Recently I was on a hike with my family in Zion National Park in southern Utah, a trek called simply “Observation Point” for the stunning views of the canyon. The first thirty minutes of the hike consisted of tightly laid switchbacks streaked across the steep rock face of the canyon wall, a calf-burning beginning that left us all lunging for first dibs on the gatorade by the top. When a trail starts in such a way it is easy to become quickly discouraged and lethargic. Feeling the burn a half-mile into an eight mile hike is never a good sign and often prompts thoughts of turning back, or at least bitter, unpleasant realizations of how far you have to go before reaching those stunning canyon views. “I can see the canyon from here,” my brother pointed out sardonically, leaning against the red sandstone.
Just around the corner after the switchbacks leveled off a bit, we were plunged into the heart of a narrow, mini-canyon with steep walls towering to dizzying heights overhead. Scattered along the canyon floor were pools of stagnant water, seemingly the remains of a dried up river that had once filled the space in which we now stood. “Wow,” I heard behind me, the whispered word expanding to fill the air around us. My once-cynical brother had changed his tune, and I felt the tightness in my calves begin to ease, the swelling of my lungs begin to slow. It was not even eight in the morning and we were the only ones in the narrow canyon, the only sounds around us the light trickle of water over smooth stones and the breeze being tunneled through the tight space. There was something almost alien about it, about the entire landscape before us, so exotic and unexpected.
We did eventually reach the midpoint of the hike from which we were supposed to observe, from which the stunning canyon views did indeed live up to our expectations. And while I’m sure I’ll remember the enormous openness of the air on the cliff and the dizzying drop to the canyon floor below, I’ll never be able to forget the way it felt when we turned the corner at the top of the switchbacks and gasped a little at what the guidebook hadn’t prepared us for, at what we had only been able to see after hiking one step at a time up the side of the canyon wall. To see the stunning canyon views, and also to see the hidden narrows, we had to keep climbing even when our muscles and our lungs pleaded with us to just turn around and go back.
The end of August has always signaled the end of summer (or the beginning of the end for those of us on the quarter system), the end of the warmth and the freedom and the late sunsets. Fall beckons in all its fuzziness, with its long sleeves and its nights spent curled up in the library and the way even the ground seems to feel different underfoot. We have been trained, we have been conditioned to start to want all these things at a certain point in the year, to start to move back toward classrooms and book bags and sweaters and coffee without ice.
But this year, with the exception of those of us going to graduate school, we have outgrown it. We have gone past it, we have moved beyond it, we have left it behind us. But it still tugs at us. I still feel like in some alternate universe I should be flying back to Chicago, back to the same streets and the same people I spent the last four years with, but we have to realize that that will not and cannot be true. That is all behind us now, whether we still feel like we should be buying books and pencils or not.
Cheryl Strayed, a writer who I have mentioned before and who I admire beyond belief, recently did an interview with Orion magazine about her bestelling memoir Wild and in it she is asked about a point on the Pacific Crest Trail when she survived an encounter with a Texas longhorn bull and was faced with the decision to either turn back and chalk the entire trip up to be a giant mistake, or to continue on down the trail. Strayed eventually chose to keep moving forward, a decision she details in the interview:
“That decision to move forward in the direction of my intentions is one I make every day in everything I am—writer, mother, human. Or at least I do when I’m doing my best. We all get stuck in place on occasion. We all move backwards sometimes. But moving forward is what we’re here for so I try to do it even when I’m afraid there might be a marauding bull waiting for me down the trail. Forward is the direction of real life.”
Forward is the direction of real life. As seductive as it may seem to lose ourselves in comforting, familiar daydreams of the past, to perhaps wish that we were going back to something we already had, backward is the direction of nostalgia, backward is the direction of memory. It is forward, then. Despite fear, despite uncertainty, despite difficulty– forward is the only direction we have.
Forward is the direction of real life, and forward is the direction in which we must move, no matter what lies on the trail ahead. Because if you stop on the side of the tough parts and refuse to move, if you turn around and walk back down the hill, you may never encounter a Texas longhorn bull, but you will never get to see the stunning canyon views, you will never find the unexpected narrows.
Love the past for what it was, but move forward, into whatever is next, into whatever awaits.