In 2001, I quit my job, moved all my stuff into storage, and spent the next four months driving around the country by myself. There’s hardly a week that goes by where I don’t think about that time – usually with wistful longing and an aching homesickness for the time in my life when I legitimately had no home.
And then, sometimes, I remember how that was also the time I almost died.
Both of my arms were shaking as I braced myself against the inner walls of the crevice. I tried again to lift myself up and over the edge of the cliff, back to safety.
Twelve feet below my dangling legs was the compact desert ground, littered with rocks and small boulders. Overhead, the gray sky rumbled and drops of rain continued to fall, getting faster with every minute. I could see the parking lot in the distance.
My racing heart suddenly slowed and I felt a surprising clarity.
Okay. So this is how my trip ends.
Here’s the thing: I swear I’m not a careless idiot. I’m the girl who spent more than six months meticulously planning the aforementioned four-month-long solo road trip. I’m that weirdo who accompanies all decisions, from college to dates, with a pro/con list. Y’know the nerd who never had detention a day in her life because she always followed the rules? Present.
Yet there I was, hanging off the edge of a cliff somewhere in the heart of Devils Garden in Arches National Park, all because I didn’t stay on the trail.
I had made it halfway through my hike and was ready to turn back when thunder crackled in the distance. The trail was empty; the dark clouds had deterred everyone else that morning.
A flash of lightning. I needed to get back to my car now.
In that moment, I made the cardinal mistake that derailed everything: I tried to take a shortcut.
The parking lot peeked just beyond the horizon and I recklessly thought I could get there before the skies opened up if I made a beeline straight for it. I scaled boulders that made backtracking impossible and dead-ended on the edge of a small cliff.
As an experienced jungle gym scaler and rock climbing dabbler, my solution was simple: I’d wedge myself in the large crack in the cliffside and shimmy down. But as soon as I lowered myself over the edge, my brain finally kicked in: WHAT. NO. TOO HIGH. WHAT ARE YOU DOING. ABORT. ABORT.
There was no way back up. There was no one around to help me. The only way was down.
I took a deep breath and made peace with the fact that I was probably going to break a few bones. Then, I let go.
I fell, scraping and banging against juts along the way. The ground rushed up, uneven and angry, and – miraculously – my feet each landed on impossibly narrow channels of dirt between the large rocks.
For a long minute, I was numb. Then the burning of my skinned shins kicked in; the throbbing of my bruised hips. There were tears on my face and my hair was soaked from the rain, but... nothing more. I took a hesitant step. Then another. My legs were still in tact.
I hobbled the rest of the way to the parking lot and got in my car, the lone vehicle remaining.
I sat for a minute behind the wheel, and two crucial thoughts pulsed in my brain.
My mom must never know about this.
Stay on the path, you dummy.