July, 1982, the summer after high school graduation: My father had signed me up for some obscure thing called the Student Conservation Association. I was randomly assigned to Zion National Park in southern Utah, a place I’d never heard of before, in a part of the country I knew nearly nothing about. I pictured cacti everywhere, like on the Road Runner cartoons. On this day, I’d traveled from my parents’ apartment in New York City to the Las Vegas airport, where a bunch of volunteers my age met and caught a nine-seat puddle-jumper. The plane covered more distance zooming up and down on desert thermals than moving forward towards St. George, close to the park. Safely on the ground, I literally dropped to my knees and hugged the tarmac.
A short, stocky, ageless guy named Bob was our leader; he loaded us in the back of his big flatbed pick-up in St. George and drove into the park, then way up a bouncy dirt road, zig-zagging 2,000 feet to the top of the canyon. Looking around at the bare red rock stretching away for miles, I felt I’d landed on Mars. It was late. We made camp under eleventy billion stars—no tents.
And then, that good-night reminder.
The next morning, we packed food and water and hiked an hour or so to the edge of the canyon. On the trail, Bob trapped a threatening rattlesnake with a stick, picked it up, and let us pet it—if pet is the word. Yeah, definitely not in NYC anymore.
Then, we topped out at the rim.
Then there’s the second time, after we’ve had a while to realize how lost we really are. You're strolling along, minding your own business, and suddenly, life rips the scales from your eyes and the world goes from black and white to technicolor. Bruce Springsteen says the first time he heard Dylan on the radio, it was “like somebody'd kicked open the door to your mind.” It's usually a lot like that.
Well, this was that moment for me.
I walked to the very edge of the gap, and gazed across a mile of sheer space—more elbow room in one glance than I had ever imagined. The edges of my mind dissolved. My awareness floated, weightless, amongst the sunlight and half-visible rock dust hanging in the middle of the canyon. A baking mineral smell hung in the air.
There was a old derrick to my right, leftover from logging days, used to winch trees down to the canyon for removal. I grabbed a strut and leaned over the edge, felt my stomach levitate a bit as the river, 2,000 feet down, came into focus. Birds flitted and hovered far below me.
I grew up in a house where I felt constantly unsafe. In a city where you walk down the street with one eye over your shoulder at all times. This was the first time in my life I could see forever, and know, in my bones, that there was no threat. My body, my mind, let go, and the rest of me took flight.
I don’t know how long we stood there, struck dumb. A few minutes, maybe even 15. Bob, wisely, was silent.
Many unforgettable moments took place that summer, but these mind-bending 15 minutes set my inner compass for the very first time. I was to spend the rest of my life steering toward the wide-open aliveness I felt standing on the roof of Zion.
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