time. Usually it is a bit of a trick to keep your knowledge from blinding you. But during an eclipse it is easy. What you see is much more convincing than any wild-eyed theory you may know.”

I also just read “The Deer at Providencia,” which is about Dillard’s travels through the village of Providencia in Ecuador. This section focuses on one overarching image — a deer that has been captured and tied to a tree. It desperately tries to escape, cutting itself on the ropes. It’s a violent scene that made me want to stop reading.

“Its neck was no thicker than my wrist; it had been rubbed open on the rope, and gashed. Trying to get itself free of the rope, the deer had cut its own neck with its hooves. The raw underside of its neck showed red stripes and some bruises bleeding inside the skin. Now three of its feet were hooked in the rope under its jaw.”

She watches the deer tire itself. It goes on for 15 minutes. During this time, Dillard’s unfazed expression at the flailing deer is also noted.

Dillard’s travel companions, who were all from big cities, were taken aback by her detachment of the scene of suffering they all witnessed.

She asks them, “Gentleman of the city, what surprises you? That there is suffering here, or that I know of it?”

One man explains, “If it had been my wife … she wouldn’t have cared what was going on; she would have dropped everything right at that moment and gone in the village from here to there, she would not have stopped until that animal was out of its suffering one way or another. She couldn’t bear to see a creature in agony like that.”

Later when Dillard arrives home, she looks in her mirror. Taped to the corner of her mirror, is a newspaper clipping of a severely burned man, someone who had experienced devastating burn not for the first, but for the second time in his life. Every day, the clipping explains, he lies awake in pain wanting to die. Dillard reads this same story every day so she knows that pain like his exists.

“I read the whole clipping again every morning. This is the Big Time here, every minute of it. Will someone please explain to Alan McDonald in his dignity, to the deer at Providencia in his dignity, what is going on? And copy me on it.”

It’s an interesting take on suffering that I think a lot of people disagree with. Is it enough to know? Is it enough to read the newspaper? Shouldn’t we alleviate? Many of us would argue, yes. A lot of us (especially women, as the city gentleman seems to hint) would go running toward the deer or at least squirm in anguish at the sight of something so horrific and sad.

But I think Dillard makes an interesting statement that not a lot of us can accept for some reason or the other. Suffering happens, and the majority of it goes on with our input or non-input. She seems to say no being (animal or non-animal) has more or less dignity than the next, but also seems to remind us that their suffering is a part of nature. That there is no full-proof explanation for why one suffers and why one does not.

The world is never entirely cured of some things. This is the way it functions. Mothers suffer from autoimmune diseases. People are burned in accidents. Deer die in sad ways. Etc. This is a difficult concept to face. Dillard argues that we need to face it, be present, and understand it the best we can.

What I like most about Dillard’s travel log style, is her presentness, and that she does not have a “conqueror” complex. She does not demand something of her environment. She lets it speak to her and through her. With both stories I’ve read so far, from her point of view, it is not in her interest to control the experience while she is experiencing it. Rather, she is there to simply experience and see where her presentness of the moment carries her later on the page. When there is a gap in memory or capability she injects her own special brand of wildness. These are the parts of her stories where the bottom suddenly drops out, where everything seems the same, yet inverted.

A Day in Bay City

San Francisco — where buildings dot the horizon like assorted Easter eggs in a cramped basket and climb up up up on sidewalks. The streets give me that pre-fall kind of feeling. My eyes start off frog-like, protruding from their sockets. But I tone down my gaze, demote it to a mild shiftiness, still cautious and untrusting.

I think about a lot about brakes. About how continuously pressing on them is probably not so hot for cars. I wonder if anyone could last a lifetime here without a dent or scratch or two. How many precious hours of the day do drivers spend shaking their heads, waving their fists, or honking their horns?

We drive around and around, our car hiccupping down slopes between red lights. Sean chomps on a piece of the beef jerky we packed for road snacks.

“There’s a shitload of Teslas on the road. And blonde women driving Land Rovers. What’s up with that? And bikers — oh shit, I didn’t even see that guy,” he notes, his attention strictly on the road.

