Story: Sacred Ground

Sacred Land

Encounters with National Parks, Sorted Alphabetically

Arches, UT, 21 years old

We never made it to Arches. We were supposed to end our road trip there, but the day of, Sophia got food poisoning. She apologized profusely and I told her over and over again that it was okay. When she told me that I looked upset, I didn’t know what to tell her except that I didn’t want to be. She spent most of the day emptying her guts into the toilet of our hastily booked motel room, her retching continuing long past the point when the contents of her stomach ran dry.

I lay on the bed, my hands plastered around my ears to drown out the sounds coming from the bathroom. I bit my lip as hard as possible to stop myself from screaming like I was a child again.

Carlsbad Caverns, NM, 15 years old

The word vast bounced around my head the entire day I spent in the park. I kept stopping myself from whispering it as I was led through the caverns and tunnels by a chirpy tour guide. She told us about how a movie, one that was not National Treasure but I can only remember as National Treasure, had been filmed in the park. My parents gasped along with her, and I wondered if they had even heard of the movie she was talking about. I spent the whole trip imagining what would happen if the ceiling of the cavern simply came loose and whether it would fall in a mountain of pebbles or just one great slab. 

Crater Lake, OR, 21 years old

It was Sophia’s idea to spend the summer between Junior and Senior year road tripping through as many national parks as possible. We didn’t so much choose Crater Lake as assume it; it was the only national park in Oregon. We didn’t plan ahead enough to get a campsite in the park itself, and so we stayed in a state park forty minutes away – spending our days hiking in circles upon circles around the lake and our nights relearning everything we had forgotten about camping. Despite having seemingly identical trees and basically equivalent nature, each time we came home felt like a letdown against the beauty we saw during the day. 

Sophia couldn’t seem to sleep those first few nights, instead telling me about fractal theory and how it determined the shapes we saw in the world around us, how everything we knew and loved was just layers upon layers of math. In an attempt to reciprocate, I told her about the wolves in Yellowstone Park, the way stalagmites and stalactites form, and how we get the end of the world all wrong, how we write stories we call apocalyptic in which the earth keeps on spinning around the sun.

Death Valley, CA/NV, 6 years old

One of the first memories I have is from my family vacation to Death Valley. My brother and I were out searching for scorpions – a favorite pastime of ours that we never told our mother about – when suddenly we all heard a noise that sounded like apocalypse. My brother later told me, in great and clearly squandered detail, the make, model, and various trivia of the military plane that was passing over us. I don’t remember what the plane looked like. What I do remember is the sound that consumed every part of me, as if my blood had turned to needles. The noise of the plane was joined by all too human screams – my own, though they didn’t feel connected to me at the time. My most vivid memory from that trip is spending the rest of the day with my eyes stinging because of all the sand that had found a home in them. Every time I complained, my father chastised me because I had been the one flinging the sand around in the first place. Two months and a plethora of psychiatrists later, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Death Valley, CA/NV, 21 years old

We meant to go hiking in Death Valley, but were quickly deterred by the all-consuming heat. I tried to convince Sophia it would be fun at first, but when the simple walk from our car to the trailhead had both of us ready to collapse onto any surface not made out of cactus, we decided to give up and just look at the historical and geological facets of the park.

When we told my mother how we were defeated by the desert heat, she laughed at us. She told me there couldn’t be a clearer sign that I had been away from home for too long, that the Pacific Northwest had just made me soft. When Sophia laughed along with her, I decided that I probably should too.

Glacier, AK, 28 years old

Lana told me that when she was a kid, the titular Glacier was so close that you could touch it. When we went together, there were only a series of signs telling us where it would have been if we’d gotten there that many years earlier.

Grand Canyon, CO, 21 years old

After a week at my parents’ house, I was glad to be on the road again. The Grand Canyon was the park Sophia was looking forward to the most, and she was practically buzzing in the driver’s seat as we headed toward the park. For my part, I had spent the last few days anticipating a question I hadn’t wanted to answer about my relationship with Sophia. It’s not like there wasn’t a clear answer to the question — at that point nothing had ever happened between us — but it still somehow felt like a lie. My anxiety was for nothing; if my parents had noticed anything odd about our friendship, they were as unwilling to broach the subject as I was. 

