Embarassing Moment of the Century
Although I was no longer using drugs, my inner hippie could not resist the temptation to stand out and make a name for itself. College was the chance to redefine myself, I thought. So, I called myself Mac and went without shoes for a year. I kept telling myself that I wasn't doing it for attention but rather because I liked the way that the bare ground felt beneath my feet. That perspective quickly changed once the winter months hit, and I found myself trudging around the steep mountain campus barefoot in the snow. By that point, I'd committed myself so much to the idea that I wasn't willing to give it up.
Instead, I just drove as close to my class as I could and bore the cold the rest of the way. Now that my identity was no longer in my drug stories or rebellious accomplishments, these attention-seeking quirks were all that distinguished me.
When scattered blades of yellow grass started sticking up out of the snow, we knew that spring break was near, and our group planned another road trip. When Gerry stopped by my place to pick me up, I threw my bag in the back and hopped in the passenger seat. He looked down at my feet to double-check my status. "Mike," he said, "where are your shoes?" "C'mon Ger, you know I don't wear shoes." "Mike, we are going to be hiking the Grand Canyon, climbing through slot canyons, and traversing mountains. You need shoes." I rebutted this a half dozen times until finally, he said, "Either go get your shoes or get out of my truck." I went back into my house and dug through my closet for a while until I finally located an old pair of sneakers that hadn't been worn in almost a year. I carried them out begrudgingly and tossed them in the back of the truck. "You happy?"
We made several stops along the way for potty breaks, stopping at a few rests stops and gas stations. I went in barefoot without thinking twice. Gerry was appalled and took on the role of my mother, explaining to me how unsanitary my behavior was. "You're going to get yourself sick," he said. I told him that my feet were so calloused that it was basically like wearing shoes; I just used my own leather instead of someone else's. I guess bacteria is insensitive to things like that, however, because I was starting to develop some wicked indigestion.
We drove through the towering walls of Zion National Park and shimmied our way up the beautiful cliff face on the far end. Gerry knew a special route that took us through the park and ended in a majestic tunnel carved into the red rock giant. The tunnel was pitch black except for a few holes engraved like windows in the belly of a beast. The first thing that Gerry did was turn his lights off, so we were engrossed in total darkness. He honked erratically as we floated through empty space towards a singular pocket of light a few hundred feet in front of us. As we passed the solitary opening, he slowed to a stop, and we were surprised to find a clear view of the cliffs opposite to us.
He flashed his lights as if to give us a glimpse of how long the tunnel was before returning us to a state of total darkness. A pair of lights appeared, looking like a glowing speck in the distance. He continued to drive with his lights off as our two vehicles gradually approached one another. When we were close to differentiate the single golden speck into two approaching headlights, he flipped his lights on. The beams of light met in a collision of color, and the illuminated tunnel seemed to open itself up. The two vehicles crept past each other at a slow crawl until, finally, the tunnel dropped us on a winding road in a barren desert.
Our first hike was through Water Holes Slot Canyon, a majestic canyon on sanctioned Native American land just outside of Page, Arizona. I had successfully managed to not wear my shoes this far into the journey, but my luck was about to run out. As soon as we stopped, Gerry told me that I could either put them on or wait in the car while the rest of the group hiked the canyon. It had been so long since I'd worn shoes that I hadn't even thought about bringing socks. I actually wasn't sure whether I owned socks anymore. I wrestled with the shoes as I tried to pull them over my cold sandy feet. They felt awkward and uncomfortable. I clumsily ran after the rest of the group, as they hadn't bothered to wait up for me while I dug my snow embossed shoes out of the back of the truck.
Plop, plop, plop, I looked and sounded like a duck out of water. However, the very moment we descended into the canyon's steep glowing rock walls, my insecurities melted away, and my jaw dropped. The walls looked like waves of the sea frozen in time and imprinted with chunks of sunshine. The walls ran parallel to one another, twisting and turning but somehow always managing to do so in perfect tandem.
Rays of sunshine beamed through the narrow slot at the top of the canyon walls and straight down into the deep shadows of the caverns. It pierced the darkness, and in some strange, fantastical way, the two seemed to make one another more beautiful. The dark and light complemented each other, not in the way that the right shoes complement an appropriately suited outfit, but in the way that life complements death. Without one, you simply can't have the other.
As I stared, a deep sense of awe and gratitude began to pierce through the shadows and into my heart. It had not dawned on me until this moment (as I watched distinct rays of sunshine breaking into the darkness) that without a shadow, the details of each sunray would be virtually imperceptible. In the darkness, every ray that broke through was not only noticeable but absolutely brilliant. Although this cavern surely did nothing to make the sun's rays more brilliant than they already were, it did serve to annunciate their existing beauty. How beautiful it was that hardships and darkness seemed only to annunciate the beauties and intricacies of life.
