“It’s okay! I’m right here!” Lynn says. Her five-year-old daughter June whimpers. June has float wings on, but she keeps eyeing the darkness of the lake. Lynn treads in the deeper water, just a few feet away. There’s a small area of shallow wading before a sharp underwater drop-off. June hesitates on its edge, the water up to her knees.
I’m sitting cross-legged in the shallows. Baby Henry splashes in my lap, babbling in his one-year-old gibberish. I can feel my skin burning in the July sun. I close my eyes. “This is wonderful,” I say, trying to feel it.
I don’t bring up the warmth of JD’s swimming pool, which is the thought that popped into my head. I don’t bring up JD at all. I’m still a little bit in that “school girl crush” phase when it comes to JD, where everything reminds me of him and I want to talk about him all the time. But I’ve given myself stern instructions to keep the latch on that gate closed. I will contain all of my stupid word-vomit about JD. I’m not here to talk constantly about the guy I’m having sex with. Especially since my divorce with John isn’t finalized and especially since Lynn probably wouldn’t approve of my having sex with JD at all.
She’s been one of my closest friends for thirteen years now, but she doesn’t know that I’m putting our shared Mormon beliefs about sexuality (namely, abstinence outside of marriage) on hold for a second. And this camping trip doesn’t seem like the time to tell her.
Three-year-old Doris is making piles of wet sand next to me. “Do you want to swim?” I ask her.
“No, I want build dis,” she says in her scratchy voice. Doris spends a significant amount of time in her own little world. A girl after my own heart. I refrain from pointing out that anything she builds will eventually be washed away. She’s only three.
We are quickly learning that while Henry is the most easy-going camping baby ever, June and Doris are deeply distressed by being in nature. They keep refusing to wear shoes and then crying when they step on sharp rocks. They only want to eat potato chips, and keep asking to go home to watch a movie. Lynn finally gave in and handed Doris a cell phone and told her to go watch a show in the tent, and June was quieted with a marshmallow, which she had been demanding for the last hour.
“Do you guys mind if I take a canoe out on my own?” I say. I don’t want to abandon my best friend, but I just…need a minute.
Lynn sets Henry down in his playpen. He grabs the railing with both hands and bounces up and down, grinning. “Go for it,” she says.
I re-apply sunscreen and walk to the payment booth, where they tell me they’re out of canoes, but they have a paddleboard available. I’ve never been paddle-boarding, but I hand my debit card over. They tell me they’ll meet me at the dock with my paddle.
I sit cross-legged and row towards the cliffs on the north side of the lake. I’m not quite brave enough to stand on the paddle board yet. The sun glints off the greenish water. I can smell the algae and mud—that familiar, summery smell. The lake was formed millions of years ago, and you can see the layers of time in the cliffs at the water’s edge…bands of different colors. Dry years. Cold years. Vernal, Utah is dinosaur country. Later, we’re going to hike to a spot where you can see dinosaur footprints, hardened into the sandy rocks.
There are swallows flitting around the cliff-face. As I approach, I can see their mud nests built into the ledges on the rock. I rest my paddle across my knees, then slowly stretch backwards until I’m laying flat on my back on the paddle board.
Okay, nature, I think. Fill me up.
The paddle board rocks gently beneath me. I’m drifting slowly towards the cliffs. I mentally nudge my thoughts, reminding them to focus on the positive. I have a strict list of things I refuse to think about this weekend. I refuse to think about the recently posted cast list of “The Heart of Robin Hood.” How Robert and Allison and Ben and Dee and JD are all on it, and I how I didn’t get a call-back. I refuse to think about the fact that so many of my closest friends will spend this summer together at a theatre I’ve come to love, while I binge-watch Netflix, alone in my apartment.
I refuse to think about what will happen if and when I want to be “temple-worthy” again. Adultery and fornication are grounds for excommunication, and technically, I’m committing both. I don’t regret having sex with JD, and I don’t plan on stopping, and I don’t know how to “repent” of something I don’t feel bad about.
I refuse to think about the extra financial aid that I desperately need, now that my household income has gone from a combined $39,000 a year to single $15,000 a year. I refuse to think about all the paperwork I need to fill out to apply for additional aid. I refuse to think about the phone call with my soon-to-be-ex-husband John the day before, and the impatience in his voice as I explained that he had to get his name on a separate utility bill and then send it to me.
I refuse to think about John at all.
I refuse to think about all the times we laid on the floor and listening to a new album, taking turns reading the titles of each new track. I refuse to think about how he never clipped his toenails and how it made his feet weapons in our shared bed. I refuse to think about how he applauds in full sentences. I refuse to think about how we’d always get the 2 for $20 deal at Applebee’s. I refuse to think about how we had a system to dominate at every level of Star Wars: Battlefront. I refuse to think about the way he’d sit down next to me with his laptop and ask me what I thought of the bridge of the song he was writing. I refuse to think about his stream-of-consciousness raps, and the way he’d organize his podcast feed, and his use of metaphor.
