We’ve reached the second month of a new year, a fresh-inked page in a newly begun chapter of this story called life.
Oliver Sacks said that life is life-writing. That “each of us constructs and lives a narrative,” and that “this narrative is us.”
If we construct and live our own narrative, then we better learn to write it well. Or at least, learn how to edit.
So this is my new year resolution, also since it took me until the month of love to put it in writing, my labor of love: to improve my story.
Don’t get me wrong, I like my story. I do.
It’s dark and unveiled in some places; it’s climactic; it’s twisted, strange and ironic; it’s charming, and it’s horrifying; it’s character-flawed; it’s risky; it’s been a sticky, hot turd packed deep in the tread of my shoe at times and other times it’s been cotton candy – colorful, airy, spun sugar; dissolving quickly but leaving me with childlike wonder and a hopeful, bright stain.
As in every good story, each year’s beginning, middle and end are clearly defined by the calendar.
We begin a new chapter every January 1 as we close the previous one a minute before the witching hour at midnight, filling the middle pages with a kaleidoscope of life bits and pieces and reflective mirrors that reveal our story.
Last year Scott published his memoir Endurance in which he details a journey that leads to an unlikely story-end if only reading the first two decades of his life-writing. I took an eight-month sabbatical from my job, ultimately resigning in September after twenty years at NASA.
Scott had retired the previous year not long after tumbling back to Earth in a charred space capsule, sucking in his first deep breath of fresh air in a year that left a visible cloud as he exhaled in the arctic-like atmosphere of Kazakhstan, completing his yearlong mission in space.
I was sitting stone-faced in Mission Control, Houston, watching the entire momentous occasion with laser-focus through the viewing room glass, exhaling too. While happiness accompanied his return home, it was also punctuated with burgeoning conflict, the hook of any good story.
Uncertainty, heaps of apprehension, grief (we lost Scott’s father in October that year) and a new mountain of change gripped us well into the pages of last year.
The climax – the most exciting part of our last chapter – we got engaged in March.
So how do we start this next chapter? With a clear beginning.
We stood at the base of the Grotto trailhead in Zion National Park, blinking at a sign that pointed left toward Emerald’s Pool and right toward Angel’s Landing.
The sign delineated trail difficulty with shadow figures of which appeared to be falling off a narrow, jagged cliff.
Scott, as swiftly as his mind moves, darted in the opposite direction.
I read six people had died on Angel’s Landing, and for some reason I wanted to begin there, but I trust Scott’s practicality and strong sense of judgement when it comes to taking risks.
So I scurried to catch up with his quick, deliberate steps that match his wit and inner drive.
We crossed a small bridge inviting us into the wilderness. I grasped the front straps of my backpack, looping my thumbs underneath them, feeling a sudden flutter of excitement under my toes. My entire body smiled as I looked up at the rust-colored, rocky incline before us.
It is here surrounded by nature without any clear direction that I never feel lost.
Scott always laughs as he watches me from a distance when I walk out of an airport bathroom or anywhere, stopping about ten steps in the direction I believe to be right to recalculate 180 degrees, every time. I’m grateful that after more than eight years together, my broken compass still seems to be endearing to him.
And because he cares deeply for my well-being, he often reminds me if ever I’m near a dangerous situation to run toward the danger. He knows me well enough to know if I do, I am guaranteed safety.
While my navigational abilities are less than impressive, I’ve never felt lost in life.
As I do in the airport or anywhere when I find myself taking a wrong path in life, I recalculate. No big deal.
Our last few years together (and the one spent separated by Earth’s atmosphere) presented some tough challenges, but despite them being among some of the tougher ones in my life, they were not challenges too great to bear. We both seem to thrive in tough times.
But now I’m feeling like a lost penny in the deep confines of that tiny, useless fifth pocket in a faded pair of jeans, carelessly tossed in an overloaded, unbalanced washing machine stuck on the spin cycle.
Cathug. Cathug. Cathug. Cathug.
