Sunday
Jun072015

Canyoneering

Erica Trabold


 

When I was a year old, my parents took me to see a cavern underneath New Mexico. The subterranean temperatures must have been a cool welcome in the midst of dry desert heat; the rocks moist, theatrically lit, gorgeous in their expositions of grandeur bare naked. My parents say I didn’t cry, didn’t sleep, just stared at those formations, wide-eyed and unafraid.

Because it was so unusual, they have told me about our trip and my behavior dozens of times. I don’t ask for careful explanation. I assume I have always been attracted to the mysterious, adopting family stories as part of my own. In my memory, they are solidified.

During our trip to New Mexico, someone knocked on the door of our hotel room all night looking for his dealer. I am imagining it dingy: the lingering smell of cigarettes and whatever else on the curtains and carpet, one bed, scratchy sheets, a square patch of floor that hasn’t been vacuumed in weeks. My father unlocks the deadbolt and opens the door, the chain still attached. Are you sure he’s not here? My father says no, but this customer is persistent. He goes on knocking even after my father has shut him out a second time. The three of us try to ignore the noise for the remaining hours of the night, but my parents don’t sleep, their anxiety projected onto the man outside. Tomorrow, they will introduce me to my biological grandfather for the first time.

 

***

 

Rocks are all ghost. In the true darkness of caverns, they shriek, shapeshifting and inspiring fear until I am unsure of what I see by the glow of my own lantern. I cling to what I have been told, that rocks are finite, rocks are ancient, rocks were created by the accumulation of the dead stacked on one another: an ocean, dried; a species, extinct; a forest, fallen; an entire world, cemented into stone. A nocturnal predator—the realization that I haven’t yet illuminated enough to live properly in the world—stalks me in every canyon, every cave of consciousness. By the beam of a single light underneath the Chihuahuan Desert, I feel the dead have awakened, swirling in a haze around my eyes, choking out what I thought I knew about living.

I am back in the cave, an adult, and I think I understand it better now. A primitive ladder, wooden steps and broken wire that early explorers used to lower themselves into the void, hangs in the darkness, its shape barely visible. Half of its rungs have fallen to the floor; those remaining, loosely strung together. Broken, the ladder serves as a reminder of our common ancestry. The average human being used to be fearless, requiring no tether. She believed in logic, studied the earth, thrived in her own allegory, a cave. She learned best by doing. She cleaned her own wounds. Strangely, it feels as if she has been in stasis, trapped here watching the water evaporate, then return more slowly from the mountaintops, dripping through the cracks. It goes on like this until she no longer recognizes the faces, the people she once knew. And by then, it is already too late: dust and dead specks of flesh have changed the composition of the ecosystem, and evolution has worked on her brain slowly enough to erase the memories: what she had for breakfast three hundred years ago.

 

***

 

My father once told me he never wished anyone to live in an orphanage, and that is all he said about his adoption. I find it difficult to ask about the experience because of how shaken he looked in that moment, entranced, perhaps by a memory, a grown man so far removed from the traumas of childhood. Occasionally, he would make mention of what preceded the adoption, his mother’s death, but there was never much talk about those who went on living—his father, himself, his six young siblings—who were divided under the certainty of poverty if they remained a family. The tragedy was inevitable, unbearable, even when he considered it happening to someone else.

 

***

 

According to modern logic, the cave has always been a savage place. I turned my head in the dark, heard a rock growl and say it liked living like an animal. This boulder, twice the size of any bear, echoed through everything, even me. He had to have been enormous in life, a combination of prehistoric bacteria and seafood and mammals, now part of the cave itself. I imagined all the chemical reactions inside the stomach of that bear, frozen in time, turning red as they solidified, all that blood and salmon flesh that buried into rock the story of a life.

Light has a way of changing everything. The intricate muscles of his eyes, like mine, died long ago. The bear always had to feel his way through the dark, and the staleness of sea level made him realize he didn’t particularly want to. Instead of caverns, he preferred canyons, the endless void, the outright destruction of something that he could see without a lantern, even if it hurt at first. Now, imagine ten thousand dead bears, a mile deep. A river comes and carves red away, carries those ruby granules to the floors of valleys and a jagged coastline. A canyon forms. Ten thousand ghosts created the sand beneath your feet.

A story like that doesn’t make much sense until I’m standing at the edge of the ocean hundreds of miles away. The sand feels solid as gravity controls the tide and keeps me there, standing, rocking gently through planted feet, ankles, slightly bent knees. I’m sure of myself, sure of safety and sunlight, and the world stays there with me in the surf, unchanging, except for maybe the cloud cover or the direction of the breeze. I close my eyes, hear large waves crashing further out at sea. I can feel them break with great intensity, imagining boats and buoys, a few brave men tossed about.

The strangeness remains: I’m not even wet.

