A month ago, I hiked to the top of a rocky overlook in the Utah desert with some of my closest friends, in search of a prime stargazing spot. We arrived at the base of the hike well before sunset, planning to avoid a nighttime run-in with the spiky green cacti and steep cliffsides we'd grown accustomed to encountering in the region. It wasn't a long hike, but the countless natural stairs and twists up to our destination, on top of our fatigue from the day's previous hikes, made us feel like we'd just tackled our longest adventure yet. Dust kicked up beneath our feet as we climbed and lizards skittered to the safe confines of anywhere-but-near-us. Eventually, we crested the final hump of rock and looked out on the canyon below. The sun was setting by now, just in time for our arrival. We threw off our hiking bags, cracked out some trail mix and water, and prepared to reap the rewards of our journey.
As the sun drifted lazily behind the surrounding mountaintops, the light blue daytime sky melted into a sea of orange and pink. Gradually, darker hues of red and indigo crept in, before, ultimately, black. Pinpricks of white broke through the fresh blanket of darkness; distant stars and constellations twinkling to life above us. It was a view unattainable in the city sky we'd left behind, and every bit worth the trek to see. One of my friends pulled out his phone and put on Billy Joel's Piano Man, and the six of us watched the ocean of stars above, the music and our own voices echoing off the canyon walls around us. And there, I was home.
My friends and I had been on lots of trips together, and we have many more planned for the future, but something about this particular moment in time was unique. Maybe it was the feeling that, on top of that mountain and enveloped in darkness, we were the only people in the entire world. You could almost imagine there wasn't any more world beyond our mountaintop, that it was all void above and below, and at the center of the universe was our little group, laughing and joking and enjoying each others' company. People often reference “shouting into the void”, and up there we actually could.
“I'M THE KING OF THE WORLD!”
The voice rang out suddenly from off to our right, atop a separate mountain, shattering the atmosphere of tranquility and solitude for a moment.
“YES YOU ARE!” my friend Chris shouted back encouragingly.
I guess it's okay to share our slice of the void.
No one else out in the dark had any further declarations to offer, and the void was ours once more. The chattering picked back up, and the song had long ended. I tuned out the conversations for the most part, but the general gist was something like Rithy and Jose discussing girls, Erik and Luis talking about work, and Chris and I just watching the sky. Overhead, shooting stars zipped from one end of the sky to another in the blink of an eye. Growing up, I'd always thought shooting stars were incredibly rare, but I can't count how many we saw on that trip.
“So, anyone have any ghost stories to share?” Rithy asked after maybe the hundredth shooting star had come and gone.
“Aw, yeah, have you guys heard the one about--?”
“Nope, nope. We're not doing that up here!” I interrupted before Chris could even start.
Rithy's laugh echoed through the canyon below.
“Shut up, Jon, no one asked you,” Chris said, tossing his backpack at me.
“I actually agree with Jon,” Erik, Chris's brother, chimed in.
“Okay, then. No stories. Sorry, Rithy.”
“Man, you guys are no fun,” Rithy said, waving a hand exasperatedly. “It is getting pretty dark, though,” he added after looking around.
“Yeah,” I agreed, “we should probably get outta here soon.”
Although we had an endless supply of stars above us, the main player was a thin crescent on the horizon that night and contributing almost nothing to the light situation.
It took a few moments before everyone else was up and ready to go, but soon enough the gang had strapped back on their backpacks, flipped on what few lights we had, and the trek back to camp began.
“So, uh, which way did we come from?”
“I think we came from that way,” I pointed off in one direction, “but-- oh, yeah, I took a different path, huh.”
“It's alright, I got it,” Rithy stepped ahead, pulled out his knife, and marched off into the dark, his headlamp bobbing with every step.
The rest of us fell in line; Luis with neither knife nor light, me with the weakest flashlight of the group, Jose behind with a small pocket knife, and Chris and Erik taking up the back, one knife and one light between them. Although we'd agreed no ghost stories, the hypothetical nightmare scenarios started up almost the moment we started walking, and there was no stopping them.
“What if we turn around and there's a seventh dude with us?”
“What if we shine the light on the ground and there's a puddle of blood?”
“What if we get back to the road and the car is gone?”
“Bro, what if we get back to the car and find ourselves dead in it?”
Rithy suddenly shouted out from the head of the party and my blood went cold for a second.
“What's wrong?” Luis asked, coming up right behind him.
“There was a goddamn TARANTULA. It ran over my foot and crawled into that hole! Oh my god,” he said, clutching his chest.”
Laughter rippled through the group from everyone but Rithy, and we continued on. Before long we reached the car again and all piled in, conversation about Goatman and Bigfoot and other cryptids now far less frightening.
The drive back to camp was uneventful for the most part, filled with conversation about movies and tarantulas and the sick deer we'd seen wandering around our camp the last couple of days. Just whatever random topic came to anyone's mind could be thrown out and a whole conversation would unravel from it. And that, in a way, is also home. I said that my friends and I had been on trips together before, and while that's true, it was never this combination of friends. In fact, this was the first time a good chunk of us had ever hung out together outside of work. And yet there were no clashing personalities, everyone got along perfectly. It felt like we'd all known each other for years. Like the six of us, in this old Jeep flying down the winding road back to camp, who could make conversation out of anything and work together to climb down a mountain at midnight and appreciate the night sky in silence, belonged together.
And that's home.
A/N: I pulled an all-nighter to finish this before class at 10:15AM (I work overnight and knew that if I fell asleep I wouldn't wake up in time to write it before class) and I got it submitted by 7:35AM, but then I fell asleep and slept through class like an idiot. We were supposed to be doing peer reviews during class, but since I missed it, I didn't receive any feedback, sooo posting this here pls help my final draft is due Monday. Also sorry for any spelling errors or anything of that nature - when I write sleep deprived I tend to think my writing is totally fine and then later read it and it's just riddled with mistakes. Hopefully this isn't that bad - haven't proofread it yet because I've gotta get going to work soon. Just never ends huh.