Scott’s quick steps ahead settled into a calm, steady pace. I could see the wires from his earbuds descending from his ears, and I imagined “Uncle John’s Band” had relaxed his gait.
I came upon an uprooted tree trunk—a pygmy, smooth and fantastically contorted—resembling a goblin taking an afternoon nap outstretched in the middle of the road.
Imperfect, knobby trees seem to reflect our own imperfections.
I paused to appreciate each dark scar and the wart-like buds above them, hinting at new growth.
My hands moved along another part of its thick stem, bent, twisted and buckled. Trees like these evolve more extraordinarily in harsh and difficult conditions. I found the most unusual shapes were busting through bare rocks, in crevices and cracks. Some, even, were thriving sideways from the sunset-colored, craggy rock formations, sending their roots down into joints and fissures in the rock, searching for available water and breaking the rocks into soil.
They are survivors.
We reached the end of Emerald’s Pool trail, leading us underneath a spritely waterfall and back to the bridge we crossed at the Grotto’s trailhead. I gathered the wrappers from our snack bars and a couple wrappers I found discarded along the trail.
What is wrong with people, I think to myself? I loathe a litter bug.
I’m reminded of the time I was in line at a coffee shop drive-thru window when a man tossed his bag of fast-food garbage out his car window. I was so infuriated by his careless action. Without thinking, I leapt out of my car, picked up his garbage and tossed it back into his car through the opened back window.
My ever-cautious older son who witnessed my theatrics said,
“you know, Mom, I appreciate your fire and inner strength, but physically you’re kind of a flea. You need to be more careful in your confrontations.”
He was right. But still. Ugh.
I found a bin for landfill and recycle products, and I tossed our trash and empty water bottles into the designated receptacles.
Scott and I arrived back at our campsite where the sun was just beginning to settle. A deep golden, orange glow bounced off the surrounding sandstone cliffs, enhancing their color as if pulled through one of those filtered photo apps on my phone.
Scott handed me a cold IPA beer and—without a word—motioned toward a path, leaving our campsite. Words weren’t needed tonight.
We passed a couple of grazing deer near the campsites less than a couple feet from us that weren’t at all skittish by our presence. We broke away from the path and found a spot to sit and watch as the sun faded.
Earlier after our afternoon hike, we stopped at a grocery store and loaded a full basket of food to last us three nights. We planned a menu of fajitas and black beans; fish and risotto; steak, brussels and potatoes au gratin; and eggs with deconstructed leftovers for breakfast.
Scott informed me that despite all our new camping gear being intended for backpacking, we weren’t legit.
“You can’t bring food like this on a real backpacking trip, or to space,” he said.
Back at our campsite at the purple part of dusk, Scott built a fire while I set up our kitchen in the back of our rental car, organizing and sorting items by type: spices and condiments, fresh vegetables, cold foods, non-perishables and wine.
I found four cup-like holders on either side of the cargo space that were as if they were made for wine bottles, which pleased my inner OCD tendencies. Next, kitchen tools: knife, utensils, can opener, dining ware, skillet, pot, stove and fuel. To reduce our load instead of buying trash bags, we decided we would use the plastic bags (yes, plastic, don’t hate) that carried our groceries for trash bags. I folded each bag into one long, flat strip, squeezing the air out from the bottoms to the handles and wrapped it around my hand, tucking the end through the center, forming small, neat bag balls that I tossed into one unfolded bag as storage. Too poor to buy trash bags growing up, tying grocery bags was a skill I learned early in life. I opened another bag that served as our trash bin and hung it on a hook inside the car’s back hatch.
Organizing and sorting always seem to help lessen any surrounding chaos in my life, so I took this duty seriously. I stepped back and admired the order. Tension I wasn’t aware of relaxed in my shoulders.
I poured some wine into two plastic mugs and brought one over to Scott who had set up the cooking station and linked his iTunes playlist to his portable, bluetooth capable, wireless, boom-shaka-laka speaker. Mister gadget, himself, seemed as contented as I was in the kitchen.
