The airplane is not much bigger than a cigarette, and its wings appear to be fastened with staples, like an art project my kids would bring home from school, but we’re spiritual people, believers in the Great Journey, and so we cross the tarmac with our backpacks and bpa-free water bottles, heads bowed, as if in prayer. Jillian, the heiress, waddles like a penguin in black polypropylene. Charlotte, my old college friend, flip-flops, her toes pedicured cherry red. I am wearing Harley boots for courage and an amulet of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which I rub for luck whenever I fly. Up the wobbly steps we climb. Every seat is both window and aisle. We sit, squeezing our knees. The Xanax-coffee buzz I am nursing fills me with equal parts optimism and apathy. I no longer worry I will die in an airplane. I still worry I may die in a sweat lodge, but I am, as the cliché goes, living in the moment. Perhaps, already, I have absorbed a few lessons of Native American spirituality.
“Where’s Taliyah?” I ask.
Taliyah is the medicine woman who will lead us in Native American practices. Charlotte points ahead to a stocky woman with a blue down coat draped over her head, like a comforter thrown over a lamp.
“What’s she doing?” I ask.
Charlotte says: “She doesn’t like to fly.”
It was Charlotte’s idea to sign up for a women’s hiking trip run by a wilderness tour company with a Native American bent. Most of these “journeys” last a week, but we working mothers want Spiritual Enlightenment delivered over a four-day weekend. In the end, only three women signed up, perhaps because, at $1,400, the trip is expensive, a splurge by any definition. I swing the finances by getting a grant to write an essay about the trip. This is the academic version of singing for your supper.
Fiona, the company’s founder, is traveling with us. She’s a petite woman with wild brown hair and a soft voice and the biggest watch I have ever seen. She looks like she’s about to cry even when she’s smiling. Like Charlotte and me, Fiona is originally from Connecticut, but has washed up in the Midwest. Born near an Indian reservation, Fiona has recently embraced Native American spirituality. Around her neck, she wears a small leather pouch, like she’s going to pay for our gas with trading beads.
The plan is to fly into Cortez, Colorado, and drive to Canyonlands National Park in Utah, where we will camp and hike and learn cool stuff from Taliyah and come back liking our lives, our husbands and ourselves, a great deal more than we do right now. The best part of the trip is that I have not had to plan it. I haven’t even looked at a map. A mother can get like this. Most days, mothers operate like high-speed modems. Has the wet laundry moved to the dryer? Can Madeline spell paleontologist? Did Lincoln wipe his butt? Most days, I am so tired, I don’t want to know anything about anything. Lucky for me, I am a college professor.
The day before leaving Indiana, I got into a fight with my husband. Sometimes I wish Peter would have an affair or lose our life savings in a Ponzi scheme, if only to create fresh drama. Instead, we fight the same fight: I accuse him of not doing enough around the house and he says I do a lot compared to most men and I say but I do more, and he says You need to relax and I say I could relax if you would do more. Here’s what set it off: It was nine o’clock at night and I was helping Madeline with her spelling and Peter had been away for three days and I was exhausted, my eyes raccoon-like, and Peter was lying in bed, on the bed, ankles crossed, reading about Tutankhamen, the Egyptian boy prince. The way I see it, if my husband really loved me he would say: “Darling, let me take over. Take an aromatherapy bath. Pick out a sweater from the Sundance catalogue. Pour yourself a glass of Chardonnay.” That he didn’t say any of this made me feel unloved. When I feel unloved, I become unlovable, petulant, a shrew, slamming around the house muttering: No one picks up anything but me. Peter shouts easily, but recovers just as fast. I simmer, like a pot of black beans. Long after we made up, his last cutting blast hovered over my head like a toxic inversion. “You need to get away. Just go. Get out of here.”
