Amanda Kay Oaks — “The Lonely Planet Guide to Grief”

The pool of water that fills this lava tube is deep, its bottom unknowable. I float on my back, close my eyes, let the water cradle me, fill my ears so that the world around goes silent in the steady drone of water. Like a sensory deprivation tank. Like trying to understand what it’s like not to be.

The thought is too much, and I jerk myself upright in the water, open my eyes. It all slides back into focus—the interplay of rock and sky, river and gorge. My friend Nicki floats beside me, half submerged. I want to crystallize this moment, to photograph it with my mind. I didn’t bring my journal or my cell phone because I didn’t trust myself not to tip the kayaks we’d paddled down a section of the Snake River in Twin Falls, Idaho.

This is the first time I’ve been in a kayak, and I’m surprised at how natural it feels. My arms clutching the paddle settle into a rhythm, and before long I look back to see my friend Nicki far behind me, a sliver of red hair, red life jacket, red kayak.

The Snake River is a wide, slow river. There are almost no rapids here, and barely any current. You make your own momentum. It’s exactly what I need today, what I need this summer… it may be what I need for the rest of this after. I’ve come here to spend time with Nicki, a childhood friend I hadn’t seen since she’d moved out here to do biology field work, and to engage with new landscapes. But most of all, I’ve come because my ex-boyfriend Nathan’s recent death made staying put feel impossible.

I’m still looking up at that picture-picture view, jagged rock climbing up until it meets the bright blue sky, when a thought shocks its way into me: Whatever happened to Nathan’s camera?

My first love, Nathan, had been a photographer. He’d also been a runner and, until two months ago, had been alive. Now, I wonder for the first time what became of his beloved camera, a Canon that made its way across Europe, through the Netherlands, and across the U.S. from Illinois to Arkansas, Arkansas to Arizona. Nathan had always been in motion, and always with his camera. It had been an extension of him, his lens on the world. Where is it now?

A shudder runs through me at the thought of his family going through the files on Nathan’s hard drive, finding the pictures he’d taken of me. Pictures of me wearing his white Hanes t-shirt and a pair of his sweatpants, pictures of me set against the landscapes of parks across the Midwest. Photos where I smiled in giddy, wide-eyed disbelief that the man behind that camera was mine, and I was his. Would they wonder why this woman their son had loved had abandoned him so completely?

I submerge myself in the cold water as if I can cleanse myself of these thoughts. I haven’t come to Idaho to dwell on guilt and grief. I have come west as Cheryl Strayed came west, as Helen MacDonald trained the hawk. These texts rode the Greyhound to Idaho with me, my personal roadmaps to grief, literature the only way I can begin to piece together the how of moving forward. I have come to in order to become someone who can bear this weight, the mixture of loss and guilt that still sometimes rips through my chest, leaving me breathless. To let unknown territory rinse me of my transgressions, let me remember him without the shadow cast by the year of silence that hangs forever between us, stretching across the rest of my life. I can never break that silence now, so I’m trying to cleanse myself of the guilt, learn to forgive myself for what I can’t change. My own kind of baptism.

Another group of kayakers has found their way to this compilation of rock and pools and is doing exactly what the kayak rental company had warned us not to do—diving from the rock outcropping into the nearby rush of rapids. They’ve brought a cooler of beer and shout to one another as they plunge.

I look at Nicki, whose head is out of the water at last, her red hair slicked back. “Let’s head back,” I say.

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When we get back to Nicki’s apartment in the small town of Gooding, Idaho, we changed out of wet clothes and settle down on her couch. An overturned box forms a makeshift coffee table, on which we rest full cups of Ginger Ale.

“So, what next?” she asks. She’s taken an extra day off to give herself a four-day weekend to spend with me.

“I need mountains,” I tell her.

“The Sawtooths are only a couple of hours from here,” she says, pulling out one of many maps she’d picked up when we planned my visit. She traces along the road, pointing to the mountain range, which she’s visited once before.

“That sounds perfect,” I say, thinking already of how it will feel to lace up my hiking boots, put some distance behind me.

The next day, we gather our gear and go. We chatter through the drive, pausing occasionally to sing along to pop songs on the radio. Because Nicki’s car is a stick shift, I can’t share the driving, so I hold the map instead, offer to pay for gas. We’d grown up together, so in spite of the fact that we’d stopped talking during our college years, our friendship falls easily back into a natural rhythm.

We make camp beside a gravel road at dusk. There isn’t enough light for the 12-mile hike we’ve planned, so we cook canned chili and Idaho potatoes on her camp stove and read The Cursed Child aloud until even the fire can’t lend us enough light. Growing up, Nicki and I had read Harry Potter together, sitting side by side at our brothers’ soccer practices in cheap lawn chairs. Reading the play together now pulls us back to our youth and, though we laugh at the absurdity of it all, it feels like it just might be powerful enough to do some healing. If not healing the fresh wound of losing Nathan, at least the old wounds of Nicki’s and my own years of silence. The college years. The forgotten years.

Sitting here in the woods at dark reminds me of the trip Nathan and I took to The Great Smoky Mountains when we’d first started dating. While Nicki is a seasoned wilderness expert, Nathan and I had been amateurs. We hadn’t thought to buy a camp stove, and Nathan struggled to get the fire lit, singeing his fingertips. My ambitious menu of camp food dwindled in the thinning light as we tried to melt cheese inside quesadillas wrapped in foil, but neither of us minded much. We were together, sleeping side by side in my parents’ four-person tent. It was there, a few nights into our trip, that we kissed for the first time, me leaning cautiously towards him as rain beat down on the tent’s nylon sides. After two days of maddening closeness, I’d realized I would have to make the first move or it wouldn’t happen, so I’d leaned over towards him and tentatively pressed my lips to his. It was Nathan’s first kiss, and the first and only time I’d kissed someone first. I have yet to experience an intimacy as great and all-consuming as what we shared during that trip.