“Sugar Magnolia”—the name he introduced me as to Bob Weir on our first meeting the former Grateful Dead musician—softly played through intermittent crackling firewood.
We haven’t had a home-cooked meal in nearly a year. We are rarely home as we’ve been traveling—mostly across the U.S. but also internationally—since Scott rejoined us here on our planet.
Scott, now, is a highly sought-after motivational speaker—a stark contrast from his previous job. But with lessons learned from making mistakes as a poor student, willing himself to make corrections that seemed impossible, to leading an international crew on a mission that could kill him and never bring him back to Earth, he has viable, real-world skills and wisdom that people need.
That an industry CEO needs. That a husband and father needs. That a woman fighting gender differences or surviving sexual assault needs. That our country’s leaders need. That our world needs.
His last time in space was transformative in many ways for both of us, so we are driven to work together to share the messages of leadership his journey has taught him. My job at NASA as a professional communicator, Public Affairs Officer, seems to make my career change a natural transition.
Yet, here I am feeling lost in that tiny pocket, clanging against the inside barrel of a sudsing, chugging machine.
I had started this blog last year, and I abandoned it as quickly as I had begun. Scott is the one who encouraged me to do it. He even suggested the name of my blog.
“You should call it, ‘Amiko on the Go,’” Scott said.
I was hesitant at first as I really didn’t want my name to be a part of it. Also, I was thinking how that hashtag would look. When I imagined the title smooshed together, it wasn’t aesthetically pleasing in my mind.
But me “on the go” does accurately depict my lifestyle now and pretty much most of my life. I struggle to sit still through a manicure.
It’s the worst.
I’m told I take after my great-grandmother on my mother’s mother’s side of my family whom I never met but have heard many stories about—Granny Go-Go—my mom’s nickname for her that stuck until her death. My mom said she was always running about here and there. And at age two she asked as her grandmother rushed out the door, “Granny, go go?” branding my great-grandmother for life.
Clinging to identity I feared losing when I left my job, I bought the domain, wrote some stuff and uploaded it to the inter webs.
I experienced this fear once before during this last time Scott was in space. NASA and space life consumed me at work, at home, in my circle of friends and acquaintances who were all colleagues.
While Scott was isolated from the rest of the world in space, I felt isolated amongst the rest of the world here.
It was at dinner with my cautious son Corbin, who is also wise for his young years, when he suggested I go do something that wasn’t space-related that only I enjoy for me. He pointed out that everything around me was about space. And what I needed was space from space.
Again, he was right. Curses.
I went to a gymnasium in Houston one evening, joining a club of free-tumbling adults throwing their life’s worries, concerns or issues into a pit of foam. I hadn’t done a back handspring in more than 25 years, but it all came back to me as soon as I lurched backward throwing my head below my feet, my feet over my head, landing my hands to where my feet were, pushing off to return where I started.
I found myself again. I recalculated. This time 360 degrees, vertically.
Scott began preparing our campsite dinner. He ripped off a corner of a food packet and paused for a minute.
“Wow. That was weird,” he said.
“What was weird?” I asked.
“I just did something I only do in space. It just came so naturally to me. Without any thought, I ripped the corner of this packet but didn’t pull it off,” he said. “In space, you have to always be thinking about minimizing garbage and finding the most efficient ways of doing things, even the smallest things,” he said, pausing for a minute. “Huh,” he said as if now he was talking to himself.
Yeah, efficiency, I thought. Scott is the most hyper-efficient person I know. It’s a trait or skill—or maybe both—he has that like my inability to navigate a straight hallway could be endearing or annoying.
Either case, it sparked a new conversation between us about the similarities of living in space and camping.
I’ve heard all of his told space stories more than a few times, but it doesn’t matter. I still adore listening and watching him tell them.
I admired the deadpan seriousness in his face as he skillfully plated our meal he cooked using only one pocket stove, an iron grill rack over a three-log fire and two pans: a skillet and a small gravy pot. He carefully placed a picture-worthy, lightly caramelized filet of fish over a bed of risotto with a healthy scoop of sautéed shrimp, broccoli, onion and tomatoes on the side. He drizzled a light Parmesan sauce atop the fish.
