“When I have fears that I may cease to be…”
“What would be your last words, Kessia?” Carin asked me.
We were about to go on a camping trip and two of my fellow campers—Jesse and Carin—had already given their answers. Jesse’s was a stoic “Happy at last” in Latin. Carin’s was a more sentimental and flattering, “Kessia, you inspire me. I crave you.” Now they both looked at me.
“I don’t know,” I said, shrugging. “Last words are important—pretty much the most important words you’ll ever say. I’d have to think about it.”
Why we happened to be commenting on last words I can’t say. I didn’t think us in any atypical danger. Our camping trip, which we were literally packing up to go on as we spoke, didn’t sound overly complicated. The plan was to hike fifteen miles through Provo Canyon from Wallsburg to Vivian Park, camping about three miles in. The trickiest part would be that we’d all have to drive to Vivian Park first, leave two cars there, and then cram into two vehicles to drive to the trailhead. But that didn’t seem especially complex. After that, we just had to follow the map, keep an eye on the GPS, ration our water, and enjoy Nature. This didn’t seem too complicated for our well-prepared group of seven, made up of Jesse, Emma, Maren, Jani and James Crawley, and then Carin and I.
I fled to Nature for relief that Friday afternoon. Every now and again, life builds up into a convoluted mass of commitments, responsibilities, goals, dreams, all of them demanding, none of them possible to perform perfectly. There are family ties to manage, there’s work to do honestly and well, there’s the dream and therefore responsibility to write, friendships to create and support and maintain, church callings to magnify, people to serve, apartments to clean and manage, future’s to plan—in short, there are a million wonderful things in my life, all of which give me great happiness but also can occasionally strain. In fact, the day before at work, with all the tragic fires around Utah, strange smoke clouds cast an eerie orange glow to the world and smoke made us cough and wheeze as we worked. Ash began to rain from the sky. It seemed a symbol for a world of loveliness turned toxic, wasted and charred, as we breathed the fragments that had once been trees. It was raining sorrow. So a camping trip—leaving Provo behind, going into the mountains of Ephraim to dwell, even if only for a night—this seemed glorious. As long as the air was a bit more breathable, that is, which it was. So we thought it would all work out great.
Well, things pretty much immediately began to go wrong.
We dropped off two of the cars at Vivian park and then five of us crammed into Emma’s boat-like Buick, stuffing all of our packs in the trunk, and headed for Wallsburg, where the Crawleys would meet us. We drove down lovely residential roads until we came to a dirt path, which we meandered our way down in our two vehicles. The road grew a little rough, but not impossible.
Until we rounded a particular bend.
There, we came to a point where the creek crossed the dirt road, rushing over boulders and rocks as it went.
Emma stopped the car.
Technically, the road split and could go above the creek for a second, before plunging in briefly before climbing out on the other side. And the water itself wasn’t more than a few inches deep. But the large rocks…
Jesse felt we could make it. We all got out of the Buick and Jesse and Carin moved some of the rocks. Then Jesse got behind the wheel and plunged the Buick right into the creek with Emma biting her nails the entire time. Scraping and squealing, the poor Buick nearly got stuck, but finally did get itself out of the river onto the other side.
But not without damage. It had hit the bottom pretty hard and now there was a strange hissing noise emitting from underneath it. At first, we thought it might be the tires, but the hissing sound stopped as soon as the engine turned off.
It was pretty much a disaster.
But after Jesse and Emma bantered about him buying her a new car, we decided that the hike must go on.
The Crawley’s parked their car. Emma parked hers. And we just decided to start our hike right then and there and walk down to the trailhead ourselves. We theorized this would add only an extra mile to our trek. Of course, it ended up being three times that—but it was doable.
And meanwhile we found ourselves wandering through an endless aspen grove, the leaves glittering and shivering in the breeze. The water weaved in and out between the white trees, and pointed stumps appeared here and there from the dam-building beavers, their homes halting water flow and creating still green ponds. Somewhere close by, it seemed someone had unleashed all the butterflies of Eden. Wings of orange and red and white and gold and blue bobbed and flagged on the warm air. I felt like my soul had been unleashed on the wild edge of the world and Nature’s own jubilant fireworks were flaring around me.
What did it matter it was actually three miles to the trailhead? Or even that our GPS didn’t work and our map was useless? As we got lost in that paradise, as we took the road less traveled by and pressed into thick trees and bushes, I drank in the whole world. To either side of the river at this point, we heard bleating and—sure enough—ahead, right on the trail as well, was a huge herd of sheep. They raced away from us up steep slopes, their huge canine protectors, almost large and white as the biggest of the sheep, barking at us as we approached.