Sophia spent the whole day with eyes the size of the moon, as if having more surface area would allow her to take more sensory information in. When I looked out at the Canyon, however, I couldn’t help but feel cheated in some way. When I was in high school, one of the passages I had to analyze on my PSAT talked about how the Grand Canyon will never feel as grand to someone who already anticipates what it looks like. It claimed that no one could ever see the Grand Canyon fully, but rather 1/10,000th of the Grand Canyon watered down by every person who had seen it before them.

As the two of us sat on the rocks, watching the sunset over the canyon, I couldn’t help but wonder if Sophia was seeing the same 1/10,000 that I was and just tricking herself into enjoyment – as I had been failing to do all day – or if she could see something in her own fraction that wasn’t in mine, or if she had maybe just cracked the code to seeing the full canyon, totally unadulterated. The fading light and purple hues of the sky framed her face in such a way that made me want to tell her that she was the most beautiful thing I had seen all day, and then want to vomit for even having such a cheesy thought.

Great Basin, NV, 12 years old

In seventh grade, my middle school decided that we needed more appreciation and interaction with the natural world – true to form for Nevada public education. The beauty of the natural world, however, was no match for the oppressive screech of chattering preteens. All I really remember, beyond spending two days shoving my fingernails into the palms of my hands until they started bleeding, was whispering with Alexandra Murphy late at night in our shared (albeit assigned) room. I had, up to that point, admired and envied her from as afar as you can get in a small school. That night was the first time we had ever properly spoken. Somewhere close to 3 AM she convinced me to kiss her, claiming it would be good practice for our future boyfriends. The kiss was wet and sticky, nothing like the sterile warmth I had imagined. Even now, I cannot think about that field trip without smelling the sickeningly sweet jasmine perfume she wore.

Joshua Tree, CA, 25 years old

I had a vague memory about how the oldest tree in the world grows in California, but scientists hadn’t revealed its exact location so that it wouldn’t become a tourist attraction. Somewhere in my mind some wires crossed and I became convinced that it was growing in Joshua Tree. We spent our whole time in the park musing that we may be looking at that one oldest tree. It wasn’t until we were driving away that Sophia looked it up and informed me that I had the right state but the wrong region.

Mesa Verde, CO, 27 years old

The tour guide my mother insisted on us having was, to her credit, more knowledgeable than I was on the history of the Pueblo people who used to inhabit the city carved into Mesa Verde. That wasn’t saying very much; before I went to the park I knew nothing at all. She told us what we – a word she used liberally – know about this old civilization, how the people might have lived, what each structure would have been used for. She let us take a ladder down into one of the dwellings, which was empty except for sunlight and dust. I tried to imagine the woman who used to live here. What her dreams were, what got her up in the morning, what she did other than survive each day, how she would feel about me standing here. I attempted to flesh out this woman relying only on the information provided by the tiny, probably college student smiling at me from the top of the ladder.

Mount Rainier, WA, 24 years old

Sophia and I lived in Seattle for almost two years before we ever made it out to Mount Rainier. We kept meaning to, but between her grad program and my job it just kept not happening. When we finally did go, it was with another couple from her new accounting firm. The three of them babbled on about tax laws that I couldn’t follow and I kept slowing down and then speeding back up with the hope that a conversation I could contribute to would magically appear. Eventually it seemed that the man remembered I was there, and he asked me what I did for a living. I prattled on some rehearsed jargon about copyediting. Sophia chimed in to boast about how I’m going to be a lawyer, as if there was anything else to do with a BA in philosophy.

I was more than ready to power through the rest of the way when Sophia called me to stop and look at the view. I stared out at what felt like the whole of Washington State, sprawling out before me, and all the patterns of trees and hills, placed too perfectly for it to feel like a mistake. The others started talking about how every accountant they knew was an outdoorsman on the weekend, tossing around jokes about the relative comfort of their day-to-day. I exhaled, imagining that I wam blowing out the stress that lived in my bones. From up there it looked like I could hold the whole state, and my entire life with it, in the palms of my hands.

Olympic National Park, WA, 19 years old

During our semester on environmental ethics, the Reed College Philosophy Club decided to use Memorial Day weekend as an excuse to go on a camping trip. I spent most of my time away from the main horde, trading my knowledge of enlightenment-era philosophers and camping skills for Sophia’s information on identifying edible local plants and which lesbian movies weren’t garbage. Halfway through a hike in which the two of us landed so far ahead of the rest of the pack that it almost felt like we were truly alone, I found myself in the middle of saying I was going to visit every national park that the country had to offer. I said it with the conviction of someone who had dreamed of it for years, as if it had always been somewhere at the edge of my thoughts, despite never having occurred to me once before in my life.

