“Watch Out for Crossing Tarantulas”

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It was not yet 10 in the morning as we drove into Joshua Tree National Park on Saturday.

“This is the kind of scene that you’d see with an inspirational quote,” Fiona panned her hand across the dashboard.

It was open paved road and vast sprawling desert.  In the horizon, layered mountain ranges blended into endless blue skies.  Possibility saturated our lips.

Beyonce’s “Grown Woman” came on and we sang every word like the Pledge of Allegiance.  Standing on the edge of adventure and hands over heart.  Last night we proved we were “big girls” and we could do whatever we want.

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Itching for wilderness, we packed our car on Friday and drove east in to the night.  In the dark we pitched our tent and we set up camp.  We gathered stones and we made fire.  We drank wine and we roasted marshmallows.  In the morning, coffee never tasted so sweet next to dirt road.

There was something about taking an idea and making it happen.  Something that goes beyond everyday convention.  For months now, I’ve been working so hard at my 9 to 5.  Multiple projects and reports and meetings and trainings and I still don’t know where all this effort is going.  If energy is neither created nor destroyed, where does it go when it runs into corporate red tape?  When waking up at 3 AM, uninspired and impassionate, is a life choice—why choose it?

But this?  This was inspired.  This was two women with no intention but to live with intention—even if it was for just the weekend.  And nothing was going to stand in our way except our fears.

What if we couldn’t find a camping spot?  What if we get lost?  What if there was traffic?  What if it was too cold?  What if it was dangerous?  What if we waited to go until next week?

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That morning as we sat around last night’s campfire, bowl of cereal in hand and coffee in our mugs, we laughed about how fear is disguised as practicality.  About how we can spend so much energy worrying and therefore never do anything.  I told her about my epiphany in Yosemite.  About how life is defined by the choices and the follow through.

She told me I should live in my car.  I told her she should live on a boat.

In the desert, it was easier to see what was important to us.  And how very little was necessary to sustain life.  The most beautiful Joshua tree knew how to optimize what it had from the environment.

Achievement was a mindset, we decided.  And we had never felt so accomplished overnight.

The road wound through mountains of rocks and we had our guards down.  We couldn’t believe we were only a few hours away from San Diego and it had cost us next to nothing to be here and feel this empowered.

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But just when we thought we had gotten away with the easiest heist in the world, we saw it there in the road.  It was two hundred feet away, its shadow rippling in the heat rising from the asphalt.  Creeping.  Crawling.  Crossing the road.

“Oh.  My.  God.”  I said.

“Is that–?”  Fiona didn’t need to finish her question.

It was the biggest tarantula I had ever seen in my life.

I swerved to avoid the beast.  In the rearview mirror I watched it continue casually—seemingly unaffected.  But Fiona and I were not.

We shared a look.  A mixture of humility and horror.  And then we burst out laughing. The kind that was born from discomfort.  It left us shaking and lungs sore.  Just like that any pretense of invincibility shattered.

It never occurred to us that we were encroaching upon tarantula territory.  We reevaluated the decisions we made in the dark of night.  Whether it would be more fitting to call us brave or brazen?

The universe had a funny way of reminding us that although we can’t let fear guide our decisions, fear is very essential.  And I will never forget how it made shared laughter the best feeling in the world.

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Sounds You Encounter on Dirt Trails

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We flinched at the sound of crackling grasshopper wings like static electricity.  I didn’t know it could sound like that.  I slid my trekking pole side to side in front of me and one by one they launched.  They were fat.  Bigger than any I’ve seen in the city. 

In seventh grade Biology, I refused to dissect the grasshopper.  I remember the way it looked on the black counter of our operating table; the body was squishy and limp.  Under the fluorescent classroom light, I watched my partner pull the scalpel through the connective tissue of the belly.  The consistency resembling more of wet napkin than something that used to be alive.  It didn’t resemble anything that could make that sound.  That crack and whip of furious wings. 

I’ve never liked grasshoppers.  When we were children, my grandpa used to catch them.  He’d put them into plastic water bottles and gave them to us as a “pet”.  My cousins and siblings loved it.  They would dangle the bottle in the air and watch it tire itself out jumping and jumping and jumping—until it laid still in the grass and leaves they stuffed inside for “food”.  They were riveted.  I refused to watch. 

