Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Strange steps take us back

I was just a hair over 19 years old when I decided I hadn’t made enough new friends during my first year in college, and opted to rectify that by joining the University of Utah’s environmentalist club, Terra Firma. Yeah, I wanted to save the environment, too, but I was working two part-time jobs to buy myself the luxury of not living at home, taking a full load of classes, and I had little time for extracurricular activities. So my primary motive was making friends, but when I walked into that first meeting full of young men with hairy faces and women in sun dresses, I had no concept of how deeply this single action would shape my future. 

Just another typical evening at the D Street House. Photo from May 2003. 
I was just a hair over 22 years old, and had been out of school for more than a year, when I moved in with them. “They” were a loosely organized household of ten students, an unwieldy group stuffed two-plus to a bedroom in a small house in the Avenues of Salt Lake City. We called ourselves the “Terra Firma House,” and later the “D Street House.” We've since speculated that more than thirty people called the place home for at least a short time. The rent payers were in constant fluctuation, but we were bound by our love of living cheaply and traveling to the desert whenever we got the chance. The drama level was about what you’d expect from a co-ed group of twenty-somethings crammed into a small living space. Flings sparked and faded, wild parties drew police crackdowns, couches were willfully destroyed, people moved in and moved out, but Terra Firma House lived on. 

I was just a hair under 24 years old when I left. Ironically, the "wild" period of my early twenties was also when I took my career as seriously as I ever have. I commuted seventy miles a day to my job at a small-town newspaper so I could spend long hours editing articles, driving out to accident sites to shoot photos, and interviewing local artists and businesspeople. Returning home every night to a different party ultimately proved to be more frustrating than fun. One day, I arrived at the D Street House after a long day at work to find several of my roommates dismantling a thrift-store-purchased arcade "Skill Crane" with a sledgehammer. I loved these people, and one in particular, but enough was enough. I told my boyfriend at the time that I was moving to Tooele to live closer to my job. For a time, I believed I’d never look back. 

But one thing I’ve learned about myself since that time is that I always look back, and the views are often cathartic and rewarding. For all of the tangents our lives have taken since the Terra Firma days, some things never change: We still laugh about the time a rat crawled into Bryan’s car and died a week before anyone discovered it; we still bond amid the flickers of orange light and sage-scented smoke; and we still love the Utah desert. 

For the last six months, my friend Monika, the “Rockin’ Slovakian” of Terra Firma days who now lives in San Francisco, has been planning a big reunion of friends in Moab. For a number of reasons I was on the fence about going, and as recently as one week before the trip wasn't planning to attend. But as the gathering reached a critical mass of old friends, including several traveling from as far away as Alaska, I decided to make it happen. I bought my plane ticket so late that I checked in at the same time, and made last-minute arrangements to join the group at a campsite next to the Colorado River. 

Friday night was a whirlwind — more than forty people had gathered at the group campsite, and we visited several others who opted to stay with their families in condos back in town. Children played barefoot in the sand while the rest of us huddled next to a small fire, trading the rapid-fire versions of our life stories and laughing at inside jokes. As an introvert, this kind of manic socialization is fun but extremely exhausting. By Saturday morning, while the group made plans, I started looking for an excuse to steal some solo time. 

Most of the California contingent planned to rent bikes in Moab and ride the Slickrock Trail. I looked into this possibility only to find that seemingly all the bikes in town were already rented out for the busy fall break weekend. Other friends were taking their children swimming, or going to town to pick up bibs for the half marathon the following day. Most plans had been made before I latched onto the trip, so I figured I'd just be the odd person out, stuck in camp. But as everyone was packing up to leave for the day, I noticed a bike that I recognized mounted to the top of one of the cars. My ex-boyfriend Geoff and I only had a few short minutes to catch up the night before, so I took the opportunity for an easy icebreaker — "So, you still have the old Karate Monkey?"

