Life in the dirt

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I’ve got the Arkansas River flowing through my veins. My heart beats at around 3,000 cubic feet per second. One rainfall and it’s at risk of being closed down to anything but private use.

I used to fight almost everything about this town. But life happened, and I didn’t seem to have much of a choice. My dream job turned out to be more of a nightmare. My future husband became my ex-boyfriend. My homey apartment was too expensive. My happiness seemed like maybe it was a lie all along.

Just over a year ago I ran away from all those problems, returning to the mostly-friendly confines of my little prison valley town. Turns out problems aren’t location-based. They followed me and haunted me. Old habits die hard, causing problems I didn’t even realize I was plunging into headfirst.

It took the first rays of summer grazing my skin to finally awaken me. Instead of moving forward, I kept looking backward. I was continuously letting other people’s actions dictate my feelings. I thought that I had returned home for my betterment, but the way I was still living made it impossible for me to grow.

In mindfulness, we talk about letting the summer mindset sink into everyday life, but that was never something I had gotten good at embracing. My biggest personal breakthroughs had always happened in the literal summer. Maybe that said more about my heat-induced delirium than anything else.

It’s funny how my definitive summers have had recurring themes. A dreamy guy crushes a girl’s heart because he secretly wants to be with another girl with whom it’s not going to work. A girl accidentally befriends a girl of her own heart.

This summer had both.

But this isn’t a story about “just a boy.” Because that’s only part of it. That’s only part of it a lot of the time. Deep down, I want to believe that this is different. I’m a better, refreshed person now, and it’s not just because of him. Now, it might even be in spite of him.  

Every step that led to him was important. And every step after him will be equally so.

Those first steps came in March. I finally crawled out of my Netflix and heartbreak binge. My savings were running out (damn my love of craft beers), and I really needed to get away from what was developing into an even sadder reality than the one I had run from in the first place.

I faced the rough task of asking a former coworker if he’d be OK with me listing him as a reference. No it wasn’t for a journalism job. Yes I was going to be in Cañon for longer than I had originally anticipated.

I ended up getting a job as a photographer on the Royal Gorge Route Railroad. It’s the kind of place high schoolers work on weekends, retirees use for extra spending money and longtime service industry folk consider a second or third job.

And it happened to be exactly what I needed.

Right after college graduation, I jumped into a 60-hour per week office/press box job. Despite the fact that we worked in communication, my only real human interaction there was interviewing student-athletes who were a few years younger than me (but somehow made me feel like I was already 30) and hearing one of my co-workers tell a coach I was “awkward.”

It only took a few months after I quit for me to jump into something equally somber – an altogether too-rushed relationship that almost exclusively existed in a garden level apartment. When I realized we had passed the point of repair, I turned to something totally novel: actually putting myself first.

It was amazing how a little sunlight and an average speed of 10 to 12 miles per hour could be completely exhilarating. Working on the train began to strip away every form of darkness I had experienced in the last two-plus years.

One of the surprising perks of the tourism industry was meeting new people every day. I used to hate the thought of that. Even making a call or answering the phone with a stranger on the other line was a daunting task.

As a child, I was extremely shy. I went to a charter school where a core group of eight of us remained together from kindergarten to eighth grade. (Some of us had ties dating back to preschool or earlier.) Anyone else who came in had to make friends with me, not the other way around. I was never the new kid until high school, where our Mountain View Core Knowledge School group assimilated into a graduating class of fewer than 300.

From early on, I adopted a “love me or hate me” attitude. It served me well enough all these years, but it also made it scary to try anything new because I never really had to.

Working on the train was a move away from that. Strangers only stay that way if we let them, and I started to develop friendships in my workplace that would continue to push me out of my comfort zone.

I was beginning to see a positive change in my personality, so I ran with it. If I could handle my so-called “awkwardness,” what else could I do?

I realized that my fears were mostly “no”-based. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do things. It was that I was often too scared to try. I had to tell myself that it was OK to not be good at something the first time I did it (seriously, though), and that the most threatening part of lots of activities was the mental preparation.

This new mentality got me to zip line 1,200 feet  above the river and swing facedown over the gorge. The rest of the summer was considerably less extreme, but my drive to say yes persisted.

It wasn’t just one thing that made this time so important. A chain of events linked together to make it what it was. It’s almost embarrassing how much I believe in fate. That everything happened for a reason, and that even in retrospect, I wouldn’t change a thing.

I had no idea what a random night in June would mean for the rest of my summer. One that not only led to new friendships and adventures, but also a new way of looking at my life.

