Without really having planned to do so (don't ask), three weeks ago I visited Kings Canyon National Park.
Occupying the High Sierra's deepest canyon, it is a pine-perfumed Elysium jeweled ten trillionfold in sunstruck rivulets and blazing cabochons of sap. I'd been there once before, as a child with my parents. Its gigantic trees are taller than 25-story buildings, wider at their bases than typical backyard swimming pools. Some of these trees, still standing, sprouted as the Roman Empire fell.
Returning unexpectedly, I found myself striding as if spellbound, as if fulfilling some long-ago promise, toward the trees. Legs lurching, I pressed my face pilgrimlike into soft splintery skyscraper-sized sequoias and their sweet ladies-in-waiting: incense cedar and bear-baiting sugar pine, the latter's foot-long cones swinging like lamps.
As a child I'd seen many places, but Kings Canyon like a huge cupped granite hand put me into a prancing ecstasy. I now realize this was the basic (but, for some, rare) bliss of being finally, unmistakably alive. From the canyon's crystalline air spun ease, unwound, each thought gliding into my mind butterfly-light. Sunbeams slanting what seemed like miles down those trees. Trout sleeping in clear creeks: vanished anxiety, a solidarity I now call sanity. Back then, I knew it only as brand-new. Two days. Then we drove on.
Mom and Dad with their picnic bags and travel plans have long since left this earth. Last week, not having planned to do so, I checked into the sumptuously rustic John Muir Lodge. From there, I saw the cozy quaint quilt-bedded Grant Grove cabins where I think we stayed fortysome years ago.
Something swept over me. Vaguely familiar, somewhere between certainty, memory and epiphany: that giddy ecstasy again. So this is where I should always have been.
Has this happened to all of us? We go somewhere and suddenly feel saved, as if we'd spent our lives until arriving dragging balls and chains unknowingly. So this, we say, is home. How to receive such states of grace (and hey, perhaps yours yet awaits) while haunted by their soon and certain vanishing?
Do we, during such states, perform triage by slicing away slivers of ourselves -- versions or portions of ourselves, shards of consciousness, living ghosts -- to stash in our small paradises for safekeeping?
I do not mean multiple personalities. Of these I know nothing. They are not what I mean. Rather: As sacred acts, do some of us who glimpse too fleetingly where we belong and cannot bear to leave but must leave subconsciously choose to bifurcate, like cells?
And then, backing away from paradise, pointing our fingers at those lucky left-behinds -- I call mine Little Me -- do those larger, more corporeal portions of ourselves say -- as one does to dogs, but enviously: Stay. Stay. Stay?
I think we do. I think we consign unseen portions of ourselves to our personal paradises, marking territory, staking claims.
I think we do this and, if we are very young, sometimes forget.
So in Kings Canyon, tracing zigzags pine-to-pine with my eyes back and forth across that clear blue ditch-your-sorrows sky, suffused with longing to lie flat on those hot granite slabs, to live inside a hollow log forever here, I saw a sudden shimmer. It was Little Me.
Moments before, I had been thinking of the town where I reside, thinking for the ten thousandth time: Don't let me die there, not because I plan to die soon (although who knows?) but because, illogically, despite its legendry, I hate this town. To me it is synonymous with madness, mine and everyone's.
One summer day fortysome years ago, after a ranger taught us to identify trees by their bark, and Mom was bored and Dad took notes, the anesthetic high-altitude air was silken, inhalable sap. I would be lying if I told you I remembered making Little Me: that sacred surgery, the mitosis with which I rendered her. But surely it occurred and, more or less, that day, I told her: Stay.
Just stay. Because this magic you and I see right now in these mountains will once I leave here be bleached and beaten out of me (which is to say, not you but walking, talking, tangible Main Me) by seventh grade: not beaten with fists or bats but by the hard angles of adulthood and pop-culture ugliness, by acne and the Captain and Tenille and Pine-Sol, which despite its name you and I know will never smell like pine.
