He’ll be wearing blue, I repeated silently, as I entered the baggage claim area at Las Vegas International Airport. He’ll be waiting there, waiting for you. Thoughts of my rendezvous with the man, whom I’d met only a week earlier and whose face I couldn’t even full remember without looking at a picture of it, flooded my head as the numbers above the carousels got smaller and the end of the terminal drew nearer. My heart was fluttering and my stomach was sinking and I considered, one more than one occasion and for more than a passing moment, that I should turn back and get on the first plane back to Texas.
Thankfully, my brain intervened.
It’s not 2013, I reminded myself. And you’re not in Vegas on a whim – you’re here on business.
Just then, I spotted the logo, and locked eyes with the young woman holding it. “You must be Robert,” she shook my head, smiled and whisked me out to the waiting truck. “We’ve been waiting for you – you’re our last one.”
Before I knew it, I was at the Tropicana Hotel getting briefed on my mission. Choose Your Own Adventure, the brochure read, then laid out the adventurous itinerary I’d already “chosen” a few weeks back, when this trip was little more than a distant abstraction. The magnitude of my being here, to be sure, didn’t truly set in until I was well on my way to St. George, Utah, driving up Interstate 15 in a GMC Canyon truck.
As I gained in elevation, I watched the Las Vegas skyline slowly disappear. But even after the only thing I saw in my rear view mirror – or anything around me – was the increasingly red, increasingly rocky desert, I couldn’t quite stop dwelling on the feeling of déjà vû that had come over me at the airport, nor the circumstances that had led to it.
I sold my car in 2009, before I moved to China to teach English – the decision that really catalyzed my this blog and indeed, the lifestyle I enjoy today. Long a symbol of freedom, particularly for American kids from the Midwest like me, the automobile – the whole notion of it, really – had become an albatross, a direct impediment to me, myself, taking flight.
Upon returning to Austin the following autumn, I continued my car-free lifestyle, having purchased a bike within a week of getting back. I managed to get around incredibly well, particularly once I got over my fear of riding on major roads, and I quickly concluded that the assumption by which I’d lived since I was 16 – that without a car, life comes to a halt – was the polar opposite of the truth.
Although I occasionally had to bum rides, take taxis and even rent cars over the subsequent years, I solemnly swore never to purchase another car again, or even to think about it, and wrote off every time I fondly reminisced about having driven somewhere as nostalgia bias, 20-20 hindsight warped like the way a side view mirror makes object appear more distant than they actually are.
But as I drove my Canyon into the…well, canyons that welcomed me into Arizona, I felt an indisputable sense of liberation – and not just because the smoothness of the drive made it feel like I was flying. I felt euphoric. I felt invincible. I felt fearless. And I felt powerful, which had definitely not been the case the last time I traveled through these landscapes.
Are you still in San Diego? I’d typed out, with the intention of sending it to Anna, a Swedish friend I’d met in Beijing years earlier, who was in southern California visiting her dying cousin. I’ll be in San Francisco Friday, and I fly back to Austin Sunday, but I don’t think I want to stay in the Bay Area.
I looked out my window, at the darkening skies over Death Valley, as I hovered my finger above the “Send” button. Then I looked to the left, at the man from the airport, his blue shirt dusty from a day in bowels of the desert, his face stone-cold and expressionless – I assumed on account of frustration with me.
I felt anxious and completely un-confident, but more than that, I felt foolish. I’d neglected my blog almost since the day I met him and had completely put out of my mind all the upcoming trips I’d once been excited about, the multi-pronged strategy I planned to pursue to reach my targeted monthly visitors by the end of that year, the 24/7 obsession with method and madness that has to be unwavering if it’s ever to materialize into anything.
I deleted my message before sending it to Anna, however, and continued biting my tongue as I sped northwestward through California. I’d chosen my own adventure, alright – and I’d chosen wrong.
The safety topic at hand, however, was more fundamental.
“Your body knows what to do when you see a rattlesnake,” the guide, a crass, older gentleman named Jeff, laughed, not so much at the person who asked about it, but at the logic behind it. “It’s built into your DNA.”
