By Barbara Harroun
The Monday after Spring Break 1990, when I lost my virginity terribly and then ended up in ICU having pulled a Janis Joplin, my Earth Sciences teacher tossed a Junior Earth Warrior application on my desk. “You should apply,” Mr. Rose said. I couldn’t see his mouth, hidden in his crazy mountain man beard, but his eyes were hard behind his John Lennon glasses. “Seriously.” In that moment, I knew that my secret, what I thought was between me and that senior, Greg, was public knowledge. Mr. Rose knew. “I’ll write you a stellar letter of recommendation. Utah is one of the choices. You’d be able to school the other kids on what I’ve taught you.”
Mr. Rose was the advisor of our Ecology club, although it was decades before Al Gore would travel the world and I’d make my own high school students view his documentary. He was youngish. He wore his hair pulled back in a small knot at the nape of his neck, so I never knew how long it really was. And although he wore ironed shirts and ties, the ties were sarcastic in the way they hung, loose and sloppily knotted. Parrots splashed in midflight. Peace signs. If you looked closely, Jerry Garcia would emerge from glossy primary colors. Where he got those ties, before the internet exploded, was something I would later wonder. He wore thick socks with his Birkenstocks, all year, and he ate tofu. We made fun of him, but his earnestness was touching, and sometimes I would look around at my classmates, the boys especially, and think someday we’d all grow into ourselves the way Mr. Rose had. We were in the space between wanting to be adults and knowing we weren’t.
I’d like to know now what I wrote as my reasons for choosing Utah, for wanting so desperately to go. I am certain I did not put down the real reasons I wanted to go. It’s strange to teach in the same high school I found myself hating. The school where I see myself, so long ago, reflected in the kids I now teach. The other day, I wanted to tell someone that I’m Mr. Rose now, except I wear hippy skirts with my business jackets and brightly colored Smart Wool socks with my Keene’s. I even teach in Mr. Rose’s classroom. There’s no one to tell though. No one who would understand or remember him.
That summer, when the small plane landed at the St. George airport, it came to a shuddering stop, and I exited right onto the tarmac. I was the last one, and the other five Earth Warriors had known each other a full hour before I arrived. Our leader, Katie, had sent us typed letters during the month of May full of lists. What to bring. What to read. What to expect. She wrote we were working for Zion National Park and this wasn’t a vacation. And when we weren’t working, we’d be learning about Zion and preserving Mother Earth, and when we weren’t doing all of that, we’d be busy surviving. Finally, and she ended each letter with this phrase, whatever we hauled in, we’d haul out.
This wasn’t entirely true. Six hours after landing, we were half way to Potato Hollow, miles off any real trail in the true backcountry, and she explained we wouldn’t be hauling out our “scat.” We’d be choosing one of two options: to smear it on a rock with another rock, or to dig a deep hole and bury it. We unanimously chose burying. We’d filled our packs with provisions bought at Smith’s grocery and hiked, deep into the night of our arrival, before unrolling our sleeping bags in a sandy ditch. I was nestled between D’Arcy from Connecticut and Amy from nowhere, Utah. At our feet were Sean from Massachusetts, Joshua from Texas, and Billy from Florida. Katie didn’t reveal where she was from. Our sleeping bags were like dominos, I thought when I got up and went off to pee with the fanny pack that held our toilet paper. There was a sandwich bag for the used remnants. I squatted under a nearly full moon, opalescent and scary huge, and the stars were crazy bright and real in a way I was not used to. I was an expert at outdoor peeing, all those nights at an abandoned barn, boozing with friends. I was entirely sober here, and I listened to my urine hit the Utah earth with satisfaction. I was with strangers, but I didn’t feel lonely. I felt new. Susan from Illinois. As I walked through the dark, back to my sleeping bag, our leader, Katie, sat up and whispered, “Everything all right?” Now I know how young she really was at twenty-two, how inexperienced and scared. She had a face she hadn’t learned to tame yet, and her emotions played across her plain features like water. On her right forearm arm, a T shaped scar, running up the main artery, still pink. She was raw and couldn’t lie for shit, and I wondered if I was the only one who had caught on to the fact she might not be the best person to be supervising six teenagers in the backcountry of Utah.
Billy and I hit it off immediately. He was taller than any boy I’d ever met, with a shock of orange-blonde hair and so many freckles they all ran together. He loved Florida and Marx brothers movies and was too open for his own good. He was funny and safe, and wanted to be liked, so we all chose him as our youth leader. Joshua was an introvert. I liked to watch him work. All of his movements were precise, from lopping overhanging branches and tamarisk, to spraying the fruit punch colored plant killer, to intently combing his mass of black curls. He was constantly cleaning his glasses on the edge of his filthy t-shirt, putting them back on and peering at the world as if he expected some change. He liked country music, and we made fun of him, until one night midway through our eight weeks when everyone was homesick, he sang Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and Hank Williams in a voice that forced me to the girl’s tent. I needed to be inside, concealed. Out there, under that darkening sky, I felt too exposed. I didn’t cry, but I was aware my skin was there to keep me tethered, rooted, moored. When Joshua stopped, I heard Katie, in her one-person tent, alone, trying to muffle her weeping and not succeeding.
