Fewer words now. Fewer dreams, too. The fears encroach as shadows and questions, unknowns to
blunder into like chasms that open between cliff faces, difficult to see -- and difficult to fall into unless one is going blindly down canyon. Or into the night.
At night there is clarity of mind. I begin to breathe and feel the long day. Many long days exhale, exhume themselves and take shape as I hike up the road. They are crisp and sad-looking, like old garments hung on clothes hangers. They do not fit anymore. Not here, in the crisp cool evening by the mustard tufts and lavender, by the volcanic tuff and scraggly, wind-thrashed juniper. Old days gone by. They can be learned from, can't they? And mended and tailored to fit this night.
Nothing dramatic here. Just a friend in pace with me. A trust that is born of familiarity, broken trust, and redemption. Perhaps that is the truth in the long-ago love of mine that was named God. That we are all of us looking for redemption. Not because we have all sinned, no. But because we have all lost ourselves and, on going finding, have hurt each other. That is the longing. Forgive me. Accept me whole. Love me whole.
I walk up into these hills to a quiet saddle. The wind has gone to rest. Stars are out. A first quarter moon spreads its sallow lonely stain over the surrounding constellations. I do not know them. But I can love strangers, too.
Moon, forever chasing the path of the sun, never to catch her.
"I trust you," I tell my friend, who may be asleep for all the sleeping bag stirs. How did it happen, this intimacy?
Sometimes, a meteor falls through the sky and I am full of breath at the wonder. I squint and follow a satellite's turning -- brightening, fading journey -- ever, always. And I close my eyes, remembering the way the upper canyon, west of us, looked after the rain event came and shredded the path, boulders pulverized to chalky dust. Wasteland. And pockets of new growth, as slender and secret as shut eyelids, returning -- ever, always. I let go and my spirit goes to rest with the wind, to seek after what cannot be found.
Fewer undertakings. Fewer words. But there is quiet trust and love here. And redemption.
As I'm sitting here trying to sort a spiritual experience into shelved little paragraphs for consumption, all I can think about are my feet and legs. My thighs wail when I bend down. I can feel the blisters on my feet compress and spread as I take a step. The patchwork of scrapes on my knees. Minus the seeping burn on my thumb, the torso fared much better, but I can still feel a dull soreness when I rotate my shoulders. This pain will take time to heal.
I truly love that it will. I wryly smile when weary muscles stretch and scream, when sharp pain shoots from my feet, rushing through the nerves and straight to the brain. I beam with pride as I drag my beaten body down sidewalks and streets. All of my pain plucks me from the city and drops me back into the weekend, back to the swirling wind atop Spud Rock.
To running my hands through the tall grass of Mica Meadow. To lying aimlessly on monolithic stone and feeling life all around me, encompass me, permeate my flesh and bone and synthesize me into itself.
It almost seems cheap to just talk about it. The wilderness, Real Life, must be experienced to fully appreciate. But we'll try it anyway.
Last weekend I went on a backpacking trip into the Eastern region of Saguaro National Park. The wilderness there has had a tight grip on my heart since last summer when I went on my very first backpacking trip. Six months prior to my introduction to the woods I had left my first serious, and by any measure godawful, relationship. I had spent my time rediscovering myself and licking my wounds when a coworker suggested that I get out for a long weekend. She recommended Saguaro because it's close to town, perfect for the transportationally–challenged, like myself.
I owe her more than she'll ever know. That trip was transformative. It kickstarted my passion for hiking and a deep love for the wild. I found the last piece of myself in those woods, a piece I had been trying to fashion and shoehorn into the rest of the puzzle. Practically it should have been a disaster. I went during monsoon season with no proper water treatment, a leaky tent, and a 40+ pound pack. But the woods (and the generous Forest Rangers) were kind to me. I had always intended to go back, and after plans for a trip through the Blue Range Primitive Area fell through, an opportunity presented itself.
I had learned much in a year, having gone on a handful of other backpacking trips. I bought a fancy new tent. I had found a cheap and effective means of treating backcountry water. I cut my pack weight to about 30 pounds. But oddly enough the most important piece of gear I packed was probably the most impractical.
For entertainment I brought a biography on Eustace Conway, one of the last American frontiersmen in the country. Eustace lives entirely off his land. He can create a roaring fire from two sticks. He hunts and forages for his food. He sleeps in a small teepee. He travels around the country espousing the benefits of living harmoniously with nature, how through our pursuit of convenience we've created an artificial existence in hollowed brick-and-mortar boxes that rest on the battered corpse of what was once a thriving natural landscape.
It's an inspiring biography but I suppose that I'm biased. You would be, too. City life had been crushing me before I ran away to live in the woods. My work had become unfulfilling and frustrating. A good friendship had been waning. I had been rejected by a rare soul I had felt strongly connected to. Truthfully I rarely feel fully comfortable in most social settings. I tend to shy away from big events and outings that most would consider engaging. So maybe I'm just an antisocial bastard and Eustace is telling me what I want to hear: People suck, civilization sucks, sell all your shit and go live out in the woods forever.
But I doubt it. I lived his words. I would lie in my tent at night, absorbing his knowledge, and experience his reality the following morning. How all of nature melds into a beautiful cycle of life and death, drought and deluge, searing flame and soothing wind. Spud Rock gives the best views of the Rincons and from there I could see the simple truth of Eustace's words. Swaths of new pine growing next to blackened, charred stump. A lone sapling rooted right into a massive boulder. Deep pools of water in streams that would be bone dry in a matter of weeks.