As he dressed our plates, he explained the practicalities of his efficiencies with precise reason, always reaching back to space for the anecdotes to back his reason. In that moment, I saw his eyes twinkle. He would deny his eyes twinkle, but they glimmer when he tells me stories about his time in space.
We finished dinner, and he joined me on my side of the wooden picnic table next to the fire that glowed warmer as the sky darkened. I saw his eyes twinkle again, and it wasn’t the light from the fire below us; it was a light within him.
He laughed as he fondly recalled another story, “this one time, Terry and I…” he said as I broke graham crackers and dark chocolate squares. Terry Virts, one of his crew members early in his mission, also a good friend, greeted Scott aboard the space station when he arrived.
I realized he was missing space. I imagined, then, that he might be feeling lost as I was.
Two pennies, side-by-side, now roasting marshmallows in the dark.
Night swallowed the sky whole, and we moved to the ground with our eyes fixed on the fire, licking at our feet inches away as we talked about gadgets someone should invent, the state of our government and our future.
We sat in the dirt and talked until the cold air and time extinguished the fire. We crawled into our two-person tent and into our individual sleeping bags without changing out of our smoke-infused clothes.
There weren’t showers at our campsite, so we wouldn’t have a shower for three days. That didn’t seem to matter now.
“Three days without a shower,” I hollered to Scott from our hotel bathroom as I was blow-drying my hair the morning we left for our camping trip.
“Three days,” he said with a pause, “Well, that’s nothing.” He chuckled.
Sometimes I forget the little things like showers that he sacrificed that year in space, and if I’m looking for sympathy, he’s probably not the best person with whom to commiserate.
But now I was happy to be grubby and a little sooty. And that feeling of being lost seemed to fade as did the night into a new day.
The sun cracked through our tent the next morning. The air was wintery crisp and refreshing. I could still smell remnants of smoke in my hair and clothes.
Scott was cooking breakfast burritos. Tortillas are perfect for camping and space. They last a long time, and are crumb free – the latter more important in space.
Day two we decided to venture through the scenic canyon drive. It was a bit colder, and it was forecasted to drizzle. Also a drive through the vastness of Zion would allow us to see our hiking options. We cleaned up from breakfast, added another layer to the clothing we were already wearing and headed out.
On our drive, we came to Zion Mount-Carmel Tunnel, debated on whether to pass through the 1.1-mile long tunnel until our curiosity overrode any decision not to. An otherworldly landscape awaited on the other side. Zion is full of surprises.
Scott had told me earlier we could go back to where we were the other day to try Angel’s Landing—Zion’s most strenuous hike—but on seeing such strange and intriguing terrain, I decided shadow guy falling off a ledge was in our rear view.
My ambition, after all, wasn’t to risk being killed; it was to find a penny. My penny. Me.
Scott picked a spot wide enough to safely pull our car over and parked. We stepped out into this peculiar world, a strange staircase of geologic formations. A story of beautiful wind-, water- and time-carved buff and rust layers of sand, gravel and mud.
There were no directions here, so we footed around the area admiring our new world, keeping close to one another, but exploring on our own. Scott made his way to the top of a nearby rocky peak. He always seems to need to see the world from the highest vantage point he can be.
I can’t blame him.
We spent the day getting lost (not from each other) on purpose. And with purpose. We started our way back to camp, stopping at the Canyon Overlook trailhead situated just near Zion’s tunnel exit on the side of East Rim but a shorter trail than the 6- to 8-hour trek.
It was a mere mile, a mere moderate mile.
We decided we had time for one more hike. It had rained, so we were careful when walking over the loose gravel areas. We followed along a trail for the most part, but as we’d done most of the day, ventured off the path.
I immersed myself in our surroundings. Scott and I separated this time outside our range of sight. I realized I probably should have been paying more attention but got lost in getting lost. I wasn’t concerned, however. I felt protected as I always do in the wilderness. And I knew Scott wouldn’t let me get lost, lost.
