The Desert Hike
By Melissa Smith
As the sun climbed over the horizon, I turned on my blinker and took the exit, heading for my favorite trails. It was time for a break. For weeks I’d been pouring over my research. Now with the grant my team applied for having fallen through, I had some time off. I sucked in a ragged breath.
Not the outcome I’d worked so hard for.
My tires crunched on the gravel of the parking lot. It looked dusty and cold. I turned off my engine and watched the sun pull up higher and higher in the early April sky. Time to hit my feet on the rocky ground and clear my head. I opened the passenger door, welcoming my furry companion to the scene. Sadie eagerly wagged her tail, tongue dripping spots on the dirt beside my car in her classic goofy grin.
“Come here, girl.” I took her head in both my hands and rubbed fast behind her ears, roughing the hair straight up. “You think this will be a good day? Well, I’m willing to go for that.”
I pulled my hair up in a messy bun and breathed deep, holding back a wash of tears that threatened to fall. That was yesterday’s news—not what today was meant for. I threw my pack on my back, and I got moving.
The cold morning air felt wonderful on my face, blowing feeling back into my cheeks. I started the climb over red rock paths. The grade was mild for the first mile or so, and my thoughts pulled me deep inside as I hiked. I remembered it so clearly.
Emma and I had decided to pull an all-nighter to celebrate the end of a brutal semester of pre-med classes. We were ready to be just as intentional about our ice cream and Harry Potter marathon as we had been about pouring through our textbooks, acing our lab assignments, and creating thorough research papers. Emma bought cheesy dollar-store glasses and feather boas, and she insisted we wear them. We invited our other roommates, but one flat out said no, and the other tried to get into it, but she bounced as soon as her boyfriend got off work. Lame-o. But Emma and I didn’t really mind. It was a full-on party, just the two of us.
Immersed in my reverie, I leaned against a mesquite tree to adjust my sock, chuckling to myself as I remembered how paranoid we got about Voldemort at 4 a.m. Giddy on too much sugar, we ran around our apartment complex with knit hats covering our heads to disguise who we were. Our silly boas wrapped precariously around our arms were floating in the breeze as we ran around wielding sticks and speaking our best impressions of magical spells. I shook my head at the memory. Thank goodness everyone was still asleep in the complex. We were straight-up ridiculous. And really innocent, good girls. Emma kept me away from the frat parties and boys that were bad news. I loved how spirited and geeky we were together. We were just us—no frills and lots of laughter.
That was about six months before her first seizure.
I shuddered as a cold breeze ran across my neck. I was in the enormous shadow of the mountain now as the trail wrapped around it.
It was only a matter of weeks before the next seizure hit, and she was diagnosed with epilepsy. My heart felt the full weight of it again. Emma had to transfer to the community college near her parents so they could help. We both never went to med school. She didn’t go because of her neurological disorder, and I didn’t go because of her. I was then, and still now, determined to fight and get answers. My dad, who has a wealth of wisdom, prompted me towards research and development, so I went to Miami to get a PhD in neuroscience. He was so proud when the job was extended to me at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix. That was two years ago. I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach as I remembered how hard I worked all those years to jump through the hoops. Now, without the grant we applied for, the clinical studies would come to a halt in our groundbreaking work on a new therapy to help fight epilepsy. We were so close.
“Why is it when something really matters, it lies just beyond reach?” I whispered.
I wanted to cry, but instead I pushed it down deeper, focusing on getting across the seasonal creek ahead. Red rocks jutted out of the rushing water. I stepped on a stone near me; it wobbled and was very slick.
“Ok, let’s see, Sadie. What should we do?” I tried to figure out how to manage the trail through it without getting wet. Sadie just ran right into the creek. The sun was high in the sky and beating down. I took off my shoes and socks and decided Sadie’s way was best. Barefoot, I waded into the clear, bone-numbing water running fast. The footing was still slippery, but it proved to be a fun challenge. I laughed at Sadie trying to bite the spray bouncing off the rocks. Silly girl! The water up to my knees started burning my skin with cold.
“Almost there!” I told myself. I still had to climb the bank on the other side. I flung my pack and shoes on the sandstone above me, and nimbly scrambled upwards. Nearly at the top, I crawled over a big boulder, and smack! I slipped and hit my thigh on the rock, sliding down into the current below until I was sitting in the creek up to my chest. I yelled in surprise, drenched and freezing! I stood up and just laughed. Sadie snapped her head to attention for a moment to see if I was in real trouble. Then her eyes were twinkling, like she was laughing with me.
