By Kelly Auricchio
When I told my parents I was going to Utah in August, they told me I had a death wish. The temperature was going to be in the hundreds. Wild fires were already popping up all over the national park areas and it was only June. Nothing I said would comfort them. We were all adults, twenty-one and over — we weren’t stupid. We would be fine. We wouldn’t go without water. We wouldn’t drive into a fire.
They didn’t want me to travel in such a small group — what if something were to happen?
I stared, waiting for them to remember that I had been across an ocean only a few weeks before in London. I had traveled to places like the Netherlands and Greece. I had faced pickpockets who reached into my jacket as I walked and drunk men at bars who thought Americans were “exotic.” In Scotland, two older men came up to me and a friend while we ate our dinner of fish and chips. They crouched beside us and asked why “cunt” was so offensive in America when in Europe it described a stupid person. They sang out the word a dozen times, alternating between the two of them, their faces getting closer to our own with every turn. The bartender stopped them from bothering us further, but it was too late. I was uncomfortable and made sure they didn’t follow us to our hostel that was just down the road. But even after that experience, I had spent a week by myself in London, exploring the corners of the city I hadn’t throughout the semester. I even took a bus to the coast of England for the day just because I could.
But this trip across our own country was too much?
My parents’ anxiety has existed for as long as I can remember. In middle school, my sister and I weren’t allowed to leave the building even if a friend’s parent invited us to wait at their house. You could never be too careful about who you trusted or who you got in the car with.
In high school, my father rode up and down the street as I waited for a friend to pick me up. He wanted to make sure I wasn’t left there. He wanted to make sure it was a girl. He wanted to make sure she was a safe driver.
In college, my parents told me never to walk alone at night. Never to take an open drink at a party. I learned to fear the smallest amount of precipitation that fell onto the roads, because they made it sound like a tsunami or a blizzard. I learned to think about the worst things that could happen before I thought of the best. I learned to be predictable, solid, and safe.
And I know Tyler — my person — hates this part of me sometimes. And I hate that he hates it. I hate it too. I hate that I overthink. That I live in the possible destructive future instead of the undramatic present.
So I decided to go to Utah.
The sun is beating on my calves, aggressive and unstoppable. Even when we hide ourselves in the shade of an occasional lone tree we find, I still feel its heat pricking at my skin. The back of my leg is red and I know the shower later tonight will be hard to stand, fierce droplets raining down against the same skin. The water doesn’t mean to be cruel, but with a burn as harsh as mine, it can’t do much to heal the pain.
We’re chugging upward in single file on a stone path. My ponytail swings, a pendulum offering quick relief to my neck that I now leave exposed to the full blast of light rays. On our right there is a wall of rock hovering above us and jagged cliffs and alcoves, but to the left of us is open air. Below is the parking lot we left twenty minutes ago. Small specks of color dance out of cars and begin on the same path as us and I wonder if they’ve prepared with enough sunblock.
Across the canyon is more rock. Streaks of red, grey, and deep yellow are scratched in horizontal lines. Even the path under my feet seems to be cut into sections. We turn a slight corner and we’re faced with a wall, its face so smooth as if it’s been ironed by time. Strips have fallen away, revealing lighter colored stone behind it. It resembles a zebra’s body, stripes that are seemingly coordinated and strategically aligned, but that you know are not. We pass the wall and continue our trek upward, my calves humming in rebuttal.
We’ll eventually reach an elevation of 2,100 feet, but we haven’t even gotten halfway and my back is soaked. My camel backpack leaked that morning and is now dripping warm water down my butt, leaving awkward stains on my light blue shorts. My white t-shirt would’ve still clung to me without the leak. Sweat makes it feel like a second skin — one I desperately want to shed.
But I don’t.
Do you know what’s in Utah? Some amazing, mind-quaking, heart-aching national parks with views that can stop time. But they are separated by hours and miles of nothing. Roads with speed limits of eighty-five miles per hour. After this trail, we will be going ninety on a barren road on the way to our next destination and be passed by others. I will wonder what kind of gas mileage everyone in the state must have.
We’re still climbing, getting deeper into the crevices of the rocks. Tunnels have formed, or been created, we can’t be sure which, but we walk through them quickly. I’m too busy looking up, making sure I’m prepared if a senile piece of stone decides to drop on us — making sure I know it’s coming — that I lose my footing and trip. A sand-covered path rises up to my face and my knees hit the ground.
But I’m safe.
I’m fine. I say this again and again as I put one leg in front of the other.