Another, far more serious thing, happened right before I left Indiana. Near Sedona, Arizona, three people died in a sweat lodge during a “Spiritual Warrior” retreat led by New Age guru James Arthur Ray. Armed with his motto, “Create Harmonic Wealth in All Areas of Your Life,” Ray built a self-help empire so successful followers paid $9,000 to attend his retreat in Angel Valley, a Sedona center offering vortex experiences, angel connections and crystal skull meditation. Earlier that week, Ray dispatched followers into the desert for a “vision quest,” a 36-hour solo without food or water. When the exhausted travelers returned, they crammed into a small wooden structure covered with blankets and plastic while Ray’s “Dream Team” hauled in steaming rocks. People vomited and fainted in the heat. A few crawled to safety. Ray, meanwhile, sat outside in the shade, periodically rousing himself to exhort his disciples: “You’re not going to die. You may think you are, but you’re not.” But three people did. James Shore, 40, and Kirby Brown, 38, lost consciousness and could not be revived. Liz Neuman, 49, fell into a coma and died nine days later. That this supposedly religious ceremony ended in three fatalities was not only tragic, but ironic. The goal of a sweat lodge, according to Ray, is for participants to experience spiritual rebirth.
Our toy plane has Tourette’s. Hipishly, we twitch 25,000 feet over the Rockies, quivering above snow-covered ridges that shine in the sun like diamonds or chrome. This is the view I imagine God sees, the heavenly vantage point that reassures him he is an artist of divine proportion. I debate a second Xanax, but decide it will be hard to hike if I am sleeping. Over the engine roar, we chat about our relative fitness and how Jillian and I will keep up with Charlotte, whose personal trainer calls her “the machine.”
“I’ve been in training,” Jillian says. “I can do plank pose for a minute.”
Charlotte does her best to look impressed.
Jillian adds: “I count fast.”
Jillian is a dozen years older than Charlotte and me. She’s 57. Her graying hair is buzzed into a crew cut and she wears thick black glasses and the largest watch I have ever seen before I saw Fiona’s. She’s tall and thin, twitchy like a broom. Her patent-leather black sneakers have a separate compartment for her big toe, like mittens for your feet. I like Jillian right away because I gravitate toward people who complain, exaggerate and prefer chocolate to hiking.
Jillian extracts something from her gear. “Ladies. I brought my eyebrow tweezers for the trip home in case we need some fluffing. A few plucks can make you feel like a princess.”
During the flight, we trade family news. Charlotte tells us her in-laws are getting divorced because her father-in-law had an affair.
“How old is he?” I ask. It seems wrong for couples to divorce past 60.
Charlotte rolls her eyes. “Seventy-one.”
“You’d think he’d have given up on affairs.”
Jillian chimes in. “Some people do. I have a male friend who is 75. One day he told me: ‘You know, Jillian. I’ve outlived my dick.’”
As we fly past long stretches of brick-colored rock, I do not miss my children, but I think of my children. I remember, with some satisfaction, that, while Peter was lying in bed — on the bed — I taught Madeline that the geological formation that I am now admiring is not spelled Plato.
In Cortez, we met Chance, our guide, our cook. Chance is 36, but looks 26. He’s thin and tan wears a hand-knit hat with dangling ties. Chance says a lot with his hands. What Chance says with his hands is that nothing matters much or rather everything matters, but we’re not going to get upset about any one particular thing. Chance conveys this easiness by turning his hands, palms ups, palms down, like he’s cooking a grilled cheese sandwich that will taste good no matter which side lands on top. It’s easy to look at Chance and believe you’re wasting your life.
Chance asks if anyone needs anything before we head into the wilderness.
“Breath mints,” Jillian says.
Chance nods, poker-faced. He is, I can see, a professional.
“Breath mints. OK. Anything else?”
Chance drives his truck. The women climb into a rented SUV. Fiona drives, mom-like, up front with Taliyah. The paying customers, the kids in carpool, are stuffed in back.
“Fiona,” Jillian calls up. “Will we see wildlife?”
“Sure,” Fiona says. She wants her clients to be happy.
Fiona smiles into the rearview mirror. “That’s doubtful.”
Taliyah weighs in. Her deep voice carries the authority of a grandfather clock. “Be careful what you ask for. Be very, very careful.”
