I can’t remember where Jason was that day. It wasn’t a trip for menfolk, anyway, even though as far as boys go, Jason is my pick of the pond, unlike Nicole’s recently ex-ed boyfriend, who was currently holding strong at number one on the short list of Men Not To Mention. Such things happen: people leave your friends in the lurch without any explanation except
someone else. Someone
else. Another woman
else. Another woman in
his house. Living in his
house. In his –
and so on. So you pack a bag with old towels and Tevas and you load up Wanda the Honda with gas and sunflower seeds and Barbara prints out a map, because Barbara is good like that, and you sit shotgun because otherwise the winding roads off of I-15 when you start to follow the wavy bits of the topo map might give you that unrooted feeling, that wringing from the gut bone in your spine up to the place your breath is supposed to fill but doesn’t ever, really, because it’s more of an idea than anything.
Nicole and I leave our house together, even though I didn’t sleep there the night before. Wanda is Nicole’s Honda. I, too, have a Civic, but I don’t have the heart to name it because it was my dad’s and naming cars is an un-Dad-like thing to do. I show Nicole the “batman” route to Barbara’s house that is supposed to bypass all the traffic lights by cutting down an industrial ally, but it creeps both of us out in broad daylight and after a particularly traumatic high speed crossing of poorly marked railroad tracks during which Wanda had momentary delusions of Dukes of Hazard grandeur, we elect to return to known routes and wait for traffic signals.
Barbara is married and bought a house when she moved here. I’ve been threatening to buy a house for several years but everybody knows I’ll never commit to it alone. Nicole says that as my domestic partner, she’ll go with me to face real estate agents who carry hairspray in their cars and ask if I’m single, thus ascertaining my religious affiliations (or lack thereof) and continuing to judge from there. I love Nicole for saying so, but we both know that’s not the kind of alone I mean.
I don’t know Barbara all that well, but I like her. She knows where to stop for sandwiches. We stand in line and watch the Subway man with the bushy desert beard wrap our lunch in waxy paper. We push the package on top of the towels and keep driving. There is a lightness is the car which has nothing to do with what we’re not talking about. It is a lightness of control, a recognition of the weight. There were already rumors about who is dating whom now and has been for how long, but I was not passing them along. I crack the window and let this guilt or indecision dangle like a ribbon, green and fluttery, along beside us. Nicole turns up the CD and I feel the mantra – why, why, why – subside inside this controlled space. Honda makes good cars.
We find the turn-off on the first try. This strikes us as remarkable and so we cheer. And what’s not to cheer for? Sometimes finding the right turn based on a tiny wooden sign on the opposite side of the road while going 55mph along a stretch so filled with sloping red rock wonders that you’re looking everywhere but straight ahead, looking everywhere but at your heart or into who’s in bed with whom or why, and not only do you see the thing you need to see out of the periphery but you see it in time to slow down, trusting it to be truly the right sign and then you turn and find that it is right, and now you’re really on your way – well. Sometimes, when the weight is in the trunk and you’re riding Wanda into Diamond Fork, fluttering green ribbons out the windows all the way – sometimes, you’re alive enough to know this is a victory, and have the sense to celebrate.
The desert shifts quickly in these parts. The road changes from mile-long curves cut along the side of gentle slopes over-looking greenish, scrubby space below. The color palate switches from greenish brown to brownish red as bulbous rock formations twist and turn the road. Now, we’re in surreality. That’s why we stop: to make it real. Also, to have lunch. Barbara finds a picnic table and Nicole brings the sandwiches from the car. I walk into the shadow of the rock giant who squats above this Twin Cliffs Picnic Center. He’s cool to the touch, but rough. The grit mixed in with rock – rock grit – grit rock – clusters in between his rock-flesh pores. I breathe on it and watch tiny avalanches tumble down his elephant feet and I feel some remorse, wondering what miniscule carnage I have caused. I ask; he shrugs and holds my sunscreen bottle while I coat my soft, pale skin.
We are not desert creatures, Nicole, Barbara and I. Our ancestors survived long winters wrapped in furs, huddled in sod huts beside the peat moss fires. We do not belong here anymore than any man; the desert isn’t anybody’s friend, and yet it is obliging. It takes SPF 50+ slathered in coats – between the toes, tops of the ears, under the bra straps, armpit lines – for us to earn the right to play nice in the desert. Nicole and Barbara have hats. I don’t wear mine. My long hair is red and warm in the sun, but the day is cool and misty as they come, which is to say, not really misty at all, but if you were to think of it, perhaps you could say yes, today would like to mist – the sun would like to flirt with whisper rich specks of moisture, dispelling it into the air, watching it linger under other shady spots. Yes, today was misty in the secretest locations. I couldn’t see them, but the red earth told me so.
