The air was cold and still, a skin-tightening astringent kiss from mother nature welcoming me back. And nothing moved. The precedent stillness before the storm. Like God pausing to wrap a pull cord around a tornado. It gave me a buggy, spooky feeling. The same feeling you get when you feel eyes staring at the back of your head. The kind of nervous calm that makes birds take flight, horses run in circles around the field. Everything’s still, but there’s a barely perceptible vibration underlying it all. It’s the kind of stillness that pulls dreamers from their work-life routines to see what the hell’s going on.
But for the moment the sky was clear, light blue, the color of an iceberg’s shadow. Sunlight crackled off the fresh snow like sparks erupting from a popping log. I knelt in a clearing of snow that had fallen just the day before and strapped on my snowshoes.
Snowshoes attached, I stood and stretched, my spine popping from my neck to my hips like an unzipping zipper. My head was clear, my legs felt strong. It felt good to have the backpack on again. And it felt good to be going back to one of my favorite trails, during my favorite time of year: the Virgin River Rim Trail in winter. I shuffled through the trees, a whistle personified.
The actual Virgin River Rim Trail was still about three miles south of me and 150 feet higher in elevation from my current position. I picked a north-south running canyon and hiked into it, planning to follow it until I bisected the trail. Travelling uphill in snowshoes on even a moderately steep hill is most easily done on wet, glutinous snow, especially when carrying a 40-pound backpack. Snow your snowshoes can compress into crampon-adhering mortar. But the snow on this particular day was light, powdery and packed underneath my snowshoes, as tightly as sugar in a hot cup of coffee. My crampons were unable to find strong enough purchase to allow a straight up climb. I switchbacked my way up the mountain. It was slow, strenuous going. After ten minutes of climbing, I concluded that this was the hardest physical labor I’d ever experienced.
For every thirty steps I took I stopped to rest for 20 or 30 seconds. I was getting hot. I unzipped my coat and took off my knit cap. I adjusted my backpack. It felt like something in my pack was trying to hatch and its eggtooth was jabbing me right in the spine. I could hear my heart beating rapidly, strong in my ears. After 45 minutes of climbing, my oxygen-deprived blood felt like it had condensed to the viscosity of honey. The going was slow, but that was okay. I stopped often to catch my breath and admire my surroundings. After two hours of snowshoeing my legs felt heavy, like those first few seconds when you’re going up in an express elevator. The sweat was spitting from my sweat glands like watermelon seeds on the fourth of July. My 40-pound backpack now felt like the caprock I was carrying to the top of the pyramid.
As heavy as my backpack was, there was a psychological burden I’d been carrying since the day I graduated from college, and I wearied of carrying it.
I had graduated a couple years earlier but I still lived in Cedar City, the same city where I’d attended colleges. My friends and fellow adventurers—Drew, Scott, Jeremy, Kelly, Shane—had also graduated. But they had moved away, and started their careers. I missed them greatly. No one knocked on my door at three a.m. anymore, pulling me out on an adventure. I no longer needed to take a backpack packed with road essentials. But I still kept it packed. Partly out of nostalgia, partly out of hope. You know.
Ever since the day we had all gone cliff jumping off the 50 foot ledge, I had done a lot of thinking about the question one of our girlfriends had asked us over lunch at Sullivan’s Café: “Why do you guys do it?” she asked. “Why are you guys always jumping off cliffs and exploring abandoned mines and going on ridiculous adventures?”
And we gave her answers like, “Because it’s there, man,” or “We can’t help it. It’s in our DNA,” to which the girlfriend shook her head and replied. “No, it’s more than that with you guys. With you guys there seems to be something almost . . . desperate, in the amount of stupid stuff you do and the intensity with which you do it.”
And she was right.
We had all been raised Mormon. We came from the Land of Unquestioning Conformity and we were all going straight back to it. Indeed, the path of our lives had already been laid out for us; our older brothers and sisters were already well into it. We had all been to the Maproom of Our Lives and we had seen the course of our lives already mapped out for us. We saw the X on the map that said, “You are here.” And we saw what was coming next: we were going to graduate from college, start our careers, get married, start our families, at which point we’d be so busy, too committed, too entrenched with all that to pursue anything as trivial and stupid and selfish as thrill-seeking and adventure-mongering. This was why we pursued our thrills and adventures so rabidly; because the time in our lives we had to do them had an expiration date stamped on it, very boldly, very clearly. We were never going to climb Mt. Everest. We were never going to explore Aztec ruins or sail across the ocean or run with the bulls unless we did it right then, in the small window before we began our careers and our domestic lives. So our cliff jumping and our midnight canyoneering trips, our spontaneous road trips to everywhere was our protest song.