“OK,” Jillian says. “We will be precise. We will ask to see a mountain lion at 30 yards, heading the opposite direction, but still offering us a full frontal view.”
Jillian changes subjects: “Did you hear the governor of Texas wants to secede? I say ‘Go for it.’ Take the Bushes and the border guards.”
Charlotte gazes out the window. “That would be great.”
We drive past fields of mustard-colored grasses and purple hills, past silos and grain elevators and dead sunflowers that look like charred bodies from a war. The sky is doing that big-sky thing like it’s a huge bowl over our heads, the color of washed-out denim. It’s October and the cottonwoods are golden chandeliers, shimmering in the breeze. In the distance loom red-rock formations, plateaus and buttes. We pull off at Indian Creek, a Mecca for crack-rock climbing. Climbers scale a sheer six-story face of Wingate sandstone. They cling, in various stages of ascent, neon, bug-like, dangling, debating where to place their foot, a hand. We stare transfixed. We are watching ourselves.
Fiona stops for lunch at Newspaper Rock, a collection of Anasazi Indian paintings engraved on a 10-foot blackened boulder. Taliyah points out The Four Winds, the serpent, the medicine wheel, the ladder to the spiritual world, the robot-looking man whose antennae show he has attained a high state of spiritual awareness.
Taliyah says she’s from the bear tribe, but she reminds me of a badger. She has a crew and a long braid that reaches down her back. Her skin is the color of coffee with cream, and her eyes are small and watchful. She moves slowly and wears a lot of clothes. It is hard to imagine her being a girl, skinny and running. She likes to laugh, although I don’t pick up on this until later because most people I know with a sense of humor don’t whisper, while admiring petroglyphs , “Oh my God. There is a God. The Great Mystery.”
I want to ask Taliyah about her life, but am too shy. Next to her, I feel spoiled and white and worry I’m going to say something stupid and reveal my inner Pocahontas.
On the back of his truck, Chance spreads out lunch: organic chips, tomatoes, cheese, vegetarian baloney.
“Where’s Taliyah?” I ask.
We spot her blue down coat. She appears to be singing to the toilets.
“She is collecting seeds,” Fiona says.
I nod, as if I had been contemplating a similar harvest.
We stand in the parking-lot sunshine, happyhappyhappy to have made our escape. We’re in the Southwest. We are independent women. We can do the plank pose for a minute. I look into the fields of sage and piñon and soak up the emptiness. Taliyah reappears, saying: “If you see me spacing out, I’m focusing on the rocks and listening to the old ones.”
And I think: If you see me spacing out, I’m spacing out.
We camp beneath giant rocks that look like mushrooms. The scenery is stunning but we’re equally excited about the Port-o-Potty. It’s 4 o’clock and we rush to set up tents. Jillian can’t wait to decorate. Charlotte can’t wait to play Kumbaya on her guitar. Taliyah stares at the ground and says, “You can’t tell me where to camp. I need to feel it.”
When the tents are up, Taliyah shows us her seeds. Fiona asks how she will know how to plant them. “We will listen to them and they will tell me,” Taliyah says. “The knowledge is in the hands of all that went before.”
Such earnestness makes me feel squeamish, like a teenager watching a sexy movie with her parents. We never went to church when I was a kid, and I never gave religion much thought until my mother’s breast cancer returned for the third time. We were living in Spain and I started to drop into empty churches and gaze up at the Virgin Mary, imagining my prayers rising into the heavens like cigarette smoke. All over Spain, I tossed Euros in fountains, lit candles, pleaded my case. It didn’t do much good. My mother still died at age 68. She was a healthy woman, a practicing lawyer, an ocean swimmer. She was not ready to go. My nieces, good Episcopalians, worry they won’t see Gran in heaven because she didn’t believe in God. My Dad, now in his seventh decade, is suddenly curious about religion. “I’m waiting for you to take the first step,” he says. He keeps asking me if I’ve thought about going to that nice stone church on the corner. Whenever I walk by it, I debate going in, but the doors are locked, and I don’t have much interest in sitting through a Sunday sermon. I just want to sit.
