What a Beautiful Life by Jaiden Barney

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 The car is filled with the sound of rushing wind and tires crushing rocks as we slowly turn into the campsite. A few weeks prior to this year’s trip to the Tonto National Forest there was a flash flood in the nearby canyon that took ten lives from a family of fourteen. Slight anxiety prickles through my body as the clouds engulf the sky with rolling thunders.

We park and immediately set up camp.

“Rake the ground till it’s smooth!” Dad bellows as he digs through the trunk to find our large, gray, nine-sleeper tent that is older than I am.

Mom’s nervous giggle pierces the air as the thunder booms. I can see the fear in her eyes when the lightning strikes. My sister and I unfold and shake out the dusty tarp. This is followed by my brothers who are pounding down the stakes while my mom and little sister prepare the tent poles. We quickly set up our tent and pile in to avoid the storm. The walls rattle throughout the night, making for a rough sleep.

We rise early the next morning to the sun’s rays peeking through the tent’s zippers. The birds are chirping. I step out onto the damp ground and embrace the fresh smell of rain. I cannot help but smile at the sight of tall pine trees. Dad has already started the fire. The wood crackles as the mesmerizing flames dance through the air. We hear footsteps approaching and look up to find the campground host, an older man wearing torn jeans and a worn-out khaki button-up, on his morning walk.

“Good morning,” we all sing to return his kind greeting.

Dad asks him where he recommends going. Established in 1905, and him having volunteered here for the past twenty years, our campground host mentions the Cold Springs swimming hole.

Shocked by the absence of tension in his voice, Dad questions, “Isn’t that where…?”

The host sullenly responds, “Yes, it was such a tragedy.”

They continue discussing what they know about the incident. The family was innocently playing in the spring, laughing as they jumped and splashed in the waters. They were soon filled with terror as the sounds of trickling water turned into a roaring wave.

“They say it was nearly six feet tall with a span of the canyon’s length. I’d say that’s a good thirty-five feet or more,” the host explains. In the midst of the terrible disaster, a married couple managed to save their two children. The other family members’ bodies were recovered with the help of search parties.

They end with the agreement that life can change instantly, and we must do what we can to always live our best. Although it experienced an unfortunate turn of events, our host assures us that the Cold Springs are worth the visit. We add it to our list of daily activities; after all, the host’s job is to keep his visitors safe. That’s what we want: to stay safe.

Looking down at the flowing current brings imagined flashes of the incident to my mind. The Cold Springs swimming hole is a lot bigger than I pictured it. Knowing about the past week’s flash flood adds a little hesitation to my enjoyment; however, I quickly overcome that when my cousins and I dash down the bouldered shoreline, stopping with our toes inches from the rushing water. We glance at each other with one question in mind: who will go first?

Anxious with anticipation, I volunteer. I close my eyes and take a few deep breaths before leaping. I hit the water and my muscles immediately fill with tension.

“COLD!!!” I exclaim as my body attempts to secure a regular breathing pattern. The crowd giggles and immediately follows, jumping into the chilly pond. We look across the way and decide to race to the opposite end. To me, it looks about the length of a few swimming pools. It will not be too difficult to manage.

With my mind focused on nothing except breathing and succeeding, the race begins. “Left arm, right arm, kick, head up, fight the current, and breathe,” I think to myself.

I am in the lead, but the rhythmic sound of our splashes is soon interrupted by my aunt’s roar, “Corbin! NO!” Interested to figure out the source of the commotion, I stop mid-stroke and turn back to see that my twelve year old, severely autistic, unusually large cousin has decided to join the race. Terror overcomes me. Unaware of the risk he is at, Corbin is vigorously swimming my way, determined to catch up to the rest of the cousins.

He is halfway across the pond and struggling to stay afloat. His anxious tendencies are taking over his body. Panic invades his eyes as his voice level rises.

“Help me!” Corbin squeals.

Distressed and antsy to find a source of relief for her son, my aunt sees a tree floating beside Corbin and shouts from the distance, “Swim to the log!” He makes his way to the wood and bear hugs it until he manages to wiggle his stomach onto the center.