Redwoods, CA, 21 years old

With Yosemite as my only point of reference, I had come to California expecting to do serious climbing. Instead, Sophia and I spent our hike marveling at just how little variation there was in the path. The flatness and the massive nature of the trees made it feel like there was nothing else – just me, Sophia, and redwood trees until the ends of the earth. 

We never agreed on which one of us first observed how alien this forest was when compared to the image of the woods we had come to expect from fairy tales and fantasy novels, but somehow the better part of our hike was spent trading thoughts on what a story in the redwoods would look like. Over the course of hours we developed an intricate world and characters, analyzing how the shape of the woods would change the shape of the civilizations around them. We promised ourselves we would write it down when we got back to the car, but neither of us remembered. All I can recall of our story now was that it was about a young girl who got lost in the woods – the deeper she went the more wonderful and horrifying things she found – and that we couldn’t agree on how it should end.

Sequoia National Park, CA, 21 years old

We were already deep within the park before we even realized it was there. I asked Sophia to tell me what my next turn was, but instead of responding with left or right, she gave me a yelp of excitement. She said that we had to get out, right then, and explore it. The thought of four hours to our next campground and setting up a tent in the dark paralyzed my vocal chords. She began pointing to a place where we could pull off and the only image my mind could conjure up is driving the car directly into the metal gate on the far side of it and continuing on straight into the trees. I kept driving, and she became more insistent that I pull over, why wasn’t I stopping, was I even listening to her? I finally gained enough control of my voice to say I didn’t think it was a good idea. She made me promise we would go to Sequoia next time we had a chance.No further conversation on what next time would look like, or if it was even particularly likely, took place.

Sequoia National Park, CA, 25 years old

The fight over whether we had time for Sequoia during the drive down to UCLA was more heated than either Sophia or I were ready for. I told her that we’d already been there, and didn’t have time for both there and Joshua Tree, and she furiously told  me that we’d never said we’d been to France despite spending four hours in the Paris Airport. We finally decided on the less-than-happy compromise that we’d get out of the car and look around a bit as we drove through it.

The whole trip took about thirty minutes and a few hundred photographs. We didn’t talk about the tense discussions that had brought us there, we just laughed about how silly the squirrels looked and kept saying how we really had to spend more time there some day. 

When we got into the car Sophia turned to me. “Thank you,” she said softly, as if it were a confession, “for doing that with me.” And she stared at me like I was supposed to do something, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell what. 

I squeezed her hand in mine and then started the engine.

Sequoia National Park, CA, 30 years old

I went to Sequoia one weekend on a whim. I woke up one morning thinking about Paris, and how I’d promised I would go to all the parks, and I’d never really learned how to lie, not even to myself. 

The drive was quieter and longer than I had bargained for – as if it were a study in the vastness of the American highway. I was road dazed and sore by the time I got to the entrance of the park, but some part of me that knew it had no clue what it was saying asserted that hiking would help. As I began my walk, I started humming an old song my father had sung to me as a child. The trees stood tall and thick around me, like thousands of pairs of outstretched arms.

Yellowstone Park, ID/WY/MT, 18 years old

I had been independently studying the phenomenon of wolves being reintroduced to the United States for months after hearing about it briefly in the environmental science class I had chosen to take instead of physics. On this trip I primed my family to be glad I was leaving for college by talking non-stop about how Yellowstone was at the forefront of the experiment, and each and every fact about how the wolves correspond to the environment that was in my oversaturated head. I tried to explain, over and over, how incredible it was that the removal of a single species could so drastically alter the health of an ecosystem, and all the implications inherent in the fear that humans felt toward the process even in the face of all contradicting fact. We toyed the whole time with the idea of visiting Old Faithful, but none of us could muster up the required enthusiasm. 

