By Cheney M. Luttich
We were buried in Wyoming. My home state of Nebraska and its flat ocean of grass was a day behind. The pictures passing my backseat window were a rumpled assortment of hills and juvenile cliffs piercing the earth’s epidermis, not yet mature enough to join the rank of Colorado’s Rockies. The day’s drive in our station wagon had been long, and my seventh-grade body ached with impatience. My legs were stiff from being folded in half too long, and the back of my t-shirt moist with sweat. I craved release and wanted to explore the unfamiliar landscape beyond the tinted glass.
Dad was careful and deliberate as he turned the wagon’s wheel and pressed his foot on the brake. As with all of the frugal family trips we took in a ten hour radius of Lincoln during the summer months, the trusty pop-up camper harnessed to our rear did as she was told and bumped from the hot, exposed highway to the cool shade of a state park ready to make us a home. We drove on a road made of a loose mix of sand, dirt, and gravel to a campsite close to the pit toilets yet far enough away to keep fecal aura at bay. Setting up camp was a family task, a type of origami where a few confident maneuvers brought forth something beautiful. With Dad’s twists of a crank, me and my brother’s muscled pulls of plywood beds, and Mom’s nimble clips of elastic and Velcro, our camper transformed into something familiar.
This camping trip was the farthest west we had ever ventured, and I was eager to explore the land beyond the prairie. The air was sprinkled with dust and humidity much like what hung in the air in the fields at my grandfather’s farm. The small camping area was tucked into a mixed grove of tall evergreens, cottonwoods, and determined short saplings wiggling their way between the boulders that peppered the earth. Those that succeeded rose above me like a grand matriarch. The highest tree branches interlaced others and tilted forward into a protective bow over the sites, providing shaded comfort to our camper and shielding it from the whirling winds of Wyoming’s cliffs. Slivers of golden sunlight pierced the branches and cast a gentle glow on the park. As I wove through the motherhood of trees, I came upon an opening where a light spray of water surprised me with a kiss on my chapped, dusty face. There, just on the edge of the green canopy, was a stream pushing its urgent strength towards wherever it was headed. Its watery billows deflated against the boulders, erupting into a white foam that then evaporated into the blue flow racing on. It was unlike the steady Platte or muddy creeks of home. It was a chaotic, powerful place, reminding me of the hoard of students waiting at the school’s entrance for the first bell of the morning. With its ring, they thrust their bodies forward, becoming a single entity of great force that shaved off those on its edges, leaving them behind. It was an unapologetic space, much like the stream, and I found it fascinating. I basked in its presence, turned my face toward the spray, and let its cool clash with the sun’s heat. For a moment, I closed my eyes and let my legs flirt with the idea of stepping into the water’s vigor to massage what remained of the long car ride, but when I opened my eyes and saw its strength, my body pulled me back into the safety of the canopy’s embrace.
I ventured to the opposite side of the park behind our camper and found a grassy hill dimpled with pebbles and boulders as large as haybales that beckoned me to climb to its top. I stretched my legs from boulder to boulder while my torso and arms swayed forward to steady myself. It was a brief climb not requiring much courage on my part, and I quickly found myself perched at the top closer to the mothers’ branches.
I spent the rest of the day at the top of that untouched space pretending to be queen of a foreign land. No one interrupted me, not my imaginary subjects nor any campers. The canopy seemed to open a window allowing the sun to pour upon me like a spotlight, making me an ethereal being. My people approached my throne and laid disputes with their neighbors at my feet in search of wisdom. For the rest of the day, I passed judgments, made laws, and helped the needy while sitting at the top of the hill full of rocks.
The next day, after I finished the chores that came with maintaining a campsite, I was about to return to my subjects in my throne room when Dad suggested a hike up the cliff across the highway. There was no marked trail, and the idea of exploring uncharted territory thrilled me. I stood by the camper and looked up to the gray cliff that reached far above the treetops. I wondered what was up there, what kind of climb it may be. My curiosity agreed to the hike and left my subjects behind.
Dad and I sauntered up the gravel road in the shaded park and then jogged over the highway’s blacktop into unfiltered heat. Once we were on the other side, it struck me the journey would be hard. There were no kin of trees to buffer the heat. I foresaw my body assuming the shape of a right angle made of my torso and legs, and the cliff’s incline much like a triangle’s hypotenuse I learned about in math class. I felt dwarfed and unprepared for what was to come. I looked toward my father, and while my flimsy body wanted to turn back, I chose to believe I was safe. He wouldn’t take me on a journey I couldn’t handle.