“I’m floating away!” He cries as his tic causes him to lose control of his hands. Quickly, I swim in his direction, praying that it will all be alright. As I approach him, I realize there is nothing I can do to help him besides push the log to land. I will give everything I have.

Arms outstretched, I whisper once more, “Kick, head up, fight the current, and breathe.”

Corbin’s hands in a full-cringe mixed with a high-pitched screech, we finally make it back to shore. Shaking, he stumbles his way up to his mother who has been anxiously waiting for his return. She embraces him for a moment, but quickly reprimands him for disobeying. He is lucky to have a mother who is willing to provide the structure that his Autism demands. Although I am tired, I feel blessed to be here.

We head back to camp and the parents decide on our next adventure. As I sit in the back of my Uncle Jeff’s white Chevy pick-up, I feel a new appreciation for the natural world. Who would have known– besides Emerson and Thoreau, of course– that spending a week in the woods could bring such serenity to my soul? The evergreens stretch to the clouds, longing to reach the heavens. The smell of the pine needles accents the aroma of the surrounding campfires. The gravel road diverges in endless directions, each leading to a hiking trail that is waiting to deliver its next adventure.

I hear the rocks crunching under the tires as the truck slowly stops. “Good afternoon, sir!” Jeff says. I look over to see our campground host in the same clothes he has been wearing all week. With his tired face and shaky voice, but constantly smiling eyes, he asks us what we have planned for the day.

“Well, we have a lot of people to entertain. So, we were thinking about a hike. Any suggestions?” My dad replies.

Intrigued by our choice of activity, the host proclaims, “The Tonto National Forest has over ninety-four hikes! What is your mile range?”

“Let’s keep it between a mile or two. We would prefer an easier hike,” Jeff suggests.

The campground host nods in agreement.

“We have to keep it simple for the old folks like me,” my dad jokes.

The host looks up with a sly grin. Eyes squinting from the sun’s powerful rays, he walks down the gravel towards a neatly stacked pile of stones. “These are trail markers,” he declares. “Follow these for about a mile and you will find yourself at a lovely waterfall.”

With a chorus of appreciation for the host’s help, forty pairs of feet begin thudding along the path. Filled with powdered dirt from the stamping shoes, the trail inclines slowly and abruptly drops. It splits which makes us question if we are following the right markers. We follow left and come to a steep hill that leads to a stretch of boulders, patchy underbrush, and burned trees.

“This must be from the fire a couple years back,” Jeff concludes. The trail that started as a glimpse of peaceful living turns into devastation. Yet, there is something beautiful about it still. The critters, although in different living circumstances than before, continuously play in the brush. Horny toads bask in the sun, relaxing on the fallen logs. The air remains pure and is now touched with slightest sound of rushing water. We are almost there.

We encounter a few uphill switchbacks that lead to a peak. I hear Jeff’s gasp of awe when he reaches the top. I observe the wonders that have been placed so perfectly before us. The endless trees give homes to the hawks who are soaring along the skyline. A crystal clear, tinkling stream opens up into a sparkling pond. The body of water then pours magnificently into the outlet below, leaving me speechless and tranquil. God truly is full of miracles.

After a few hours of enjoying the scenery, the sun starts sinking below the horizon. Hiking downhill is impressively faster than the uphill was. We arrive at camp, make and eat quick tin foil dinners, and hit our pillows for the night.

The Cold Springs swimming hole seems to be where most of our activities take place. It’s filled with diversity as it welcomes swimmers, fishers, tanners, and cliff jumpers. Today, Jeff decided a select few will do the latter of the four choices. After a nice pancake breakfast, he collaborates with the family and enlists my mom, a few cousins, and me to tag along on his adventure. We change into our swimming suits and hop in the bed of his truck. We are off to find a cliff.

