Big Emotion, Small Stream

I did not expect to encounter one of my life’s great fears when I made a quick visit to the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden a few months ago. Sure, the young woman who sold us our admission tickets did mention that the garden’s Campbell Bridge was gone, part of the extensive damage the garden suffered in the 2009 Jesuita Fire —  but this didn’t concern me, I didn’t think my friend Andrew and I would be going that far.

We covered ground fast, though, and the path went from cement pavers, to tamped down smooth dirt, to dirt shot through with roots and loose with scattered stones. I began to step more carefully as I walked, sunlight slanting through charred trees that grew from the hills at Dr. Seuss-like angles.  I was wearing flip-flops – not ideal for what had turned into a minor foray in nature, but also not yet utter folly.

Then we came to a stream that needed crossing,

Let me be clear: this was not a raging river, this was a small stream that would take perhaps five steps to cross. There were big broad stones in the water. They were not flat, but certainly flattish, and reasonably close together. I handed Andrew my phone and my camera for safekeeping, he tucked them in his pocket and walked across easily. He turned around once he’d reached the other side to see how I’d do.

There are two things that I particularly fear in life: crying in public and crossing narrow bodies of water.

I’ll have more to say about the first in a moment, but on the latter, I can assure you that I’m a good swimmer — I’m very comfortable in the water. But crossings like this are not swimming situations. No, these are situations where you could easily lose your balance, crack your head on a rock or a branch, pass out, inhale water while unconscious, and drown. This is a fear that makes sense, when, say, you’re crossing a wide river running fast with snowmelt. That was not the situation in the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, where the name of my mental movie could be properly labeled as catastrophizing.

There was hardly any current to speak of. Still, I gave one last look around. No way out of it. I advanced across the rocks.

Three summers earlier, I’d gotten an assignment to go on backpacking expedition in the Wyoming Wind River Peak.

It was a National Outdoor Leadership School course, we were out there about a week, and every day, I’d hover anxiously near the topographical map where the leaders were examining our intended route, which was indicated with red marker. I was looking not for the elevation changes — although those concerned me too — but at those tiny little blue lines intersecting our red magic marker. The stream crossings.

There was really only one water crossing that everyone was cautious about – on our way back, we were going to have to cross the Popo Agie river, which was in fact flowing with snow melt. That crossing we did in pairs, in bare feet, pack straps loosened with instructions to get it off fast if we lost our footing. That particular crossing actually scared me less than the four or five other minor crossings we did each day, the ones where we were supposed to stay dry. Some required balancing on logs, many required actual leaps from rock-to-rock.

At this point it’s important to know that I have terrible balance, weak ankles, and was carrying a 42 pound pack.

Midway through the trip, we’d arrived at where we were supposed to camp after a slog of 6 miles and a gain of 1200 feet of elevation, and found that we could not stay. I don’t recall why, exactly – something about a delicate species of plant life that we didn’t want to trample. We were to go another quarter-mile to our new camp, not a bad distance, but to do it, we first had to cross a stream via a rickety old log. There was no escape, so I gathered up my pounding heart inside a body that was all sunburn and ache, and I did it. After I crossed, I said I needed to go pee. I went off behind the trees, and I cried.

“Luckily no one saw me crying except for Missy,”  I confided my journal that night — Missy was the NOLS instructor. “She talked about lousy TV shows until I got the sniffles back under control.  I had really wanted to get through this without crying. Missy assures me that going into the woods to cry doesn’t qualify.” Even though I’d made it across that particular stream, as well as every other one we had to cross – utterly without grace and style, and often landing in the water– I gained no confidence from my success.

I’ve noticed lately that crying and laughing begin with a similar physical sensation.

It’s a feeling that starts somewhere in my stomach and moves to my chest and then my throat and there’s sound and then it’s all emotion — the body letting it go.  Back in Santa Barbara,  I was about a midway across the stream when I bent at the waist. I had a foot cramp, which was clear to see, my left toes were unnaturally griped around that little thong. Andrew quickly advanced towards me. “Let’s just rest for a minute,” he said.  I was gasping.

Because I was laughing. Hard.

His look of concern dissolved into a semi-amused, partially-exasperated expression that I’ll admit I’ve seen on more than a few previous occasions. “Take it easy,”  he said.

After a few moments, I was able to take a few breaths and straighten up. And then I finished crossing the stream, without further incident.

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