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[Wanderlust] Out and Back: A Pandemic Road Trip to Utah

Updated: Sep 7, 2020

by Chih Wang

It was midafternoon at our first campsite. We had secured first-come, first-serve site number sixty-seven—not too close and not too far from the toilets (that flush!)—in the North Campground inside Bryce Canyon National Park. Fully sheltered from the sun, I was sitting in my Costco Tommy Bahama chair positioned perfectly in the shadow of a ponderosa pine. It was August and eighty-something degrees, feeling more like ninety-something, which was way too hot for my San Diego coastal sensibilities. Less than an hour in, I already missed the AC from our room at the Zion Park Motel.

For the first time since the pandemic started, I had left home. Like many others I’d seen on Facebook and Instagram, I was road-tripping, escaping the confines of my house as much as I was exploring our national and state parks. Also, for the first time, I felt like reading a book, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones—nothing like camping in mountains and pines to put you in the mood for reading about a poor Black family in Mississippi during Hurricane Katrina. Ironic humor aside, Ward’s raw lyricism matched my present mix of uncomfortable heat and how damn beautiful it was to be outside.

Ten feet away, Matt, my boyfriend and travel partner, was sitting in his black Kia Soul with the AC running and the windows rolled up. He was smoking a joint to unwind after driving us from Zion and helping me with the tent. Day three, and I had already observed that the fresh mountain air and hiking weren’t going to be satisfying substitutes to Matt’s need for a smoke, be it joint or cigarette. I wasn’t surprised and I wasn’t naïve—after all, we had been dating for nearly three years now. But I had hoped that it would at least reduce his frequency. I mean, you couldn’t smoke in the middle of the trail after Smoky had just said, FIRE DANGER VERY HIGH TODAY! It was annoying though to have to stop and wait for your partner to light up before a hike, after a hike, before dinner, after dinner, and in general, throughout the whole day until bedtime. The weed, I didn’t mind as much. But cigarettes—he liked to say that he came from a hardy breed, but then his mom, a smoker, had gotten lung cancer the previous year.

Near the beginning of lockdown, he had tried to quit cigarettes. He was successful for three weeks, though the withdrawal had been difficult for him, his depression—and me. He said it was the longest he had ever gone without. He messed up a few times after that, but he would start over again. Overall, he had at least drastically cut down the amount of packs he went through. But after a July trip to visit his family and friends in Pennsylvania, where smoking cigarettes was more accepted than health-conscious San Diego, where his mom still offered to buy him cigarettes, he came back with his smoking habit revitalized.

I adjusted my chair a few inches to follow the drifting pine shadow. I figured after about five to ten minutes, Matt would come back out and join me and wait together for the day to cool down before exploring a trail. He didn’t read, but maybe he would feel like breaking out his guitar and playing. Or maybe just taking a nap. Whatever it would be, I couldn’t wait, because the car engine noise was defeating the whole point of being out here.

At first, it was no big deal. Another family was setting up camp across the road, and they were using a generator to blow up a mattress or something. It wasn’t like if Matt turned off his Kia, we would’ve had complete quiet anyway. But then about a half hour passed, and the family had finished setting up. I could tell that Matt was on his phone, probably going down some rabbit hole of watching stand-up comedians or bats dancing upside down like in a Goth nightclub, but surely, he was close to wrapping things up.

I tried to focus on being in Mississippi while being in Bryce. I adjusted my chair again. How many times had I adjusted it already? My chair had drifted maybe a foot or two from its original spot. I put my book down and walked over to the car. I knocked on the window. He startled and rolled down the window a crack. I asked him in a consciously nice way if he would come out. I let him know that the car noise was bothering me. He was quick to say okay.

By the time we reached our Calf Creek Falls campsite, site number ten—tucked away behind trees and Navajo sandstone, soon to become my favorite campsite of our whole trip—it was day eight of our ten-day trip. We had seen some really stunning views and an assortment of wildlife and taken unplanned side trips that paid off, and there may or may not have been a blow job in a secluded but panoramic spot. We had created fire together, with the help of firestart cubes from Walmart, and joked-not-joked that any hiker not wearing a mask was from Arizona. But there had been arguments too—the result of some jumble of heat, exhaustion, stress from navigating new places, and PMS (mine, not his).