Sean steers our bare bones rental car. I imagine he’s homesick for his wet dream of a Suburu, probably missing him back and sitting in its lonely spot at the O’Hare airport.

“There’s also a lot of people without homes here,” is my first input.

I know we are on vacation, and I don’t want to be a buzz kill, but I can’t help but take more than a causal notice of the amount of people sitting like stones or wandering with no direction in mind. Back in Chicago, this is a commonplace sight and interaction. I’ve stood witness to lingering individuals as well as gotten as close as listening to a few stories, passing off a few cigarettes, purchasing a few sub sandwiches. But this feels different. It’s a clear pronunciation with extra glare. Here in the glittering California daylight, the numbers are overwhelming. Somehow in a city built on top of itself, with homes towering on hills, the lost and forgotten are at the base of it all, making it more visible, larger.

I try my best not to make anyone feel like an exhibit, but can’t help watch a man meticulously stack aluminum cans in a cart bubbling over with newspapers, bags, paper plates, lamp shades, and other odds and ends. He ties a rope to the end of the cart and drags it along the street with ease, singing in a voice as scratchy as the beard on his face. Here is a man at work if you look close enough. There are others working in between intersections. While we wait for a light to turn green, we watch two men shake hands and slip something into them.

There’s people slouched in lawn chairs, stooped over walkers, huddled under bustling, blue tarps used to cover cars to be sheltered from rain and people.

A woman, fast asleep on the ground, stirs at the sound of a sharp whistle. A cable car scrapes along metal strings in the sky like a marionette on wheels. The woman opens an oversized jacket, and out pops a puppy with fur the color of coffee with extra creamer and piercing, alert eyes that match the sky. The woman rubs her eyes in between petting the puppy. Her lids are puffy; she wears a look of exhaustion that says she hasn’t truly rested in years. She watches the passersby move swiftly past, not holding her gaze on anyone in particular, just the general blur of pants and sneakers whirring past her face. The puppy licks her hands as she continues to soothe him.

Sean clears his throat and redirects my attention. He suggests we explore the sights. We cross the San Francisco Bay Bridge. The traffic crawls, which gives us a chance to stare up at the high, metal beams.

“If you look to the right, you can see the Golden Gate. See, do you see?” Sean says.

Sean is wearing his boyish face. He’s all bright eyes and big smiles. Halfway through the bridge, I realize I have to pee. I cross my legs and whistle along with the radio. We’re listening to KFOG-FM, and the radio DJ keeps calling his listeners “fog heads.” I wait until I can’t take it any longer, and I inform Sean of my emergency. He makes it worse by telling me to stare into the bay water.

By the time we reach the Wharf, I’m screaming at Sean, demanding he pulls over. He barely reaches the curb as I rocket out the car door and haul myself into a fresh fruit market. I march bow-legged to the checkout area.

“Can I use your bathroom?” I wince in pain.

The cashier is a young man with a shaggy haircut and a nonchalant stare. “Uh yeah, but it’s outside. And I need your ID,” he said.

“I don’t have an ID on me right now. I literally just jumped out of a car, and I’m about to explode. Please, I gotta go.”

“Okay, but please return this key. Oh, but before you return it, be sure to use it to the lock the bathroom door.”

He hands me a silver ladle with a key hooked on the bottom of it. I thank him from the bottom of my bladder.

Outside the bathroom, a man asks me for a dollar. His teeth are nicotine-stained and his shirt is oily with a large hole near the collar. I search my pockets, even though I know my wallet is in the car.

“I’m real sorry, man. I don’t have anything on me,” I tell him, feeling guilty.

Sean and I drive on in silence. I apologize to him for snap-turtling him during my moment of urinary weakness.

“That’s okay. What’s next?”  he asks.

“I want to see the Full House house. I want to thank Uncle Jesse for helping me through my childhood.”

