The Rocky Path

Once a year my ritual is to unplug my computer and pack my bag. Then I turn my back on the writing and emails that beckon to me and head my steering wheel toward Sedona. I missed this ritual last year, and my soul felt I needed it more than ever.  I longed to hike the rocky red trails, but now that the mask mandates have been eased, a friend had warned me that the red rocks had been overrun by young tourists. But I have had my vaccines, and last Thursday I was determined to have my first get-away in a long time. I loaded my car and headed north.

As I drove to Sedona, I was still unwinding from the past week. It had been a wonderful week. After I taught my Mayo Clinic writing class, a student wrote me that her writing had led to an understanding of her estranged son. Nothing makes me happier. But it had been a hard week, too. I did a presentation to Intel employees in Chandler. It was supposed to be a well-rehearsed Zoom talk, but my computer with an Intel chip died at 12:17 pm. Thirteen minutes before the scheduled talk. The irony hit as I struggled to call up the hotspot on my phone and give my first talk via my phone.  While it worked, it was stressful!

As I arrived in the canyon, I was surprised by the dozens of cars parked along the roadsides. California license plates. Nevada. Utah. More California plates. Tanned and jubilant I heard many of the young people chatting gleefully as they walked down the roads, headed for the trails I love. I started counting the cars with out-of-state plates, and I was a bit unsettled.

Two hours later my hiking boots were laced, and I headed into Boynton Canyon. It was quiet, and I reminisced about the many times I have hiked these trails. It has often surprised me but never disappointed me.  It was here I once saw an oak tree fallen to the ground, roots half in and half ripped from the earth with arms entwined with the earth in what appeared to be a warm embrace. I remember thinking how wonderful that the earth and the tree are one.

Often as I navigate the rocky path and stare up at the canyon walls, I have contemplated how Native Americans lived here over eleven thousand years ago. I imagine how these ancients must have stared wide-eyed, as I often do now, at the natural canvas painted here, streaked in dusted pinks and red-oranges. You can see the holes in the canyon walls where these people lived.  I think of how their children must have scaled the mountain sides to the caves. Sometimes when I hike, I sense their aura, and feel I am being welcomed into their home. I love to imagine their voices echoing across the canyon—their chatter, their laughter, the squeals of their children.  I stare straight up and think of how these people probably scaled these heights with relative ease, for it was the life they had come to know—chasing animals and gathering wild plants.  From time to time, someone slipped or fell and there was no helicopter to navigate a rescue. Like the oak tree, these long-ago humans were completely entwined with the Earth.

As I hiked on, I was passed by a group of young hikers, several basketball players from North Carolina State. They were friendly and hailed me kindly. One called, “Good for you!” I am grateful he did not add, “old lady.” The path had become steep and rocky, up and down.  As I age, I find it harder to navigate, but I walk more slowly and deliberately.  Another group of young people pass.

An hour later, I paused to rest. Looking up I was overcome by the sight of the red rocks that pointed upwards like a stunning red cathedral and the shadows landing from the other side of canyon appeared to be the long-pointed spires shooting upwards toward the sky.  Then it appeared.   A kaleidoscope of light, brilliant color, and dancing shadows. The reds, the pinks, and the golds sparkled in the glow of the sunlight as the shadows of the oak leaves danced back and forth across them. Nature’s own stained-glass window. A stunning rose window. A magnificent, shimmering kaleidoscope of light and color illuminating the canyon wall.

I was silent for a time before I heard laughter and a group of four young women came charging into the space. When they saw me, they halted–surprised.  “Are you okay?” asked a kinky haired girl, the first in their line.  I nodded and pointed upward to my imaginary cathedral.

“Oh, wow!” she murmured, and her girlfriends were equally taken back. The five of us stood in reverent silence for several minutes. Then they silently mouthed their “thank-yous” and slipped past me on the way into their futures.

Unlike the girls, I was not in a hurry. I relished just being there and reflecting. While this does not happen often, I have learned to try and seize these special moments. It was then that all the stresses and craziness seemed to wash right out of me. It was there that a computer crash seemed insignificant. It was there that I was flooded with gratitude. To be out. To be here!

The last year has been a rocky path for all of us. As we work to hoist ourselves up and out of the pandemic, we can learn from the oak trees and the Native Americans of long ago. I can look down the trail and see that it leads forward. I will find my way. The young people will find their way.

Indeed, when we stay the course, the rocky path often leads to the beautiful. The unexpected. Suddenly I was flooded with joy that so many young people had found their way here. For in this place we can connect with the oak tree, the ancient humans, with each other, and most powerfully, with something bigger and more beautiful than all of us.