Sometimes, I think I’ve founded my own religion, one that has no organization. I take a trip. Stuff happens. I write down what people say. Usually I find a bit of God buried in the words, like a palimpsest, writing under the writing, meaning under the words. When I travel, I see things more clearly, feel things more deeply. It’s like I take my heart out of my chest and let it breathe.
Chance fixes dinner. Having a man in coveralls cook for us gives us an erotic charge. Before dinner is even served, we all have crushes.
As the sun sets, I walk out to the gravel road and admire the vastness of the desert. The quiet is stunning. The ground is crusted. The rocks are not moving. The rocks have never moved. The rocks will have the last word. The sun drops below the hills. The air thickens. The red earth glows. Jillian and Charlotte approach on the road.
“You almost expect to see dinosaurs,” Charlotte says. “The earth has gone through so many changes. We’re just a blip, a nanosecond.”
Jillian looks grim. “But think of all the terrible things we’ve done to the planet.”
“Yet, ultimately, I feel hopeful,” Charlotte says. “At least in our lifetimes, our children’s lifetimes, this will all still be here.”
Jillian sets her chin against the cold air. “So long as we get rid of Texas.
Charlotte and I have been friends since college. Both of our mothers died of breast cancer. We both weathered infertility, although I got off easier than Charlotte, who lost two six-month-old babies in utero before having two beautiful children through a surrogate mother. We were supposed to go to our 20th college reunion together, but Charlotte went into rehab instead. I should have seen it coming. Her father drank himself to death. Those last years, he holed up on Cape Cod, a widower, dying of cancer of the esophagus, shooting bourbon into his feeding tube. Charlotte’s youngest sister, on more than one occasion, discovered him collapsed in his own excrement and vomit.
Such horror is hard to fathom when I look at Charlotte, with her bright blond hair and blue eyes. Charlotte is a feminist and a terrific mother and fierce competitor and I would go anywhere with her — except possibly on vacation — because I am looking at four days of camping without a drink. This bothers me more than it should. Most nights, when the kids are bickering and the pasta starts to boil, I pour a glass of wine, and stop at that, but I’d rather climb in the bottle and swim laps. Packing for the trip, I debated stashing mini-bottles in my duffle, but didn’t, because smuggling booze on a Native American retreat would confirm I have a drinking problem or am a complete asshole.
While Charlotte plays guitar, Chance gives us a tip for keeping warm at night: Don’t hold your pee. Otherwise your body wastes energy warming your urine, energy that could be better spent heating your body.
I wonder how many other ways I have wasted my energy. And, if I hadn’t, how warm I might be.
Taliyah rolls her eyes when someone brings up the horrors of Sedona. What she doesn’t say, but what I sense, is that the New Age movement is just another form of white exploitation. Now that we’ve taken Indian land, we covet their religion, pervert it into a caricature for a profit. As if you could learn Native American spirituality from a white guy with a website and a mansion in Beverly Hills.
The oddest part of the Angel Valley story was the ages of victims: 38, 40, 49. They were not young and foolish. They were not old and frail. They were middle-aged. Our age. The age when you should know better. You could dismiss their seeking as just another mid-life crisis, but I bet this shorthand doesn’t do them justice. I imagine they wanted to test their mettle. They wanted to better understand themselves. They wanted to have a spiritual experience, to feel just a little bit happier.
Over appetizers, Taliyah teaches us our first Native American expression: “Giwabna,” which means: “Who’s to say?”
I try it out different ways. “Who’s to say?” “Who is to say?” The phrase grows on me. It seems to concede how little we know. It also feels democratic, like anyone could be God, but it’s probably not your turn today. Taliyah tramps around the campsite, staring into the sand. “I can tell my ancestors walked this land.” This is such a great expression I can’t wait to use it the next time I am Greenwich, Connecticut.