I was alive. I wasn't making a living, I was just living. As I hiked further into the forest I could feel life surrounding me and engulfing me into its cycle. I felt accepted and loved and connected to everything. This was Real Life that you could feel in the wind, hear when the birds took flight, smell in the dense pines, taste in the flowing water. Eustace says that humans live in boxes, that our geometry runs opposite to the natural lifecycle. We work in boxes, we sleep in boxes, we're entertained by the television box, we work on computer boxes, we eat food in boxes. All lifeless, manufactured boxes that do not foster nor encourage Real Life. The Beats tried to find meaning and a sense of self through manual labor. They left academia and the lofty institutions inherited from their families to work on oil rigs and railroads. I had already found myself last summer. I labored over 12 miles and 6,000 feet in elevation to complete myself. This time I was looking for a life to live, and I found it. I found my home.
What can fill you with more confidence than finding where you belong? How can any problems from the boxes seem significant when you've lived a Real Life, even for just a few days? Work will always be frustrating. Friends will always disappoint you. Women will always come and go. None of it matters when you're in nature. Every task is manual labor. Hike to this point. Make camp. Find water. Eat food. Sleep. Hike some more. Work is everywhere and there is a sense of accomplishment in everything. You're a small piece of something magnificent. You’re living with your environment rather than simply in it.
The wilderness is my home. It's everyone's home. We're all from there. Nature still welcomes us with open arms, melding us into the cycle like we never left it at all. Don't just go outside. Go out into the wild. Carry 30 pounds on your back and run up a mountain. Scrape your knees on bedrock when you're dragging water from the river. Get blisters on your feet from hiking too much. Burn your thumbs on a campfire. Make your muscles sore. Climb to the highest point on the mountain and see how small and inconsequential your city is. Go outside, go home, live a Real Life, then go back to your housebox and relish in your pain. Just fucking live.
He entered my life Godlike on another summer night in Tucson. His smile lit me up like an electric eel. An electric eel God. Unloosed, rootless, he worked as a strip-club cook. I admired his freedom from the fishbowl windows of the resort where I served spinet tomatoes and poured nineteen-dollar water. I wanted to start over, working myself lead tired, sober in an intoxicated world.
He wanted, I think, to win money—lottery money, casino money, quick, magical money—but most of the time he ended up with a string of arrests in towns he would try to never visit again. We met in the neighborhood, where His mother lived a few blocks away from me passed out on a dirty mattress the one time I saw her. He said she was drunk. He didn’t say anything about the four hardback library books stacked on her redolent kitchen counter, but he did act as if she had raised him to be a good man, somehow between the shelter and the street. I knew he was a good man because he looked me in the eyes the first time he made love to me. Tom Waits sang in the back of my mind. Women falling out of windows in expensive clothes.
I yearned to become pregnant, wanting to bind him to my body, electrocute myself alive. Instead and soon he left for Montana or San Francisco or Eugene or one of the million and ten cool-sounding places wanderers go after they win your heart, the one they never wanted to win.
I ran away. I found Him. We made love in rented rooms, hourly rooms, my fingernails skidding along the windowsills of sobriety. I had a job, briefly, in a wine shop. I never slept outside. I parsed out $20 for hostel rooms. I slept on a couch or two. How long would I have had to stay in that place to claim homelessness as my story? Homeless. Grimly bohemian. I was both. I was neither, but there were nights that drew lines.
Memory-transcript of a phone call to an old friend:
I’m sitting down on the street.
Where are you?
Below Market somewhere.
Is there somewhere you can go? Just get the room. Spend the money.
Thanks to her voice I never found out whether, on my own, I would have stood up.
I left town, left town, left town.
I got over him. Ugly over. By sleeping with too many men, men from whom I wanted nothing. I pretended to want their love but I sought solace instead in money, stability, working my way up front-line management jobs no one else wanted. I leased apartments to the downtrodden, and when I had to, I evicted strangers like Him to retain my position, saving every paycheck until one day the shadows of that story, the one I could never claim as mine, receded. I was no longer one of them anymore.
Still and for years I met him in hotel rooms once every few months—until an unforgivable rumor rear-hooked me with primitive teeth and I deleted the real Him from my life. At the same time he was becoming a story. I gave it a title, “The Narrow Bed,” and in my mind our love looked like Van Gough’s bed, dizzy and skinny and faded and beautiful. It looked like the hostel where he lived when he didn’t live on the street, a dreary cinderblock Paradise.
Years later, Bird’s Thumb published “Shelter,” the final version of the story that would become my grip on paradise, the story of a life I adopted for a while and then handed back to people like Him. The story was never mine to begin with. The story is mine. Lumping the word story with the word mine is useless. It is life. Life is a story and stories are Gods. They light up, electric, blazing trails in the distant dark before crashing to a fallen place the eye that spied them will never, ever find again.
Don’t go looking for stories, He would say. Look for Gods.
Lisa Levine likes to read topographic maps. She writes landscape adventure stories and teaches full-time at Pima Community College. Editors Sahar Mustafah and Anita Dellaria nominated her fiction for a 2015 Pushcart Prize, and Bird's Thumb, Cutbank, Kore Press, Edible Baja Arizona, Sonora Review, Zocalo, The Sierra Vista Herald, France Today and The Not For Tourists Guides have published her prose.