Jonathan is in front, leading the pack. He forgets how long his legs are, forcing Kate and I into a jog to keep up. Tyler alternates between walking in front of us and behind.
He’s not concerned about Kate.
I think he might be afraid I’ll fall off the edge. I’m afraid of that as well. I imagine my heavy breathing can be heard by those already at the top of the mountain. Kate tells me in a rushed voice that the trail we were originally going to hike is closed because of unstable rocks; the trail was damaged from a severe storm in July. This is when I lose my footing over some sandstone crumbles and laugh nervously. Tyler swivels to look back at me and I want to shout at him not to be concerned. To watch himself because I know I will be alright.
This, at least, is what I chant to myself.
Angel’s Landing. That was the trail we had planned to do. Even though I feigned disappointment like the others, my insides screamed with gratitude. I had read that the trail’s most recent death was a thirteen-year-old girl last February. She had been hiking with extended family and decided to turn back before the rest. She fell on her way back down the mountain. The news said people heard the fall and her body was discovered shortly afterward.
She was alone.
I can’t imagine what that family went through. If maybe one of them had gone back with her. If maybe she had decided to turn back a little earlier or a little later, would the sun have been at a better angle to see? Would a rock have moved to a better location from another hiker? Would she have decided not to look at the atmosphere around her rather than her footing?
I wonder if she screamed or if she was too shocked for that. I wonder if she was content just before it happened, if she had found happiness in the view.
She fell alone.
I wonder if I will be next.
But still I climb. I climb with my head down, my eyes on the path in front. I choose to look up only when I’ve stopped and my back leans against the safety of the rock wall beside me. Only then do I take in the view. Only then do I breathe slight relief.
On our way to the top of Observation Point, we shuffle through inches of white and red sand. I don’t feel it cover my toes, but later when I prepare to shower, small piles will form on the motel room’s carpet after dumping my hiking shoes out. The sand on the path is initially soft, a small relief from the hardness of the ground. But soon, every grain of sand is a demon, making my legs drunk and feet exhausted. I start to sweat more than I was on the upward climb and when we reach sandstone again, I’m eternally grateful and so are my legs, now quivering with stress.
We approach a cavern, a pit of water beside us, below the rocky path we set off on. It’s beautiful and quiet. The rocks are deep orange with swipes of red that resemble rust. I lean over slightly to look into the water, watch it flow through the rock that will be much thinner in a few decades.
Then the smell hits.
A stale, dead fish aroma reaches my nose and soon I hear the grunts of my hiking mates as it hits them too. I plug my nose and see that the water doesn’t flow deeper into the canyon, but sits immobile in the pit. It reminds me of a city sewer, and I turn to Tyler and say, “I thought we had escaped this sort of thing.”
Do you ever feel like that? Like an immobile, stale pit of water, stuck and wafting to those above you? No?
No, I guess me neither.
During our ten–day trip, we hike twenty trails. We drive from Zion to Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef. We make our way to Arches National Park and Canyonlands, finally ending at the ancient civilizations of Mesa Verde. And at every park, on every trail, the four of us play a game.
It’s called the Death Scale.
We peer over the edge of the cliff we stand on, look through the wire fence that could be kicked down in a couple minutes, and hang on to the chain walkways that are hammered into the stone. Our bodies swing to the side of the tilted landscape we walk across. We guess how much of a death we’d experience if we fell from that spot. Our measurements don’t make sense: bruises, broken bones, slight death, medium death, “Death Death.” I join in, continuously repressing the nausea that creeps in, especially when Jonathan jokes that one of the “Death Death” spots would only result in bruising if you know how to fall correctly.
There are narrow passageways on these trails, places where you have to rub your back against the rock as you shimmy to the side. Places where I have to back up and launch myself across gaping crevices between boulders because there is no other way to continue forward. Places where I put all faith into a thin tree branch I hold for balance while getting my footing.
I wonder if I’ll be next on the list of accidental deaths. Another name to the list of those who aren’t labeled as unprepared or overly confident. They aren’t labeled as anything, which almost makes it worse. They are just gone — no fault attached.
After I return home, I will incorporate this death scale into my daily life. I’ll be on the highway as rain starts to pelt my car and imagine how much death I’d experience if I slammed into the guardrail. I’ll be running on the treadmill in my basement, slip, and shoot backwards into the wood dresser behind me. I’ll be skiing and fly off a trick rail I didn’t know was there, falling onto my head.