And then, just as we had foreseen, it started happening. We graduated. We started careers. Some of us got married and started families.
Since our conversation that day in Sullivan’s Café, I had done a lot of thinking on the subject of adventure and I had formed a lot of questions. Was lust for adventure just foolishness? Was it just something adolescent males needed to get out of their system? Would my life be better, more productive if I just grew out of it? Or does adventure actually have some inherent qualities that can make life experience richer, fuller?
I had been reluctant to enter into my own career. I had been dragging my feet trying to delay its seemingly inevitable arrival. When I had stood with my friends in the Maproom of our Lives I saw the X marking “You are here” and I saw the recommended road ahead of us. But I also saw a lot of interesting trails snaking off in other directions away from that X. For me the adventures and thrill-seeking had led to some new and interesting pathways and I felt like if I explored them I’d find some amazing things along the way. I saw a lot of interesting unexplored white space. And to an explorer there’s nothing more intriguing, more enticing than white space.
In the meantime I had taken a job in a factory that made ready-to-assemble furniture. The cheap crap you buy at Walmart. I worked on the laminating machine, where paper that’s printed to look like different types of wood was glued and pressed onto particle board. My job was to stand at the end of the laminator and check the boards to make sure the paper wasn’t wrinkled, burnt or otherwise defective. After inspecting the boards I attached a barcode sticker to the stack of “wood” and scanned it with a laser scanner. It was boring, spirit-killing work. It was enough to make me wonder if I had been Hitler in my previous life and this was my punishment.
The paper veneers were printed to look like walnut, oak, alder and many other types of wood. But there was one major difference: the stuff we made never obtained that inner glow that old wood, real wood, got from years of being polished. If you polished this stuff too long you’d just rub the paper veneer right off of it.
So naturally, I spent a lot of my time at this period in my life thinking about veneers. It was partly because of my job, and partly because I held this job during a time when I was trying to decide how to spend the rest of my life.
I had come to a crossroads. I was facing a dilemma. The dilemma. Life had been nudging me in a direction that, if taken, could cause the inner landscape of myself I was just beginning to discover to go unexplored. I was being nudged onto the playing field where the young, the urban, the professional roamed. But I didn’t want that. At all. I still wanted to roam with the ravens and coyotes. I still wanted to sleep beneath the cottonwoods and junipers. The direction I was being nudged would bring me material gains but, I worried, would leave me unfulfilled in this other area, this more important, area of my life.
In recent years I had been catching glimpses of a place inside me. It’s a place I only saw when I was out in the wilderness alone. It was a place I would definitely like to explore further. I got only short glimpses of it, then it would disappear like a mountain behind a snowstorm. I was certainly not the only person to have discovered this place inside of themselves. I had read many accounts of other travelers and other explorers who had set out to explore new places and they too, usually deep into their journey, ended up exploring their inner selves.
And it was only during the past year that I’d taken the Austrian poet Rainer Rilke’s advice: “Things don’t truly exist until the poet gives them a name.” And so I gave this mysterious, hidden place inside of me a name. Because I felt like I could explore this place inside me forever I named it Terra Infinitum.
There were other things in my life at that time that also got me thinking about veneers. The first was a man I worked with at the furniture factory who had just purchased a very nice house. I knew because I went there to attend a barbecue he threw to show it off. But his beautiful house was expensive and this man didn’t make nearly enough money at the factory to pay for it. In order to afford his luxurious home, and all the other things in life that would make him appear successful, this man had to work ten or more hours or more of overtime a week. Every week. He really loved his house. So much so that he never got to do anything more than sleep in it. I didn’t want to become that guy.