Playing pool at the second of two acceptable downtown bars, I met an ambiguously-aged rafter with two adorable pit bulls. He instantly became one of my best friends, even if I only knew approximately five important things about him. He was sober, so he simply swilled water at the bar. He was from Chattanooga, Tenn. He hated the song “Wagon Wheel.” He drove to Colorado in a currently-out of commission limousine. He shared my sense of adventure and love of Alfonso’s burritos

That’s all that mattered, and I jumped in with both feet.  

Less than a week into our friendship, we went to Cottonwood Hot Springs. I had driven hours away from home to a place where I didn’t have cell phone service with a guy that I had only known for a few days. I was aware that this wasn’t the smartest thing I had ever done, but I was so sick of playing things safe.

After much more time together, our lives began to converge. There was less of a distinction from his campsite up the hill and my home in town. I was ready to live that dirt life.

One part of that life involved listening to hours upon hours of river rats rap-sing about life on the river. If it was Saturday, why wouldn’t I sit through four hours of Low Side Demand? Especially if there was even the slightest chance I’d get to hear my friend put on a CFS show. I loved his Rolling Stones covers and foul mouthed originals equally.

It was one of those Saturdays that I made another important friend: a ridiculously beautiful self-described “hot Southern mess.” I can tell real quick if I’m going to get along well with another girl. There was no doubt in my mind that she fit the bill.

She was the one who introduced me to “just a boy,” and she’d also become one of my main sources of strength and support when that came to an end.

I can still picture him from that first night (a day after the night we were actually supposed to meet) all messy hair and big, brown, soul-searching eyes. Had we met the night prior, it would have saved me some trouble and would make it so I still earnestly hate “Teenage Dream instead of liking it ironically.

But hey, there he was one night late. Messing up Katy Perry lyrics. Kicking my ass at foosball one-handed.

The worst kind of “just a boy” is the type that makes me feel things I can’t explain. There was just something about being around him. He had this quiet power. Maybe he was just too likable.

It was a weird thing that we even ever met. It was even weirder that we got ourselves into the pickle that we did.

It started out simple enough. Sitting around in a converted school bus, trying to be inconspicuous about staring at each other. Pretending to not be excited to be around one another. But that smile…

Everything happened so subtly yet so quickly that neither one of us could stop it. That was part of the problem.

Before I could do anything about it, he had become my first adult crush. The first time I just let things progress naturally, no matter how hard we tried to fight our feelings. We were never good talking about those feelings because everything else came so easily. It felt so good being around him, but I never wanted to tell him just how good. I just wanted to enjoy it while I could, even knowing that once raft season ended, so would anything between us.

I was cautiously living in the moment. I had let my guard down, but I tried to keep myself rooted in reality. I wasn’t going to fall in love because I could easily see the things that I didn’t like about him. I wasn’t going to get too close because I only allowed myself to be with him so many days a week.

About that latter part … I could only fight so many feelings. Even with making sure I never spent more than three consecutive nights with him, things were happening. With limited electricity and internet connection, we got closer the old fashioned way.

Two serial monogamists trying not to get involved, but rapidly heading there. We crossed all the lines we probably shouldn’t have. Holding hands, cooking dinner, running errands. Actually getting to know each other? The horror!

None of this was supposed to happen. We were never supposed to take it that far. I was never supposed to be an option.

Because he already had a plan. Something he had to do to prove a point.

He told me I didn’t want a life in the dirt. Even though that’s what I’d been doing for the last two months. Night after night I chose a camper in the woods over my own bed. He saw my glimmer of ambition as a sign that I needed a big city life. But that’s the thing he didn’t understand.

I only came to that ambition after losing everything, and finding my little piece of happiness. He had a part in it, sure. But my connection to the outdoors and my new friendships and everything else that had happened in our time together gave me a new lease on life.

I could go anywhere and do anything and not be afraid to do so. That was the point. I could be just as content in the dirt as in the city. I was in charge of my own happiness, and it took me a long time to realize it.

Even in the end, everything between us happened so quickly. One day he was here, and the next he was gone. But real life stories don’t wrap up as easily as they do in fiction. He came back, but there was no way I could prepare myself for what came next. Reality was finally sinking in, and we were approaching our finish line.

I didn’t want to feel the end in its exact moment. I didn’t want that night in the parking lot to be the last time I’d talk to him. So we kept finding ways to hit the reset button. A “chance” run-in. A late night call.

So we held each other too long, still liking the feeling.

One last time. This can’t happen again.

And here I am. Still liking every feeling this summer brought. Knowing I’ll never change his mind, but finding strength in the fact that I don’t need to. My happiness isn’t tied to one person or one location. Life is just as messy as my hair after a night of too much jungle juice, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

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