We picnic in the dark. I’m wearing so many layers, my elbows no longer bend. Taliyah gives us a sweat-lodge primer. The sweat lodge, she says, is a symbol of the womb, a place of rebirth. The four doors represent the four directions. The fire is the Grandmother and represents the breath of life. There are four rounds, one for each sacred herb: tobacco, sage, cedar and sweet grass. Native people sprinkle tobacco as a way to give thanks. You put tobacco down to express gratitude to the elders and the earth. Pick a flower, put tobacco down. Pick up firewood, put tobacco down. I’ve been awake since 4 a.m. and Taliyah’s monotone makes me sleepy. Her words blur together, something about the stomach being the center of intuition. Something about the sweat lodge being a time to listen to the small, still voice within.
Ever practical, I ask how long the sweat lodge will last.
Taliyah says it will last as long as it needs to last.
This is not what I wanted to hear. I imagine myself, sweating in my Speedo, dizzy, claustrophobic, wet, crawling into a sleeping bag shaped like a coffin.
Charlotte’s face flickers in the firelight.
Taliyah pauses, and Charlotte says: “I’m in.”
After dinner, to warm up, we walk down a road going nowhere. Nylon swishes between our thighs. The stars are bright and scattered. Jillian keeps bumping into me in a way I find reassuring. We’re talking sweat lodges. Jillian says: “I would hate to have you two come back and say ‘It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever done in my life.’”
Charlotte says: “She had me with the small quiet voice within.”
Jillian says: “I like to be respectful of other traditions, but I do not like to be cold.”
As usual, I am ambivalent. Maybe something amazing would happen, a vision, a purge. “Maybe we can wrap it up in a half hour?”
“Maybe.” Jillian glares at Charlotte. “If some of us can keep our prayers short.”
I can’t sleep. When Yahoo weather said it would be 40 degrees at night in Utah, it didn’t seem so bad. Indiana was 40 degrees at night. What I’d forgotten is that when it’s 40 degrees in Indiana, we sleep in a house. Charlotte snores. Jillian thrashes. It occurs to me a bed is a beautiful thing. Perhaps this sort of gratitude is holy. I debate taking a Xanax. I dream of mini-bottles. I hoard my urine, then drag myself up to pee in the grass. (The Port-o-Potty is so far away, it might as well be in Texas.) A million stars stare down at me, whispering in the cold: Who are you? What are you worth?
In the morning, we compare notes.
Taliyah says: “I smelled wild urine around my tent.”
Jillian says: “That was Charlotte.”
As the sun rises over the rocks, Charlotte does odd stretches she calls pelvis tippers. Jillian complains about her IT bands. I have no idea what either one of them is talking about. In Indiana, we don’t have as many names for the things that ail us. We don’t have as many cures either. Charlotte has a personal trainer, a guitar teacher, a nanny, a yoga teacher, a house cleaner, a life coach, and her AA meetings. I have white wine.
We ready for the hike. Taliyah stays home because her chest feels tight. Chance puts on his Virgin of Guadalupe cap. This ups his coolness factor exponentially. Jillian wears four layers topped off with a black puffer. She’s still cold. Chance’s poop kit hangs on the line, untouched. Charlotte asks if we know how pelicans die. We don’t. She says they go blind by diving. I say I don’t get it. Charlotte says they can’t see the fish and starve to death. And I say, I see.
The sun is up. Everything gleams. Jillian rubs sunblock on her ears. She takes a breath mint, rearranges her gloves and dickey. Her backpack is full of clothing. “Let’s face it, ladies. We have no idea what nature has in store for us.” I look up. The sky is a perfect blue. Jillian says: “Now a drink of water, and I will reveal a new layer.”
We set out on an 11-mile hike. The land stretches before us, a million shades of ochre and rust. “The machine” is soon out of sight, and we break off into two groups. I will catch up with Charlotte. Jillian, Chance and Fiona will pick up the rear. We will meet at Confluence Overlook, where the Green and Colorado rivers join. With each step, the rocky landscape turns more surreal. There are rocks like pinball bumpers and rocks like wedding cakes. There are Whoopie Pie rocks and drip-castle rocks. The rocks start to feel like people. The rocks start to feel like God. This is not a new idea. The practice of worshipping rocks is as old as Stonehenge. Even my mother, the good Yankee, used to worship rocks up in Maine, bending down after her swims to collect gray rocks with white rings around them. She believed ringed rocks were lucky.