Instead, we visit the Palace of the Fine Arts, a colossal domed structure that sits behind a lagoon with a fountain and drowsy swans warming in the sun and curling into their wings. The giant building looks like it was taken from a page of Greek mythology. There’s a motif on the structure that especially catches my attention — the weeping women, statues who are stationed at the corners of boxes above the colonnade. I can’t see their faces. I only can tell they are crying and holding on the best they can.

People on bikes ride and families with strollers saunter along the lagoon. Someone is running with a GoPro strapped to the front of his helmet.

A young girl rides between Sean and me. She’s wearing a helmet with ladybugs and pants with butterflies. She brakes, and all four of her bike’s wheels screech to a halt.

“Excuse me,” she says. “But did you know that there’s ice cold lemonade over there?”

Sean and I follow her stubby finger to the stand aside the lagoon, manned by two children who look her age.

I smile at her. “Do you happen to know the kids working the joint?”

She bashfully twirls the glittery streamers pouring from her handlebars. “They’re my cousins,” she admits.

“Well, I am kind of thirsty. What about you, Sean?”

“I could use a drink,” Sean plays along.

“What’s your name?” I ask the girl.

“Sasha,” she giggles.

“Well, Sasha, I like your salesmanship. And also, your butterfly pants.”

Sean and I feel good about ourselves as we walk back to his car. We slurp down our lemonade.

Sean pats my knee, telling me he’s low on caffeine. We stop at a coffee shop on Columbus Avenue. I volunteer to retrieve the coffee, and Sean stays with the car. The woman working the register is a magnificent piece of street art — tattoos swimming down her arms, Cleopatra eyeliner, curling nails, bleached hair, a halter top, no bra. Lana Del Rey gushing from a radio. The shop has a couch, a few tables and barstools lined up along the window.

Two women sip coffee at one of the tables, setting their cups down every now and then to interject an exclamation into a conversation that’s muffled against the sound of grinding beans.

A man lumbers in. He wears a wrinkled plaid shirt and a black hat with a straight bill and a patch of worn thread. He’s carrying a large monitor in one arm and pulling off a backpack with his other arm. He sits down at a table behind me.

I order an espresso and a mocha latte.

“Excuse me, but you can’t do that in here,” says the cashier.

“What … ” I hesitate.

I check my hands and glance at my feet to see if maybe my limbs are doing something without my knowledge.

“Sir, you need to leave,” the cashier says in a stern voice. She moves from the behind the register and steps into the sitting area.

I swing around to face the monitor man. He’s holding a blunt the size of a Cuban cigar in one hand and an orange BIC lighter in the other.

“Are you serious right now?” he asks, lurching from his seat.

“I mean, it’s one thing if you’re going to sneak it into the bathroom. But like, really, right in the open? Not cool. This is a business, and I need you to leave,” she says. Around her wide eyes are black eyelashes, straight as raised cat hair.

“Come on, Bro. I buy a coffee every single day here, Bro. You’re trippin’ right now, Bro,” the man says, raising his voice, taking a step closer to the cashier.

The women who were talking at another table begin to quickly gather their belongings. They tiptoe out the door. I’m the ghost in middle of the coffee shop with my mouth hanging ajar, standing numb and still, wondering if I should inform this guy that the cashier is not, in fact, a “bro.”

I look into the man’s eyes for the first time. There’s a yellowish tint in them. His eyebrows are scrunched together tight enough to become one brow. I can see the individual drops of spit flying out of his mouth. I’ve never seen someone angrier. He doesn’t seem to be looking at the cashier though, rather beyond her, like he’s confronting the demon standing on the other side of her body.

“Why are you playing me like this, Bro? I’m a good customer,” he pleads, his voice cracking with desperation.

“Leave. Now, before I call the police,” she thunders.

This sends him spilling over like hot coffee. “Bro, fuck the police. I’m not leaving. I’m gonna bust your face in, Bro. I’m going to break everything in this motherfucking store, Bro.”

I feel as inanimate as the plastic lid I begin to stare at in the middle of a table. I feel like I should say something. Except, I don’t know who to sympathize with. Should I utter words to soothe or distract him? Or should I back her up, tell him to get the hell out?