I am trying to remember the way it sounded.  But I can only recall the dull thud of its body against the plastic, trying to get out.  I didn’t know they could sound like sparklers being lit on the Fourth of July.  And although I can’t say I’m any fonder of grasshoppers, there is something majestic about the crackling of grasshopper wings on dirt trail. 

Dreaming is Free

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The pungent smell of water on pavement permeated the air.  I love the way the street shines after the rain.  The way my ankles get wet while I run is like voluntarily sitting in the splash zone at a water park.  It’s just more fun. 

As I set out on the road, feet falling in time to my music, I felt a rush.  Maybe it was because I had spent the last hour reading articles on how to live in a car and I was brimming with excitement for all the possibilities to come in my future.  Maybe it was Paramore’s “26” that told me “survival will not be the hardest part, it’s keeping all your hopes alive”.  And maybe that’s what it was.  This feeling of a rebirth of hope. 

I settled into a routine after I graduated college.  It didn’t happen all at once.  It started kind of slowly.  I got a “career job”.  Signed a lease.  Got a second credit card.  Bought a car.  I started making excuses for not doing the things I wanted to do.  I didn’t have enough money.  I didn’t have the time.  I was too tired after work.  I didn’t have the right car

These were the kinds of clichés that broke my heart as a kid.

People are motivated by different incentives to follow certain roads.  Whether its money, stability, power, love, knowledge, religion, or family—to each their own because personal fulfillment is exactly that—personal. 

But for me, I’ve always been motivated by a curiosity to understand the world by story.  Stories are innately human.  They don’t make sense the way science does but they still tell undeniable truths.  And I want to uncover those truths—by doing it, seeing it, hearing it, and telling it.   

This last week I’ve been thinking about what makes me happy and what makes me unhappy.  This year I’ve done a lot of things that have brought me a lot of joy.  I’ve travelled to Korea, gone camping more times than I have in the last 10 years, completed multiple road trips, saw the Milky Way for the very first time, learned 2 new sports, took an aerial silks class, and met people that have expanded my mind by living their best life in unconventional ways and through unconventional means. 

What made me unhappy?  Despite my RAV4 being my dream car, buying it made me unhappy.  Why?  Because it made me feel financially enslaved.  It forced me to start scrutinizing my spending and compromising on my dreams.  The thing is—I don’t even live a luxurious lifestyle. I don’t eat out frequently.  I don’t buy unnecessary clothes, accessories, or shoes.  I don’t go to expensive concerts or raves.  I don’t go to movies or pay for a gym.  But it became apparent to me that the extra $300 a month made a significant dent in my bank account. 

My apartment mate says that she is accustomed to a certain lifestyle—she can’t do without having her own bathroom she says or the new kitchen appliances and in-unit working washer and dryer.  Those things make her happy.  But I’ve started thinking about how much time I spend in my apartment.  About how decorating the apartment makes my apartment mate happy, but I’m mostly indifferent.  About how I haven’t filled the living room with memories and people—just things that don’t seem to matter to me. 

And if living there doesn’t enrich my life—why do I pay so much money to live there?

It started as a joke.  My uncle casually telling me to live in my car.  But after the laughter has died, I can’t stop thinking about it.  If I choose to live in my car, it would be the first intentional decision I’ve made for my best interest.  A decision that gives me power and will allow me to stop compromising the cost of my dreams.  After all, “they say that dreaming is free”.  And I want to stop making excuses.  Because in the end, actions speak louder than words.   And the only words I want to use are the ones to tell the world my story. 

So I’ve set a deadline.  #MelissaLivesInHerCar2019.  It’s a little wordy.  But I’ll work on it.

You Make Life in the definites

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We lost track of time somewhere in the miles of switchbacks.  We couldn’t see the sun in the sky, but we could feel it.  When we saw him, he gave us a big grin and said, “You guys made it.  This is it.”

He had a large pack on his back and the generous stubble on his face indicated he had been in the park a few days.  He stood by the first sign we’ve seen since the beginning of the trailhead.  His smile like a cold glass of water in that heat. 

“Where is the waterfall?” I asked.

He pointed to the clearing just behind the trees.  “Only about .2 miles that way,” he replied.

“Are you going on up or going on down?” 

“Oh, I’m going down,” he answered.  “I hiked to El Capitan yesterday and set up camp out there; now I’m on my way back down to the valley floor.”