After wandering up and down small trails like that, watching out for the presents the sheep left on the trail, we went back to a larger path. There we pressed forward for the next several hours, Jesse trying to get the GPS to work or at least the map to make sense. The trail began to bend steeply upward and we pressed onward up into the mountains, unsure of whether or not we had the right trail.
But as we walked, we talked of the aspen trees—how each entire grove is actually one plant, all clones of each other. That because of this, aspen groves are actually the largest living organism on the planet. I could almost feel the interconnectedness beneath my feet. And I could see it around me in each of these tall twins reaching up toward life, toward the sun, dropping the branches that failed to receive light, twisting sometimes into sudden ninety degree angles in order to better catch the light.
All around us was life—a snake, chipmunks, deer, and ever and ever the butterflies flashing in the dappled shade, wings beating slow and rhythmic from atop the blazing wildflowers.
Finally, as we panted our way to the top of a high ridge, we decided to make camp on the open area there where three trails converged—the one we’d come from, one heading off to the left, and another heading steeply uphill to the right. We removed our packs. And I could only laugh as I took a look at myself. My shirt was drenched in sweat across my shoulders and back. And my legs from my ankles to my capris were brown-black with dirt. But though this might normally be revolting, I only smiled.
This was Nature, our unifying Mother. Here, the social pressures of Provo no longer held power. My responsibilities, stresses, and fears were dispelled. One thing I felt about life here was that it was unjudged. Here, whether you’re a human or a deer or a sheep, you all climb mountains. Here, all sweat, all get dirty, and all even—yes—need to urinate. Here, we’re unified by the fact that we all live, as messy and crass and unorganized as life can be. And here we’re unified by the fact that we’ll all die too one day. In this sense, the sweat and the dirt and the bugs are a message of acceptance and unity with all the life of the world, with the Earth, and even with God, its merciful creator. Here, unlike anywhere else, even in the grimy clothes we bring with us from home, we’re naked before the heavens in that we are quite simply and singly mortal.
Of course, this didn’t mean that there was no fear among us. Carin especially, as the sun went down, grew more and more agitated by the idea of bears coming into camp during the night. We were, after all, not exactly at an official campsite. This was the mountains, plain and simple.
We attempted to reassure her as her fears began to grow unreasonable. We were smart, after all. Stuffing all of our food, deodorant, and toothpaste into bear bags, we strapped it up high in trees far from camp. But Carin soon grew terrified. I tried to reassure her that bears are a lot shyer of humans than we often give them credit for. Also, the sheep and the sheepdogs decided to spend the night just down the hill from us, which would mean we’d have a lot of warning if there was a bear in the area. Emma helped try to calm Carin by creating a lot of noise to scare any wildlife away. And Maren explained that if a bear did come, she’d ask it kindly in French not to eat us and—since all bears are fluent in French—this would solve the entire problem.
But Carin’s fear still grew.
The sun set into dark-pined mountains and then the moon rose, half full and bright. We walked around on a silver earth, lit without flashlights, our elven moonshadows scaling the mountains behind us. For a while, we’d desired to stargaze—but in the brightness of the moon, few stars were visible. So, refusing to start a fire and chance a new wildfire catastrophe, we all decided to go to bed.
There were three tents up on that ridge: one for Jesse on one side, one for the Crawleys on the other, and the last for Emma, Maren, Carin, and I in the middle, right in front of the trail from where we’d come, its door facing that direction. It was a lovely night, just a little chilled, and Maren decided to sleep out beneath the stars, though our tent ceiling was clear. She set up her sleeping bag out behind our tent, opposite the path we’d taken up. And from there, we tried to relax—but this proved difficult.
Not only did Carin panic during the night, but she also began to feel quite ill complete with a headache and nausea. This would, it seemed, be torment. And it started out that way. At each and every noise, Carin would jerk upright: “Kessia, what’s that?”
“Oh,” she’d say. And then lie back down.
As I drifted off again, she’d leap up. “What’s that?”
“Just Maren out there shifting in her sleep.”
And then: “Kessia, what’s that?!”
And a short time later: “What’s–?!”
And finally: “Why do you think they’re barking? Do they smell something? Is it bears?”
I listened, groggy. “No. Those are happy barks. We’ll be able to tell if they change. Don’t worry.”
I awoke on my own around 3:00 AM. The moon had finally set and the entire world had sunk into shadows but for the sky, blazing with fat, blurry stars. At this point, I realized I needed to use the bathroom. I voiced as much and Carin, in relief, said, “Oh good—so do I.”
I said we should go. Carin asked, “Is it safe? What if there’s bears?”
“It’ll be fine. There’s nothing out there. We’ll go together, okay?”
At that point, we hear the Crawley’s tent unzip and Jani say, “I’m coming too.”