Dad took the lead while I studied his movements from behind—where he placed his foot with each step, where he set his hands, and the path he wove through the rocks and grassy spaces. Although I was one of the tallest girls in school, my stride fell short of my much taller father’s. My feet could not match his footprints, and my sweaty reach was unable to stretch to his lengths. I improvised and grasped whatever crag I could find to keep my lanky frame bent forward. My thighs pushed high, making my knees touch my chest. I saw Dad’s strong, confident strides. His white sneakers didn’t slide on small patches of gravel, his frame didn’t falter, his legs never paused their forward movement. He moved with the ease of the monkeys I saw at the Omaha zoo swinging from branch to branch, crossing vast expanses in joy and confidence. I was no monkey. I was the newborn foal with shaky sticks for legs that buckled when a hoof stepped on a pebble.
Near the top of the cliff, we came upon a large plateau. Dad paused to catch his breath while I narrowed the gap between us. I stretched what had been my body’s stiff right angle into a vertical line, relaxed my thighs, and inhaled the Wyoming air. There were stubs of grass, thistles, and small boulders slightly emerged from the earth’s crust. When I looked down from my vantage point, I could see the path of our grand ascent. The highway was but a small string of a snake sunning itself in the morning’s heat and our camper like one of my brother’s micromachine toys tucked below a screen of foliage. As I took in all I saw before me, the plateau’s unbridled wind whipped around the cliff and slammed into my back, shoving me close to the plateau’s edge. I gasped in fear of tumbling forward, but my feet saved me. They pulled me back to a safe distance, far from the threat of a fall.
Dad explored the plateau while I continued in his footsteps. Just as my body began to relax into our stroll, I heard a clicking sound much like that made by the playing card clipped by a clothespin to my bike’s frame when my legs peddled with all their might. My brain sprinted in every direction to deduce where such a sound may originate in such a place. My body locked itself in place because although my mind didn’t know what it was, my core did; it came from a rock no bigger than our camper’s wheel by my right foot. My glutes and calves clenched, my stomach sunk, my arms stiffened, my fingers clenched an invisible ball, my neck twinged, and the insides of my chest shrieked in concert with my voice, “Dad! It’s a rattlesnake!” My scream was ferocious in its dread, the horror coursing through my veins melted my stiff body into trembling jelly. My sneaker could not protect me from the venom in that dark cool shadow under the small stone. I was prey, and there was nothing I could do about it. About four yards ahead of me, Dad’s tall body turned toward me and held strong as if rooted to the ground. With a face set like stone and his eyes afire, he thrust his arms forward and waved me towards him. There was thunder in his lungs when he bellowed, “Run, Cheney! Run!”
I had never heard my father’s voice sound the way it did in that moment or seen his body react with such instinct. The agile man who scaled boulders had transformed into a bear on its haunches at the sight of its trapped cub. There he was, confident in his command telling me what to do, yet there I was, a child frozen in fear. I was certain my foot’s slightest move would pull the reptile’s fangs into my suntanned flesh. I was certain its poison would consume my dust covered body and leave it for dead there on that sunny plateau. My mind, convinced of my impending defeat, anchored my melting body in place while the bike’s spokes spun faster, and the playing card’s clicks grew in number. I was done for; my mind told me so.
In that moment, my body defied my mind. It rebelled against my mind as though my hands ripped the brain from my head and catapulted it over the plateau, beyond the mothering trees, and into the horizon to be forever muzzled. My body bolted forth out of blind obedience to my father’s command. It thrust each foot’s heel a stretch further than the first, outrunning the bike, and silencing the playing card.
When my body found itself by my father, it atrophied from both fear of what happened and what could have been. I called my mind out of exile. I don’t remember if I cried or what my father said or did in that moment, but I do recall feeling perplexed by my body’s ability to act counter to my mind’s persuasion. I was two entities, mind and body, and I learned they could clash. The realization frightened me, for both parts were strong. How was I to know which to obey without Dad telling me what to do?
Once my panicked breathing calmed and my body’s shaking slowed to a tremor, we began our descent. My body felt crippled as it struggled to find footing. My legs quivered with each step, my arms shivered, for I was afraid I might set my hand on a rock that camouflaged a reptile’s jaws. My heel slipped on gravel, pulling me to the ground, dusting my thin mesh shorts, and bruising my bottom. Eventually, my rubbery legs found their way to the highway and managed to carry the rest of my body into the safety of the camper.
I stayed at the campsite for the rest of the day. I occasionally looked up through the trees’ covering to the cliff. I saw the plateau and its edge, and with squinted eyes thought I saw the serpent’s rock. My heart shook, my body cringed. Towards the end of the day, I peeked through the trees behind the campsite into what had been my throne room the day before. With new eyes, I no longer saw boulders. I saw shadows —havens for the cold blooded. I felt naïve for pretending to rule an imaginary kingdom while sitting on a stone that could have well sheltered a bike’s playing card. And just as my body stepped back from the powerful stream and plateau’s edge, it retreated from what had been my throne room. I was not meant to be in that place far from my prairie home, so I retreated to where I was welcome, in the camper. There I remained. She kept me safe until my stay in that park, in that part of Wyoming, came to an end.