“Yep! That was an epic fail!”
I scrambled up once more, this time on a different rock, and finally reached my things at the top of the bank. My leg was a little sore, but not bad, and I felt adrenaline pumping through my body. I sat down in a sunny spot on a flat-topped boulder and started eating my lunch. Chewing on carrot sticks, I pulled out my phone. I scrolled mindlessly through the social media feed, when suddenly I lost my appetite.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said under my breath as I looked at the photos of Nate with his new fiancé. For the second time in the hour, I felt like I’d been sucker-punched in the gut. Nate was my very serious boyfriend in Florida. We didn’t want to do the whole long-distance thing when I got my job in Arizona, but we kept the door open for future possibilities. We never actually broke up! I just moved away. He could have at least told me about her. I hated how impersonal it was to see his big news on social media.
I clicked my screen to black and shoved it deep in my pocket. I didn’t want to cry. I wanted to punch something. “Arrghhh!” My growl echoed off the canyon walls.
“No. Just no, Sadie. I’m over him, because apparently he is over me. I’m not going to let this linger.” I dug my fingers in her fur and scratched hard behind her ears, and she nuzzled in closer. At least Sadie enjoyed being an outlet for my frustration; I, however, felt like a fool for letting Nate stick around in my thoughts this long. I patted her doggy head, grateful that she was loyal to me anyways.
Brushing all the loose pebbles off my feet, I stuffed my toes back in their socks. I pulled the laces on my hiking boots too tight, in double knots.
“Ouch!” After a couple of steps I re-thought my choice. I took the time to loosen the shoes and made a promise to myself not to touch my phone the rest of the hike. Today was supposed to be unplugged, and I needed that.
The terrain grew steeper as we continued. Clouds hovered over the distant sun. Hours passed. I tackled the climb, clinging to roots and branches. I was covered in scratches and sweat. I was still pushing upwards, though.
Dad’s words echoed in my mind, “Pay the price, darling!” He loved a good adventure and knew that the view at the top was always worth it. He was so good at tackling steep climbs. I was made of the same grit. With Sadie by my side, I hoisted myself up between massive boulders and scrambled along the path that wound zigzags at steeper and steeper grades. My limbs ached from hours of climbing, but I could see the trail starting to flatten ahead.
“Just a few more boulders. Sadie, we’ve got this.” She gingerly jumped from rock to rock and wagged in agreement.
The skies blew the clouds back, and the sun returned, this time glowing a soft, warm color that dripped on everything. The rocks, the scrubby firs, even my shoes and legs were drenched in the orange evening glow. I was covered in it, and the rays felt gentle and comforting. The trail was easy walking again, and I finally saw the small wooden plank on a picket just ahead that read, “SUMMIT 10,724 ft.”
Exhilarated and exhausted, I let out a loud, “Wooo hoo!” that echoed briefly in the canyons below before bouncing happily away. I roughed up the fur on Sadie’s head. “We made it, girl!”
With my feet finally planted, I drank in the view.
Deep shadows lay on the low valleys, and warm wind blew from the surrounding sandstone, reaching me, enveloping me. I soaked it up, all the way down to my soul. I stood still, becoming part of the scene. The warm earth, the strong boulders, the tenacious ironwood trees with roots dug deep, making their home on the impossibly hard mountain top. The sky was now a pale blue everywhere except on the glowing horizon. Tears rolled down my cheeks and a clear, quiet thought spoke in my mind. I was part of it all. I added my own unique brushstrokes to this canvas of nature with every footprint on the trail, every splash in the river, every inhale and exhale, and so much more! I belong. I am enough.
I wiped my cheeks dry, and smiled, breathing deeply. I conquered this mountain, and the view stretching for miles was mine to enjoy. It was hard, but I do hard things. Tomorrow I would climb back down and tackle that crazy creek again and the winding trails full of red rocks. We didn’t get the grant we needed, but with the incredible journey that took me so far, this would not be a dead end. Other grants would come, and I would always be fighting to find a better life for people suffering neurological disorders, like sweet Emma. And I laughed to myself; even Nate can be happy, too.
With my heart free, I let my worries float away in the darkening sky. Little sparks of stars appeared, and with them, sparks lit in my mind. Hope. Endless possibilities lie out there, and I was willing to pay the price and make the journey to find them.