Yosemite, CA, 10 years old

My parents booked our cabin in Yosemite almost a year in advance – which seemed ridiculous to me at the time. They were so proud of themselves for thinking ahead – or to be more precise, my father was proud that he could drag my mother into a thorough plan in spite of her chronic aversion to thinking ahead. My primary feeling on the drive to California was a sense of anticipation that I would finally get to experience all of the outdoorsy survival skills that the Girl Scouts had spent the last three years neglecting to teach me in favor of guerrilla marketing strategies and how to apply glitter glue to various surfaces. My primary emotion while I was in the park itself was a bewilderment at just how many people there were no matter where you turned. We spent a full week there, watching the leaves slowly turn to golds, scarlets, and ambers. My mother stared at them wistfully, saying at least three times a day how we just don’t get leaves like that in Elko. She talked about her New England childhood more that week that I’ve heard from her in the 20 years since. My father just kept commenting, as if we simply hadn’t fully contemplated its philosophical implications the other times he said it, that with surroundings this beautiful, Ansel Adams must be a hack. It wasn’t until two years later that I found out who Ansel Adams even was.

We had a full, non-stop itinerary for the first five days of our trip, but on that fifth day we had one fully empty afternoon. While my parents were busy at the Yosemite Village gift shop, and my brother shut himself in his room with his Nintendo DS, I floated out of our little cabin and made a beeline for the untamed woods. My mother later asked me what I had been thinking, and while I now know she didn’t really want an answer, my young self tried and failed to provide one for her. All ten-year-old me could say is that the forest wanted me to go, which was apparently not a satisfactory justification for my apoplectic parents. A park ranger found me, five hours later, singing some of the Irish folk songs my father had taught me. I was sitting on the bank of a creek, legs dangling in the water and capri pants rolled all the way up to my thighs. The biggest thing I remember now is how she smiled at me and offered to drive me back to the village as if I had a choice in the matter. During the drive, she explained to me the importance of staying on the path and never going out into the wilderness without telling anyone. Her calm, kind demeanor didn’t prepare me for the special kind of outrage that only frightened parents can muster up. The rest of the night was filled with tears, screams, too tight hugs, and a thorough examination of every inch of my body for ticks. 

Three weeks later, the first assignment we were given in my fifth grade class was to create a poster explaining ourselves as human beings on a single piece of cardboard. The only part of the project I remember now is how I put “park ranger or The President” in the section about what I wanted to be when I grew up, and how I felt that all the girls in my class who put “mother” in the same section had somehow broken the rules.

Yosemite, CA, 21 years old

When trying to find a campsite anywhere near Yosemite, I finally appreciated the efforts my parents had made ahead of time when we went as children. The closest we could get was a park almost two hours out. We promised ourselves on the day we were meant to be there that we would wake up early, so we would have time, but the couple in the spot next to us spent the night in a screaming match that demanded full attention even when we didn’t want to give it. When it became clear that they had no interest in letting me sleep, I just left. I followed the trail out of the campground, not really caring where it took me as long as it was away from the noise. 

When I got back, Sophia was dissolving into tears, telling me how dangerous it was, how scared I had made her, how happy she was that I was okay. She pulled me into a tight and unexpected hug, and it felt like cold water replaced my blood as she did. We made up for the sleep lost by not hearing our alarms the next morning, our plans of an early Yosemite start dashed before our day had even begun. We spent the morning in a mad dash, the nausea growing inside of me only being exasperated by our choice to skip breakfast.

When we finally made it to the park, we didn’t have time for the hike we had planned, so we took the first short one we could find on our map. It was only half way through our hike that I realized I had done it before with my parents as a child. I began reminiscing about that trip, and for the first time in years remembered my careless voyage into the woods. Thinking back to that little girl marching into the wilderness practically begging it to kill her, I just wanted to grab her shoulders and shake her as hard as I could until I didn’t remember we were the same person any more. I told Sophia stories of my memories from Yosemite, consciously tiptoeing around that particular episode. As we drove away, some part of my still-living father’s spirit possessed me to tell her that with such natural beauty, it really threw Ansel Adams’s talent into question. She told me she had never heard of him.

Zion National Park, UT, 21 years old

We managed to snag an actual camp spot in the park itself, something we hadn’t managed at any other national park. With the need to travel eliminated, Sophia and I were able to breathe for the first time in a while. We didn’t have an itinerary at this park, instead just taking whatever path we pleased at the beginning of each day.

One night I was tending to our campfire when, without any warning, Sophia leaned over and kissed me. My body sputtered and then began kissing back. I prayed that I was moving correctly, that I put my hands in the correct spot, that she couldn’t feel my legs shaking. My heart beat so hard it hurt and I kept telling myself that that was a good thing, that this was what it was supposed to feel like. On my own in the showers that night I began crying, but I couldn’t explain to myself what I had to cry about.

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