Somewhere in our conversation about old bike components, life in Colorado, running, and how few miles he's ridden since the 2008 Great Divide Race, I asked Geoff to let me borrow his bike for the day. We were camped more than thirty miles outside Moab and I had no way to transport the bike by vehicle, so the Slickrock Trail group ride was still out of my reach. Instead, I took off from camp by myself in search of a "touring" adventure, something that would take me to scenic and high places. I found the Onion Creek jeep road, and consequently access to one of the prettiest sections of the Kokopelli Trail.

Riding Geoff's Karate Monkey on the Kokopelli Trail put me in a nostalgic mood, and for long periods of time my mind left the sand-spinning present to travel to desert places in the past. I found myself in Coyote Gulch, anxiously searching for ways to scale a twenty-foot waterfall in Sketchers and jeans, with a forty-pound backpack. Then it was late at night in the San Rafael Swell, sitting in silence around an extinguished campfire as a rare display of northern lights streaked across the starry sky. Then it was a single-digit morning in Robber's Roost, hopping up to breakfast still wrapped in my sleeping bag after a shivering night that I half-believed I wouldn't survive.

Nostalgia is a powerful and double-edged emotion — at once uplifting and sobering, happy and sad. For me, nostalgia is a way of creating continuity with the past, an acknowledgement that everything I do holds a direct line to everything I’ve been through. It’s the reason I can sit down next to a campfire with people who I haven’t seen in as many as five years and pick up stories we left dangling back in 2004 as though no time has passed at all. 

But time does pass. Later that night, back at camp, my friend Jen would lament that our group "doesn't do stuff together anymore. We just talk about the stuff we used to do." It's true. Even during our reunion, we took off on our own tangents before reconvening around the campfire at night. Still, to this group of friends, my own tangent — embarking on a six-hour solo bike ride — seemed to make the least sense. With all the fun activities going on that day, why would I choose to go off by myself and burn up my quads on a long, sandy climb into the La Sal Mountains? At dinner we discussed our plans for the following day, and I jumped at an opportunity to take a friend's bib and run the half marathon in the morning. Some friends joked about my agreeing to a "short" run while others teased me about going on a fifty-mile mountain bike ride while most of the runners tapered on Saturday. My friend Tricia, who effectively hasn't seen me since the days of house parties, Sketchers and jeans on hikes, and vocal disavowals of all structured fitness training, asked me whether I could have foreseen any part of what my life is like now ten years ago.

"Not at all," I replied. "I guess it's just the strange the way life works. One thing builds onto another, so slowly that you don't even notice until you look back and realize that your perspective is dramatically different."

Perspectives keep on shifting, and it's rewarding to maintain connections to the past. These people — and places — have made me who I am, and continue to help me keep sight of where I'm going.


  1. I enjoy all of your posts but this one really resonated with me. I love, love, LOVE that area of the country and have so many good memories of hiking and camping there. It's gorgeous. I think I may have been to that very campsite!

  2. One problem with simultaneously reading your old posts and your current posts is that I sometimes get them confused. When I read, "a critical mass of old friends, including several traveling from as far away as Alaska" my first thought was "that's an odd way to put it, since she's coming from Alaska herself". A second later I realized that I was mixing up 2009 Jill with 2012 Jill.

  3. You sure do nostalgia well! I read this in Google Reader last night and had to comment this morning. I really like it!

  4. Loved this post! I find it almost awkward to talk to my friends from school now, because I've (/we've) changed so much that we hardly have any interests in common anymore. I can barely remember the person I was back then.

  5. Wonderful post, Jill! How was the half marathon?!

    Happy trails,

  6. Great post Jill, and awesome pictures.

    And I love this line:
    "I guess it's just the strange the way life works. One thing builds onto another, so slowly that you don't even notice until you look back and realize that your perspective is dramatically different."

  7. Nostalgia. It has had a powerful grip on me lately as well. I have put it down to my upcoming 40th birthday next year and just a general sense of feeling that what was my recent past has lately been fading faster and further behind me. I really like how you describe it - uplifting and sobering.

    Hope you had an awesome weekend with friends.

  8. Your friend was kind to let you ride his bike--you might want to lay in on the side opposite the derailer to keep the friendship intact. --wc


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