Chincoteague Island, Accomac, VA.
You’d think it starts with the beach, but it doesn’t. It’s the air. Salt, and sweet, rotting weeds, pine needles, barbecue smoke, and the wind rolling in off the Atlantic. It catches deep in your lungs, thick, viscous, and makes them twinge in ecstatic calm, sending waves of languidity through your body, making you relax muscles you didn’t even realize were tense. That’s where it starts.
Imagine, standing on the edge of the sound at 5:00 in the morning, alone, swaddled in a sweatshirt, not because it’s cold, exactly, but because the cloth makes you feel powerful in that moment, like armor over the bare skin of your chest. Your feet are twined into the wiry grass at the edge of the manmade canal, coarse grains of sand scratching between your toes. Start with your eyes closed. First, the wind, that magic air, hissing through the pines that tower out of the marsh ahead of you, whispering in your ears. Then, the water, quiescent now in the light of dawn, bubbling and lapping at the wooden edge of the sound, chuckling with the rising tide.
Open your eyes, and look. Watch that mesmerizing dance, as the water, still cast in shadow, holds an undulating image of a pale sun hung low in a pink sky. See the egret, white wings folded, orange beak darting into the rushes as she hunts. Follow the cirrus clouds, graded from blood red to matte violet, as they trundle away westward.
Or, imagine the beach. It’s 4:00, and your skin is tacky with hours of dried sweat, sunscreen, and salt. You’re lying on the edge of a continent. The back of your head is lying on the sun-baked sand, radiating warmth into your scalp. Every few seconds, the foaming edge of a particularly well-breaking wave rolls up your leg, caressing your heel, your ankle, the back of your calf. You’re not doing a thing, not playing bocce, not reading your summer brain-candy book, not drinking a beer, not going out to ride waves, but you know you could do any of them. You just aren’t. You’re lying there, and breathing with the crash… hiss… in … out… The sun presses, bright red, against the inside of your closed eyelids. The seagulls call. The wind blows sand against your side.
Potomac Plaza Apts, Washington, D.C.
The beating heart of my family is located in a little, sun strewn living room in D.C. It’s not particularly big or ostentatious. A red rug covers the wood floor, radiating sunny warmth. Comfortable armchairs and a leather couch indented with thousands of backsides ring a little wooden coffee table. A stereo, record player, and thousands of yellowed albums line one wall. On the other is the family history, calcified in thousands of photos, each in a book with a year neatly penned on the paper inset on the spine, stretching from now back to the 1940s.
If you look along the walls, the pictures and objects tell a story whose complexity and details I still don’t know fully today. On the mantle, cracked white paint scrupulously free of dust, is a sword in a scabbard. It’s weaving basket hilt is so rusted that the metal is peeling in some places, and the leather scabbard is black with age. John claims it was carried by his Great Grandfather in the battle of Waterloo. He always ends that story with some awful crack like “Oh yes, it saw the bottom of the Loo, if you know what I mean,” and Aunt Ana will roll her eyes and pretend to swoon.
Next to the sword is a framed photograph of my aunt standing between JFK and Lyndon Johnson, arms linked, the three of them grinning into the camera. Beside that is a little wooden plaque with a brass front that reads; To Chairwoman Ana Steele for 30 years of inspiring service with the National Endowment for the Arts. In the little, spare kitchen, the eggshell-blue walls are covered with pictures of the family. The Clarks have no kids, and it shows. My little sister and I, as babies, are featured heavily. There are pictures of all my aunts and uncles with their SOs, even one of my mom and dad before their divorce.
The opportunities to spend time with my great-aunt and uncle are too few and far between. This can be attributed to family politics, issues that run deep and dark under the surface between and behind closed doors. Ana is my father’s estranged father’s sister, and so there is a coolness between them which I’ll never quite understand. I wish it were different. The Clarks are some of the stablest, most active, kindest people I’ve ever met, and it pains me to think that, both in their late eighties, they won’t be around forever. There’s a quiet holiness to that little apartment, a sense of years and laughs and people gone by.
Elk Range, Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, CO
Capitol Peak has been glaring down at me for days, shoulders carpeted in permanent snow, 14,000 feet above sea level. It is a surreality, even in the transcredible Rockies, a gigantic grey fist whose unimaginable mass mocks anything made by people. Its megalithic, hulking shape dominated the valley through which we had been moving, inching closer and closer until it was omnipresent even in thought. People die climbing that. People die trying to climb that.
And now it’s my turn.
I feel kind of like I might throw up. My hands are shaking. My balls are trying to climb into my stomach. But it’s time. I stand up, strap my helmet on, and while it’s covering my face, I take a long, shuddering breath. Austin, the guy who’s going to make the crossing with me, slaps me on the shoulder.
This is the real test, not the hours of hiking, or the slow picking across talus fields, not the weeks of camping or the plane rides across the country. This is the moment. Here we go, motherfucker.
We’d been perched on a little ridge, the end of a miles-long approach, while our guides talked us through the route. As we’d sat there, I realized that if I had to watch someone else make the climb, I wouldn’t be able to do it. I had to go first. Me and Austin glanced at each other when they asked for volunteers.
And so now I was here, looking over the Knife Edge. For a few hundred feet, the mountain narrowed to a point, eighty degrees of exposure stretching down into oblivion on either side. The ridge was narrow enough to straddle, though near the tip there were plenty of cracks and crevices which we would use to make the traverse.
“Okay, here we go,” said Katie, one of the two guides. “Watch where I put my feet, and keep three points of contact.”
Fuckfuckfuck… and then my brain shut off. I stepped down, my butt scraping the rocks, and looked for cracks to stick my boots into. My hands were clamping down on the pointed ridge of rock that ran down the length of the knife edge, so hard it hurt. Left foot first, test your weight, then left hand, grab onto that crevice, right foot, a little higher up, right hand. Forget everything but the movement. Remember to keep your center of gravity low.
Those endless, heart thundering moments seemed to last for centuries.
Behind me, I heard Austin knock a pebble loose, heard it click once, somewhere below us, and then nothing. The wind buffeted my ears. I looked up, toward the end of the section, to see we were already more than halfway across.
“Hey,” said Katie, “Let’s stop for a minute.”
She was a few feet ahead of me, straddling the knife edge. I stopped, and with infinite slowness, transferred myself so that I was straddling the rock too, the point digging painfully into my inner thigh. And the world came rushing back.
A pika chirped. The sun felt comfortably warm on my skin. Below my left dangling boot, iron-grey rockfall swept down the steep slope for thousands of feet, before giving way to two icy blue snowmelt lakes, which nestled between little stands of aspen and pine which eked out an aesthetic life above the treeline. I could see our camp down there in the valley, two or three squares of orange and red cloth. Far away, the landscape rose again to form the rust-red Maroon Bells, their blunt, trapezoidal peaks jutting up to make a jagged horizon.
Under my right foot, the knife edge was a smooth swoop of granite, barely even cracked. The exposure on this side was even more pronounced; the woods below looked like grass. A cottony wisp of cloud drifted by on one of Capitol’s neighbor peaks, three or four miles away and thousands of feet below us.
Never before or since have I felt at once so insignificant or so keenly awake, in tune with myself and my surroundings. It defies description.