I didn’t want to write this post. I didn’t want it to turn out this way.
It started coming together as I was descending a trail into inky darkness, a familiar trail I’ve trod over an over in my life. It crossed an icy stream barefoot in the middle of the night just to make camp. It warmed to the thought by a roaring fire where stories of yore traded and cups of nectar drained underneath the stars. We soon realized it was 2 in the morning by the judgment of a watch, and we laughed at how time had been rendered impotent amongst the trees.
All of these would’ve been story enough to post, to muse meanderingly on the passage of time and my place in the universe. But alas it was not meant to be. The morning came. We broke fast. We chopped trees and girded our supplies for the cold night to come. Then, for me and Chuck, it was time to hike for the day.
I’ve stopped carrying separate camera for the last few trips, and for various reasons of convenience, weight, and sheer laziness, I now just throw my smartphone in my backpack. I used to loathe the idea, as if to go into the woods would sustain the illusion that I could have my own separate Eden, untouched by the dirty fingers of the “real world,” which included any contact through technology. When I first started camping, lo those many years ago, none of us had them. Now I’m sure we all have them, even if they stay in our bags. Mine did on the first night, then came out to take pictures and log miles as we began our trek.
I hadn’t turned Airplane mode on, so over the night, some texts leaked through. One from Nicole let me know what had been happening in the real world: ISIS attacks in Bagdhad, Beruit, and Paris. I thought of those I knew in that part of the world, thousands of miles and mental worlds away from this tiny, secluded sylvan wood. For a moment it seemed momentous, like the threadbare plots of a hundred science fiction films where the protagonists somehow wake to a world vastly different than their own. For a moment, I thought I should tell everyone. And then I decided against it, decided that if I could, I would sustain the illusion for the others, who in retrospect may have known and were also working to sustain the illusion for me.
The hike was familiar and beautiful; trails I’ve hiked for close to twenty years now were brand new to Chuck. Winding stairs carved into rock. Valley vistas. Waterfalls. Fellow friendly hikers trading trail tips. All seemed unfazed or unfamiliar with the nugget of news I carried with me. And while I marveled at the beauty, this knowledge often made me wonder how things would be different when we exited this hidden Shangri-La and made our way back to the black-top plains of humanity.
Back in that world–the world of politics and literature–the conversations would be different. The knowledge would be different. In my film class, we had been watching V for Vendetta. My students, too young to remember, needed a refresher on the post-9/11 world, and so my mind often trailed back to the days immediately after our country had incurred terrorist attacks fourteen years ago, how people had been shocked by the carnage; how people had seemed lost searching for answers; how people yearned for something, anything to be done; how people felt that the veil had been lifted from their eyes to an entirely new world, as if none of the previous world had mattered.
I knew there would be some of this. I knew that every time I turned on the television or the radio when I got home that there would be reference to these attacks. “Since Paris” would become a phrase that gave new gravitas to every item big and small, from love stories to football games to newly initiated military campaigns. I knew there would be arguments on social media, vitriolic volleys about what should be done next, about who we should bomb to solve this problem so it never happens again. I knew there would be passive reluctance to discuss these issues in face-to-face conversation, lest angry, heated debate occur. I knew the news here would be small stories of bravery and exciting stories of minute-by-minute manhunts, everything related to Friday night.
I knew there would be disorientation. I remembered this clearly from the last time. It’s easy to buy into the illusion that the world is a safe place, especially if you have the good fortune to live in a first-world country (which probably explained why the world mourns Paris and largely ignores Beruit and Bagdhad). We go about our days, living our lives in relative peace, so much that we have to remind ourselves that Starbucks running out of Pumpkin Spice Lattes is NOT the worst thing in the world. And then something traumatic–a natural disaster, a terrorist attack–shakes this illusion, and people clamor for answers, information, action–anything that will make the world make sense again. In the film V for Vendetta, the society overreacts to terrorist attacks, ceding power to the government in the hope of ensuring safety and order once again. It’s not just the terrorists who change the world; it is also the fearful and power-hungry who react in their wake. And when I mused on this nugget of news long enough that it turned to despair, this fear–hollow as hope–was what cast the darkest shadow: that the world–in light of these new events–would seem so new, shadowy, and strange that we would fall to drastic and destructive overreach, that we would overreact and lose our moorings once again, that I would leave the woods to find a world vastly unrecognizable compared to the one I had left.
Light began to play a funny trick in the valley. Hiding behind a mountain where Chuck and I were looking for a spur trail, we got cold in the shadows. We became a bit despairing, and decided to cut the hike short to get back to camp, where it took us a couple of hours to warm by the hearth of the fire our friends had so generously attended. Again we supped, laughed, drained our cups, traded stories, and rendered time irrelevant as by 8 we were all fighting to stay awake. We reluctantly slumped from the fire to brave the cold of the night, much colder than the night before. In the morning we woke to frozen water in bottles and the frantic attempt to generate body heat by packing quickly.
As we exited the trail and got in the car to ride home, I told my fellow travelers what my phone had said, as if I only just found out as I got back in the car. We talked about it for a bit, then returned to happier memories of the camping experience. Ritualistically, we had our post-trail breakfast, but our favorite Horseshoe Cafe was closed. So we found another breakfast haunt where the five of us sat in the middle of a dining room surrounded by four televisions, all tuned to CNN, all showing constant video streaming from Friday. I checked my Facebook feed to find that those I knew in France were safe and every other person’s face was the tri-color. The televisions continued, looping illusions of constant violence, the same shot of the shocked band over and over, the same shot of mourning Parisians over and over, the same speeches of politicians over and over, offering platitudes and issuing threats. Between bites of biscuits and pancakes and eggs, we watched the rapid recurrence of images until we had emptied our plates. Sated, we shook hands in the parking lot. We’ll have do this again some time. And we will. And we will.