Once, on a writer’s retreat to a desert in south-central Utah, I was caught in an unexpected downpour while standing on a red rock ridge high above a green grass valley where a river meandered through the late fall day, slow with sediment, the drowsy water a small relief from the drought and dust that I associate with the desert, the way I feel parched in the harsh heat of the air. The hike had been meticulously planned and executed, appropriate for all ages and abilities, from the young graduate students to the 60-year-old poetry professor in our ranks (although at times that professor outstripped us all)—planned perfectly except for the weather which gathered suddenly and without warning, heavy black clouds rolling across the horizon and lightning beginning to spark through the dry air in the distance.
In moments the landscape drained of color, the red and oranges of the cliffs suddenly bleached like old chalk, the green below just smudges of dark, muted, leaving everything painted with a gray-green tint in the air that my childhood on the great plains has left me associating with tornado weather, a flat heaviness that seemed imbued with energy, the pressure increasing until rain drops disturbed the dusty path underneath our feet, sporadic craters of damp, dark against the clay baked path and rocky outcroppings, coming faster and faster until the sky above us groaned with sudden weight, the mountains went dark, and the rains came.
The storm gripped the landscape and started pounding, the rock unable to absorb the weight of water turning every rivulet and ridge into an impromptu waterfall, every edge into a dazzling display, fountains and rivers and streams where there had been paths and grooves and trails through the wilderness. Almost a decade later, I can still feel the beat of it on my neck and head as we rushed back toward the trailhead, the cold weight of suddenly drenched hair and clothes, the steam rising from the pavement as we finally found ourselves back at the lot where we had begun.
But more than the awe-inspiring display of the power of the nature we had retreated to, I remember the other writers I was retreating with. The young students shivering in their jackets, huddled by the side of the trail, the gray-haired woman who walked down the path with her face lifted to the sky, as if to capture every flash of light, every drop of rain, every windswept moment on her forehead, her cheeks, her chin. The older gentlemen who stood by the steep and rocky parts of the path and helped everyone down, making sure no one slipped, no one fell. And later, huddled together in a cabin, almost thirty drenched and soaking writers with two bathrooms, the way we took turns in a hot shower while someone made soup and someone else made hot chocolate, neither of those being things I had anticipated we would need in the desert in late October, although someone else had.
There is a lot to be said for getting caught with someone in the rain. An instant camaraderie, a sense of adventure, a shared story that seems to create an immediate bond. Once the rain started it didn’t stop, and we spent the next three days in the damp and the wet, constantly rumpled and often tired, but here is the thing about shared experiences, especially uncomfortable ones—you suddenly get to know people in new and different ways, you learn to look at them in new lights, through a different lens. The storm passed, and we rolled up our sleeping bags, and dried out our backpacks, and loaded the cars for the trip back home, no longer uneasy strangers, or even indifferent acquaintances, but friends with shared discomforts and stories and jokes, and ‘remember when we almost fell down that ravine because the water was too deep to tell where the path went,’ and ‘remember how the bathroom would run out of hot water in twenty-seven and half minutes so we set a timer and everyone got two minutes each of warm water,’ and ‘remember the way the coyotes howled at night as if they were protesting or worshiping or singing,’ and ‘remember the way mud covered everything until even eating felt gritty.’ And here is the thing about shared stories—stories are the red rocks on which community is built. The basis for experience and meaning and relationships. The way we express our individuality and uniqueness in a communal setting.
For three years I returned to this retreat—three years of dust and grit and rains and damp as well as blazing heat, and ill-fitting shoes, and inadequate sun shade, and cramped quarters and sweat and dirt. But also, laughter, and late nights, and long afternoons sitting by the side of a dappled pool of water at the bottom of a shady ravine waiting for more adventurous hikers to return from the cliffs, and hikes finished barefoot through the rocky trails when blisters became unbearable, and unlikely friendships, and good food, and spaces where social expectations were thrown off in favor of investment and interdependence and intimacy. Places where we were forced into each other’s company in uncomfortable ways that created an almost family out of unique and individual strangers. The truth is, our society separates us, keeping us neat and tidy in individual homes, emphasizing any differences as strange and undesirable. It takes effort to create new spaces, new places where we can interact and share and contribute. Places like the wilderness, where external expectations mattered less than the qualities each one of us brought to the desert, brought to one another—the hope and laughter and bravery, the sunscreen and granola bars and unexpected soup and hot chocolate. The ways we cared for one another and the abundance we felt, even when the water was too cold and the sun was too hot. The way we raised our faces to the overcast sky and felt every drop of rain.