“That sounds awesome.”

His eyes sparkled.  “It really was.”

I asked him how far El Cap was.  He pointed to the sign. 

“Good luck to you,” I said.

Four hours earlier, they asked me what I wanted to do.  I had somehow been elected the leader.  I guess it only made sense.  I sold them all on my dream of adventure.  I drove over 300 miles through the night from San Diego to Fresno.  Rallied them all at 5 AM that morning and watched the sunrise on the way to Yosemite Valley.  I don’t know why I was unprepared for that question.

When I asked if any of them had researched what they wanted to see or do in Yosemite; the resounding silence was strikingly clear. 

“Not really,” my cousin Kayla shrugged, “I just figured you’d have an idea.”

“Um…whatever you want to do,” my aunt reiterated. 

The thing was—I wasn’t sure either.  After a week of research, I hadn’t narrowed my selection to a realistic list.  I was still thinking very broadly.  I want to hike Half Dome, see rock climbers on El Capitan, feel 16 again at Vernal Falls, take photos from Glacier Point, find out if I recognize my reflection at Mirror Lake, wander into a meadow and watch the autumn leaves blow in the wind, drink coffee and wonder how it feels to linger like mist between the trees, catch the sunset over the valley as the deer graze, put my hands against granite and be rendered speechless by his passion for big walls.

I mean, we were in Yosemite.  It wasn’t really a question as to “what” we wanted to see or do.  Obviously, there was the matter of time.  We were only going to be there for 12 hours.  There’s this famous quote from The Lord of the Rings by Gandalf: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”  I couldn’t help but think how appropriate it was in that moment.

“Well, I wanted to hike to Yosemite Falls,” I told them.  “There are two trails.  One to Lower Yosemite Falls, which is shorter and less strenuous.  The other to Upper Yosemite Falls, which is longer and I hear that it’s basically all booty work.  Maybe we can take the Lower Yosemite Falls trail first and see how we feel after that?  If we’re not tired, we can possibly do Upper Yosemite Falls too.”

From Camp Four, we walked across the road to the trail, following the map the park ranger gave us at the entrance.  I forged forward, leading them down a dirt path to the base of a granite wall until we came to a sign.

“It looks like Lower Yosemite Falls trail is half a mile down that way,” Preston pointed down the road, scratched his head, and then furrowed his nose deeper into the map.  “This is the start of Upper Yosemite Falls.”

The sign indicated 3.5 miles to the top of Yosemite Falls. 

“I think that’s roundtrip,” I remember my aunt said.  “I don’t think that sounds too bad.”

I knew she was wrong but I gave her the benefit of the doubt.  “Yeah, it might be.  But 3.5 miles might be the distance one-way.”

“Well what do you want to do?”  She asked, one trekking pole in her hand.  I gave it to her after she had Preston wrap up her ankle back at the car.  We hadn’t even started the hike yet.  This will help you take some weight off that, I told her, handing it over. 

“Well we’re already here…” I bit my lower lip.  “Do you guys mind if we take the Upper Yosemite Falls trail?  If it’s too difficult, we can turn back around and do the shorter one.” 

One by one they chimed their agreement.  Morale was high.  It was still early. Not yet 10 AM.  We were inebriated on the promise of adventure.  Or maybe it was delusion from lack of sleep.  Either way, we had made our decision.

We talked about relationships new and past.  I shared the text my ex-boyfriend sent me Friday at 12 AM.  We debated on what it meant, whether it was worth my time to respond.  I tell them he doesn’t know who I am because I’m not that 17 year old girl anymore.  We are not strangers—we are estranged.  There was a difference.

The conversation makes the time go by fast.  Everyone is engaged.  The base of the hike is shrouded by trees and it is easy to forget we were in Yosemite—but in between the pockets of branches, Half Dome and El Capitan loom larger than life in the distance—and everything is put into perspective again every time I look up. 

We talked about love.  About how sometimes it doesn’t work out even when you really care about someone.  About the importance of letting go, and not holding on too tightly, about allowing people to show up as themselves. 

“You never know, Melissa,” my aunt said.

“Don’t say that!”  Preston snapped.

“What?” his mom shouted in defense, “I’m just saying you never know what’s gonna happen in the future.” 