So I open our tent and step out, putting on one of my shoes. Jani comes around and stands beside me. Carin’s preparing to come out just behind me. Right as I’m about to put on my second shoe, it happens:
Just down the trail, a large branch snaps.
We all stiffen—and then hear it: the low long grunt of a bear.
I’m not sure what happened next except panic. Somehow I went from standing in front of the tent to finding myself, shoe still in hand, inside the tent on my sleeping bag. For all I know, I could’ve back-flipped right back inside, though Emma later told me it was more of a flying dive. Carin, at that point, started zipping up the tent—at the same time that we hear Jani, who has somehow magically reached her own tent at the same time, zipping up hers.
Then Carin and Emma (who heard the whole thing) and I are lying altogether in terror, listening. Emma is giggling nonstop in her terror. “Kessia, what do we do?” Carin asks.
Jani, from the other tent, says, “Sh! Be quiet!”
And I’m not sure whether that’s because of the bear or so that James can sleep.
But in any case, I say, “Lie down…and pray.”
So we get to it, but we’re too panicked to really be quiet for long. Emma keeps giggling and Carin bursts out, “What about Maren?”
Maren—outside the tent. What could we do? Should we wake her up and scare her? And even if we did, how could she get back inside the tent? She’s behind it and to get to the door, she’d have to go around to the front where a bear waited less than fifty yards down the trail. “Well,” I finally said, “at least…at least this tent is between the bear and Maren. That’s something.”
At this point, both the sheepdogs started barking madly. “Kessia,” Carin said.
“Happy barks, remember?” I say—though all of us, including Maren who’s awake and lying as still as possible outside, know that these are not happy dogs at this point.
In my head, I told myself we were going to be fine. Bears are as scared of us as we are of them. The likelihood of a bear actually attacking us is small. We had no food in our tent. We didn’t even have chapstick. We’d done everything right. That’s what I told myself.
But in my heart, I was afraid. I lay pressed to the outer edge of the tent, which made me vulnerable. Not as vulnerable as Maren, outside and alone, but still. And then there were the sheepdogs, barking, protecting the sheep, driving the bear up here toward our camp…
And I couldn’t help but think, “What if this is it? What if I die tonight?”
Suddenly our talk about last words seemed very real.
Beside me, Carin seemed to be thinking along the same lines. “Kessia?”
“I love you.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I love you too.”
There wasn’t much wisdom in that, I suppose. It didn’t even feel somber or potent. And as soon as we said it, Emma burst into another round of giggles. But those were the words we chose. Love over wisdom. But the words had power all the same, just because they were true, just because it wasn’t the only time we’d ever said them. They felt good. So as Emma laughed, I said, “We love you too, Emma.”
And then we waited, hearing things that didn’t exist in our fear. We lay there, and I stared up through the tent at a million million stars. It was beautiful. I’d never seen so many stars, glowing large and bright, creating rivers in the velvet darkness above me. It’s funny to me that I was thinking that in this moment of terror. It’s funny to me all of the things I didn’t think about. Keats writes a sonnet pondering what would happen were he to die before he’s accomplished everything he wanted to, “Before [his] pen has glean’d my teeming brain” (l. 2) and he’s written everything he’s wanted to, “high piled books” (l. 3), before he’s every truly been in love. He writes, “When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face, / huge cloudy symbols of a high romance, / And think that I may never live to trace / Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance . . .then on the shore / Of the wide world I stand alone, and think / Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.” In that moment, I beheld the night’s starr’d face and thought that I might never live to trace their shadows in my own life. I lay there beside my friends on the edge of a wide world, right beside the cliff of the ridge. But I didn’t have to think the ideas of love and fame into nothing. As I lay there, staring up at the stars, I didn’t once think, “What about my writing? What about all I’ll never say with my pen?” I didn’t think about the fact that, if I died now, I’d never fall in love or have a family. I stared up at the stars and, even in an extremely high level of fear, awed over the beauty of the moment. I couldn’t think of another place to be than here, looking up at that enchanting sky.
“Carin,” I said, “don’t you think William Blake would love to be here right now? Looking at this sky?”
It was probably the strangest question I could’ve asked in that moment. But I asked it.
Then Emma said, “Oooh. Who’s this William Blake?”
She apparently thought him to be a boy we had our hearts on.
“He’s been dead for two hundred years,” Carin said.
I smiled up at the stars. “He’s a Romantic Poet. ‘Tyger! Tyger! burning bright / In the forests of the night / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?’”
“Oh,” Emma said, giggling some more.