We went as far as we could until, finally, the canyon ended at a soft, smooth wall of sandstone that shot abruptly skyward. I immediately took my shoes off, gripped my hands and toes like a chameleon into the porous sandstone wall, and began scaling the slippery surface. As I climbed, I turned my gaze upward and fixed it where I wanted to go. At that moment, and from that particular vantage point, I could see the hole in the ceiling through which the light entered the canyon. I smiled as I realized that the walls of the shaft curved up into the shape of a heart around me. As the sun glistened down the column, it beamed like a heart made of sunshine.
No picture could have more aptly described the feeling of transcendent peace that I felt that day. I was beginning to grow fond of these little love nudges that seemed to wink at me from the heavens. I used to be completely incapable of seeing these things, but I was starting to see signs like these more often. Finally, my toe slipped, and I slid clumsily down the sheer rock surface. That big sheepish grin didn't fade from my face until we got all the way back to the car. By now, the sun was setting, and we needed to find a place to camp, but first, it was grub time. We hopped in, drove off, and headed to a Mexican market in town. When walking in, a big sign welcomed us, saying, "No shirt, no shoes, no service." At that moment, I looked down at my feet and realized that I left my shoes back in the cavern at the end of our hike. I shrugged and walked in without them.
When I requested to Gerry that we turn around and go back for the shoes, suddenly he decided that maybe it wasn't such a bad thing after all that I prefer to go around barefoot. But he remained insistent that I buy another set of shoes at the first possible opportunity. That night we were camping at Lone Rock Campground, a small beach on the southern tip of the great Lake Massive. The four of us set up the tent and climbed inside. Jam had told me his story, and now it was time for Gerry to share his and Pepper to share hers. We shared stories and laughed until we all faded into a deep sleep.
It took another full day before we made it to an outdoors store that sold shoes. In the meantime, I had developed a sickness that crept through my body like a puppy going to town on its owner's slippers. I should've known that something was wrong when I found small fragments of my stuffing sprawled everywhere, but that was quite a bit before the fever, chills, and aches set in. But I'm getting ahead of myself again.
As we packed up our tent in the morning, we were excited and ready to see what the day had in store. One of our first stops, when we hit civilization, was the shoe shop. The pair of shoes I chose to settle with was a set of Vibram's that were shaped like feet, with toe sockets and everything. I don't know if I bought them in spite or because they fit my quirky preferences with pristine exactness, but they were truly the ugliest set of kicks I have ever seen. When Gerry saw them attached to my feet like a glove to a hand, he had to use all of his willpower to refrain from bursting out in laughter. They cost me nearly sixty bucks, which had been half of my budget for the whole trip, but they seemed to appease him. I never did have the guts to wear them on campus when I got back. For the majority of their life, they remained in the closet for the duration of their life.
We made a routine bathroom stop at one of those gas stations with a Burger King in it. At this point, I still wasn't quite aware that anything was wrong with me yet. I ran into the stall and jumped on the toilet. I was in my own little world until Gerry stuck his head under the stall, this time not bothering to hold in his laughter. "Mike, is that you?!" he spoke in a squeaky voice, drowned out and nearly unintelligible beneath his raucous giggling. I realized at that moment that it sounded like World War Three in there. Machine guns, bazooka's, the whole deal. He laughed hysterically for fifteen minutes straight. But that's not why he was laughing.
"Mike," he said, with the same squeaky pitched voice, "you chased out a little boy and his dad. They were standing at the urinal when all of a sudden, pew, pew, bam, whompf, you started unloading. The little kid looked at his dad with the biggest eyes I've ever seen. He was so terrified he nearly ran out before he'd finished. The dad grabbed him by the shoulders and pushed him out ahead of him. They both were looking back as they scrambled out the door. You'd have thought they were running for their lives."
He continued, "I couldn't help but look to see if it was you. When I poked my head under the stall, I saw your little toes scrunched up in a ball, going white because they were clenched so tightly. As soon as I saw the two bare feet, I knew it was you." He stopped, trying to remember to breathe while laughing. By now, both of us were laughing so hard that the few people who did try to enter the restroom turned directly around and waited outside. The smell may have also been a slight contributor to their hesitancy, but we were laughing too hard to be embarrassed. It wasn't my fault that I had somehow contracted the plague. From that point forward, the sickness set in post-haste, and I was reduced to nothing more than a vegetable in the back seat of the truck.