It told me it’s misty because it’s been an unusually wet spring. People think that deserts are all sand dunes and snake pits, but this is wrong. In Utah, deserts have many characters and faces, and within each character, they have as many different moods. This spring, my desert has been indulgent. It basks in the glow of early morning sun, mild temperatures that leave leafy green things – thin and cautious as their leaves might be – still green, instead of shriveled, husky brown. Even the sage sings
whisper, vigor, whisper, vigor
vigor rush, vigor rush
rigor roll and under, thunder,
hush, hush, hush –
And with this comes the afternoon thunder rumbling in the lower sky, the place where clouds are captured kitten-like on their way to Colorado, blown over from the salty California coast. I don’t know what’s happening in Nevada this spring, if the storms hopscotch across that long dry expanse, but our deserts are drinking, drinking.
It is noon when we leave the picnic place and climb back into the car. We’ve shooed the hornets away for the past half hour and they are disgruntled to be left behind when Wanda pulls out of the dusty gravel and back onto the narrow road. Driving slowly, we put all the windows down. Now that we know what’s out there, we can hardly bear to move so fast. Our eyes struggle to adjust between dramatic turns: sun, shadow, sun.
The trailhead has a small, rectangular parking area populated by a few other cars. One looks like an old delivery van with a skylight hatch that can be propped open. Someone lives in that! I am delighted. We lock Wanda up – I pat her rump like a horse tied to the bar rail – and take our packs up to the trailhead sign. The path immediately splits in two directions, but the map is less than clear on which way leads us to the hot springs. We tilt our heads to line up map lines with the forking trail in front of us and we make a semi-educated guess. After walking only twenty paces, we reach a sturdy wooden bridge crossing a stream. Nicole points to a roughly gouged message in block letters on the hand rail: Not Way to Hotsprings – Go Back!
Signs are tricky, whimsical things. Consider this one: should we take it at face value, or second guess its intentions? Either the message was true, or it was a cruel attempt at misdirection intended to keep visitors to the springs down to a minimum. How many times do we say what we mean? How often is the truth the opposite of what we hear?
I’d love to see you.
No, I’m fine.
Sure, I’ll call you later.
You can understand our indecision. Eventually, it comes down to this: which do we trust more, our own ability to read a map or an insistent message carved into our path? In the end, direct messages are not to be ignored. In the spirit of trusting good intentions, we turn back, taking the uphill path, the one that follows the richly flowing creek.
And what a creek! We climb along it, following a well-kept track of packed earth, rock, and pine needles. The embankment drops off sharply and, in places, even the erosion barriers and make-shift guardrails have been washed away. I dizzy myself with looking. The ground becomes soft with possibilities: what if I slipped? Where would I fall? Would I be swept away, into the uncanny blue of the current, or would I eddy, like that old log, caught in a turn of the torrent? I imagine myself small and spinning, rubber sandals buoyant, bobbing. The funny thing is, in this flight of fancy, I’m not dead or injured, but smiling, hands behind my head as I squint up past bank and canyon wall, towards the sun.
Overhead, the sky begins to cloud up with the afternoon. Soon, there will be rain. We push on, enjoying the coolness of the shade and the chill of the altitude. I shiver in my sleeveless dress and tug on a woolen hat with pink earflaps. I relish the ridiculous. In two days, Nicole and Barbara will run the Provo marathon. Jason and I will drive down to wave them on from various check points: the school, the bridge, the long lonely stretch. I know that many people have run marathons. This does not detract from my awe and understanding that it is a very, very long way to run. To run this far is an act of faith, or worship. The quick to judge would say it is self-punishment, but punishment would never get you to the finish line. No, I think a marathon must ask the runner to make peace with his or her flaws and insufficiencies. This is who I am, road, this is what I have – and, with faith, it will be enough. This trip to the hot springs is, in part, a preparation for such reckoning: it is a cleansing, an easing, a medicinal moment.
