The Time of Our Lives 

 

Spring 2016: a time I was so unsure of my identity and future that I felt like my mind and heart were playing tug-of-war with my life. Voices came at me in every direction asking me or telling me what to do when I graduated and all I wanted to do was play Super Smash Bros. and try to keep my A/B average in school. So naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to leave it all behind for a week as soon as I was told about the West Texas trip to Big Bend National Park,

I remember meeting all of the other boys and River Watch coordinators to pack and head out – recognizing some of them but not others. Upon entering the van, I sat down in the same crater of a seat I’d sat in so many times before and off we went. 

The sky was clear that day. In the hubbub and stress of leaving on time, I didn’t get to enjoy it much at first. We made our first stop for lunch when the sun was at its peak and arrived at a park with a church nearby. Its walls were baby blue and its steeple was white, not like any church I’d stepped into. Verdant grass was all around us and the sky ready to be painted by Bob Ross with those clouds of paradise floating lazily along a vast expanse of cyan and cobalt. For that hour. it felt like we had gotten off at the wrong stop and wound up in 18th century New England. 

The presence of that church held a special significance to me because I am a devout Catholic and at the time I was seriously considering the priesthood. In just a few short weeks from this trip I would embark on another to Notre Dame University to witness the ordination of a deacon from my parish. I’ve always taken my faith very seriously and while I was eagerly munching away at my sandwich on a wooden bench I was reassured with the knowledge that I was on this trip for a reason.

After satisfying our appetites, we carried on and drove deeper into the west. If there’s one thing I recall about that drive, it was the constantly changing landscape. Time passed and the lush grass morphed into sweeping plains as the trees would decide to climb atop mesas. We made a stop for the night before reaching our main destination and upon arriving at our temporary abode, all of us were spurred awake from our naps to see the prairie dogs. The low volume of the car music was immediately replaced with the clamoring of teenagers excitedly observing and taking pictures of the new fauna. For too many of us, the animals we’d been able to observe up to this point had been restricted to those of home. That night, bonds were formed as we played board games and got to know each other. Something I’ll never forget is sitting around in a circle when one of our leaders posed the question to us: what are you most looking forward to this week? My answer was simple, I wanted to see the stars for the first time. Immediately I was met with exclamations from all of the adults in the room.

“You can!”

“Just go outside!”

The last time I had gotten up so quickly must have been a Christmas morning as a child. I led the charge to ram the door and looked up to see a view I’ll never forget. When I was a kid, I would sometimes just lay on my driveway to see the few stars that were scattered above my house. My parents told me there were more, I just couldn’t see them because I was in the city. Years later, I finally saw them: hundreds and hundreds of little infernos with my own eyes. I stood there, slack jawed, for several minutes and just gazed into the eyes of the Creator. At one point I began to spin. My neck hurt and I was getting dizzy but I couldn’t care less. A celestial whirlpool swirled around me and I felt true joy. It was years ago, but I think it’s safe to say I slept with a smile on my face that night.

The next day was a busy one, but it culminated in our long-awaited arrival to Big Bend – our new home away from home. The next few days inscribed such vivid images in my brain that it’s as if a chisel was taken to my amygdala. Memories to last a lifetime.

I remember climbing up a hill of sand with the ultimate goal of  rolling down from the top. I remember swimming, hopping back and forth between the serene hot springs and the rushing Rio Grande. I remember playing dice games, getting the ultimate comeback and yelling in triumph. I remember catching crumbs from s’mores around the crackling campfire, golden embers shining in the night. I remember vulnerable conversations in tents beneath a parade of stars.

I remember the hike to Window Peak. Two walls of rocks made up of layers of limestone, shale, and sandstone rising to make formations accumulated and eroded over millions of years. Orange, brown, copper, the blue of the sky, the white of the clouds, the bright green of the sharp Texas-born vegetation. And in between the walls, a group of teenage city boys marched. As if on Mars, we were taking in scenery we’d never seen before and for some, might never see again. Undulating waves of heat floated to Earth and licked our foreheads, coercing sweat to drip, drip, drip. The time of our lives.

I remember getting to the top and taking in nature’s splendor. The plains and formations went on for miles, fascinating the aspiring geologist within me. It was no Mt. Everest, but I was on top of the world just the same.

I remember writing in my journal each night. I did it after lights out, with the glow of only the stars, moon, and a lantern. These were the moments I paused and pondered. Who would I become? A husband? A priest? A paleontologist? A writer? As Orion embarked on his hunt in the night sky overhead, I was given the opportunity to really reflect on my place in this world. I began to realize that everything was going to be okay. Going on this trip gave me the step back I needed to really put things into perspective. As I basked in nature’s glory, I began to realize that I was a part of it. As I gazed into space, I began to realize that in such a vast universe, my problems were trivial. As I forged bonds, hiked, and swam, I was being given exactly what was required to march onward. Clarity.

I remember the ride home, sharing our life stories on the desert road. I would sigh as the boulders reverted to bushes, pebbles to pavement.

I remember opening the door to my home, immediately being greeted by my dog, and heading straight to the backyard – eager to get back outdoors. The sun was setting and I looked out to the horizon, knowing my life had been forever changed.

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