My husband insists on adventures. So here I am: packing for a place I know about in theory, not in fact. My prayer-time literature fits into the bottom of a new black duffle bag: my Bible, two daily devotionals and The Imitation of Christ, which I’m reading for Lent. My purse is big enough for the trade paperbacks I’m working through: Nouwen, O’Conner, Merton and Lewis.
“Why are you taking all that?” He folds shirts and shorts made of drab parachute-like fabric and tucks them into his own well-worn duffle bag. Something bright-colored emerges from a paper sack in his hand. “For you!” Women’s versions of his shirts, but in turquoise and red, a pair of pants that fit me perfectly in charcoal grey—these have zip-off legs to make shorts. “In case we get hot on our hikes,” he explains. He produces a nylon holder with a belt loop. “For water. Need it on the trails.”
I yank the tags off the clothes, fold them on top of the books. “I forgot to get a camera,” I say. Who wants to be recorded looking like a fool?
“What’s new?” He laughs, continues to fold and tuck. “It’s okay. We’ll get a disposable on the way. That way we can share the trip with the girls. You could take notes even, do a travel journal sort of a thing. We really are going at the perfect time. Davis says that the foliage should be in bloom now. Not too cool; not too hot. Desert and mountains – you’re going to love Big Bend. Too bad the girls won’t go.”
I’m always trying to give religion to our two prodigal reprobates, and here he is, proposing travelogues, but the Bible speaks of nature teaching about God, so I retrieve a blank spiral notebook from a bottom drawer. Maybe I can insert Bible verses or quotes or something.
The prodigals think of God as a kind of gas—vaguely infecting everything, even rocks. Certainly not how I understand God. When I refer to Him speaking to me, they talk about brain chemistry. If I should mention a passage from the Bible, they hold up their palm to me and shake their head. I know my attitude is controlling—wrong even: they’re adults. But despite theology, the fact is that I’m superstitious. If they don’t find God before I die, then what’ll happen to them? Not to mention their children, who remain un-baptized. My daughters refuse church, and recently even made an issue of prayer before family meals. I try hard to fight this obsession of mine. I read self-help books, and attempt various strategies of communication. I pray and meditate and repeat affirmations all the time. My husband’s answer is to get my mind off it.
So here we are, packing. I’ve surrendered, am willing to try it his way. Still, I pull up the hiking clothes to make sure I’ve got the Imitation of Christ.
Our chattering mutes as the miles pile up on the way south and west. I try to catch up on my reading, and, with occasional glimpses when I look away from Henri Nouwen, see the landscape morph from oak-lined residential to mesquite-studded ranches to whitish dirt dotted with cactus. Mountains appear to have popped up out of flatland. The second day, we dress in our parachute clothes, sneakers, water bottle holsters. Though I need mental protection, my devotional time is cut short; my husband says we must beat the heat. His gun slips into a pocket, a knife into a small holster that fits onto his belt, power bars. He’s ready for any eventuality. What is he expecting? An escapee from Huntsville Prison, or a mama bear separated from her cubs? At the Visitors’ Center he buys a map and a trail guide. The Lost Mine Trail is our first hike: five miles to the top and out again—further than I’ve walked at one time since I was a child.
The trail is only slightly uphill at the beginning. I think: I can do this. A birding club walks within earshot ahead of us. One guy’s voice filters through the vegetation, and he refers, over and over, to his vacation home in Maine. He describes the national park there, and talks with a rat-ta-tat voice about how Rockefeller designed every single rock-hewn step, the lining of every path, exactly what guests would see. It’s hard to think about the present path while imagining an entirely different place. We zigzag up our mountain, each zag getting shorter, each zig getting steeper. I slip on the gravel early on – maybe I don’t have the proper shoes after all? – and thereafter keep my eyes on the path, never really too narrow, regularly enhanced with hewn steps, but anxiety-producing anyway.
The birding group stops regularly, and we pass them, then they pass us, then we pass them. “Hurry,” my husband says, and I huff and puff to do so. Some kind of bird makes himself hoarsely, hauntingly known, even amidst the wind in the trees. “In the Acadia Park, that’d be a loon,” the Maine birder says and I wonder what a loon truly sounds like and I imagine different trees. I stumble and refocus on the walkway ahead of me. “Drink up,” my husband reminds me and I lift and sip. I put out one foot after the other, struggle to the bare red boulder at the top of the trail. It’s said that, if there’s clear air, a person can sometimes see 142 miles from that spot. The wind has died down, and it does seem as if we see a long long way…but 142 miles? I squint, blink, squint again…a fuzzy outline of bumps that might be mountains through a haze. No specifics, though, like trees or trails or even a firm outline. Is that seeing?
The birders catch up. One pulls out binoculars, and focuses through the trees. “Look there,” he points. “That funky rock over there. It’s like a totem pole. Can we get to it?” My husband and I take turns peering through our own binoculars, but I dismiss the strange rock – there are so many formations. Who needs totem poles? I have enough gods to figure out.