We walk. Time slows. This always happens when I travel and I never understood why until I heard this piece on NPR. Basically, the brain has to work harder to remember new experiences. The smell of a Paris bakery. The sunset at Key West. In new places, your perceptions are more layered and startling and rich, which makes time seem to pass more slowly. This explanation scientifically confirmed the paradox I’ve long intuitively felt: the best way to slow time is to keep moving.
When we arrive at the overlook, the Green River is green and the Colorado River is brown and they join together 1,000 feet below us in a paisley swirl like desert sauces on a fancy plate. When Jillian crests the ridge, we clap. She says it’s a good thing she has a body like a gazelle. She says she’s “yummy tired.” Chance makes lunch, then sits on his haunches, like a cricket, and cleans our bowls with dirt. We coo about how delicious everything is. Chance says hunger is the best sauce.
Jillian yawns. “I hope I can stay up tonight for Kumbaya.”
The way back, Charlotte and I use our walking sticks like ski poles and slalom over the rocks. We feel light and strong and free. It seems a safe place to confess my worries about drinking. Charlotte ticks off warning signs. If you make rules for yourself, like I will only drink on weekends. (Yes, I do this.) If you can’t imagine doing certain activities without drinking (English Department parties, check. Mother-in-law visits, check, check). If you experience negative consequences, like a blackout or DUI, but keep drinking. (Thank God, not yet.) “You’re probably OK,” Charlotte says. “You’re probably just a stressed-out mother.”
Charlotte and I bask on a limestone boulder waiting for the others. A half-hour later, Jillian’s grinning face appears on the horizon.
“Did you see any animals?” Charlotte asks.
“We saw a squirrel.” Jillian turns to me. “How’s the essay?”
I shrug. I have no ideas about an essay. Jillian says: “I hope there is someone in the essay who had a lot of clothing, and then one day didn’t bring it all, and everyone thought she was hearty and stalwart.”
And I say: “I’m sure there’s room for a character like that.”
Chance cooks Mexican food. We eat like wolves. After dinner, we build a fire and Taliyah leads a prayer meditation where we pass around a clay pipe and share the thoughts that lie close to our hearts. I babble something about how great it is to spend time with Charlotte. Jillian says her light grows dim when she doesn’t get out in nature. Charlotte talks about finding her inner voice. Fiona confides that her husband doesn’t understand her need to journey and build her business. The funny thing is that I grew up in Connecticut and Charlotte grew up in Connecticut and Fiona grew up in Connecticut. I wonder if women from Connecticut spend their lives trying to fill an emptiness they cannot name.
Taliyah reminds us there is no right way or wrong way to enter the sweat, so long as your intention is pure. Then she drops the bomb: Men and women generally don’t share a sweat lodge, she says, because they are often so moved they orgasm.
After dinner, we take our ritual walk. We look like padded robots. Our breath is visible. We’re talking sweat lodges.
Jillian says: “I don’t want to feel like a voyeur. This is important to her, but it’s not important to me.”
I say: “I don’t know who I would be praying to. My ancestors? Her ancestors? Her ancestors don’t want to hear from a white girl from Connecticut.” What I don’t say, but what I also worry about, is that my intentions are not sufficiently pure. For this same reason, I never take Communion. The truth is that I don’t know if my intentions will ever be pure enough to join someone else’s religion.
Charlotte says: “We’re going to have to say something.”
“Maybe we could do a mini-version?” I suggest. “Like, change the entire Native American tradition to meet our needs.”
Jillian nods: “Right, after we get rid of Texas.
Charlotte says, “We’ll just be honest.”
“How?” I ask. I loathe confrontation and will endure almost anything to avoid it.
