My scraped knuckles were beginning to bleed. I wedged my fingers between two boulders looking for a purchase. The last time I scrambled across rocks like this I was a kid in a creek bank, not a woman in her mid-thirties with two children back at home. But that distinction is lost to powerful, innate muscle memory. My body remembers how to move this way. My muscles respond as I command them to pull, to push, to climb what rises before me. As I negotiate the soft, red rocks that surround the impossibly still Emerald Pools in Zion National Park, a rush of adrenalin pulses through my body and I wonder: Why did I ever stop doing this?
The term has fallen by the wayside, but as a kid of the eighties, I proudly claimed the title of tomboy. My best friend was a boy one year my junior whose fondness for outdoors adventure matched mine. On our own, we were quiet and shy. I wore glasses; he stuttered. But together, we were Lewis and Clark, pioneers of the unknown, explorers of Iowa City’s Ralston Creek.
What drew us to the creek was never the water; even as kids we knew it wasn’t clean. It was the rocks that brought us back. The bank was muddy and I was constantly readjusting the brown tortoiseshell glasses that slid down my nose, but onward we climbed, over loose boulders and broken concrete slabs, creating our own paths, navigating the unbalanced terrain. We pinched our fingers while wedging our hands into tight crevices. We pulled one another up difficult passages. We took risks. We courted adventure. Mud caked to our shoes, jeans split apart at the knee. Talking, always talking, we wandered our way through childhood. It was nothing more than a muddy creek bank, but to us it was an invitation to wonder.
Somewhere between my days as a tomboy and my days as a mother, my desire for adventure in the natural world waned. It wasn’t that I became sedentary or inactive, or that I no longer cared for the outdoors. Instead, a shift occurred, as slow and as ordinary as the sun progressing across the afternoon sky, so subtly that I scarcely noticed when it happened. As an adult, the activities I chose to challenge my physicality – like running marathons and Crossfit – as well as those I incorporated into my everyday life – like biking to work – were healthful options, but they were also prescribed. They came prepackaged with limits and expectations. They took place in artificial environments, with rules and directions and fees. I was active, but in a sterilized, safe kind of way. Even what I saw as the noble quest to bring-up my children as explorers in their own right, while fulfilling as a parent, left me craving a richer, more colorful experience for myself, one that connected my own body to the world below my feet.
Which may explain why last November, when I found myself scrambling along the rim of Emerald Pools with my husband and our two close friends, our children safe at home with their grandparents, something hidden deep within my muscles rose to the surface. My body acted on its own accord and as it did, I was flooded once again with childlike wonder. Whimsy grabbed hold of me. I was at once present, focused, and alert, absorbed in something greater than my own being. You remember how to move this way. You need to move this way. The runoff drizzle from the waterfall overhead gave the sandstone canyon a luminous quality that made it feel as though the rocks themselves were pulsing with life. Forging a path over the slippery rocks, I experienced unscripted play while establishing a connection to the raw world at my fingertips. It was invigorating. It was like coming home, if you define home as the place where you can both find and lose yourself in equal measure.
I fear that as an adult, I have traded adventure for activity. It has been easy to confuse fitness with play. It is possible that my quest for the unknown has been sedated by the routine habits of my days. Yet, even after years of passive neglect, an experience as simple as an afternoon spent scrambling across Zion’s sandstone rocks has the power to remind me that wonder and adventure are never beyond my reach.
And neither, it just so happens, is Ralston Creek.
Nina Lohman Cilek is still chasing wonder.