I pensively submitted to our latest family “escapade.” “You’ll never know unless you try!” Dad exclaimed. As our car ground to a halt amidst the Upper Pines campground, I looked around to confirm childhood stories — perhaps a black bear rummaging the steel-enforced trash. Nothing. My car-numbed muscles tensed before I bolted onto slick dirt as cold as Yosemite National Park’s reception ceremony.
My disappointment loomed like the park’s trademark sequoias gracing the star-strewed sky. The dry air seemed to suck up my anticipations – the class party I missed, my insolvent sleep debt, the impending Illinois math competition. I associated “nature” with mowing the lawn every Saturday morning. Donning my Under Armor, I ran out the tent settling on my 5-k pace — breathe in 3-count, out 3-count.
I immediately felt the unseasonable chill. California Redwoods obscured my vision for miles and unconsciously squeezed out my thoughts. These redoubtable trees oozed a quiet fortitude, just as Lincoln’s portrait in the oval office calmed Theodore Roosevelt. My challenges eroded into molehills. Clouds of breath erupted sporadically. I’m not as fit as I thought. Thoughts of a group paper surfaced in my mind, subsiding only after I made a mental checklist in my head.
I passed a sign. Trail – on the left. Am I letting my worries boil, wasting time or procrastinating? I changed to a 2-count. Am I gazing over the scenery as an escape from my challenges, underestimating obstacles that I habitually ignore? I pushed myself harder. A cool breeze sprang up. Perhaps Thoreau lived in Walden as a meaningless end, not as a means to an end.
Thump, thump. Runner’s high just before bedtime. I flinched as two gallon-sized pinecones crashed to my right. I snagged them, not expecting the sticky sap as I juggled them to entertain imaginary squirrels. I desperately wished law allowed me to keep them.
Thump, thump. Pinecone in my hand, my current race outweighed the rat race of high school. Lactic acid in my veins, my present challenge outweighed last year’s social Waterloos. Plateaus signaled I should begin my 6-mile jog back.
Verdant pinnacles sporadically shoot up through granite, reminding me of the “mountain fastnesses” which Rowan conquered in A Message to Garcia – although the struggle satisfies me, reaching the peak matters the most. Inhale, one-two. Exhale, three-four. Behind two acres of verdant foliage, Horsetail Falls effervesced with the flickering breaths of sunlight. Surely the Californian gold diggers our guide mentioned must have found “acres of diamonds” without finding gold.
Even though I reread thrice to grasp Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, the flocks of geese show me instantly how all of us, despite our disagreements, create synergy like the two sides of their parabolic flight. I regret my Waterloos, but refuse to sacrifice the grand scheme of nature. The squirrels, the geese, the bears cannot dwell on mistakes, but move forward fueled by new risks. My limbs suddenly felt light and even more flexible, able to be pushed further. The fluorescent lighting of our campsite revealed the sickly yellow of the black oaks and azaleas — transience the cypresses had obscured.
I remembered my dad’s crown of silver, like the deciduous leaves, paling by the minute, proclaiming the urgency of the present. Our interests vary like autumn colors. He was a collegiate sprinter. I am a third-rate distance runner. But for both of us, exploring new territories extends beyond catharsis. A pang of regret pierced me. I forgot to retrieve extra blankets from the management. Returning to our tent, the last blankets underneath one arm and pinecones underneath another, I drifted to sleep before my pinecone dried.
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