It’s raining. The wet desert smells like soaked stone and creosote.
After all the things I’ve worried about over the last year, all the fears and doubts, all the insecurities and crises about what I’m doing with my life, trying to structure empty days, not knowing how to move forward, or who to ask for help, or what to do to learn and grow, this seems simple: a landmark in mind, a goal, a trail.
I can’t quite make out the path as it leads over the humping backs of red rock hills into wind-swept gullies full of sand and gnarled juniper trees, but I feel the instinct to move forward. I trust myself to go in the right direction, even if I may not be following the same footfalls of those who came before me. It doesn’t matter how I get there. But I know I will.
Today in the moody desert as I walk alone in the cold light of dawn, this trail to the Delicate Arch in Utah’s Arches National park feels more like a metaphysical journey into my future. It’s something about the way the ominous clouds keep shifting overhead, and that I’ve forged ahead and found myself in a desert alone. It’s this funny gut instinct that tells me to go uphill and towards a destination that I’ve never seen, and don’t know how to find. And how I feel lost, but so sure of where I’m headed at the same time.
Every now and then I find a cairn marking the path. The stacked stones reassure my way, but they are few and far between, sometimes spread wide across the swayed stone shelves. The rain is soft. Wrapped in the warm air of August, the drips lick my shoulders and bleed into the red stone below my feet. The wetness is comfortably cool. I push myself onward.
I pass a rabbit that hops between bushes and warily eyes me. I watch the silhouettes of skeletal sage turn from menacing shadows in the distance into mere clusters of fragile limbs as I approach. The dangers of this desert are mirages of my own fears. I keep moving.
I find a set of stairs that takes me to a shelf of stone that leads into the sky, and I’m on the edge. The air is thick now. The weight of the clouds, the rain on my skin, the heavy anticipation, and all the other things from my life I’ve piled into this hike.
And suddenly, I’m here. It’s the iconic arch. It seems bigger in person, the few hikers in my frame look like twigs, almost invisible on the rock, and it’s so quiet and calm here. It’s surreal.
I move closer. I sit on the rough sandstone and stare at the marvel in front of me. The thing that took so long to form, that’s still changing as the years pass and rains fall and storms roll through. It’s incredible.
I watch for a long time. The three hikers who beat me here this morning snap a few final photos and leave. Now it’s just me and the stone, my flesh and its bone, and it’s significant somehow, this communion. I don’t know. I guess it’s reassurance. This marvelous thing, this natural wonder, it took so long to become. But now it’s this. And yes, it will crumble, one day it will fall, but for now, look at how it stands so tall with such grace.
My group meets me here. We take our own photos, clamor over the steep stone, and walk beneath the arch. We spread our arms under the dark sky and graze our fingertips against the red rock. We breathe it all in.
Then, we hike back down the trail together in the rain.
In the few days since the hike, I keep thinking about what it was like to feel myself on that path moving forward, alone, through the wet desert into a wild but promising unknown. This is my becoming. And although I feel uncertain a lot of the time, I have to remember to trust my instincts, to push forward on the unmarked path, to have grace in the unexpected storms, to stand tall and let the rain soak in and shape me.
Have you been here before? Has one of your journeys taken on meaning beyond that of the physical journey to mean something more for your life? Tell me in a comment below!