I also had a roommate who was another good example of the veneer lifestyle. The previous summer he had purchased a new $33,000 sport utility vehicle. He bought the SUV so he could, as he put it, “be ready to hit the slopes and go camping at a moment’s notice.” He even bought a roof rack and, as the ultimate SUV accessory, a forest green canoe to match his maroon and gold Explorer. He even drove around town with the canoe on the roof rack for a week just because it made him look adventurous. You know the type.
He then bought a $700 bombproof tent, a $450 backpack, a $250 daypack, 100 feet of rappelling rope, a harness, carabiners, fleece pants, a nylon coat with zip out fleece liner, a multi-tool pocket knife, hiking shoes, another pair of hiking shoes, trekking poles and on and on. Basically, if he’d ever seen it advertised across the pages of Backpacker or Outside he probably owned it and in different colors. But, like everyone else, he was too busy to go hiking, fishing or camping.
At the furniture plant they had a saying for that type of thing: Who cares if it’s not real walnut as long as it looks like walnut. My roommate, who sold his freedom for the image of freedom, must have a similar motto: Who cares if I’m not the outdoorsy type as long as I look like the outdoorsy type?
About three weeks prior to this snowshoe trek along the Virgin River Rim Trail, I had been offered a very good job as a copywriter at an ad agency. The pay was crazy good, and the work seemed interesting. The first thing I did, after hearing what my starting salary would be, was think of the things I was going to buy. A new Subaru. Some new Doc Martens would be nice. I found myself thumbing through clothing and furniture catalogs circling the items I’d buy. The copywriting job was in Salt Lake City. I began picturing how I’d decorate the studio apartment I’d rent downtown. I began thinking how proud my parents and girlfriend would—finally!—be of me.
One day, while perusing the catalogs from which I’d soon be adorning my glamorous new life, the text read, “Do the Joneses one better.” This thought catalyzed with my life at the veneer factory.
Why do I want to keep up with the Joneses? I asked myself. Why do I want to model my life after theirs? The Joneses gave up on their own dreams long ago. They’re a bunch of sell outs. Sure they may put on a pretty Premier Walnut life but they live a hollow, particle board existence. Are these really the people I want to keep up with? Was their life the pattern I wanted to follow?
You can cover particle board with paper printed to look like Oak and call it oak but that doesn’t make it oak. You can own a huge house and call it Success. You can own a boat and call it Freedom. You can own a summer cabin and call it Escape.
So —was it off to Salt Lake to become a copy writer and live the Premier Walnut lifestyle or stay in Cedar City and live an Unfancy but Authentic lifestyle?
This was a decision I had to make with my heart. It was because I needed to make this decision with my heart that I went into the wilderness for three days. Solitude and wild places best allow my heart to open up. And if I didn’t make the right decision right then, this may be one of the last decisions I made with it.
The pines were hooded in white and snow-boughed, snow-bent. The smaller, younger pines bent like praying monks. Some young aspens were completely bent over, encased in a rime of ice from some previous storms. Standing among the pines they resembled a cricket’s eye view of croquet hoops in tall grass.
The trees were so thick that I could only see about thirty feet in any direction, not so much a wall as a veil I slowly passed through. After an hour or so of climbing, I knew I was nearing the top of the mountain. I was finally able to see a little sky in front of me through the trees, not just above me. Between the trees I saw a jet traveling across the sky leaving a contrail, like the pin in an etch-a-sketch.
I decided to give one last hearty push to the summit. From there it would be easier going as the trail remained relatively level as it runs along the edge of the plateau. My snowshoes were only 29 inches long and 8 1/2 inches wide. Much too short and narrow to give the necessary loft to a 180 pound man and a 40 pound backpack. With each step I sunk into the snow nearly to my knees. And after three hours of this level of difficult snowshoeing my breathing was very heavy. With my snowshoes sinking and my labored breathing it gave the impression that my legs were deflating with every step and I had to inhale 15 times to re-inflate them enough to take another step.
I pushed, I slipped, I sweated. Near the top, the gradation of the hill leveled out enough that I no longer had to switchback. I could walk directly uphill. My sides were heaving, my backpack was burrowing into me, my quadriceps were burning, and I feeling like an engine about to seize up, but I reached the top. I could hear my heart beating in my ears. My entire body tingled like a root beer burp in the nose. My quadriceps and calves were twitching like Medusa’s shower cap.
