Hint: It’s really all about using your powers of absorption…and drinking enough water.
I started thinking much more clearly about my life – and about blogging – over the summer. I can even tell you the exact day when the buzzing of restlessness in my brain reached a level beyond “frustration” and verging on “intolerance”: June 30th. As I hinted in my last post, much of the urgency I’ve been feeling has come from both a regular tussle with anxiety and an unhealthy relationship with social media. On that day, though, I felt urgency differently – it was really real, and I really trusted the source of it.
Not because of anything profound, I should say, but rather because of what was totally obvious.
When my younger brother, Peter, and I were – well – younger, we were lucky to spend a week or two with my parents every summer in the same place on the Gulf coast of Florida. It was our family’s safe spot away from the reality of day-to-day life, and what it gave back to us for each year that we returned was a better time, a warmer sun, more freckles for our shoulders, and memories saturated with richer colors – orange and blue and gold. Like any pilgrimage, it became ritualistic for better or for worse. In our case, it was for better. As Peter and I were growing out of childhood, we were so fortunate to have a sacred meeting place just for strengthening the foundation of our adult relationship. Its bones are made of seashell bits, its walls of bright, impenetrable sunlight. It was built on an island far removed from here, and that is the crux of it. Like a secret, it was – and is – far away, barely touched, visited seldom, but always the same.
Beyond being able to get away every year, we were fortunate to always go to the same place. It was soothing to return. Each year, my dad would suggest a new destination. His desire was to travel to the mountains as opposed to the coastline. But we always fought him, and he always obliged. We didn’t know then that it was yet another allowance he made for us, or that ritual does not necessarily live or die by the place in which it happens.
This past June, we took a family vacation for the first time since 2008. Seven years is eons. With college over for both of us, a Brian for me and a Lexie for Peter, and our parents older, our family looks different. This year, my dad asked if we wanted to come along but not where we would like to go. Like I said, things are different.
This year, we forewent the beach for the Grand Teton mountains of Wyoming.
When I describe our trip to others – and even when I’m daydreaming about it – I have to be very careful not to exoticize it, or to describe it as something purely magical beyond what it has come to mean for me. I could go on for a long time about all of the things that aren’t tantalizingly romantic about the western US – some of the history, to start. The economy of the part of Wyoming that we visited relies greatly on tourism. And I really do know that a lust for travel is less about where you’re going and more about going somewhere – anywhere – different. Normal is relative.
But I mean, what a STUNNING part of our country! What a lush spread of land! Driving quite literally through the mountains on our way to Teton Village was like navigating the lens of a kaleidoscope; with every turn in the road, the image turned and shifted but the shapes stayed the same. The land is so aware of how coveted it is that it’s made a fortress of itself to protecting what’s living within. I couldn’t help but be touched by that.
It’s the kind of scenery – striking in color, and form, and depth of field – that drives a duo of conflicting urges in a modern twenty-something: 1) a great desire to take 17,000 photos and Instagram the shit out of what you’re seeing; 2) a great desire to throw your smartphone out of the car window, pull over to the side of the road a quarter mile later, and run out into a field, maybe with your real camera (which is an entirely possible scenario driving past Jackson Hole). Both sensations sort of smack you across the face, waking you up from your slackjawed awe, and it’s awfully difficult to decide which to go with.
Where I’m from in New Jersey is fairly rural. I’m accustomed to privacy, to tree-filled space between houses, and to deer and foxes and the occasional black bear. My parents’ home is technically on a mountain, and when you stand at the base of their downward-sloping yard you feel like you are looking up at a distant point. That’s part of how I know it’s all relative.
But, like, this is the BIG leagues. I was ten years old again, standing at the edge of my backyard, looking up at my house and feeling like my legs could never make it back up there.
Talk about whetting your traveling whistle.
On June 30, we took on a fourteen-mile hike through Death Canyon. The Death Canyon trailhead, several miles past the national park’s entrance gate, is deeper into the park than other more popular trails, and is a strenuous trail at a pretty constant incline. Our six-some split into pairs so that we could all move at our own pace.
Two miles into the “warm-up” – essentially the most gradual incline of the trail – led us to an overlook of Phelps Lake.
After leaving the overlook, we hiked a deceptively downhill mile before the remainder of the journey towards Static Peak Divide (which would have been eight miles into the hike had we not turned around, seven miles in, defeated).
Tips on hiking Death Canyon for the tourist / novice hiker / stubborn, mortal human:
1) Wear real hiking boots. Not sneakers, or Crocs (saw it with my own eyes), or flip-flops (seriously, not kidding). You can’t expect to maintain the full functionality of your ankles if you wear any of this footwear on a hiking trail. The first time you eat it on the rocks, you’ll thank yourself for wearing real boots. The first time you put your deliciously waterproof feet in a spring just because you can, you’ll thank the heavens for Gore-Tex.
2) Bring more water with you than you ever think you will possibly need. Bring an embarrassing amount of water. Once you’ve filled your Camelback, fill every other water bottle you can get your hands on. Carry a heavy pack teeming with water so that you do not cook yourself like a weak little raisin at a high elevation in a canyon with no cellular service. (This tip taken from recent, very real experience)
3) Take your pictures with a real camera – a device meant solely for photography – or take mental ones, no device required. You’ll just have to trust me on that one.
Imagine yourself as a single, shiny pine needle. That’s how small you are in this canyon. Fall into the pattern of that mountainous kaleidoscope and pull your small, sweaty body through the ninety-degree heat. Thread yourself through a glacier-formed canyon (so fun to say) where the switchbacks are endless but the view at the turn of each one is more breathtaking than the last. When your legs start shaking, drag yourself forward with your eyes:
How could you not?
That will make you feel real, unimagined urgency: urgency to keep pushing yourself, sure, and to reach water or a soft bed. But even more so, it made me feel urgency to soak all of that startlingly obvious beauty deep into my skin, to get my lens up close on every flower, to close my eyes and open them wide at the same time, to try to describe what makes goosebumps happen even when it’s hot out and how grateful I was to be viewing it all, no filter applied.
An overdose of stimuli was all I needed, I think, to get myself going.
At one point (in between huffs and puffs), I remember whining, “This is the stuff I could be blogging about!”