Twenty minutes pass and we stop at the bottom of what looks like a large, bouldered hill. Jeff waves us out of the truck. “You ready?!” He exclaims as he turns and starts a fast paced trek up the steep trail. Jeff is always put in charge of supervising the “potentially dangerous” situations, mainly because they are his ideas. Dust is flying through the air with every step he takes. I laugh at pain that burns through my unconditioned leg muscles as I cough in the receiving end of the dirty air. I’m just about to ask for a break when the top of the Mesa becomes visible. I step over the final trail slope and my eyes widen with amazement. The pure air frees my lungs as my wild hair dances with the breeze. I slowly make my way to the edge of the smooth rocks and look down at the calm, natural pool we are about to invade with our adrenaline.

Jeff observes the area, scouting out the best place to jump. With a look of confidence, Jeff questions, “Who’s up?”

Antsy to rid myself of fear, I tell him I’ll go. Heights have never been my favorite when they are incorporated into adventures, but I know they make for great stories. “I’m scared!” I exclaim in last minute hesitation.

“You can do it. Just run and jump as far as you can!” He responds.

Standing on the edge, I calculate just how hard I will have to jump to make it. The water welcomes me with its crystal-clear ripples. Determined to conquer this cliff, I take a few steps back to prepare myself for the leap. “Inhale, exhale, and breathe,” I encourage myself silently.

With three strides forward, I close my eyes and jump! My heart pounds as the butterflies from my stomach chase the air from my lungs. Chills overcome my body when I penetrate the water toes first. Time stands still. I slowly make my way to the surface.

My eyes struggle to remain open when the broken light streaking across the pond turns into direct rays. I look up, squinting, to see my uncle smiling proudly from the towering cliff. “Come back up!” He yells. Feeling strengthened by challenging my fears, I agree that it would be beneficial to at least make my way uphill to the group once more. I look at the dusty path, grinning with fulfillment. It is time to start the climb.

This adventure seems to dominate our conversations back at camp. I mean, I do not mind being in the story that is the center of attention. It is actually quite nice. But, all this talk makes me realize that our family adventure is almost over. This thought haunts me through the night.

Around 5:30 this morning I begin to stir in my sleeping bag. It sounds like there is someone outside my tent crinkling a chip bag— maybe it’s a Walmart bag— is it breakfast time already? My eyelids finally roll back revealing water droplets dumping on the rain fly. Our last day at camp will be spent enjoying the Monsoons.

I quietly dress myself and unzip the tent. The cold sprinkles land on my cheek making my deep breath a chilled gasp. The aroma of creosote bushes is strong, filling the air (and my soul) with serenity. A squirrel darts across the fallen pine needles looking for shelter, I assume. There is not a bird in sight, yet their morning songs are undeniably present. I step over the log benches that encompass the empty firepit and make my way to the stone picnic table where the sports’ umbrella will deflect the moisture.

Observing the natural scenery and my family members as they trickle from their tents, I reflect on what this week has been: a well-needed break from reality. We are free from work. We are free from school. We are free from the demanding bind of social media and cell phone service. All we have for entertainment is each other and that is perfect.

Scanning through the sea of family members, I find my cousin, Callie. “Want to go for a walk?” I ask.

“With you? No way,” she jokes with disgust in her grin.

This is the first time in a long time that we’ve all been together. And it is the last time it will be like this for a while. I ask her about her college experience so far. She tells me about Idaho and how the people are nice, but the weather stinks. She has an interest in a boy.

“His name is Taft. He’s tall and very handsome,” she explains. “Oh! And he has red hair. I have a thing for redheads.”

She winks at me and I giggle at her excitement. Time goes by fast when you live in the city. Stoplights are forever changing and the freeways never sleep. “Do you ever feel like life is going too fast?” I ask. “I mean, it feels like yesterday when we would have sleepovers and sneak hotdogs in the middle of the night. Look at us now. We live states apart and this is the first time in months that we have actually had time to see each other.”

“I know. Real life is crazy,” Callie responds. “But, no matter how hectic it gets, we always have the memories to bring us back to the good ole days.”

“True. That’s what this has been, huh? A good ole day?” I ask.

She looks at me with a big smile and says, “Yep! A day with family, food, and nature. A day without distraction. A day with you. It’s all good.”

I meet her smile with mine. We live a good life– a beautiful life.

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