The walk down the mountain feels easier, but still, I am sore when we reach our hotel. The night sky is translucent and a hotel clerk tells us that the McDonald Observatory nearby will host a star-gazing party. We dress in long pants, but even with my jacket hood tied tightly under my chin, I shiver in the forum-shaped outdoor theater. A graduate student tells us what we are seeing as we crane our necks, teaches us the order of the heavens: Big Dipper, Little Dipper, North Star. The group hustles out, back down the hill to the telescopes toward the central building. My husband stands in line to peer through the largest telescope. With the expense mentioned, I’m surprised there is more than one. I peer at Saturn through one of the smaller telescopes. Saturn looks just like a picture in a library book except the image is whiter than white. I withdraw and scurry toward the café and cocoa.
I wait for my husband in a small movie theater with gray flannel seats, and sip my cocoa as I watch a documentary that attempts to explain distance to me so that I can understand a quasar, newly discovered and 12.7 billion light years away. The film begins with a family picnicking in a Midwestern park – the children wear brightly colored play clothes, and chase bugs in the grass while the mother stashes leftover lunch in a basket and the father falls asleep. The camera pulls back over and over again, each time showing the viewer what the universe looks like from that imagined vantage point. Soon, I’m seeing white dots on a black background in the shape of the Milky Way, then the camera seems to rush back down down down, and the white dots become larger and larger, until finally color appears on the children’s clothes and their parents are doing what parents do. The camera moves to focus on a green blade of grass, ever closer, detailing what it’s made of. The documentary explains, again with camera tricks, the relative size of protons and neutrons and quarks. By the time my husband sits next to me with his own cocoa, I’m dizzy and confused and longing to get to my bed.
We are first to shove through the glass doors and I hug myself as I shake in the cold wind, and look up. Maybe I could bring the grandchildren here. The vastness of the universe, and the delicacy of its balance, could say a lot. There’s Scripture on that.
The next morning, we persist and tackle another trail. We zigzag again into Santa Elena Canyon, where schoolchildren yell into the river-space between the boulders, past which no one cannot see, and listen for the world to speak back to them. I try it myself, only I don’t yell ‘Elvis is alive,’ or ‘Go Panthers’ or even ‘Jesus Saves.’ Compelled, I yell my name, and the sound reverberates back to me in ever-decreasing waves. Soon, the sound dissipates to nothing, and the wind ceases blowing for a moment, yet the emptiness remains with sunlight glinting. Afterwards, I gather up the guidebooks and brochures and the still-empty spiral notebook, and bend to throw them on the bottom of my duffle. The disposable gets tucked between the now-wrinkled parachute shirts, without any descriptive journal of our experience – words have defied me.
At home, I develop the pictures, try and fail to describe what our trip was like. My husband had photographed, but I fix up the album—a black vinyl thing from the pharmacy. The prodigals bring casseroles to welcome us home. After dinner, I sit with them on each side of me, our thighs touching in a little hill-like line. The un-baptized grandbabies grab at everything within reach and shake the bars of the babygate that confines them to the den. I find myself talking about stargazing and Rockefeller, then interrupt my travelogue for safety’s sake. “Honey, no,” I say to the baby.
“Were there flowers?” One prodigal asks.
I pull a brochure out from between the pages. “See here: ‘Vegetation of the Desert.’ Desert marigold. Prickly pear cactus. Octillo. Rock nettle and Torrey yucca.”
The littlest baby-girl crumples a magazine between sticky fingers; she laughs at the sound of it, her eyes intent. I lean over, crumple it into a ball once I wrest it from her. I’m fearful that the ink will muss her pink sun-dress, or worse, poison her somehow.
“But how did they smell? Did you pick any?” My daughter seems oblivious to the danger. I sit down, keep my eyes on the child.
“I think I saw some. I was so busy putting one foot in front of the other. It was really steep and I kept slipping. And there were all these people behind us—birders from Maine that wouldn’t stop talking about somewhere else.” I say this as I cup the baby’s soft middle, lift her into my lap.
“Describe the air up there, being at those high elevations.”
I’m unable to formulate an answer. The baby cries in despair; her entire self is consumed with the loss of the magazine. No baptismal anxieties for her.
My daughter takes the baby from me, wiggles her fingers for distraction. I take my car keys from my pocket, and hand them over. She speaks. “At least tell me what you liked most.”
“The main thing I remember from the trip was Santa Elena Canyon, but it’s hard to tell about. Maybe you just have to go there yourself. I yelled my name through the mountains, over the river. See the picture of it, there?” I point to the brochure. “Anyway, there was this outcropping over the Rio Grande that you could stand on—and I yelled my name. An echo came back, even in the wind. You know the Bible talks about the Holy Spirit being like wind.”
Both prodigals roll their eyes. “Lay off, Mother.”
I do lay off, and smile at littlest baby-girl. But I think of the wind through all those trees, how it sounded like something else but the words to explain it are still just out of reach. Like marbles jostling against one another? Like water trickling over stones? The sound of truth just underneath consciousness as I tried and tried to avoid falling to my knees in the gray gravel put there by human hands.
Cynthia Sample recently graduated from the M.F.A. Program in Creative Writing at Vermont College and also holds a Ph.D. in Finance from the University of Texas at Dallas. Her writing credits include stories in SLAB, Numéro Cinq, Summerset Review, Sleet, Wichita Falls Review of Literature and Art, Between the Lines, and Love After 70. She was also a finalist in the New Letters Fiction Prize. Her stories have won first places in contests such as the Arkansas Writers’ Conference and the Ozark Writers’ Conference.