It’s early morning, but not too early, and from where I walk, the light has not yet hit the ground.
Frost still clings to the dulled sprigs of sagebrush, bolted now, crumbling flower clusters heavy on the tips of the scraggly branches. The sagebrush scents my walk as I amble past, earthy and pungent, the flowers holding a more potent odor than they do in early summer, almost too much, like a sniff of vinegar.
Cold in my Carhartts, clutching a coffee mug. It’s a small canyon, rugged and dry. The light is high on the surrounding crags and it hurts my eyes if I stare too long. But mostly I’m looking down, waiting for the caffeine to begin its work, subconsciously looking for rattlesnakes with every step, behind every bouquet of purple spotted knapweed and soft fold of mullen. It’s a Saturday, and we hike in silence, the only sound the rustle of down jackets (now too warm) and the crunch of the high desert underfoot.
“Turn right at mile marker 282.” For a weekend, I was surprised that we were the only car at the trailhead. We had found a campsite in the dark the night before, a pullout on the side of the small highway curling against the banks of the Salmon River. I could sense the river’s nearness, a white noise beside us as we slept, immediately, after setting up camp. That morning, I pulled frost from the tent’s nylon with my fingernail.
The hot springs – Goldbug – was to be a weekend escape, an anniversary trip. In the days previous, the thought of getting away – of spending money, constantly: gas, food, beer, snacks – began to overwhelm. It is the off-season, after all, and money-worries are ceaseless and unrelenting. The night before we left, I almost wanted to call everything off. I could settle for a plate of pasta, whiskey gingers, a game of Scrabble on the couch. I told myself this and believed it.
But we left anyway, and today walk in silence. The echo of a quotation I read recently by A.M. Royden rattles in my head: Learn to hold loosely all that is not eternal. The words shamed me, when I first came across them, and I quickly calculated a rough list in my head of a) all that I am holding tightly, b) all that I am holding that’s inherently not eternal. The list of things I hold loosely is short.
It wasn’t always this way. Maybe even a year ago, I’m sure of it, I could have been on this hike and quietly push aside thoughts of rent checks, work decisions, emails unsent. But these days, seemingly, the ghosts of my parallel lives haunt and aggravate me on a weekly, daily basis through social media updates of successful friends and classmates. Everyone seems to be saving the world.
Meanwhile, here I am, a social worker in a mountain town, living paycheck-to-paycheck, wandering through the desert on a Saturday morning and worried about the gas money that it’s going to take to get me back home.
Something about the desert though. The dusky monotony of it. The gleeful surprise when I come upon a mature Juniper tree: how could it have lasted here so long? I hold the blue berries in my hand and the white film rubs off like fur. We ponder how much snow Elk Bend, Idaho receives, and consider what this trek would be like in winter. We angle toward a steep, craggy ravine and the increase in elevation obliges us to shed our layers.
By the time we reach the hot springs, ten or so pools spilling one into the other, I’ve finished my coffee. Strip down, toe in. The water stretches, smooth glass, towards the horizon, where we gaze down on the bald hills. Goldbug sits high enough – nestled, hidden – that I can’t see where we began. The sound of moving water hushes my mind. We must raise our voices to speak to each other, unless we are nose-to-nose, but mostly we sit in steam and silence.
I lift out of myself. Time becomes irrelevant, for the first time in weeks. On the drive, we passed signs of Lewis and Clark’s journey constantly: “Birthplace of Sacagawea.” “Chief Camaehwait and Sacagawea have an emotion reunion – 1805.” I imagine Sacagawea and her tribe, the Shoshones, soaking here 200 years ago. Did this spring even exist back then? Will it be here in another 200 years? I want to believe in Goldbug’s permanence, that it is a fixture and product of Idaho, boiling out of the hills since the hills rolled out of the earth below. I want to believe in the universality of nature; that Sacagawea was awed by this place when she first came here, if she ever came here; that the beauty of water and sage and rock is timeless, eternal.
Goldbug certainly feels old as the earth. And touching something that ancient – no, bathing in it– seems to reset something deep inside me, in a secret place. I realize I do have the gas money to make it home, and slowly, I loosen the tightness of my grip.
Catherine lives in Jackson, Wyoming, where she has worked with teenagers in the juvenile court system for the last four and a half years. She’s never had a brainfreeze. She can be found at catdisanto.vsco.co and @c_disanto on Instagram.