Now, three years later somewhere below the Sawtooth Mountain Range, tears prick at the edges of my eyes as Nicki and I crawl into her tent to sleep, and she doesn’t question them. In the morning, we hike.

I didn’t know mountains could look so different. These mountains look nothing like the Smokies, full of soft, rounded trees, humidity lending a still sweetness to the air. The Sawtooths, I realize, are not my mountains. The air is dry, the trees spike sharp against the skyline, all jagged edges. I think of Nathan as we climb, my mind flipping through the countless texts and Facebook and Twitter messages I’d ignored during the year after our break up. The last year of his life, though of course I hadn’t known it would be.  I force my feet along the arid ridges, cut my boots across the endless switchbacks that will lead us to Artic Lake. It feels like atonement.

Around midday, we arrive. We sit on the stony shore and kick off our shoes. I stare into the glistening expanse of the lake’s surface, a crystal ball in which I might divine meaning. We linger here a long time, feel the air cooling towards night.

Halfway down the mountain, we hear a man shouting “Help!” We look at each other. The vulnerability of two women alone flashes through our minds. So does the knowledge that a man’s life might be in our hands. We follow his voice.

He sits halfway up the cliff face, feet dangling. He can’t get down, doesn’t seem to know how he got up. “I was on the trail,” he insists, though the trail is a good quarter mile away.

I call 911 while Nicki calls up to the man—I repeat their questions, which Nicki repeats to him. She calls his answers out to me and I repeat them to 911—name, age, and hiking experience. The questions seem endless, and I can’t help wondering whether they’ve forgotten there is a man on a cliff.

“What supplies does he have?” I shout, as prompted.

There’s a long pause, then Nicki shouts back: “He has a stick and sturdy shoes!”

Finally, they agree to send Search and Rescue, instructing one of us to stay with the man while the other goes down to meet them. I run down the mountain, forgetting that I’ve never hiked this far before, that once I reach the bottom my legs will refuse to return. Nicki stays with him. I burst from the tree line at last, expecting to find a team of handsome, rugged firefighters but instead finding only a chubby woman with a pickup truck and a walkie-talkie. It takes hours to send someone up. Meanwhile I huddle in the back of the Search and Rescue truck wrapped in a thin emergency blanket, sipping Gatorade and fretting over the fact that Nicki’s phone is slowly dying and soon I’ll have no way to reach her. I’m scared of silence, newly awake to the possibility of death and irrevocability.

I dove into the wild hoping to find a catalyst for transformation, following the footsteps of writers I admired, the rumpled pages of grief narratives my guides. But grief is its own kind of catalyst. From the moment I learned of Nathan’s death, that sudden erasure, change was inevitable. He was the first person close to me who had died, the first person my age to have life cut short in an instant. Where once, I would never have imagined that the man on the cliff wouldn’t survive, or that Nicki wouldn’t be able to make her way back down the trail safely, death looms everywhere for me now. Death is possible now, concrete in a way it hadn’t been before. Death is something that can happen. Sitting in the truck, waiting and worrying, I trace my new edges—raw, sensitive, fresh. Begin to feel a sense of the person I will be in the after.

It is dark by the time Nicki makes her way down the mountain alone, a single headlamp to light her way. I race out to the trailhead to meet her and hold her tight. She’s alive. Though the helicopters can’t come for the man until morning, he, too, will survive.

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Nicki and I get back to our tent well after dark and stay up talking, trying to comprehend the evening’s events. We sleep only a few hours, then wake up and make the Tasty-Bite meal we’d planned for the previous night’s dinner for breakfast—chana masala poured over instant rice.

“We saved a man’s life,” we keep saying, rehashing events as the reality of them already starts slipping away. Rather than go out for another hike, we decide to head back, take the time in the car to digest events.

It doesn’t feel possible that it’s coincidental, the young woman reeling with guilt about how she could’ve handled things differently leading up to her ex-boyfriend’s death coming across the chance to save someone’s life.

“It’s like… I don’t know, it’s like… redemption, in a way,” I tell Nicki over pizza when we stop for lunch halfway back to Gooding. She nods. We’ve been over my guilt, discussed the ways in which Nathan’s death couldn’t be my fault. But it lingers still, the thought that if I hadn’t broken up with him, if I hadn’t refused his attempts to move to Cincinnati, he wouldn’t have been running on that dry, hot Arizona evening of his death. Maybe he’d have died anyway, from a bad heart or a seizure, whatever it was that killed him. But maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t have. Maybe the Ohio climate would have been kinder. Maybe I could have been kinder.

Now, maybe, the scales have been rebalanced. I can’t change the way I handled my break up with Nathan, but this time, I chose compassion. As inconvenient as it was to stop along the trail and call 911, as scared as we were that the man’s shouts were a trick to lure us off the path, Nicki and I had chosen to stop. That feels like it has to mean something. The guilt starts to shift, and I understand for the first time that one day I will be able to forgive myself. Not yet, but someday. And that is enough.


Amanda Kay Oaks is a Pittsburgh-based writer, educator, and professional wearer of many hats. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University. “The Lonely Planet Guide to Grief” began as part of her thesis, a collection of personal essays titled How to Tell a Love Story. Her work has appeared in The Longridge Review, Hoosier Lit, the Inspiring to Aspire anthology, and others.