As we get close, we start to smell the medicine. It is pungent – soft and eggy – and it comes in waves according to the breeze. We laugh, imagining how the first people to discover this spring must have reacted to that smell – sulfur and mineral, bawdy and pure. It is not a smell you immediately want to immerse yourself in, but as you get accustomed to it in the air, you begin to notice the sharpness and clarity. The color of the creek has changed, and changes rapidly, according to the texture and positioning. There are preternaturally blue pools, as brilliantly sapphire as those photoshopped images of the Caribbean in the complementary in-flight magazines you find stuffed into airplane seat-back pockets. One eddy away, there are stretches of milky white, semi-opaque waters that swirl like cream in coffee, or melting ice in scotch. It is that slow, that luxuriant. At the edges we catch glimpses of the green that isn’t plant-based, but grown out of a mineral rich something – stark and surprising as green-tipped feathers on birds. Who ever knew? The earth can make green seem unnatural.
We climb up the last long stretch and see the waterfall. It is a normal color, clear and cold, tinged with blue grey shadows. The water flows from the burly creek above and falls maybe twenty vertical feet over a solid slab of rock into a shallow, churning pool that quickly slips away as the stream we have been following. What is most remarkable about this waterfall is not the drama of it, the crashing and roaring and churning, but the subtle strangeness of the edges. This is where the hot springs bubble up, seeping through the banks almost invisibly, perceptible only by the colorful traces the mineral rich waters leave behind. Around the sources of the springs, the water is so hot it would scald an errantly placed hand or foot; the brightness of the mineral trail and the uncanny clarity of the water around marks it like a poisonous caterpillar or a Day-Glo orange mushroom: don’t touch! It is an inhospitable environment for sustaining creek-bed life. But off to each side of the rollicking stream are calmer waters; large pools where slow-moving currents mix piping hot mineral water from out of the earth with cold mountain snow melt.
It is an odd thing to undress outdoors, so I do it incompletely. I am already wearing a swim suit, my favorite, an old one I’ve chosen because I know how rough hot springs can be on fresh elastic. If I was a little bolder, a little more comfortable with making others uncomfortable or a little less terrified of brushes with authority, I would go naked, not because a thin piece of spandex really prevents me from experiencing any of the healing benefits of the hot springs, but because there is something deeply soothing about being vulnerable in the wilderness. Taking off your clothes in the middle of a chilly mountain hike and climbing into a funny smelling body of water goes against all tenets of common sense, as well as those messages of danger and fear of exposure that comes from the deep-seated reptilian part of your brain that looks out for your most primitive interests. Don’t get me wrong – I like my alligator brain and often trust its impulses. It was this brain that fell in love with Jason and decided to keep him, despite the floundering mess he was when I met him. Doing the impractical is good for us; I pull my dress over my head in one motion and wade into the fast flowing water, bikini clad with rubber feet.
Nicole, Barbara and I hold our backpacks over our heads and squeal a little as we fumble across the rapids to reach a deeper pool on the opposite side. Nicole is by far the tallest and leggiest of our group; she does a victory wobble from a boulder while I try not to let the force of the current push me over. Climbing out of rushing creeks so cold they take your breath and pound your heart has a way of making you forget about the social awkwardness of wearing a bikini in an un-bikini-like situation. Now, we are just bodies, strange and wonderful. Our pale legs have turned red and ruddy from the cold when we plunge them into the mild warmth of the soaking pool. The rocks and stones carefully arranged in walls and embankments make it clear that this pool is perfect by no accident; it has been designed to direct an optimal flow of hot white minerals to mix into the cool brew.
It is, technically, dirty. I am a little squeamish about sitting on the bottom where the muck and murk feel plant-like in their decomposition. Barbara shrugs and resigns herself to washing algae out of her suit crotch later on. I knew that I liked Barbara. Nicole ties a psychedelic tiger print bandana over her hair and props gigantic sunglasses on top. It is the same bandana she wore when she ran the Salt Lake marathon last year, so her fan club could pick her out of the crowd. Things seemed good then – we had our apartment, our shared belief in nachos as a food group, our boyfriends with their separate houses we could visit when we liked. There is a special bond created by cohabitation. Perhaps this is why, after all these years, Jason and I have yet to do it: still too scary to think of the damage of backing out later. But what about domestic partnerships you know aren’t permanent? How are Nicole and I supposed to move out of our house, now that our silverware has commingled for so long? Even our kitten mingles us, stealing woolen things from my drying rack to wrestle with and abandon on Nicole’s floor, exchanging them for her socks left in my bed. I imagine living spaces as bodies of water, their life-force swirling around possessions and objects. This helps to explain how a home can lose its energy when neglected too long – it is not the dishes in the sink or the shoes left by the door, but the lack of living happening inside that creates staleness, depression. You know the feeling – the loneliness of the unvisited familiar, the eerie hush of your house when you come back from vacation. Quick, put on the tea kettle, throw in a load of laundry, make a mess on the coffee table to stir up the current, start it flowing in your house again, just as you’d turn up the heat and raise the blinds. So our house thrives: cluttered, mismatching, chipped and loved and full of life.