In the end, I choose motionlessness. I choose silence.

They both stare wildly at each other, daring each other to move first. The cashier makes the first move. She pulls out her phone from her back pocket.

She dials. Her voice quakes into her cellphone, “Yes, I need help. There’s a man here who is threatening to put his hands on me … Yes, it’s a real emergency … I swear … Yes, this is a business … Can you please come?”

Why does she have to convince the police to come? Aren’t they supposed to show up, no questions asked? I brew a silent war for her and other women who work alone.

He whirls around, rips his things from the table in one movement and flees the coffee shop.

“I’m so sorry this happened,” I tell the cashier woman who finally allows her face to appear shaken; creases line her forehead, which she rubs with her palm. She nods without really hearing my words, and I feel as if there’s nothing I can say to void the current events.

Business as usual, she finishes up my order and hands me my drinks. She follows me out without a word and locks the store behind me.

I walk to the car. Inside, Sean taps away at his phone.

“What took so long?” he asks.

I say nothing. I close the car door and take a sip of my coffee. As we drive, I scan the streets for the fleeing man.

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.

The bonobo and the blues: Couple finds lost mojo in Memphis

I came home from work one rare day in a swimmingly good mood, instead of my usual wanting to box the imaginary bag hanging above my welcome mat. (I hope to get a real one installed soon, but I’m not sure the crackling plaster can handle it).

It’s not that I dislike what I do. Sure, it’s draining and tedious correcting grammar all day, but that’s not the rub. Keep in mind I’m also new to the whole 9-5, growing older in a computer chair gig. And then I’m hyper and miserable at time management. But pathetically enough, one of the biggest factors is how long it takes me to get to and from my job.

I am one of those people who tends to take traffic too seriously and personally, inviting it destroy my dwindling energy and rest of my day. That damn road. I tell people all the time that I will most likely die on Palatine Road. Yup, that’s how I’m going to go—probably something self-induced while staring at someone’s back bumper, who has a license plate that reads “MY BONUS.”

The good mood came from a particularly awesome interview I had at work. I write for a trade magazine, so the writing I do is about plumbing and other like trades – not the sexiest and sometimes very complex for someone who has only been in the industry for as little as I have been. But still, the occasional intriguing story does fall into my lap.

The reason for my cheer was Audrey, the 100 year old woman who works for a company in Colorado that specializes in plumbing equipment.  Yes, I said “works” as in she still currently works. Only two days a week, but still. Oh, and her 100th year of life is the year she chose to let someone live with her and not renew her license.

Audrey isn’t the kind of living fossil I could poke and inspect for secrets and philosophies. For the most part, she is a normal person with an average amount of knowledge. What is unique about her is that she is a regular person with an irregular attitude—meaning she LOVES work. And she loves people of all substance. Everyone is her family. She’s the kind of person you don’t know, would like to know, and have somehow known all along.

Audrey told me that I gave a great interview and had wonderful questions, something none of my previous interviewees have ever done. She said when she was 24 she didn’t know what the hell she was going to do. She told me I was sweet and asked for my home address to send me things. I told her she should could have my social security number if she liked. I think we’re pen pals now.

My new pen pal put me in a good mood. So when my boyfriend saw me soaring through the front door, he thought something might be seriously wrong. When he found out there wasn’t he began to nonchalantly slip his hand down my blouse and press little kisses into my neck. I giggled, but shimmied away.

“Why not?” he asked.

“Eh, I don’t know. Because I’m just not in the mood.”

“But you’re in a good mood.”

There’s nothing wrong with him trying to capitalize off my good mood. It’s true, I tend to want sex more when I’m feeling jolly or adventurous. But even then, lately, I’ve just been a little off. And my boyfriend, who owns a penis, started to notice that.

There comes a point in every long-term relationship when the so-called kids slow down. We are at that point. Well I am. My boyfriend told me that I only like to have sex with him on Saturdays, and that was beginning to feel like a schedule to him. He was honest about something that has been bugging him. He wasn’t pointing his finger in my face.

