All summer long I knew that the only closure I would get would have to come from Hermit’s. I needed to see that you were no long down there, waiting. My heart raged for days before we hit that trail, and I prayed and prayed and prayed that if you were still there, that I would find you. And if you weren’t, that I would learn to stop looking.
When we went back down Hermits a week before I left, the Canyon fought back with everything it had. We packed as light as all get out and I felt sick knowing that if you were down there, I wouldn’t have enough to save you. The whole hike down I looked for you in every crevasse, I looked for you between boulders and under trees, I believed that I would be able to see your plaid shirt someplace that everyone else had missed. You were everywhere. I saw you crawling across every rock layer, gaunt and accusing and ready for salvation, and I was so afraid to touch you with these cursed hands of mine. When we reached the place where we met, I stopped breathing. I kept hiking but I stopped breathing until I could no longer maintain that kind of anabolic activity and sat down midtrial and erupted into tears. My hiking group joined me and Jamie’s calm lake aura settled on my shoulder while Joe and Jacob looked skeptically from rocks across the path. It took ten minutes of hyperventilation and telling you not to come back unless you were coming back until we were able to push on. I lost feeling in my hands and face but when we reached Hermit’s creek, I felt at ease.
My friends made me laugh every second of that hike and I slipped into a post-panic attack nap with my head propped up on a rock and the bubbling stream of life slowly rocking my ears to sleep. After eating dinner and drinking some beer we went to sleep with most of us laid out like sardines, open to the Canyon on top of a blanket. I didn’t sleep a wink. I felt bugs crawling all over us and I stared at the clouds rolling past the starry night sky and I figured if you had turned into a Canyon ghost now was the time you would come pull me over the edge the nearest cliff.
We woke up at two AM to start hiking and within half an hour we encountered a rattlesnake that nearly took off Jamie’s foot and set Joe off on a puking spree. Jamie and I continued on a stupid voyage across the Tonto while the boys went back up Hermits. It was so dark and we had never been on that trail before and I felt like I could slide right off of that darkness over the edge of something no one else in the world has ever seen. I wasn’t suicidal, just disconnected. We got lost some three times and ended up at a washed out campsite with no direction, no sunlight, and no hope. We debated our options and realized that Merril’s wife, and “the experienced hiker”, and you were plaguing both of our minds. This was the place where people disappear and are never found. Only after a massive scorpion that I now know is apparently the most poisonous scorpion in N. America almost made it’s way up my pant leg did we spring out of there back in the direction we came from, almost getting lost once again.
We caught up with the boys and took our sweet time getting out of that rebellious ravine, tossing around the idea that maybe Hermit’s is so terrible because it’s rebelling against the gondola that used to be installed there. Its chaos is a form of resistance to the colonization by humankind. When I exited the Canyon that time, I wasn’t crying and I felt lighter, but I still missed you. I still miss you. And I mourn for the future of that place that will only get less wild from here on out if mankind has anything to do with it.
A good friend of mine recently wrote to me saying, “Leave the Canyon behind. There are much greater adventures to be had…” and I know she meant I have to leave you behind too. But I don’t know how. You were the two minutes I let go, the rope I let slip through my fingers, the trigger my shaking finger pulled without knowing it was even attached to a hand that held a gun. I do not know how to leave you behind. Just as every stranger at night is the man that pressed a knife against my chest, every lone traveler I see is you. They’re all you. I still see that place where we met so clearly, as if Michelangelo himself painted that encounter on the backs of my eyelids. Maybe I am still carrying around the weight of your empty gallon jug. I have taken every step necessary to not think about why my shoulders feel so heavy but God, they feel heavy. Everything here feels heavy, especially the oxygen content of the atmosphere.