Although the drive through the desert up to the start of the canyon had been calming, and although I’d been canyoneering before, I felt anxious as we arrived at the beginning of the course and all the other members of my team descended – I couldn’t procrastinate any longer.
Jeff’s affirmation quickly assuaged my worries. “You’ve clearly done this before,” he said as I finished the second rappell, the highest of the whole course at 80 feet: Only a third the height of the rappels I’d done in Ecuador a few years prior.
We didn’t end up seeing a rattlesnake, much to my chagrin – I’d always wanted to photograph one.
The one time in my life I did encounter a proverbial rattlesnake, my DNA failed me spectacularly.
By the time we – myself and the man in the blue shirt, which he’d long since changed out of – arrived in San Francisco, I found myself in a state I can only describe as paralyzed. I knew, cerebrally, that the best course of action, the only course of action, would be to get to the airport and fast as possible, beg JetBlue to change my flight, kiss the ground when I arrived back in Austin and get to the business of forgetting any of this had happened.
But my instinct, which is to say the way my body reacted to the cage his coldness built around me, was to beat the dead horse that had carried the ghost of our naive love to San Francisco until it was indistinguishable from the sands beneath the Golden Gate.
I took him out to a romantic dinner at an Italian restaurant in Nob Hill and sat across from him, even though we could hardly bear to look at one another. I sat on a sewer grate in Dolores Park with him and watched the sunset (or what would’ve been the sunset, had it not been for that awful fog) and held him close to me, even though I also wanted to open it up and drop him into it.
I feigned a long cry as we showered together the morning I flew back to Austin, and I felt genuine devastation as he stood there and let me sob on him, without particularly comforting me in any way, my lips as far from a smile as they could be, in spite of how joyful I should’ve been.
I hadn’t jumped out of the the way of the snake, as millennia of my ancestors had done to save their lives and mine. I’d help out my arm and asked him to bite me right in my vein, and coiled his body around mine as I lay there dying, the sound of his shaking rattle my final lullaby.
My final day in St. George was technically only my second full one, which is to say I lacked a sense of urgency, both in completing the day’s adventure – kayaking at Quail Creek Reservoir – and in making my way back to Las Vegas, for a goodbye dinner that could just as well have been a hello happy hour.
Indeed, thanks to the short amount of time I’d had outside of my adventures, the drives and the generous meal and snack services GMC had offered us, I’d only gotten a chance to chat extensively with one fellow participant, a style and travel blogger from New York named Ko. Ko had ridden in the bed of my Canyon as we’d made our way up to our canyoneering site the previous morning and had stuck with me for most of that adventure, as well as during my time on my paddle board.
She also joined me on my drive back to Las Vegas, during which she asked me a question that was all too appropriate.
“Are you in a relationship right now?”
“Nope,” I sighed. “I mean, I’ve been in them here and there, but it gets hard with all the travel, you know?”
She nodded her head as we crossed the Nevada state line. “I do know, actually. I go on dates all the time – first date – but they never materialize into anything.”
I had initially abstained from responding past that point, but as we neared the end of the drive, and the Las Vegas skyline appeared as we descended a hill, I felt strangely absolved by the sight of it, as if somehow my trip to Utah and back had hit the reset button on the American desert and my relationship with it – on who I was the last time I was here, on my past and my relationship with it.
“Actually,” I continued, hoping she would realize what I was referring to after nearly an hour of silence, “you should be thankful you never went on second dates, or third dates, or more. You should be thankful you have all the work you do and companies who want to pay you to be places and adventures to choose.”
“I never thought about it that way,” she replied as we turned onto Las Vegas Boulevard. “That my curse could somehow be a blessing.”
I smiled as we parked our Canyon under the impossibly gaudy casino awning and looked out onto the Las Vegas Strip, as if it was the first time I’d laid eyes upon it. “You know what? I didn’t either, until this very moment.”
This post – and my trip to Utah – were sponsored by GMC but as usual, all opinions are my own.