Ten Miles After Midnight

One evening in the dank dusk of a Kentucky summer my neighbor asked me about my travels. I had a baby on my hip with spaghetti-stained lips and a grimace on her face every time I tried to wipe her. While my neighbor described her adventures in Europe I watched the bugs dance in the grass and remembered I hadn't put repellent on the ankles of my four-year-old. She talked about orphanages in Africa and the Great Wall, and the white sand of her favorite beach. I met her stories with enthusiasm, asked a lot of questions, and then I shrank a little and let the baby fuss as an excuse to go inside. That night I busied myself with housework, and tried to ignore the flashbacks of my old bulletin board papered with postcards of Mont St. Michel and the Arc De Triumph, the saved copy of a high school french test. Traveling had once been a dream but I'd hardly thought about it in the last ten years. My list was pale compared to hers, and it jarred me to remember a desire that once burned so glaringly bright. I scooped stray toys off the deck, tightened the lids on the bubble jars and noticed the air was thick, the sky a bulging scape of dark heavy clouds. I loaded saucy dishes as the first sheets of rain fell and remembered....not Mexico or Alberta (the most exotic and foreign places I could claim) but the Grand Canyon, the Arizona desert, an all girls trip I'd taken just after my first year of college. It was a trip that had slipped to a misty part of my brain, something I belittled compared to more enticing foreign excursions but there it was swimming, bobbing on the waters asking for attention like a neglected child. I saw the circle of glowing tepees our car had wandered into when we took the wrong dirt road. And the yellow wooden sign with the word TRAILHEAD written in black. I remembered hiking in at midnight and how weak the beam of my flashlight felt against the depth of the canyon. How the starlit view felt like climbing the stairs of the Lincoln memorial, where I'd grown small and reverent in the shadow of stone knees, marbled wisdom and an infinite gaze. I remembered the aches from a mile of switchbacks, the weight of my pack after the 9 mile hike to our campsite. I saw the pale white horse staring at us in the dark as he roamed the canyon floor, his tangled mane and protruding ribs pronounced in the moonlight. I saw the village I never knew existed, and how it felt Disney-concocted with small rectangular houses made of cement blocks and metal roofs with yellow-lit windows and dim porch lights, barbed wire fences, gardens, sprinkler systems, a red 10-speed. I remembered the water was so blue it seemed impossible. And that we survived on Ramen noodles and Bear Creek soups. The wild dogs licked melting chocolate from granola bars off our fingers, returning each day to plop in the soft dirt and nuzzle their wet noses into our calves. I remembered catching frogs like six-year-old boys and rope swings into the river. And the flock of wrinkled gray-haired ladies who fervently advised us not to marry young, advice most of us ignored only a few years later. I remembered the cuts and scrapes we honorably bore after being sucked down a small waterfall, and how the bruises deepened in the sunlight.

I remembered that I felt the Canyon before I ever saw it. That we each took that first step knowing little about what lay ahead with clean sneakers and adrenaline flowing to match the Colorado River. And that so much of my life afterward followed the same pattern of stepping into darkness, with an anxious heart and the weight of the unknown swirling in my stomach. That the delicate presence of peace and pain and fear and beauty would be as cyclical as the phases of the moon.

That night I pressed my hand against the cool window and watched the streams of rain glow in the lightning, with the dishwasher whirring, my husband and daughters sleeping, I remembered, me ten years later and the canyon just before everything.