I had reached the Virgin River Rim Trail. I took off my backpack and dropped it to the ground and rested. I could see the edge of the plateau about 100 feet before me. A few trees grew along the edge of the mesa. Short, stunted, wind-twisted ponderosas and cataleptic junipers. The snow here was six to eight feet deep. Pine trees that in the summer would be over my head were now nearly buried, just anthill-sized piles of snow that I stepped over. The aspens were bare. Their afternoon shadows lied across the snow like bar codes. The world was softened, smoothed out. She rested, caught her breath.
I leaned on my ski poles and rested until my breathing slowed. The cold air felt good on my hot face. Something moved out of the corner of my eye. It was one of the taller pine trees about 40 feet ahead of me and to my right. As I watched, thawing snow slid from the tree’s upper boughs to its lower boughs. The lower branches bent under the new weight. After bending far enough some snow slid off and cascaded down the side of the tree. With some of the weight released, the branch sprang back up casting its remaining snow into the air, creating a sound like a whispered “shhh” heard across an empty library. The air filled with glittering snow crystals that drifted across the mountain towards me, over me. Sparks of chrome. The snow crystals were so small. If the old saying is true that a thousand angels can dance on the head of a pin, then these snow crystals could have been their halos. Late afternoon sunlight prismed through them into my own private rainbow.
Rested, I walked closer to the edge wanting to take in the view I’d worked so hard to obtain. I came out of the trees and for the first time I saw what had been making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up all day. An armada of dark, gray storm clouds were moving in from the west. A big storm was on its way.
The Virgin River Rim Trail looks down into the Virgin River drainage area and the backside of Zion National Park. It was so beautiful. From this vantage, I could see some of Zion’s famous towers: West Temple, Mount Kinesawa and the Towers of the Virgin.
My elevation along the trail was high enough that I could also see well beyond Zion. To the southeast I was able to see the Kaibab Plateau, which makes up the Grand Canyon’s north rim, more than 150 miles away. In the west, mountains faded into each other in translucent gradations of blue, flat and untextured as wallpaper. It felt good to stretch my eyesight beyond the borders of the workplace walls. Just like a racehorse needs to get out of the stable and stretch its legs, a dreamer needs to get out and set his sights on the horizon. I had hiked this trail several times in the summer and I already had my campsite in mind.
In warmer months this trail was heavily cluttered with fallen logs, scrubby manzanita bushes, sagebrush and rocks that did not permit a person to walk across it easily. But the deep snow changed all that. All the downed logs, rocks and ankle-entangling bushes were now buried under banks of snow. Wind blowing over the rim of the mesa had sculpted the snow into cresting waves forever (or at least until spring) ready to crash onto dunes of snow. Now that I was on top of the plateau the snowshoeing was much easier, a cakewalk. And the icing was thick.
I picked up the pace into a shuffling jog. Snow on the backs of my snowshoes catapulted over my head landing in front of me, or down the back of my neck. I left a dash-mark of compressed blue tracks, the color of pinched hail cores, glowing in my wake. I found a rhythm I liked. I kept the views from the overlook in sight. My campsite was still about two or three miles away.
I reached my campsite about an hour later and took off my backpack. Oh, sweet weightless-ness! This must be how Superman feels right before take-off.
My campsite was a beautiful little clearing about four tents wide in a cluster of medium-height pine trees. It was about 75 feet away from the edge of the plateau so I was still an easy snowshoe away from the overlook, yet far enough away that I wouldn’t get blown away when the cold, night winds came hunting over its edge. I propped my backpack against a tree and, with my snowshoes, tromped down the snow in the center of the clearing. I then pitched my tent on top of the snow and unrolled my sleeping pad and sleeping bag inside the tent.
I then snowshoed over to the edge of the overlook to have a look. Heavenly, packless reconnaissance. Everything was so silent. A ringing silence. A sound like a licked finger being rubbed over a crystal glass. When I was a kid and first heard that sound I thought I was hearing the weight of gazillions of snow crystals settling. But I now knew better, since I’d heard that same ringing silence in the middle of a snowless desert.