I do not store up details of this time on a paddle-board to tell him about later. Because he will not be there, smiling on the other end of the phone. He will not be there, in the bed, listening while I tell him about the way the swallows dive out of their nests against the cliffs. He loves me, I’m his best friend, and he doesn’t think we should be married anymore.
I command myself to relax and enjoy the goddamn miracles of nature.
This is the third time I’ve been out to Vernal this year. Four months ago, back in February, when John told me he didn’t want to be married anymore, I packed a suitcase at 10:30 at night and made the three-hour drive from Salt Lake City to Lynn’s house. For the next two days, I couldn’t stop crying. Lynn let me sleep in her bed and eat whatever I wanted and she didn’t make me shower and she told me that she thought John was being a “fucking bastard,” which felt like when you scratch an itch too hard. It felt good even while it hurt.
The same March week that John and I signed divorce papers, my new friend JD and I drove out to Vernal to visit the supposedly paranormal “Skinwalker Ranch” for a paper I was writing. We stopped by Lynn’s house to borrow her telescope, which we didn’t use because after he kissed me once on the top of a windy hill, we spent the rest of the night making out in his car. For the next two weeks, I felt like I was on fire every moment, until he finally came over to my apartment, until we finally shed layers until there was nothing left between us. Afterwards, he snored terribly, stole the blankets, and took over the entire bed, and I didn’t stop smiling through all of it. I loved the way our bodies fit together, the way he looked at me in the morning light.
Now, I drag my hand through the water of the lake outside of Vernal, and think about the way his fingers felt against my skin.
When I get back to the campsite, I tell Lynn that my paddle-board adventure was “nice” and leave it at that. I help her pull containers of fresh fruit out of the cooler. We slather more sunscreen on the kids, make them each drink a half a bottle of water, and give them each a plate. I show June how to bite into a cherry and then spit the seed out. Neither of us can spit them very far, but June giggles when we spit at the same time, the seeds reaching the bushes. An hour later, June comes up to me and holds out her hand. A tiny, clean nut sits in the palm of her hand. “See?” she says. “This is what a cherry pit looks like when it’s had everything sucked off of it.”
The sun is setting. Doris finally finished the three bites of chicken she had to eat in order to get a s’more, and she’s now happily covered in marshmallow and chocolate. Henry leans his head against Lynn’s shoulder, while Lynn’s husband Devin puts another log on the fire. June is officially into camping, now that she is roasting marshmallows over a campfire.
“Let’s tell spooky stories!” she says.
Because the children are little, we keep our made up “spooky stories” short and mild. Devin tells a story about being all alone in an old house, and then he heard some scary noises, and it was a ghost! Doris makes up a story about a zombie that “breaked our house all up. Into pieces. And burned it! And kill me! And not Mommy.”
When it’s my turn to tell a scary story, I look at Lynn. “Should I read my Skinwalker Ranch essay?” I say. I have a copy on my phone. She still hasn’t heard it.
She glances at the kids. “Uhhhmmm, yes, but let’s wait until after little ones are in bed.”
Later that night, when Doris and June and Henry are finally asleep, I read my essay out loud. While Lynn does not know that JD and I are sleeping together, she does know that we made out at Skinwalker Ranch. Which she didn’t judge me for, because as she said, there’s no real script for divorce. The paper I’m reading is the draft I turned in for my narrative journalism class, so I do not include JD and I’s make out. Instead, I simply say that “a few hours passed.” Lynn and I giggle at that sentence like we’re back in college.
“We actually wanted to invite JD this weekend,” Lynn said. “But we were afraid it would be weird.”
“Really?” I ask. “It wouldn’t have been weird! He’s got rehearsals, so he couldn’t have come, but that would have been fun!”
Lynn smiled. “Yeah, we were like, ‘He can just sleep in a separate tent. It’ll be fine.’”
I don’t reply.
The kids are all asleep, and Lynn and Devin and I are sitting in the twilight, watching the embers of the fire. Our campsite is on a hill, and we can see the lake shimmering a half a mile away. Lynn glances up.
“Is that the sunset?” she asks, pointing towards an orange light on the horizon across the lake.
I frown. “It can’t be,” I reply. “That’s east.”
Devin watches the light. “Is it that fire you passed?” he asks.
I shake my head. “No, that was north of here.”
The three of us stare at the light as it gets brighter. Then Lynn gasps. “Is that the moon?!”
After a few more seconds, a sliver of light edges over the horizon, just below the heavy clouds. It is the moon, rising enormous and bright red. It looks at least four times its normal size. Its light shimmers on the lake as it inches upwards. We watch, spellbound and silent, as it rises. I feel like we’re tilting towards it, and I get a little dizzy thinking about the earth spinning so fast. The top of the moon is disappearing as it creeps up from the horizon until finally, it’s swallowed up completely by the dark clouds above.