I opened up, too. I told him I’m not as interested and slightly bored at the thought of having sex in the same bed in the same few positions in the same way. Then I told him I wanted to connect with him more intimately during sex. Maybe I’m just getting to that point where I want to crack open a hot and heavy pulp romance novel. No, but seriously, I want more slow touching and soft talking instead of the pornographic acrobatics. Or lazy bantering over who’s on top this time. Finally, I just don’t always feel sexy, leaning too heavily on my physical appearance. The thought of my stomach jiggling around just kind of turns me off.

And he was okay with that, actually relieved that it wasn’t because I didn’t like him anymore. So after talking it out, we came up with a compromise because the physical part of our relationship is very important to us, not the most, but still essential. I would break the work like sex schedule. And we would to work on being more spontaneous and focus on our intimacy.

I understand that this sort of compromise is harder than it sounds. Luckily though, Sean and I had a vacation coming up, so that would be a perfect opportunity to re-establish our mojo, something that was quite impressive long ago. We’re the couple who have had sex in a stairwell under a towel. In the woods pressed up against a sappy tree. In a children’s park (at night with no children around, don’t worry, folks). One summer we jumped a fence while drunk and went skinny dipping in some poor soul’s heated pool. We easily forget how sexy (slightly creepy) we used to be, how electric we felt about each other.

So, we saved and planned for a road trip to Orlando with stops in Memphis, Gatlinburg, and then Atlanta on the way home. Illinois, the majority of it being rural (easily forgotten in Chicago or the suburbs), is a tough state to drive through. It’s basically one long, gaping scar of corn. Driving through, I found myself still clinging to my busy, stressed life back home. Sean would grab my hand every now and then, but instead of concentrating on the pressure of his hand on mine, I was distracted with the overwhelming undertones of worry, of which I feel I have little control.

And Sean too is busy. He is one of the go-to dudes at his job and works harder than anyone I know. Needless to say, we warily pulled into our hotel in Memphis around 12:00 a.m. Bug guts were splattered all over our windshield, and exhaustion clouded our eyes.

A rock like sleep in Memphis was all it took to jump start our eagerness to enjoy our vacation and each other, and most importantly—to freaking RELAX.

Our first excursion began with the Memphis Zoo. A little on the Memphis Zoo: though it’s a small zoo, it has hands down some of the best exhibits and most interesting animals. Brookfield Zoo is the rave in Illinois, but especially on weekends during the summer, it’s swimming with kids with sticky fingers pressed up or knocking on the glass of each exhibit, and generally people who shove past you to get a closer view than you.

We went to the Memphis Zoo on a Saturday at noon. No big crowds, no rude elbows. Everyone was polite. I didn’t feel like punching anyone in the face. Not to mention the zoo had pandas, panthers, and a bunch of other animals I have never seen up close.

The bonobo monkey was one of the animals I have never seen. It’s basically like any other chimpanzee I have seen— cocoa bean brown and mid-sized (compared to other primates) with stringy arms and big, pink gums. Except there was one crucial difference—its private parts.

Bonobo 2 Bonobo monkey

The two female bonobos we saw wore their coconut sized, pink, spongy-looking vaginas on the outside of their bodies. And it was as if these parts were turned inside out. Sean and I exchanged awkward glances and tried to not to look the bonobos’ appendages directly head-on.

The bonobos turned out to be an entertaining lot. At first they were lazing around and uninterested in anything aside from picking bugs out of their fur. And then, one of them, stuck her whole fist into her mouth until she vomited.

Everyone watching – Sean and I, as well as a mother and her two kids – was horrified when the bonobo sat unfazed cupping her leftovers in her hand. She used her unoccupied hand to knuckle over to her pal who was splayed out on a pile of hay fondling her brain of a vagina. The bulimic monkey reached her long arm out and handed the other one half of her handful. They both began to happily munch on puke chunks that looked like cornmeal.