The Virgin River Rim Trail is thus named because it overlooks the Virgin River drainage area, a large, south-facing bowl which drains into the Virgin River in the heart of southern Utah’s red rock country. Over the millennia, spring snowmelt and summer showers emptying into the Virgin River, have sculpted the red rock into pillars, spires, fins and curtains similar to those that have made Bryce Canyon famous. The towers and pinnacles stand like dull-headed pawns and sharp-featured bishops on a chess board, protecting their king. Some look half-asleep with weary, sluffing shoulders. Others look crisp and attentive in freshly-starched uniforms, alert to the advance of a parure of hoodoos. And for a minute I was their king, surveying my kingdom, looking over their heads, some bent penitently, others held proudly. I looked into the valley and decided it was not a bad looking kingdom.
I wanted to see what was going on with the storm clouds I’d last seen moving in from the west but there were too many pine trees blocking my view. A little to my left a narrow fin of snow-covered red rock jutted out away from the edge of the cliff like a catwalk from a stage. There was a wide, flat platform at the end of the fin that looked like a good place to watch the storm roll in.
The top of the fin leading to the platform was about a foot wide, rounded, slick. Rather than try to walk across it I took off my snowshoes, waded forward through the deep snow and straddled the fin as if riding a horse. I mounted up and pommeled forward, snowplowing snow with the crotch of my pants as I skooched forward. After a few minutes I reached the end of the fin. It was flat and square. I brushed some of the snow off it and sit down, dangling my feet over the edge. From my new vantage there were no obstructions between me and the incoming storm.
With the coming of the storm the mountains on every horizon dimmed away as if behind a steamed shower door. The storm clouds, I could see, had ripened and turned to snow. The sun setting behind it had given it a soft, reddish cast. The reddish sunset saturated the orange-, peach- and salmon-colored rock formations before me until they were sweating with excess color. They were dripping dreamsicles, size ten formations painted with size twelve colors. During most any time of day these formations glow like the embers in a dying fire but the reddish cast of the setting sun made them glow like embers being blown on. They looked ready to burst into flame. They glowed like a pregnant woman with a sunburn.
After gazing upon the scene and scenery for a while my thoughts again turned inward. Turned once again to my dilemma I’d come here to figure out: should I take the job as copywriter and live a comfortable existence or stay in Cedar City where my life would be poor monetarily but rich in adventure, exploration, discovery and story?
I was afraid that if I took the job as copywriter I’d commit myself to a road I didn’t want to go down. And I knew that the further I went down that road, the harder it would be to get off. After I started my new career, I’d next buy a house. Then get married. There would be children. A promotion. A bigger house. Maybe a master’s degree. Retirement. A brief time of travel, perhaps. Then a headstone. That was the bleak way of looking at it.
But that new life, if I chose it, would also contain many positive things I’d love. There would also be getaways with the wife, birthday parties, playing with my kids. Campouts in the backyard. Fishing trips. Storytime in the story tent we’d pitch in the basement or backyard. Cozy Christmas Eves. We could have all those countless little moments when we’d laugh around the dinner table. It was lonely out there in the woods and because of it I could more achingly feel what it was I’d be giving up if I chose plan B.
I kept thinking about a night in college when I was hanging out with my girlfriend. Her roommates were gone for the weekend. She had invited me over for dinner. I sat on the couch—she insisted—while she cooked dinner. She put a beverage in my hand, told me to relax. She unplugged the TV. She turned off the lights and lit ten or twelve candles. While she cooked we just talked. About everything. Our favorite movies, our favorite books. “Have you read The Shipping News?” “Oh my gosh! Is Annie Proulx thee best writer or what?” Pretty soon I was off the couch and in the kitchen, to better converse. I picked up a knife and started cutting the green onions. She was making home-made bread and I sucked the bread dough off her fingertips. The white candle wax dripped down over the sides of the wine bottles in which they were inserted, until bottles resembled snow-covered pine trees; not so different than the ones I’d pass through three years later on the day I walked into the snowy woods to figure out the rest of my life.
It turned into one of the greatest nights of my life and at that moment I imagined spending lots of nights just like that; having interesting conversations with a beautiful and interesting woman.
But say the words, Aspiring Writer, and you’ve just sprayed Sure Death on your relationship. Within four months the relationship had ended. She wanted a reliable man with a reliable job bringing home a reliable paycheck with benefits and a retirement plan and room for advancement. Yes, of course. I didn’t hold that against her at all. That’s how it should be. Yeah, I could do that, I thought. I could be that guy. But the thought made my heart feel sick.