I breathe deep and try to let the miracle of it seep into me. I want to save the story to tell JD later (not John, I remind myself), and I try to make my heart and gut feel all the things I plan on telling him—I want to be able to say that it was astonishing and beautiful and that I was so happy to be alive. But when I unlatch the gate in my heart to let all of it in, inky blue memories of John start pouring out instead. I harden my jaw. I refuse to cry. I am so so so tired of crying. I shut the metaphorical gate again and stand up to brush my teeth. On my way to the bathroom, I don’t look at the sky at all.
It’s hot, and there is not enough shade on this hike. We were going to go see the dinosaur footprints today, but it’s too goddamn hot, so we decide to do a shorter nature loop instead, because we are determined to hike during this trip. Henry has fallen asleep in the carrier on Devin’s back. Doris and June are…struggling. The sand on the trail is too hot. They’re afraid the cactus is going to poke them. (We keep pointing out that the cactus on the side of the trail can’t hurt them if they just walk past it.) The sun is too bright. They want to go home. Their legs are tired. June occasionally stops complaining to pick wildflowers she sees along the trail. The flowers are protected by Utah law, but at this point, none of us give a damn. If picking flowers stops her whining, she can pick flowers. I try to distract Doris by teaching her to say “Crikey!” when she “sees something cool in nature.” She catches on quickly, but she also whines and cries for every single second that she’s not saying “Crikey.”
“Just a few more minutes,” Lynn keeps saying. “We’re going back to the car right now.” I can hear her jaw getting tighter every time she says it.
We have not told the children that we accidentally went in a complete circle twice and that we aren’t entirely sure how to get back to the car.
I look over the hills as we walk, holding Doris’ hand. If Mars had sage and cactus plants, interspersed with small, shrubby trees, this is what I imagine it would look like. The landscape is barren, with large red rocky outcroppings. Doris stumbles for the 800th time and her whining turns into genuine tears.
She reaches both arms up to me. “Can you carry me?” she cries.
She’s made this request at least a dozen times, and I’ve been telling her she needs to walk. But finally, I give in, if only to stop her crying. Her little arms around my neck are sticky with sweat.
We pass a large rock formation for what feels like the third time.
“What the hell!?” Devin yells. “Why are there no signs to tell you where to go?!”
June looks up at Devin. “Daddy, where’s our car?”
“I don’t know,” he replies.
I turn towards the east, the direction I know the car is parked. “We’ll find it,” I say. “I’m not worried.” Which is mostly true. I’ve got a good internal compass, and I’m confident that we’ll find the car again. I’m not confident that we’ll avoid heatstroke, dehydration, hunger, snake bites, and all the whining along the way.
Lynn’s brow furrows as she looks at sleeping Henry. “The kids need more sunscreen,” she says. “I didn’t bring any.” June’s cheeks are pink. Little Henry’s pale baby legs are warm to the touch.
“You didn’t bring any sunscreen?” Devin asks.
“No,” Lynn snaps. “Because I thought this would be a 15-minute hike. I didn’t think we’d be wandering around in circles for an hour.”
“Come on,” I say, pointing east. “This looks like a path.” I’m only about 75% sure it is a path, but it’s headed the direction that we need to go. And I’d rather we spent our energy walking than bickering.
Doris is heavy in my arms. She’s still whimpering, but after a while, she lays her head on my shoulder and quiets. In a few minutes, she’s asleep.
I am tired of walking. I am tired of this sandy, rocky path with no clear markings. I am tired of the heat. I love Doris as if she was my own, but I am tired of carrying her, the weight of her sleeping body. There’s no one else to hand her off to. Lynn’s got June in her arms now, and Devin has Henry.
It is too hot, and we are too lost. Between the five of us, we finished off the last warm water bottle fifteen minutes ago. In my head, I know it will be over soon. This isn’t actually a dangerous situation. The paved road is within sight. It’s just a challenge to get to it. And it feels impossible to try and get to it any faster than we are. We just have to keep walking. One foot in front of the other.
We finally reach the car, an hour later. I put Doris in her car seat, and Devin blasts the air conditioner while we all sit, silent. I dread the moment when we have to get out. We still have to pack up the tent and the food. I’m so tired.
I just have to get through this.
Liz Whittaker has previously been published in BYU-Idaho’s Outlet and in the Utah literary magazine Irreantum. She was a co-founder of the Rexburg Poetry Slam in 2013, and has placed and won various spoken word poetry competitions throughout Idaho. Liz has been sharing her poetry and essays on her blog at “She May Be Naked But She’s Not Stupid” since 2004. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Theatre and English Education from BYU-Idaho, where she also taught English as an adjunct faculty member. Liz received her MFA in Creative Writing from Lindenwood University.