This was probably one of the top 3 most nauseating things I have ever seen. I can safely say the others’ stomachs were churning away too. We stood with our ruined eyes unable to look away. I was the first to start dry heaving, something I willed myself to stop immediately.

We were about to call it quits when the bonobos suddenly dropped their lunch and lunged at each other. The bulimic monkey straddled her friend and began to thrust manically, and they both began to rub their big parts together. The poor, red-faced mother we were standing next to turned and shielded her laughing children. And the bonobos had no care in the world. Once they detached themselves, they sidled over to their food, picked it up, and resumed their munching.

It took a while to get over the nausea, but eventually Sean and I were stomach stable enough to talk about what had occurred. We were left in wonder about these monkeys. What the hell were these things? What was with their weird parts and peculiar sexual behavior? We wanted to know more about these freaks. We decided to hit up the old Wikipedia. See full info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonobo

The bonobo, or the pygmy chimpanzee, is an endangered ape. It is popularly known for its overly interested nature in sex. As it turns out, the bonobo uses sex to satisfy arousal and affection needs, resolve conflict and reduce stress, and for social status.

Bonobos like to get in on in a variety of positions and with different combinations of partners—male and female. This explains the female on female clit rubbing we witnessed. They are the only non-human animal to do it missionary style, French kiss, and perform oral sex.

Oh, and the bonobo has a clitoris that is three times bigger than a human’s. That’s a lot of surface area to stimulate. The clitoral grinding happens about “once every two hours on average.” And this behavior is not just exclusive to the ladies. The male bonobos have a “penis fencing” ritual that they partake in as well.

That’s a lot of sex, Sean and I thought. (Side note: If this isn’t prime proof we evolved from monkeys and are meant to be homosexual, heterosexual, or anything in between, I don’t know what is). We read on to find out they are one of the least aggressive breeds of monkey. That means that sex chills these guys the hell out.

Sean and took a leaf from the bonobos’ page and enjoyed the rest of our night together in Memphis. We sauntered around lazily on Beale Street, soaking in the city’s deep love of music. Sipping vodka concoctions out of orange swirly straws and fishbowls, we listened to the feel-good grooves oozing from every pore in the street.

Sarah Memphis Sean Memphis

Local musicians exposed their souls. We saw a 300 pound man in overalls play harmonica and barrel through bluegrass songs; a woman with a large fro and no bra belt out blues like it was everyone’s business to know what she was feeling in that moment; a scrawny 20-something sail through Free Bird on guitar like he was strolling through a park. In any case, I’d take any of their layers and raw musical talent over American Idol any day.

Memphis Memphis 2 Memphis 3 BB kings

Memphis, one of the birth cities of blues, was buzzing, no gyrating, inside Sean and me. We realized how caged we both were and began rattling the bars of monotony. How were we living like this? What was stopping us from experiencing each other?

We could barely keep our hands off each other by the time we reached our hotel. Sean kept losing his hands in my hair. In the elevator, his eyes roamed my body. I felt my face heat up with an electric smile as I eyeballed his button down shirt, plucking them open one by one in my brain.

I didn’t think it was possible for a couple that has been together for nearly 7 years, but we explored each other like it was the first time. When it was over, our souls belched like they just had a meal of a lifetime. How do we keep this going when we get home? we asked.

Maybe next time I come home with my hands balled up in tight fists, I can remember how good it feels to let go, to forget the day’s past, and to simply fall into Sean’s arms since I know he’s there to catch me. And I’m here to catch him. And we could fix the kinks and tighten the loosening screws of each other. When it’s all over, we can feel a little more like the unique, separate selves we are meant to be together.

I have someone who accepts me for who I am—who loves me enough to let me broadcast our sex life all over the internet, I remind myself. I need to stop acting like my life is miserable because it’s not. I just need to let go of pointless bouts of road rage and other useless bits of anxiety over things I can’t control. All that meaningless stuff should be just as funny to me as it used to be. Then maybe, just maybe I can finally unbutton my pants and enjoy my sex, too.