So stay. Survive in paradise as I, the rest of I -- who shall, forever fractioned, pass for I -- am borne back down these mountains to those suburbs ringing that metropolis. Little Me, I will study algebra, play volleyball, wilt at school dances and whatever else is decreed for unbeautiful suburban girls. Thinking my misery is my own fault, I'll march with friends through Disneyland like an automaton. Then, thinking anorexia is my brilliant discovery, I will move to a famous, worse metropolis, where strangers trade smug smiles and decades later I will pray Dear God don't let me die here.
I'll endure this, Little Me, and in so doing spare you. Sparkling shard in stripey shade, my living specter: You need never know my tiny agonies because you need not leave these trees. I place you here in paradise to save you: stranding you for your sake, thus mine. This is not abandonment. It is a bond, fast even if I forget you, even if I never return.
But what would staying severed render us?
Departing paradise, living where we should not: Is that what drives us mad?
Little Me glinted, listening, perhaps incapable of counting years. Osmosis. Hi.
• • •
For nearly all my life I have felt incomplete. For years, in this metropolis, I've called myself Miss 65 Percent. When people said they loved me, I have laughed, thinking them fools: Love whom? Love what? I'm not all here.
Not all here as in: not playing with a full deck. Not all here as in: lights on, no one's home. Not all here as if part of me that should exist simply did not.
Now I know: Part of me was missing but not nonexistent. Part of me was in the High Sierra, safe and sane.
I am the outdoor type: not the backcountry, rock-climbing, whitewater outdoors type but the stroll-ten-miles-in-nature-ecstatic-to-see-no-one outdoors type. I realized this when I first saw Kings Canyon. Then forgot.
As a child, charmed and fearing annihilation, I placed part of myself in a river-riven canyon and said Stay. And so it did, forever safe from volleyball. Forever sheltered, unafraid of snow. Forever waiting-but-not-waiting here, lucky.
For years, I forgot Little Me. I had made the ultimate sacrifice. Stay here where life can't kill you. How could I have known? I was not Galileo but a child.
Stay here for me, I told this torn-off self. Stay here under these trees whose tops we see only when lying down. Stay here when winter batters the closed coffee shop, whose residual bacon scent makes bears claw its locked doors.
Wait here for me. Not "for" as direct object, as in me being the one for whom you wait (although that, too). But rather "for" meaning a substitute, a surrogate, as in: "Accepting the award for Adam Adams is his partner, Edward Edwards."
Which is to say: Wait here, Little Me, among these trees as I cannot. Wait in my stead. Wait for the cheeseburgers, seasons and splendor. Wait as pale sequoia seeds, slighter than oats, shower down in their millions. Wait for feet triumphantly declaring summer in the duff. Wait as one does in paradises: wide-eyed, wildly, for whatever happens next. Because I can't.
Wait for me, Little Me, I might have said fortysome years ago, because -- as you can see -- I must enter this car and sit behind my parents on its blue plush seat.
Wait for me, Little Me, because even before this Ford has left the forest, still ensconced, I will say that I love this place. And Mom will turn around in the passenger seat. Peering at my mouth, will tell me that my teeth are brown.
She will do this because she feels she must. Even in paradise, perhaps especially in paradise, she must announce all ugliness. She must find fault. She feels appointed to this task, proclaiming flaws as tour guides explain obelisks.
In mentioning my teeth during my moment of delight, she thinks she is protecting me. She sees menace in ecstasy. She believes that in ecstasy lurks mockery. She believes she must beat it to the punch, before it spits out its searing surprise. She must lance joy.
And yes, my teeth are not white, not quite brown but ecru, like manila envelopes: not my fault, dentists say, but DNA in action, predetermined before birth.
Oh Little Me, you need never endure such dialogue. I absolve you of this. Keep all my ecstasies for me. Be free.
And did she linger, pure, as I was pulverized by fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, then worst of all seventh grade, when everything tasted of Tetracycline?
Yes. Then without planning to, I wandered back into the canyon.
Where she was waiting. For me.
Accompanying photograph by Kristan Lawson.