But I decided I should probably track him. I looked for the nearest high peak, and there I saw him. I could see he was searching for something. Then I realized he couldn’t see me. He reached behind his backpack and pulled out an orange towel from his bag. I laughed to myself because I knew he was about to wave an SOS signal–not for himself but for me to find him. I also laughed because he was carrying an orange rag. Emergency orange. It’s not his favorite color, but he insists on this color when given the option for most of his accessories: a phone case, a wallet, a travel tag, a towel.
I waited a little before I called out to him. His face was sincere. And the something he was searching for was me.
“Scott, over here,” I hollered, “I’m here.”
His eyes met mine, he smiled and hollered back, “Emergency orange!”
Laughing out loud, I told him to stay put. I would come his way. I searched for an opening, a path of some kind that could lead me to the top of the peak where he was. As I scurried down a ravine and through some brush, I slid on a gravelly patch feet first. Skidding down the ravine unhurt. I reached the bottom and looked up and saw some staggered stones leading upward.
As I pulled myself up to standing, I glanced down and found a penny. No shit. An Abraham Lincoln, heads-up, copper penny. It wasn’t shiny. Dark and a little green from oxidation. I picked it up and stuffed it in my pocket.
I was probably beaming by the time I reached Scott. I secretly held onto my penny knowing I was no more lost than that penny was. We reached the Canyon overlook, unstrapped our backpacks and pulled our water bottles out, each taking a swig.
We sat together at the ledge overlooking the magnificent amber cliffs from the highest point. Whatever it was that made me feel lost was now lost. My map still isn’t perfectly plotted, my internal compass still off kilter, my kitchen pantry isn’t organized by spices, canned goods and breakfast cereals, but my sense of self feels it is right where it belongs.
Zion National Park Hours & Fees
Located ¼ mile from the South Entrance
Reservations can be made between March and October 877-444-6777
63 RV electrical sites $30/night
66 tent sites $20/night
6 group campsites $50/night for 7-12 people, $90/night for 16-25 people, $130.00/night for 26-40 people
Located ½ mile from the South Entrance
Open February – November
Available first-come, first-served
No hookups available
Dump station with potable water
117 Individual Campsites $20/night
4 Group Sites $50/night
Located off Kolob Terrace Road, 25 miles north of the town of Virgin
Open June – October
6 primitive campsites
Available first-come, first-served
Pit toilets, trash cans, NO WATER
No charge for camping
If you prefer to get away from the crowds during the busy season (April – September), you might want to hike deep into the park and carry camp along in your brand new backpacking pack you bought with intentions to travel to Europe, but then you realized Zion was calling your name. There are quite a few great trails that require at least an overnight stay. PERMITS ARE REQUIRED FOR OVERNIGHT HIKING.
West Rim Trail – 9 Campsites along the trail.Chinle Trail – Hot, hot, hot during the summer. Go in the fall/winter.
Orderville Canyon– Canyoneering heaven. You’ll need gear and some experience.Deertrap Mountain + Cable Mountain – Solitude for all, no designated camping spots.
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MSR Hubba Hubba NX 2-person Tent
Patagonia Bivy Hooded Down Vest – Women’s
NEMO Jam 15 Sleeping Bag – Women’s
NEMO Disco 15 Sleeping Bag – Men’s
I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog. I really look forward to reading more.
Hi Amiko, I came back to this lovely story because I’m writing my own first blog post and wondered in what tense you were writing. I was surprised to see past tense (at least for the story of Zion) where I had remembered present. Now I’m curious whether this was a conscious choice or if you just did it that way intuitively. My first sentence is “Stepping out of Singapore-Changi’s international terminal, the tropical heat hit me like I was striding into vacation.” Somehow, I feel that a reader woud feel more involved if I used present tense (“the tropical heat hits me…”). I only noticed this after writing half of the post in past tense (intuitively). Any ideas?