I couldn’t predict that this death scale would end up influencing everyday parts of my life, but it did. And now you may be asking why, if I had so many reservations to begin with, did I decide to go to Utah?
Well, first I went because of the “what ifs.”
What if my reminder to pack snacks is what kept Tyler from getting dizzy on that one trail twelve hundred feet up? How could I stand by and wait every day for that text declaring he was safe? And even then, we would be separated by a three-hour time difference. His day wouldn’t be over and I would fall asleep, not knowing for sure if his safety would extend on the ninety-mile-per-hour road. I could deal with all of these questions, because even in my hours of worry, I would believe I was overreacting and that he would be fine. But the one I couldn’t handle was what if something happened to him and I wasn’t there? What if I could’ve prevented it?
Saved him somehow.
The second reason was what would my kids say if I told them I had the chance to see some of the greatest wonders of the country, but passed it up because I was terrified of everything that could go wrong? I think they’d be disappointed in me. They would judge me. And right then and there, they would vow to never be like me: too afraid to live their lives. They would fight against my paranoia as I did against that of my own parents. Maybe then the cycle would end.
I couldn’t say no because I was afraid. For the first time, it didn’t seem like a valid enough excuse. Afraid of what? Of the heat? The heights? The unknown?
You see, the fear of the uncharted — the undiscovered — suffocates me. Fills me with a dread so harsh I want to vomit. Even as I packed my luggage the day before the flight, I imagined myself tumbling down a cliff, Kate shouting at me to protect my head, Jonathan swearing into the empty air, and Tyler crouched to the ground, his hand pointlessly extended because I was already gone. My skin would blister and peel off itself while people searched for me, and my camel backpack would sprout a bigger leak than it had that one morning.
Yet, I forced myself to breathe, zipped my luggage, and grabbed my car keys.
Then I went to Utah.
Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, in the middle of a nightmare, dreaming of what could have happened. I dream that when my family and I went zip lining in Alaska, I grabbed the wire behind the pulley instead of forcing my gloved hand against the wire in front of it, severely dislocating my shoulder from the rest of my body.
I dream about the helicopter ride we went on when I was about ten years old, a gift from a friend of my father’s. There were no doors and even though I was strapped in, digging my flip flops into the metal floor so they didn’t fly away, I imagine I hurl myself out of the open door. I wake up as I’m about to hit the top of the tree line.
I imagine myself standing at the top of Observation Point at Zion National Park and as I peer over the edge like so many others do, I stumble and somersault into oblivion. I have to force myself to remember the top of the mountain — the view, the freedom, the magnificence of life. We reached the top of the world in three hours.
And it was stunning.
Don’t get me wrong, I panicked most of the time. I craved the three-hour car ride we had when we left Zion to travel to Bryce Canyon. That’s when we would be on solid ground and the only thing we’d have to worry about was running out of gas in the middle of nowhere. But when we reached the top of Observation Point, I stopped breathing. Stopped everything. It was one of the most beautiful sights I’d ever seen.
Thick rock bundles balanced on the thinnest strands of foundation that were worn down by air and water. One swift kick and a boulder could topple over as if it hadn’t been there for decades. A Douglas-fir mammoth of a tree sprouts up from a hidden trail. The brownish-red bark seems to shoot out from the middle of packed rock and grows upward between the openings of a cavern. Only the top fourth of the tree has leaves and branches, which point toward the sun.
This was only the beginning.
Later in the week, we decided to wake early enough to see the sun rise over the canyons. Dark, black earth slowly turned green, red, and orange as the light painted the landscape in quiet, sweeping strokes.
Around midnight the same day, we drove back out to the middle of the park and pulled into one of the side lookouts. We turned off the car and got out, two of us standing on each side. I never understood the phrase “deafening silence” until that moment.
When the weight of the velvet sky hung over us and there was nothing to make a sound. No cars, no animals, no insects it seemed. It was us, the stars, and the pounding of nothing in my ears. I have never felt so numb. So content. The sky could swallow me up and I wouldn’t care, because I’d have seen it all.
I’d have felt it all.
It is this moment of serenity, of fearlessness, that will allow me to return to sleep in those future dreams of panic. To return to a different kind of darkness and silence that’ll swaddle me in the night.
And I do know the panic will return.
The “what ifs” will quickly follow and my throat will feel like it’s closing from of all the things that may happen. Because I didn’t beat my fears or my anxieties. I simply overcame them for the circumstance, having radically — forcefully — accepted all the fearful, intrusive thoughts as theories rather than realities.
Because that’s all thoughts are until proven true — theories.