We didn’t have a campsite reservation when we left Berkeley for Zion National Park during spring break. Sardined in my friend’s Volvo and capering against the relative restraint of our seatbelts, my friends and I whizzed past rows of withering agriculture, past pop-up avocado bodegas and tumbleweeds, as we teetered toward the trenches of Kolob Canyon in western Utah. The wind rattled against our car’s broken sunroof. We tried to remember to stop for gas.
Partly because we had determined to improvise our adventure, and especially because we were not hesitant to deviate from our sketched plan, our trip did not unfold without a hitch. We failed to snag a campsite reservation for our first night. Our car’s oil camshaft seal popped open on the side of a mountain. Still, each situation seemed solvable with a helping hand. Over the course of four days in Zion, we entered into a new realm of sociality, the type that arises from an absence of any real, organized community at all.
While our car leaked a steady stream of oil down the only road to Kolob trailhead, we were able to flag down a van teetering down the mountain. We had barely begun to explain our predicament to the couple in the car before they offered us a ride into town.
“Happy to help you kids,” said the husband as he pulled into the parking lot of the first open business we spotted. “Lord knows we’ve been there before.”
We thanked the couple, and rolled out of their car and into Buffalo Trading Company: a small diner and Native American accessories store run by a mustached man who looked straight out of “Fargo.” I called AAA. My friends slid into a sticky duct tape and leather booth and ordered Coca-Cola and cake. Forty minutes later, a white tow truck pulled into the parking lot.
“Listen, honey,” said the waitress while I paid the check. “I don’t know what this whole car deal is — but you kids just come back here if you need anything at all.”
She slipped me three hard peppermint candies. “Good luck.”
Our trip readjusted and demanded with each unexpected turn. How would we fix a leaking camshaft in the middle of Utah? Where were we going to sleep without a campsite? How, exactly, would we stay warm atop a freezing mountain top? Ultimately, we did what every wanderlust whippersnapper has always done: We talked to people. We told our short stories; we listened to others’ longer stories. We banked on our innocence.
Days of walking softened my competitive edge: I made shadows in sand against the sun’s pregnant loom; we numbed our hot feet in the freezing, languid flow of a creek that ran trailside. Our only politics were to leave no trace. On the trail I had no long-term objectives — no end goal other than walking 28 miles around a ferrous-tinted canyon in Utah. My friends and I carried canned soup and socks and sleeping bags on our backs; we only talked about the things we already knew about the world. We made quick company with passerby.
During one particular trailside conversation, a woman asked where we go to school.
I told her we were third-year students at UC Berkeley.
“Ah,” she said. “Young, smart, adventurous people!”
Maybe, I thought. But what does it matter?
Most of the time as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, I am surrounded by people who aim to individuate by accentuating differences of interest and opinion. Students study specific topics and carve communities in order to become typecasts within society. But the wonder of calipering through a national park was that it equalized efforts for distinguishment. Traversing the Martian landscape in Zion and canvassing small towns imposed a sense of egalitarianism among itinerant folk. My own trip was a mere flirtation with wilderness in comparison to urbane backpackers’ escapades. Still, I was impressed with the basic appeal of wanderlust travel, in which the inevitable unpacking of experience was our only schedule.
The wild is wonderful for offering a space for anyone to feel at home in the world. In Zion, as in other parks, adventurers siphon energy off the very notion of adventure itself. We reach out our legs as far as they’ll go just to find some place that reminds us of all that we might never understand. Somehow, away from comfort, it is OK to live in the gaps. Somehow, lack of an expectation is an elixir against fright. And in the crags of nonlinear time, we let ourselves get lost.