Charlotte says, “I’ll talk to Fiona.”
“Oh my God.” I grab Charlotte’s arm, suddenly remembering something. “You remember Jack?”
“Your old boyfriend?”
“Right. I’d completely forgotten. His stepfather died in a sweat lodge.”
My tent is crisp in the cold and smells like sweat. From the blackness, Jillian screams.
“There’s a spider in my tent!”
“Kill it,” Charlotte yells back.
“I want to read the book.”
“Yes, but . . . “ Frantic slaps. Silence.
Jillian’s voice rises through the dark: “I have killed an innocent.”
In the morning, Charlotte talks to Chance who talks to Fiona. The sweat lodge is canceled. While this is a relief — no death, no orgasm — there’s also little chance for a religious epiphany. This confirms what I have long suspected: Faith is just more hard work you have to muddle through on your own.
We replace the sweat lodge with a marathon hike. Charlotte maps 12 miles. She wants to do more, but looks at me and says: “Don’t let me be the person I am.” Chance will come with us. The rest plan a shorter hike. We’ll meet at 5:30, before the rain is expected to start. At the entrance of the trailhead parking lot, a sign explains the amazing geological formations. “The needles were formed by a series of fractures in the rock surface causing movement along a deep underlying layer of salt. Erosion by rain, water, and snow along the fracture lines resulted in a row of columnar rocks . . .”
“I don’t get it,” I pout. I resent how even basic science eludes me.
Jillian peers into my face, calm as Buddha. “Don’t worry. I don’t get it either. You don’t have to get it.”
After 20 minutes, Charlotte debates leaving her jacket hidden behind a rock for the trip back. “Guide Rule #2,” Chance says. “Never get separated from your gear.”
“What’s Guide Rule #1?” I ask.
“Carry everything. No, Guide Rule #1 is smile.”
As we walk, we ply Chance for guiding war stories. Mostly, he’s too nice to oblige: “The bad news makes the headlines.” We press harder. He concedes he’s had difficult clients, but “I try to see those moments as opportunities for compassion.”
I turn around and roll my eyes.
Chance laughs. Finally, he shares one of his favorite rescue stories about a guy who banged his knee up badly in Greenland. Chance floated him up with painkillers. At a resting point, Chance asked the blitzed-out man how he was doing. The guy replied: “Man, I can only hear you when I take my sunglasses off.”
For lunch, Chance pops a can of kippers. I plant the oily fish on a Wasa cracker and taste the earth. Chance says: “I have another can of kippers if they change your life.”
I look up. A fish rock is swimming over a mountain.
I say: “I’m glad we’re not rushing back for the sweat lodge.”
Chance says: “This is enough religion for me.”
All day, we walk. I like the simplicity of this mission. We are not multi-tasking. I am not trying to be a teacher and a writer and a mom and a housewife and a vixen. We pass a chef’s-hat rock, a Dutch-wooden-shoe rock and a rock that looks like a little boy’s penis. I am getting tired, delirious, but don’t complain because Chance runs these trails. Chance once ran across the Grand Canyon, rim-to-rim, 44 miles, 11,000 feet of gain. Temperatures topped 102 degrees.
“I like to think it was pretty worthy,” he says. “But I don’t believe in bragging rights. Don’t tell me about the crazy thing you did. Tell me how much fun you had.”
Charlotte disappears again, but Chance sticks with me. I have warned him I have no sense of direction. He says: “I am going to powder my nose. If you get lost, sit down.”
“Guide Rule #3.”
The path splits. I take the high road. I decide to take a pee and weave off the path. Suddenly there is no path. I pee, start walking, feel lost, sit down.
Ten minutes later, Chance finds me.
“I don’t want to lead,” I tell him. “I just want to follow.”
We pass a decapitated-Cinderella rock.
Chance says, “The Hopi say every step is a prayer.”
