I unrolled the gravity-fed water filter bladder that still smelled like campfire from a year ago, collected a few liters of stream water and hung it from a tree by our camp while Brad finished a cigarette and started a fire. There was something in the chamber of my drinking tube from the hydration bladder that looked embryonic or alien, something from Star Trek with brown pinchers that floated in the tube and broke off like an escape pod when I drew on it — and though we were in the desert I couldn’t bring myself to drink much, and came into camp listless, the backs of our hands brown from the sun.
I’d never been attacked by a hawk, didn’t know that kind of thing happened, but was by myself just writing in my notepad, admiring the look of the canyon walls and scanning for the right metaphor, toggling between totem poles, piano keys, the faces on a coin — just noting how important it is to live in the now, to stop and be present…when a dark shape appeared on the ground beside me like a kite, a hawk looking down so close I could see its expression on me, which was all business.
It sailed across the canyon to perch on some rocks and I watched it watching me for a time, and it must have done some calculation because when I started walking again it waited until I was out of sight for a second, on the other side of a tree, where it reappeared close enough to my head it made me shriek and wave my arms at it, swear, and look around hoping no one else saw.
And we saw our first rattlesnake up close on the trail, a western diamondback with stripes on the tail that reduced down to a baby’s rattle, and got in as close as we could with our camera phones but realized it was curling in on itself like a slingshot ready to fire, and figured it was time to go.
Because the canyon came to an end naturally we went there, though the trails were braided and sometimes hard to follow, overgrown and bushy, narrowed down to the mouthpiece of a flute, the balsam root a few weeks past bloom, the oceanspray flowers, the snowberry bush, the arrow leaf, yarrow — the cottonwoods looked like they’d been crying with mascara leaning in on each other, and the sound got thicker and I lost Brad, he’d sometimes go ahead of me and wait, and cry out fake birdsongs but I couldn’t tell the difference between his and the real ones, they got co-mingled, and the trail got so overgrown I had to crouch down like a gnome to get through it, and I’d re-emerge in a new setting by a stream, an unplanned beach overgrown with grass or a dark patch of forest thick with crickets, and as I pressed back the rose bush branches they turned to overcoats in an old wardrobe, and I re-emerged on the other side on the driveway of our house in Sammamish, our home-home — and though we’d just been back to our house for the first time in almost a year it was time to leave again, to go back to Beth’s, and Lily asked how long we’d been there and I said two hours though she said it felt much longer, like four — and she was sad to be there and got even sadder describing it, like the feeling had an outer coating — and my kids seemed older now in ways I couldn’t describe myself, like some quiet wisdom, and I thought how unreal time and space are for reasons I can’t explain, but believe with all my heart.
A branch snapped back and made my nose bleed and I remembered my friend Peter, the son of an American diplomat who grew up in Switzerland and became a Navy SEAL, who drove across the country to the Starbucks HQ with just the name of a guy in HR and rode the elevator to the top, said he decided he wanted to work there and they said alright — the time he was in a jungle in Nicaragua and had a branch snap back and split his eye, and his SEAL friends had to dress it in the field — and which would be worse, having that done on you or having to do it on someone yourself — and how calm and self-assured Peter was, I wondered if it came from growing up that way.
Brad dragged another log on the fire and I took my boots off, and let some ants climb through my toes — and as the log got burning we realized it was full of ants, they came pouring out of the seams, the foaming mouths, some of them dropping to the ground, they were in such a state — and I watched them hang on to the charred sides as it popped and hissed, and we probably filled the valley with the smell of our damp smoke, and they’d stop to greet one another in a brief exchange, like they were trying to see if the other one was alright, they communicated in their ant-way, and though they looked really distraught over losing their home and some still looked hopeful they could salvage it, I tried not to feel bad for them, I figured they’re just ants.
When I got up in the middle of the night and had to go, I thought I saw a campfire in the distance but it began to move, it was the moon, still plump and pink like a lump of burning coal — and I stood there for a time without my glasses blinking under the stars, the beauty of it in stopping to look around and listen, the fact you can’t take it with you, don’t have to. Like home, it just waits there for you to come back.