When I’m out exploring, I always carry a notebook and pen in my pocket and I took them out and brainstormed what it was I most truly, most deeply wanted out of life. It was not a list of things I wanted then, it was a list of what I wanted to have accomplished by the end of my life. It was not a list of things that would make my life more comfortable, it was a list of things that would make my life more fulfilling.
Then I began to edit the list, circling the things that mattered most to me in the long run. I circled exploration. I circled discovery. I circled love. Then I wrote it out in a sentence. It read: My life will have exploration, adventure, beauty, wonder, meditation, discovery, joy, enlightenment and love (that rare, crimson strand). I will explore Terra Infinitum.
My life sentence.
The number one item on my list of things I wanted to do during my life was explore. I wanted to be an explorer. And that’s when it occurred to me. I had been to the map room of my life. I had seen my life’s course charted out. And I didn’t like what I saw. But surrounding the course of my life was the brilliant, uncharted, beautiful white space of unexplored options. And there is nothing that an explorer loves more than white space, nothing he or she loves more than exploring the unexplored.
Right there, sitting on top of a snow-covered, redrock hoodoo overlooking the backside of Zion National Park and an incoming snowstorm I made the biggest decision of my life.
I would leave my life’s pre-charted course and veer off into the white space of the unexplored life of an explorer. I liked it! That’s what I was going to do. The idea of it filled me with peace. A deep, comforting peace.
And maybe, I thought, I’d find a woman who was also looking for adventure, beauty, wonder, exploration, meditation, discovery, joy, enlightenment and love and she’d join me for a grand adventure.
Nearly an hour and a half passed and the storm was now almost upon me. Stiff with cold I carefully turned around, skooched back across the redrock fin to solid ground, put on my snowshoes and snowshoed back to camp. I gathered some wood and started a fire. I added larger kindling and breathed some life into it. I moved my backpack and other gear into the tent, preparing for the snow to fall. I balanced a pan on the fire to boil water for my freeze-dried dinner then snowshoed back into the woods and brought back more sticks and wrist-sized logs for the campfire. By the time I’d gathered enough wood to last into the night it had grown dark.
I pulled my sleeping pad out of the tent and sat on it while I ate and read by the fire. The fire sank lower and lower as it melted into the snow.
Finally, the storm arrived. It was a gentle, mild storm with no wind. A soft, caring, female storm. A log popped in the fire. Sparks erupted and pin-wheeled into the night. At the same time, the falling snowflakes approaching the fire took on its red-orange glow so that the snowflakes resembled falling sparks. With the bright orange sparks flying upwards and the paler orange sparks of snow descending. It was gorgeous, mesmerizing. It was like the mythological River of Time that flowed in two directions at once. Courting fireflies. Two galaxies colliding.
The snowflakes were large and almost weightless, big as muzzle-loader patches. They landed softly onto my face with wispy tickles. With a gust of wind from the northwest the falling snow suddenly tilted and changed direction like a school of fish.
I lay back on my sleeping pad, stared up at the sky and just watched the beautiful scene. I had pitched my tent inside a circle of pine trees which formed a porthole view of the sky above me. With the snowflakes falling down it was easy to imagine myself in the cockpit of a rocket blasting through a field of stars.
The light from the campfire turned the snow-draped pine trees that surrounded my camp reddish-orange. Thus lighted, and with their snow-covered boughs giving them a more contoured appearance, they didn’t look so different than the red-orange eroded hoodoos on which I had sat and contemplated just an hour earlier.
Once in a while I reached over and poked the campfire with a stick to release a new geyser of sparks into the snowy sky.
It was a transcendental moment. Certainly one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. I wanted my life to be filled a thousand such moments. The experience confirmed and solidified my conviction that I had made the right decision.
I was going to be lying there watching the rising sparks and the falling snow for a while. Might as well settle in and get comfortable and enjoy this amazing show. I pulled my mummy bag and pillow from the tent and, back outside the tent. I crawled into my sleeping bag, tucked my pillow under my head and poked the fire sending another school of sparks swimming into the sky.
Steven Law is a Contributing Writer for Panorama.
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