Eventually the conversation fizzled.  Our energy evaporated under the sun.  We took more breaks.  My aunt’s knee started hurting.  She made Preston wrap it too.  The trail never got crowded but people are starting to pass us up.  Our morale dipped.  I wondered if my aunt wanted to turn back. 

We came across a couple on the way down and I stopped to talk to them.

“There’s the switch backs, and then into the green for a while, around the mountain and then you reach the waterfall,” they said.  “But it’s totally worth it.  Maybe two more hours from this point on.” 

When we depart from them, Kayla said, “I could have done without knowing how much longer it will take.”

She was right.  Two more hours sounded daunting.  At that point we were taking breaks every five minutes for my aunt.  She was struggling.  But despite the pain apparent on her face, she was still making jokes, “Great.  We’re almost halfway to the halfway!”  She laughed. 

The marathoner’s mindset kicks in for me.  I just focus on small milestones—which was usually just the next shady patch we could find on the trail.  Every time I said, “I think we’re almost there,” my aunt replied, “We were “almost there” a half hour ago.”  And we all laughed because it was true—it didn’t feel like we would ever see the end.  But we intended to.

I stripped down to my underwear and said, “I’m gonna do it.”

We had made it.  We were finally there at the very top of Yosemite Falls, the tallest freestanding waterfall in North America.  And we were staring at the two pools of water that fed directly into the 2425 foot drop. 

“Are you really gonna do it?”  Kayla’s eyes go big.  

“Yeah,” I answered, standing there in front of at least 30 other hikers in just my Calvin Klein undies.  “We hiked all this way!  It seems silly not to jump into the water.  How many people can say they swam in the water at the top of the tallest waterfall in North America?”

Its moments like these when I jump into icy water, that I realize how life should be lived.  It’s about making a decision and the follow through.  Life isn’t about the “You never know’s” because you can’t make a life in the uncertainties.  You make life in the definites, in the choices, in the actions, and in the follow throughs. 

When we finally make it back down to the Valley, the moon is brighter than the light from the sun.  We are exhausted, but we know we are tougher than we were in the morning.  Before we even make it out of the park, I have already decided to return.  We scheme of future plans.  I tell them of my intentions for more outdoor adventures.  And my excitement makes them excited.  I want to always live my life like this–pursuing my definites. 

How a cracked iPhone screen led me to an existential crisis.

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“Fuck. Fuck. FUCK!”  The string of expletives come spilling out of my mouth like vomit I couldn’t hold back.  I threw my backpack to the ground and dropped down onto my knees.  Hands desperately grabbed for a metal rectangle covered in the dirt where Mother Earth claimed it.  My fingers brush the dirt off the screen of my phone that I had replaced just one month ago, before my trip to South Korea.  In the dim light of an October sunrise, I search for cracks.  My fingers find a fine line curving across the bottom of the glass.  It might as well have been the size of the entire Grand Canyon.  I snapped.

“I’m so fucking done!”  I roared.  I stood up and grabbed my backpack. I shoved my phone into a zippered pocket and continued stuffing my sweater into what felt like a black hole.  With each deliberate fist, I flatten the fabric to the floor of the bag.  My cracked phone screen was the catalyst and my emotional breakdown was the chemical reaction.  Tears began to form, the quantity with respect to each passing breath, increasing until it spilled from my eyes.

“Do you want to go back?”  My cousin asked.  She stood nearby, watching my shoulders shake, watching as I struggled to beat my immobile sweater into my bag.

I didn’t answer her.  Swinging my bag onto my back, I was already stalking away.

Turn back now?

I didn’t have to get up when my alarm went off at 5 AM.  I could have turned it off, crawled back into bed and not driven out to Poway.  I could have turned back home when we got to Kayla’s house, rang her doorbell for 10 minutes straight—remembering how the night before she promised she would be awake—and  when no one answered, decided to not go hiking.  I could have turned back.  Instead, I got into the car, drove into parts of San Diego I have never seen in the dark, to hike Iron Mountain.

Turn back now?

Why did I even do things like this?  I had been up until midnight, helping my grandparents clean their house.  I needed sleep, not a 6 mile trek into the mountains.  Was it for a photo of the sunrise?  Sunrises aren’t even that special.  They happen every day, 365 days of the year at a very specific, very predictable time.   I didn’t need to do this on October 22, 2017 at 6 AM in the morning during a Southern California heat wave.  But there I was.  I even made sure to add to my Instastory at the beginning of the trailhead.  Because did I even do it if nobody saw it?  I hate how social media is like television but in still frame: tell a story that is fraught with mystery, intrigue, adventure and drama in one post.