Because the high that day was supposed to be in the mid-to-high nineties, we got up early to hike to the Lower Calf Creek Falls, a 6.7 out-and-back trail, which, thanks to the creek, was the lushest bit of Utah we had seen since the Narrows in Zion. The “out” part was leisurely. The dappled clouds and high cliff walls delayed the full blast of the sun’s heat from reaching us for most of the hike in. We stopped here and there to take pictures of everything from little trout swimming upstream to the cutest baby prickly pear patches to cliffs that looked like they had been drizzled in chocolate—according to our trail guide, the streaks, or “desert varnish,” were caused by dust and rain running down the cliff face and leaving behind metal-y minerals that rusted into those cocoa stains. And, best of all, despite the trail’s popularity, we didn’t see any other hikers for almost a half hour.

The waterfall itself plunged 126 feet into a pool that was mostly ankle deep until you got close to where the water hit the bottom. The water was icy cold and clear, marbled with sunlight. Clinging to the cliff face, hanging gardens dripped miniature curtains of rain. I instantly decided that this was my favorite place of the whole trip. I may also have a bias for waterfalls (Iceland is amazing). There were maybe a dozen other people there, but we were spaced out, well beyond the minimum six feet. Two girls had laid out beach towels and were sunbathing and reading books. A group of three went out swimming. Another couple laughed at their dog’s reluctance to go into the chilly water. Wading in, we took selfies and regular photographs, and Matt went farther and took a quick swim.

While sitting in the shade waiting to dry off, Matt remarked that he should’ve refilled his thermos with the waterfall. I said that the water probably wasn’t safe to drink. He said that the fast-moving water made it safe. I said that you couldn’t know what might have gotten into the water before the waterfall. He insisted I was wrong and it would be fine.

I was annoyed. Out of the two of us, I had the most hiking and camping experience thanks to my ex who was an avid hiker and gearhead, who had, at the time we were together, three different water filtration systems, who was always super cautious and prepared for all of our hiking and camping trips, whose caution had rubbed off on me.

Besides, we still had two other full bottles, so the extra water wasn’t necessary—however this was not part of the argument. Nor was the fact that, since he was almost dry, Matt didn’t want to bother going back into the water anyway, which was a relief, because I had a small but potent fear of him actually getting sick. No, the argument was about whether the waterfall was safe to drink.

We went back and forth about this, neither one backing down, and to the point where nothing new was being said. I could’ve patiently explained in more detail why rushing water wasn’t enough to filter out bacteria, but I was annoyed by the idea of explaining something—that I thought—should’ve been obvious.

It escalated until I just shut down and said, “No. No. No.” To which Matt curtly said that he was ready to head back. I told him fine—you know, in that not-really-fine way. I stayed sitting, facing the waterfall, listening to him put his socks and shoes back on. Then everything was quiet.

I didn’t want to turn around. I was sure he had taken off, because it had only been this spring when he had done it—a lot. While staying at my place, getting into debates over seemingly innocuous things, he would just pack up his stuff and leave, sometimes yelling, sometimes without a word—it hadn’t mattered whether it was three in the morning or he had just made coffee. I realized only in hindsight how bad his nicotine withdrawal had been, how it had amplified his depression.

Even though he was back to smoking now, I still had some leftover anxiety and dread that crept up whenever a disagreement got heated. I stared hard at the waterfall, pretending not to care, hoping that the social distancing from the other hikers also meant that they hadn’t noticed us “debating.” When I did turn around, Matt was there, standing, patiently waiting for me—okay, that made me feel a little bad, but it didn’t change my mind that I was right about the water.

We started the “back” portion of the trail, not quite hiking together, but not too far apart either. We hardly spoke to each other. In my head, I was spiraling. I kept reviewing our argument, and it just made me madder. My legs responded by picking up speed. I vaguely heard Matt ask where I was going. I didn’t want to be mad, and I knew that exercise usually worked off any tension I had. I wanted to be too exhausted to feel this way. And maybe I subconsciously wanted to be the one to leave this time.

I kept going until I knew, without looking behind me, that I was so far ahead that I wouldn’t be able to see him. But I was afraid he would get pissed off for being left behind for too long. So I came to a stop, took a sip of lukewarm tea from my thermos, which was running low, and studied the stream running next to the trail.

It was maybe, at most, a couple minutes before Matt caught up. We continued together, sort of. I hadn’t really cooled down though, and the heat wasn’t helping either. The sun was now fully out, and while there were still patches of trail shaded by oak, we were mostly exposed. And I was pulling ahead again. I was in better shape than Matt. Before San Diego closed its gyms, I worked out three to five times a week. I used to run half and full marathons, and I thought that I handled heat decently well. Meanwhile, Matt’s smoking habits left him easily out of breath, and the most exercise he got was from walking his pug around the block.