I find it interesting that I wanted William Blake to be there, of all people. He’s not my favorite poet by far. So why did he pop into my head? And why this particular poem? I didn’t think about it then, but now I think of the fierce image of the bear “in the forests of [that] night”—of the fearful symmetry of some of God’s creations, of Blake’s question, “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” The bleating sheep just down the hill from us, innocent and white and harmless, were formed by the same God that created the dark bear prowling around somewhere on the mountainside. Maybe I wanted Blake there with me not just for the stars, but to talk about this strange place I was in, threatened by another of God’s creations, most of which I loved, which had so newly liberated me from my feelings of stress. It was a potent reminder of the double-edged sword that Nature’s lack of judgment possesses: Just as all are granted life, all are granted death. The newborn baby and the newly-sealed coffin are planned by the same God, just the way both the lamb and the bear are. This is both harsh and yet somehow comforting—that in that fearful moment, in that bear just down the hill, even in death, God is.
In any case, just after my spout of poetry, we heard Maren’s voice: “Guys, I’m coming inside.”
Carin and I rejoiced. “Yes, Maren, come in!” Carin said.
“Hurry!” I said.
And she came in and we zipped the tent shut and we lay there altogether, side by side. I knew daylight was still a few hours away. It would be a long wait to ever actually use the bathroom. And don’t for an instant allow me to minimize the terror that I felt then, whatever I said about Blake. But somehow, all the same, it comforts me that, in a distant, bizarre, twisted way, in thinking I might die, I didn’t think about my ambitions or my failures, but rather the people around me and the beauties of the world and the nature of God. It comforts me how normal it almost was, me blurting out something about poetry, Emma taking it as a juicy revelation about a fancied boy, all of us close and side by side.
As dawn slowly drew our vision back open, we thrilled to still find ourselves alive. It was one of the most beautiful sights—a sort of Easter Sunday, where the threatening tomb is actually discovered to be empty. We’d made it.
We got up and laughed about it all morning as we ate breakfast and packed up. After Jesse hiked a little ways up the trail, we realized we were on the wrong one. So rather than continue another ten miles in the wrong direction, we decided to go back the way we’d come. Back down the mountain we went, twining on the trail between the aspens, the butterflies hovering ahead of us in the sunlight. As we walked, I thought back on the bear. What were the chances that the one moment when we stepped out to use the bathroom, the bear was coming up the trail less than fifty yards away? I laughed to myself. Really, what are the odds?
Then I frowned to myself.
What if we hadn’t come out then? The bear would have probably come all the way up into our camp. We likely would have been fine in our tents—but what about Maren? Out under the stars? That couldn’t be safe. When we’d come out of our tent at that exact moment, the bear had terrified us—and I think we’d terrified the bear.
So what were the odds of us coming out of the tent just then? I don’t think odds had anything to do with it. Providence. That we were all safe and well inside that tent when the morning came and light returned to the world. That we all had what felt to us like another chance at life.
As I walked, I looked at the world as though God had just created it for me new last night. The wildflowers bloomed around us amid the white trees as the green water trickled slow and serene between the low bushes. The shade of those trees seemed a caress to me. Every blade of grass seemed a message from heaven. I didn’t want to leave. Even if everything had gone wrong on this trip, it had combined into a marvelous adventure. I didn’t want that to end. And I felt that if I just stayed long enough, I might learn to interpret it—I might figure out life blade by blade, leaf by leaf, wing by wing. Why go back to the responsibilities? To the pressures? The stresses? When we can be here, seeing pale twisted logs on the banks of the river and mistaking them for unicorns? Where we can think about life and death in their simplest forms?
But as Emma managed to rocket the Buick back over the river, as we all packed back inside, as we headed really and truly back for home, we saw something ahead of us on the road: a mother deer with a fawn bounding about her heels. I thought again about the God of both birth and death, of the existence of both of these things in the life of each human, deer, lamb, and bear. I thought about the part I still had to play in the world during my own lifetime. And some lines by Robert Frost came into my mind:
“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.”
Yes—these aspens were all of those things, talking to me with their wind-blown leaves. Yes, I’d love to stay here and listen.
“But I have promises to keep.”
There are commitments that call me home. These responsibilities are more than just burdens, they’re my promises to others and to God. And I can’t leave them behind forever. I do have promises to keep, a whole lifetime of promises, some yet unknown.
“And miles to go before I sleep. / And miles to go before I sleep.”
I do have a long way to go before I sleep—and I don’t just mean sleep as in unconsciousness, but as in death. True, I thought I might die last night. But this didn’t happen. There are tasks yet for me to do, missions for me to accomplish. And doing these things to the best of my ability will allow me to experience both life and death to the fullest—so that, in the moments before my actual death, I’ll be able to feel the way I felt last night: afraid, yes, but secure in my love for the people around me and fully trusting in both the fierceness and gentleness of God.