If I could do it, I’d explain why I was so furious that I cracked my phone screen.  That it wasn’t about the phone screen.  It was about the principal.  It was about feeling small and insignificant and alone.  And about how I believe that what you put out into the universe is what you get back in return, except sometimes you don’t—so I don’t know what I believe.  So, how do I post that?  How do I explain that crack?

“Do you want to turn back?”  She asks again.

I think about my summer, about all the things I would never have done.  From climbing Moro Rock to falling in love with someone new—if I had turned back and not finished each endeavor—how little would I have grown, to face a challenge and walk away.

“No.”

That is all I say.  And I kept on going.

The Experience of Inadequacy at 25

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25 feels like I’m too old to let anyone make me feel less. Like my interests aren’t good enough to endorse an interview in a coffee shop. Like my personality isn’t as loud as a child’s cereal box on a Target shelf for tiny hands to snatch. Like I’m not worthy to be brought to the conversation the way no one comments on dull wallpaper. Like my best behavior is too serious and “why can’t I look like I’m having fun?”. Inadequacy is a power I do not allow others to make me feel for being who I am.

 

At 25 I do not invest in the business of changing other people’s mind about my character. There is too much undercover work to Inception myself into good favors with anyone. Some people are so busy making themselves visible they lose visibility of others. I don’t intend to divert their attention. Because I am not a visual distraction. I am a story with nuance and depth and my cover isn’t Instagram worthy because #tldr. My username is Justanopenbook but if someone can’t get passed a title page, do I even want to waste my time and energy explaining to them my contents? I am not Cliff Notes.

 

In AP English Lit, I was the only student who didn’t use Cliff Notes for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”. It reflected in my essay which was ranked the highest among my peers. I could answer the essay question in a way that was far more intimate and familiar with the content than any of my peers because I made the experience personal.

 

Personal is how I strive to live life. The sun rises and the sun sets. 7.5 billion people around the world experience that same phenomena. And 25 feels like I’m too old to be personal with anyone who doesn’t make me feel more than just one of the billions.

 

The Flowers in the Trees

There is shelter in the few minutes before our alarm goes off.  When the world is quiet and I forget about the day’s responsibilities.  This is the same way he talks about nature.  About granite rock walls.  Pine trees.  Sand dunes.  Waterfalls.  Dusty dirt roads less travelled.  Morning walks into meadows.

I’ve found that same feeling lying in his arms. 

I kiss his stubbled jaw as he came to consciousness.  In the humbling silence, we dare not raise our voice above whispers.  There is something sacred about the quiet.  We are pilgrims in its temple. We don’t have a lot to say because it is understood that the moment is precious.  We hold each other a little closer.  Breathe a little slower.  Linger a little longer.

When his cell phone starts to ring, it is as though someone un-hit “pause”.  He rolls partially on top of me and starts singing the lyrics to the song.  And just like that, the infinite of the moment is gone.  I burst out laughing.  He does too.

Nose to nose, we start bargaining for more time.  Where moments before, time seemed constant; all of a sudden it felt like time was slipping away from us.  Why must it feel like this?  An ever losing game of catch up.

But even so, each step to the car is slow.  Deliberate.  He holds my hand and I look down at my feet, willing them to move.  I fixate on every detail of the walk.  The stillness of the apartments.  The emptiness of the street.  The cars parked all in line along the sidewalk. 

I can’t recall if the trees had flowers the night before, but I am seeing them now.  Bright purple blossoms glowing in the soft light of the morning. 

He starts the engine and the music comes on.  At 5 mph; it’s a snail’s pace to my car.  I hold his hand in my lap and start to think about geometry.  About how a line is defined by two unique points on the same plane, and how lines extend without end.  As he drove me from his apartment to my car, he turns to me and asks, “Can I see you later?”

And I don’t know what to say to him or if words were even appropriate.  Because all I can think about is the quiet before the alarm, the flowers in the trees, the lamenting song filling the space in the car between his question and my answer, and the linearity of each moment we share together.  If only I can show him, would he need to ask?