At some point, the trail seemed to diverge into two, which didn’t make sense, because coming in, there had only been one that was clearly marked. Still in my head and thinking angry thoughts, I made a split-second decision that one path looked more established than the other—the one with a long branch laid across it. The branch should’ve stopped me but didn’t. I justified it away because there were layers of footprints that said others had gone down this way before me, so I stepped over the branch and marched on. The path was clear and seemed pretty legit. Until it narrowed, and narrowed, and then disappeared altogether and the only option left to move forward was a ravine running steeply downhill. Shit.

And still, I wasn’t ready to backtrack. Well, I backtracked a little to stand in a shaded spot and take a sip of tea, because I wasn’t completely stupid. I heard voices of other hikers chatting. I thought I heard Matt say hi to them. I thought the hikers would eventually pass me and show me some turn in this footpath that I had missed.

That never happened.

Finally, I caved and backtracked. Ironically, the more I retraced my steps, the more I got kind of panicky. It was getting super hot, and I didn’t like being alone out here.

It was a relief to see Matt waiting for me at the spot where I had diverged from the trail. He said he saw me step off the trail, and I was like, Why didn’t you say something? He said he had thought I was going off to explore and would eventually come back, which he was right about. My relief disappeared. He told me that he had called after me. I told him that I hadn’t heard him. Like he was lying, even though I believed him. This hike was no longer fun. I hated how such a good morning had devolved into…this. Which just upset me more.

I took off again. This time with real speed. When I crossed paths with other happier couples and families—one carrying a unicorn floatie—I was thankful for my mask and sunglasses to hide the fact that I was tearing up. What was wrong with me? At some point, I realized I was really upset with myself, and not him, which made me feel worse.

Soon there was no shade. What had been such a pleasant trail had turned into awful dry heat and too much sun and dirt and rocks. I saw no greenery in my tunnel vision. I wanted to be back at the campsite. I wanted to be out of this place. My thermos was empty, and I had about another mile to go. Was this dangerous? I mean, if I really needed help, there were enough hikers coming in now…

I slowed down. I was losing steam. Both physically and emotionally. As unsafe it was for me to have taken off alone, it was unsafe for Matt to be by himself too. And how would I feel if I made it all the way back to the campsite without him? It would just add to the shittiness I had already squatted out.

I found a sort of shady spot and stopped there. I unscrewed my thermos and tipped it so the teabag fell out and onto my tongue. I sucked it dry. Until the leaves crinkled in their silk netting. While I waited, I mentally prepared my apology.

I waited much longer than I had the first time, but eventually I saw Matt pop up on a rise in the trail. He waved. I waved back. Rounding another bend in the trail, he disappeared for a few minutes before I could see him walking up to me. Limping. He explained he had taken a bad step and fallen down to his knee while trying to catch up to me.

Yeah, I felt really bad.

He then asked if I had enough water, since he was carrying most of the water and I had only kept the same thermos I had been drinking from since the beginning of the hike. He had saved the last few sips for me. The least I could do was lie and say I was fine and that he should finish the last of the water. He was impressed that I didn’t need to drink that much.

I took a deep breath and said I was sorry, that I was wrong to have left him, it wasn’t safe or right, and that I promised I wouldn’t do it again. He accepted my apology, and we finished the hike together.

A couple days later, he would sheepishly tell me he had googled whether it would’ve been safe to drink the water. That he believed me—there was a risk of getting sick, because while fast running water can filter out some things, it can’t filter out everything, and you should only risk drinking in case of emergency. We would then laugh, and I would use it as a funny anecdote to tell friends how our trip hadn’t been entirely perfect as our pictures would imply.

Back at the campsite, Matt grabbed a beer from the cooler and disappeared into the Kia. Pretty soon the car engine was running. Meanwhile, I was starving. I immediately broke out the hummus and crackers, and cut up a cucumber and some cheddar, arranging everything into a crude cheese-and-crackers plate. Once again, I walked over to the car and knocked on the window. Matt seemed too exhausted to be startled. He rolled down the window, and I let him know food was ready. He thanked me and said he would be right there after he finished smoking. I didn’t begrudge him the cigarette at all.

Chih Wang graduated from the University of California, Riverside in Palm Desert with a Masters Degree of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. She also holds a certificate in Copyediting from the University of California, San Diego Extension. She served as Fiction Editor and Copyeditor at The Coachella Review and currently copyedits for Kelp Journal. She runs her own freelance copyediting business, CYW Editing, specializing in fiction. A San Diego native, she spends her free time working on her novel, a contemporary fantasy, or hanging in the air, practicing aerial silks and hammock.


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