I liked to refer to the Canyon as the epicenter of chaos, a spinning blackhole that pulls reality apart the closer you get to the edge of it. From day one everything felt dystopian. The tourists felt like visitors to the zoo, completely unknowing of how easy it would be for the tiger in the cage to rip their throats out. Week one, we had the gunman. We lay flattened in our beds giggling out of fear as we watched shadows glint past our window followed by the echo of a cops command. Every week there was something new and unexpected and completely wrong. It was Murphy’s Law, anything that could go wrong, did go wrong, and the closer you got to the edge of the Canyon, the worse it became. There was everything from alarms that went off at random, love triangles, mountain lions, rashes, the girl we found in the woods, landslides, cactus battlewounds, and you. And that’s just the short list. I remember asking my roommate if the national park she had worked at last summer was like this. She said, “no, this is different”.
A few weeks after you went missing, that same roommate speculated that the Canyon wasn’t the black hole of destruction, but that I was. She said that all these things that were happening only happened to her when she was with me. I didn’t want her to be right because that would mean that you would have made it out alive if our paths hadn’t intersected. A week later, she was at the part of the Canyon where that one guy shot himself and I wasn’t there with her and even though I grieved for his life and for that exposure she had to experience, I took it as a sign that maybe, just maybe it wasn’t all my fault. The piece of my heart that lives in England has had made that claim before, the claim that chaos gravitates towards me. He called it The Asfeldt Effect™. I had always just assumed that my life was slightly off kilter, overlapping with a dimension humans are not supposed to be able to perceive. He was the first person to ever make me believe that unpredictability was beautiful.
The whole summer felt like I was just holding my breath waiting for the next piece of chaos to occur, like I was standing frozen in a forest full of dead trees and wind of 40 mph. Who knew when the next log would come toppling down, who knew who would be under it when it landed. After you, I secretly hoped I would be under the next one.
I wonder if I had never met you, if I would be able to let go of Arizona, if coming back to Oklahoma wouldn’t have been/be so hard for me. I still hold my breath every time I see the sun set and I still feel the cardinal pull to the West when I close my eyes. No matter where I was in Arizona, I always knew exactly which direction the Canyon was. It was like a sixth sense that left faint traces of blood along my teeth and no matter how much water I drink, my thirst for desert sand cannot be quenched. I am trying to let you and the Canyon go and I think I am getting there but it still feels an awful lot like I am losing a part of myself in the process, and losing a part of God too. He was so real and relatable and accepting of my neurotic backward hell-bent on running away type of darkness when I sat cross legged at the edge of that void, but here He is starting to feel more and more like expectations I will never meet and answers I will never receive. I know that is not the truth of who He is, but this life is not the truth of who I am and I think the Holy Spirit feels that disconnect.
Now, I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to that land of destructive enchantment, but I do know that it both broke my heart and made me laugh at the same time and I think that means something. It will always be the balance between the nearness of death and the beauty of life. I want to go out into The Beyond with as much bravery as those mountain goats that disobeyed gravity had, but I am still learning to forgive my chattering teeth and eyes that dampen at everything. Please forgive me if one day I walk out into a new daylight and I do not take you with me; I cannot carry you forever. Omar didn’t want me to, and I don’t think the real you would want me to either.
If you’re reading this, and now I’m speaking to all of you, not just Ralph, don’t settle for only telling stories of the past, but lay awake at night next to the hearts that beat for you and write new stories with them in the constellations of every boring nightstand lamp. Hold the hands of those holding your hands and allow your past to stay in your past and allow forgiveness to be a word you recognize in every language. There will be more Canyons and we will find the next fingerprint of God and some people will have enough faith for the rest of us to rest our weary heads and say, “I’m not sure 100% of the time but still I will choose love.” I suppose I will always feel a subconscious pull towards that desolate terrain, but I will choose to keep my eyes fixed on the horizon and I will know that the sun rises just as fiercely on adventures filled with sidewalks and street lamps as it does on adventures filled with rivers and rock layers. May you rest in peace, my Canyon, and may you always bring peace to those that rest in you.