Off the Grid: When the search is better than the find
Thu., Feb. 23, 2023
I took a trip last week and made a crucial mistake: I went south. Not just a little south, but south where they have jumping cholla cactus and blue skies and it was 70 degrees. In February. Which is the month in which I suddenly feel compelled to find the answers to life or at least my midwinter misery.
Before I packed, I called a friend there and asked, “So, tell me in careful detail: What are you wearing right now?”
“A pair of thin, pink flip-flops,” she said.
About this time of year, every year, I suddenly stop trash-talking the snowbirds and try to befriend them, particularly if they have a spare bedroom in Sedona. I want to remember what it feels like to run on dirt, to go outside without bracing myself against the elements. I think this is the answer to my woes.
My bag stuffed with trail snacks and running shoes, I made a break for the state with arguably the best flag: Arizona. (I actually looked up all the state flags to confirm my suspicions. Alabama, could you at least try?)
Upon arrival, I began asking the locals where I might find some trails to traipse upon. They all told me to go to Mount Lemon because there was snow up there and it was awfully beautiful, so crisp and white and all that. First, I didn’t want to climb a mountain, and second, I did not want to see any snow. But I live in a reality where I seem to magically attract both, like I’m Elsa without the blue dress.
I also have the uncanny ability to go somewhere I don’t mean to go, particularly when I’m in urban areas and assume anything within sight of the city is basically a paved park path. This is not true of the Arizona desert. What is true of the Arizona desert is that you will always need more water than you think and the chollas really do jump.
Other observations: Don’t be fooled by the similarities between all the strip malls. Some have an Office Max whereas others have a Best Buy. Also, a lot of people know where trailheads are but not where trails go. Which is how I ended up on something called Finger Rock Trail with the intention of arriving at Finger Rock (an obvious and inviting landmark from any mall parking lot) and somehow climbing Mt. Kimball. In the snow.
Several hours earlier, I had been drinking coffee and wearing flip-flops with my friend as we explored the inexplicable drive to do hard things. She’s a therapist, so she sees (and eagerly points out) a lot of qualities in me that I mostly deny. And I’m a nutritionist, so I remind her the only thing missing from her post-AA coffee habit is a Styrofoam cup.
Why do we do hard things? Are our lives so comfortable that we must invent miseries as character-building exercises? If I had access to Door Dash and Uber Eats, would I have to balance that by sleeping on a nail bed? I promised I would explore the deeper meaning of it all on my gentle, not-too-intense, not-too-far run.
The desert, though pleasantly arid and sun-warmed, is a calamitous place of big rocks and more pointy things than a knitter’s convention. The red rocks and the chunks of glistening marble and breeze grass and blossoming poppies were such a seasonal reprieve, I barely noticed the burning in my quads or the 4,000 feet I climbed before I had the good sense to look at a map.
Because apparently this trail did not actually go to the place it was named for. It just had a good view of it. I was getting suspicious as I hit snow (and unpacking my arsenal of winter curse words). Somewhere ahead was what looked like the top of a thing and it wouldn’t really make sense to come all this way without achieving the goal.
And there lies the problem. We are so focused on getting somewhere, we forget to see where we are. There were no flowers at the top, no goats, just snow and rocks and some burned trees. In fact, I didn’t even climb Mt. Kimball, because her peak was a few hundred yards to my right. I called my friend from the top of wherever.
“I don’t know where I am, but I’m not lost,” I said. These are two very different things, as outdoors people can attest. I worried that I was going to be hours later than expected. She implied something about staying out as long as it takes to find the answers I am seeking. In that case, I’d need a lot more snacks.
There were other things at the summit, though. A kind of stillness and awe. A view of how the mountains are formed in strange primordial shapes across the horizon. The surreal and unbelievable expanse of urban streets and buildings spreading across the land like an unstoppable biofilm of distant glitter and destruction. I breathed in deeply the tragedy and beauty of it all.
We get closer to those answers when we’re outside, a perspective other than our own, perhaps clearer than our own. Maybe nature has the answers and our awareness of this brings solace. Or this is what acceptance feels like and that might be better than answers.
In the late afternoon, I shuffled back to my friend’s flat, legs covered in scratches, sweat and dirt smeared across my face, and a grin as wide as my ears.
“Well, did you find them?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “But if that’s where they are, I’ll be happy to keep looking.”
Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at email@example.com
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