 

***

 

What I’ve been told: six months prior to the outbreak of the Great War, our family left their home along the North Atlantic. The voyage from Sweden to Ellis Island lasted approximately two weeks aboard the Olympic, a sister ship to the Titanic. The grand staircase, the cabins in first, second, and third class, everything down to the lack of lifeboats was replicated aboard the ocean liner on which they traveled. The only exception was this ship was safe, didn’t sink, fulfilled its promises, supposedly like the land to which they were emigrating.

Our family history becomes murky after a dip in those icy waters, the passenger records, the nearly illegible script I can only assume misspelled a few names and fudged a few numbers. And our history becomes murky by process of multiplication, one of the products of adoption. We have more than the histories of two families to keep straight, more if you count the adoptive parents of each of my father’s brothers and sisters, and they are so often hard to distinguish from one another. It becomes easy to question identity, to whom you belong.

My grandfather was only a child when he was transplanted to a new continent, and maybe, even he couldn’t maintain a solid grasp on the details. It seems we choose the voyages to remember. My father reminds me about New Mexico because I can never quite summon the images on my own. I read fragments, our family history in documents created by relatives long dead. My favorite story involves an infant, fussy and restless during his immigration voyage. His parents gave him the only thing they had brought for him play with: a pocketwatch. He handled it for a few seconds, then promptly tossed it overboard. Though it is likely it took the family several years to be able to afford a replacement, and though it is likely they were angry with their infant son, the rest is hard to dismiss. Time erased and started anew, a rock tossed into the water. It happened in the Atlantic.

 

***

 

Deep inside the canyon, the caverns, the belly of the bears, I imagine high tide covering this entire continent. I step out, plant my feet, and a wave overcomes me, a small rush of water at first, nothing surreal. I feel the foundation shifting, tense all muscles—I am uncomfortable. It’s not supposed to happen like this: air, water, and earth in chaos, three states of matter unstable, shaking. But even on my perfectly imagined shore, there is no solid foundation. A hole forms beneath the arches of my feet. My weight causes it to grow deeper much more suddenly than the rest of my body is prepared to adjust. The earth supporting my sway vanishes, and the hole fills with ocean. I stumble onto the beach, thinking about water, how it dwells in every crack of me. If my father had told me skipping rocks was dooming them, I might have cried.

And I realize a canyon is just a relic. The burial mound of change.

A canyon is a place of destruction. There is evidence of it everywhere: rivers dwindle to almost nothing, hikers lose the path and what they surely knew about finding water in the wild, animals are pierced through by arrows and bullets, dissident wives fall from cliffs when no one is watching, vultures circle overhead. A canyon is a place where any solidarity is washed away, where ghosts stick to every piece of matter. I carry them away with me on the soles of my feet, even if the debris is microscopic.

 

***

 

I found an essay called “I Am Adopted” written on ruled paper in the basement of my grandparents’ house. In pencil, my aunt writes about her biological family and how she came to live with a new one, eraser poised to make changes, to forget and to remember. It read something like a script, an easy explanation for the decision. An old soul in the desert responds, says he did the best thing he could for his children, their safety, their wellbeing. He had lost his wife, so he left his children with strangers.

They grew up in different homes, different parts of Nebraska with different stories, different truths, different memories of life and what it means to be a part of one another’s. Of course, some of them had to write about it in the cursive they learned from their mothers, different mothers who drove them to school and made them the lunches they didn’t always enjoy, the mothers who taught them to clean their plates and eat properly with salad forks and steak knives.

My father flew out to New Mexico for his father’s funeral, and the rest of us stayed home. I’m sure he saw his brothers and sisters, June and Ray and all the others, Bob, the one who looked like him. They met for the first time on the day of his high school graduation. I imagined the funeral like a family reunion, and it was—not by choice—but a reunion nonetheless of brothers and sisters tossed together again in the middle of  great loss, in the middle of the desert, that lingering feeling of loneliness as predictable as a summer monsoon, deserted. 

 

*** 

The thing about the desert is it never disappears. In fact, it keeps growing, extending its reach, accumulating more arid land every year as the earth thaws, the thought that this global warming is somehow perpetuated by fault of our own. Under the torment of heat, I watch us wring ourselves dry. After awaking in a state of delusion, the bodies perform an endless search for water: canyon that leads to river that leads to ocean. Rocks cannot hinder what they are equipped to carve away. Fluidity, hallucination, that unique ability to imagine someplace else, guides the journey.

I’m beginning to like it that way, being lost in the mystery of where it all ends.

Now imagine a hole the size of your heart. Not a giant thing, but miles deep and grand in its own way. You fall in. You’re loving it. You are a canyoneer attempting to locate a place that has always belonged to you, filled with your own menagerie. You don’t have to know the history of every formation, but you can allow yourself to enjoy the reprieve, the soda straws, the water pooling on your skin, the evaporation lines. Crawl into the coolness of the river, the desert canyon, lay it down, learn the ways of destruction. They are almost the same as living it all over again.