Amy was a vegan, which dictated our meal menu, but we were all cool with it. We were more interested in why she was from Utah and chose Utah. The way she explained it, where she lived and how her family lived, it meant she never went anywhere. Her folks were hardcore back to lenders. Amy and I wrote to one another forever, real letters, until her husband shot her in the cabin her own parents had built by hand, to keep her from leaving with their five kids. I kept every letter, read her movement from vegan hippy, to full ride scholarship to MIT, where she studied robotics and engineering and discovered punk rock and bike messengering until she quit school, wanting to dismantle the whole middle class system, to meeting her husband at a protest, to moving back to Utah to take care of her sick father, to taking over the land and home, to birthing five kids. We never saw each other again in person, but I flew out for her funeral, and the photographs of her aligned with how I imagined her. Her kids lined up in front of the closed casket, and I couldn’t bear to hear their voices up close. I wanted to stay in the space between imagining and knowing how they sounded. I was sick with grief, but hearing their voices speak to me, looking into their faces would have forced me to know something I didn’t want to fully realize. We’d been pen pals. I had no right to be there. But back then, we were both seventeen, and we watched D’Arcy and Sean with equal measures of longing and envy.
Let me be clear. I hated D’Arcy as deeply as I was infatuated by Sean. They were a couple before I even landed, that’s what Amy said. D’Arcy was all the girls we ever detested, only worse because she was sweet, smart, and poetic, so we felt bad about it. Sean was fine boned, each muscle clear beneath his brown skin, his bleached hair falling over his brown eyes. His teeth were so white and straight because his dad was an orthodontist. Amy and I knew it was hopeless, but we’d still seek out one another’s eyes as they’d go off to filter water. Katie would watch them go too.
When I came home, I couldn’t articulate what I’d experienced. I couldn’t explain what it was like when I got to shower for the first time in two months. In the Ranger’s bathroom, I examined myself in the mirror the night before I flew home. My skin was tanned, my wrists ringed with Zion’s dust. That dust was everywhere. I didn’t want to go home. I wanted to stay, even after everything that had happened. I wanted to stay in the space between knowing what had happened and not knowing what would happen next. We were with the Ranger because of Katie, and we were all shaken by it, and we understood something no one spoke aloud. We understood what so many our age did not. That death is real and finite and some people choose it. That sometimes it is impossible to see what is right in front of you until afterwards, when it’s so clear, someone’s descent so obvious, you hate yourself for missing it all. Katie’s arm a map, a pink scar stating, “You are here,” and also pointing clearly to where she might be headed. Her list stated no razors, disposable or otherwise, but she’d broken her own rule.
Our last camping spot was a jewel, a reward. We were set to explore Zion, hike the Narrows, climb Angel’s Landing, not work trails. There was a creek that ran into what we called the swimming hole. It was large enough for all of us to sit in. We’d all lunge for the water, then lay on the warm rock, stretched out in the sun, drying. Talking. Basking in the fact that all of us, with all of our weirdness, all of our reasons for running away, or running to, had found one another and some kind of respite in this alien landscape that had become so familiar. We’d somehow become better people because of it.
I found Katie. She was in her bathing suit. Katie never joined us. She was always instructing, teaching, keeping us on track, reeling us in. At first, I thought she was resting after an early morning dip. I was up early to boil water for oatmeal. The blood, it ran down that whiskey hued rock, and there was no fluttering pulse when I checked her cool neck. This time she had made expert trails down both forearms. It occurred to me, examining her, that I had never really seen her.
I woke Amy first, and then the others, gently, normally. I felt no panic. We were adept at being in the backcountry. For a millisecond, I imagined all of us staying, doing what we’d done for seven weeks for the rest of our lives, but Billy, he washed her arms, then wrapped them with all of our bandannas, and we hiked her body out, taking turns providing the human chair she’d taught us to construct. We supported her, finally. D’Arcy was the only one to cry, and then Sean pulled her to him awkwardly, and I saw that they were done. It was all over. In the utility yard, we placed her in the back of the Suburban, and we drove to the Ranger’s station in a weighted silence. I thought then of Mr. Rose. He might understand. All the wonder, all the terrible wonder I’d come to know.
Barbara Harroun teaches composition and creative writing at Western Illinois University. Her work has previously appeared in the Sycamore Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Buffalo Carp, Friends Journal, In Quire, and Bird’s Thumb, to name a few. She is also forthcoming in i70 Review, Sugared Water, Per Contra, The Riveter Review, Mud Season Review, San Gabriel Valley Poetry Quarterly, and others. Her favorite creative endeavors are her awesome kids, Annaleigh and Jack. Her husband, Bill, rocks.