The day passes. My feet hurt. My back hurts. My bunion is throbbing. I feel righteous. I feel holy. I need to take a shit. This need to take a shit soon replaces all thoughts of poetry or God. We’re on our eighth mile and I am a desert zombie. I need a breath mint. I’m thirsty but don’t dare drink because if I pee other things may emerge that I am unprepared to deal with. I see giant faces with cracked patrician noses and cursed plants and the oncoming grayness of nighttime. We are running late. Chance picks up the pace. At this moment, I realize the most humble of truths: the grand challenge of my journey is not whether I will die in a sweat lodge, but whether I will poop in my pants. My eyes are fixed on the back of Chance’s calves. His muscles pump, his veins pump. I am not sure why I don’t fall or even why I am here, in the middle of my life, in the middle of the desert. I wanted to test my mettle. I wanted to better understand myself. I wanted to have a spiritual experience, to feel just a little bit happier. Voices circle my head like hawks. Don’t let me be the person I am. I will take a drink of water and reveal a new layer. Keep your prayers short. You don’t have to get it. Carry everything. No, smile. I can only hear you when I take my sunglasses off. Every step is a prayer. If you get lost, sit down. When they can’t see the fish, the pelican starve. This is enough religion for me.
From a bluff, we see a road. Then, a car. Then Jillian, dressed in black tights and what appears to be a yarmulke. We whoop. They wave. I see a Port-o-Potty, but it might be a mirage.
On the drive home, Jillian reports: “We saw a whole gaggle of Germans, a dead cow carcass and a squirrel. I wouldn’t call it an abundance of wildlife, but it’s something.”
Chance says: “Call National Geographic.”
The moon is fattening up. The sunset is a pink puff.
Jillian says: “If it rains, we’re all getting in the truck with Chance.”
Chance says: “That’s a different fee entirely.”
The last night, we hang out in a cave. Now that we’ve gotten the hang of outdoor living, no one wants to leave. I haven’t showered in three days and no longer care. It’s my turn to wash dishes. Squatting, I scrub plates, but the smoke makes me cry, and my tears loosen my sun block, which makes me cry more, and I am laughing and crying and I remember one of Chance’s mountaineering sayings: Do it wrong, do it twice. I decide this is my new motto for marriage. Fiona says we lucked out on the weather. Jillian looks into the starless sky and says: “It’s raining somewhere.”
Taliyah asks what we will take with us from our journey. Fiona says she has learned she needs to be true to herself. Jillian says her dim light is shining brighter. Charlotte says that things happen the way they are supposed to if you don’t clutch or panic. I say I’ll have to think about it. There are so many things. Taliyah says, “Being in the hands of the blessed one, I am at peace.”
An hour later, I think of what I should have said: Giwabna.
Who’s to say?
The next morning, we pack up, feeling chummy and wistful. As we drive out of the campsite, something feels wrong. My notebook is full. We’ve taken from the land, but given nothing back. I realize this is the one lesson of Native American spirituality I can take with me, a gift from Taliyah, a treasure I will keep in my pocket like a ringed stone from the beach. I say to Fiona, “Before we go, we should put some tobacco down.” Fiona stops the car. We climb out. Fiona taps tobacco from her pouch into our palms. We stand on the dirt road. The air smells like sage. We squint into the hard sun, and everything looks gold and shimmery, like visions, like heat, and I think of my ancestors, my mother, my grandmother, and I think of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and wonder if she sees me, and I think about what it means to be a mother, a woman, trying to have a job, raise a family, keep a husband, build an inner life, and how the bottle won’t do and the sweat lodge won’t do and how we have to improvise, leave home — Just go. Get out of here — find our truths in the desert. The sun is so bright I can barely see. I release a dusting of tobacco, watch it float away on the warm, dry breeze. It feels like sprinkling fairy dust. It feels like spreading ashes. My heart burns. I smile at my friends. We are women, putting tobacco down, living on the edge of magic.
Lili Wright’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek and literary journals like The Normal School, The Florida Review and Cream City Review. Author of the memoir, “Learning to Float,” Wright teaches creative writing at DePauw University in Indiana. This is her first story for the Gazette.