We’ve been soaking for almost an hour, dipping back and forth between the exhilaration of the cold fast rush and the lazy pruning fingertips of hot mineral pools. The sky is acting dramatic by now, pushing a parade of clouds across the strip of blue we can see from laying on our backs in the water, looking up out of a deep canyon in the middle of the desert in Utah. We were, none of us, born here. We come from other kinds of landscapes – humble slouches of humid gray east coast summers, damp mumbled green of Appalachian spring – but in this place, ears under the water to hear the silence and reach of this beauty, in this moment, we lose sense of timing and only then, feel peace.
The time passes, playful. Nicole explores the thin trickle of the mineral source, Barbara lounges downstream, and I approach the waterfall. What a rush – I find, with care and daring, you can clamber up behind the falling water and observe it through an imperceptible hole in the rock, as if behind the waterfall was the real world and the rock hole was an obscured window, full of sound, speed and demanding. I am not naked in this cavern, this cold, mossy perch, but I feel myself bared before the sound of all that water. I press my back against the textured stone, freezing toes gripping the slippery ledge, and I reach to touch the spray spitting back where the waterfall hits the corner of the window ledge. I cannot reach. My stomach feels cold against my thighs and I know I have to warm up soon or else I won’t be able to navigate the narrow ledge to climb out of this cavern. I yell something – hey! – whee! – ah! – whatever guttural sounds are most pleasing – as loud as I can. I can barely hear it happening inside my own head. I am taken by the weight of the sound of falling water. It vibrates inside my body, a deep body hum against each internal organ. I thrill to the feel of it and wonder how to stand the dreadful quiet of the city, the comfort of our old saggy couch, the dependable thud of Jason’s shoes when he kicks them off at the door. I can’t wait to tell him what I’ve done.
Which is – what? I climbed behind a waterfall and couldn’t look through, even though there was a window. I heard the hum of it echo in my chest, and froze my feet, and wondered what would happen to me if I slipped, and how Nicole and Barbara would carry my broken body out along that narrow trail, especially in those spots where even one person unburdened by a body becomes nervous, hugging the far side, touching grass or loose dirt as if it could prevent one from falling.
I don’t fall. I pick and skid my way back down and relish the cold burn of sticking frozen feet into the hot, hot pool where Nicole is miraculously submerged. I tell my friends about the waterfall with the opaque window but neither wants to risk neck and foot to see for themselves. Then again, they’re the ones running a marathon in two days, which mitigates any claims to bravery that I can possibly make. Besides, the wind is picking up, whipping my hair in the wrong direction. The clouds are thickening and the rain arrives in pecks and nibbles, thin flecks of mica chipping off the cool rock of the sky.
It is only now, as we’re picking our way back to our packs, that I realize the failure of my logic: hot springs are hard on fresh elastic; they are even harsher on old favorites that have seen so many years of chlorine and winters in dark dressers that they hardly need the red rock abrasion of clambering down from waterfalls to finish off the destruction of dry rot. The seat of my suit is completely translucent. Ass to the world, I laugh until the rain drives us to move faster. Peeling off my suit beneath my towel, I hold it up to the muted sun. Through the gauze remaining, I watch the clouds sweep in and out of dark and light. I wink at the sun, who seems to say, so what? You’ve got a butt.
Sometimes, when you find yourself in the midst of glory, when your friends aren’t embarrassed by your ass and the sun breaks through to fire up each diamond raindrop as it falls and the wind aches down your watery ears and Barbara announces she knows a place that makes the best fruit milkshakes and the thunder starts to rumble quietly and the summer crackles with new beginnings, you have the sense to be thankful and relish it.
Maybe, we could get a house with three bedrooms and all live together, Jason offered, only half joking. I laughed. Nicole isn’t the only one I’m worried about. I wonder about all our fragile patterns, acts of faith. How are we supposed to navigate a world of forking waters, misdirection, broken hearts? I’m at a loss for how to explain where I am, let alone how sunshine comes with all this thunder, summer rain. But the creek takes us straight back to Wanda and, as Nicole says, there will be milkshakes.