Whenever the others would stop for a hike or to look at a scenic spot, I would just lay there, bent with exhaustion. Luckily for me, though, our next stop was at the house of a friend. I got to sleep on the nice warm floor, which was considerably warmer and more comfortable than my sleeping bag in the tent. From the moment my sickness began to manifest, Jam was filled with enthusiastic compassion. He prayed for me constantly, and it climaxed at some point when he wrapped his arms around me and prayed for my healing. He said, "Please give me my friend's sickness and make him well." It was one of the kindest things anyone had ever done for me. Gerry looked at both of us with slight disgust. I bet he was thinking, 'Jam, if only you'd been in there with us at the gas station, you wouldn't go within ten feet of that monster.'
Jam, however, wasn't phased in the slightest. His only focus was on helping me and making me feel better. He meant every word of his prayer, and it filled me with joy to be around someone so kind, genuine, and compassionate. I'd never spent time with spiritual people, so the entire interaction was new to me.
Our next stop had a ¼ mile hike, and I figured that, even in my sick condition, I could manage a meager jaunt like that. I had never heard of Horseshoe Bend before, but as we approached the towering cliffs, I realized that we were overlooking one of the mighty Colorado River's most majestic features. Because of the great height at which we were, everything below looked as insignificant and small as drops in the ocean. It took me a while to realize that there were tiny boats floating on the river below. My stomach did a flip, and I shivered in awestruck wonder as I looked down from the great height.
It seemed that after pushing its way through countless tons of thick red sandstone, the river encountered something with which it didn't want to mess. So it flipped a hard left and pulled a model U-turn before proceeding on its intended course. The result was a near-perfect horseshoe engraved more than a thousand feet deep into the steep red rock. There wasn't a railing along the edge of it, or anything else for that matter. One gentle nudge or slight misstep would send even the most able-bodied person flailing through the air to their imminent peril. As I stood leaning over the side of the cliff, Jam jumped from behind me, startling me half to death. He grabbed onto me as he did so, preventing me from rocketing into the air like a scared cat. I didn't think it was funny, but at least he was kind enough not to let me launch myself straight off the cliff while assaulting me.
From that point, we pressed on towards the Grand Canyon. Gerry had arranged for us to stay with some of his friends in Flagstaff for a night, and we were ecstatic to have somewhere warm to lay our heads. By this point, the viral infection was giving me a fever with chills and aches, and it was also wreaking havoc on my gastrointestinal tract. Previously mentioned symptoms were suddenly being compounded by uncontrolled vomiting. In the small house, I was aware that my every move and sound could be easily monitored by not only the group but also our female hosts. It was terribly embarrassing. But for the first time in my life, I didn't really care what the cute girls thought of me or what my friends thought of me, for that matter.
The next day when we finally embarked to survey the Grand Canyon, the crew was considerate enough of my state of being to eliminate any big hikes from our schedule. We ended up taking little excursions from the vehicle to various viewpoints and overlooks. After a picnic, we were set to start heading north again; our journey was coming to a close. By this point, Jam's prayer to contract my sickness was very clearly being answered. He was getting a fever too, and although he didn't generate quite the mountain of tissues that I did, he was steadily getting there.
On our way back, we stopped at Sunset Crater, a massive protrusion that leapt out of nowhere into the deep blue sky. Down the entirety of its rocky slopes lay limitless piles of magma rock. The rock was buoyant and layered so that anyone who decided to could use it like a trampoline to bounce down the side of the mountain. Like astronauts in space, each of the members in our group climbed up the rocky slope and bounced down its sides. Since the hill was so steep, each step could carry them five to ten feet. When hitting the loose magma rock, we could slide another five to ten feet down the hill in a single stride.
I looked out of the vehicle with envy as my friends disappeared up the rocky slope, and I could no longer manage the strength to hold my head up. Upon returning to the vehicle, Gerry decided to drug Jam and me with a generous dose of NyQuil. Jam fell into a coma-like sleep as the rest of us shared memories and laughter over the events of the past few days.
Before long, a horrendous stench began to permeate the vehicle. It smelled so raunchy that tears began to fill my eyes. With an accusatory glance, Gerry looked at me and said, "Mike, what is wrong with you? It smells like we ran over a dead skunk." By this point, I was laughing so hard that I wasn't capable of forming words to respond. The tears were now streaming heavily down my bright red face.
"It's Jam," I said, as I finally managed to fumble the words out of my mouth. "I think he shat himself." With hopeful expectation, we rolled down the windows, and each held our breath. We were waiting for our theory to be proven wrong and for the smell to carry itself out of the vehicle and into the wide desert tundra. Yet, to our dismay, it refused to do so. We took turns holding our breath until we were about to pass out and finally decided to wake Jam from his slumber. As we shook him, he grunted and groaned but did not awake.
I couldn't help but have compassion for him as he lay there stinking up a storm. I thought of him wrapping his arms around me and praying for me, asking to take this sickness from me, that I might be well. What kind of friend does something like this, I wondered. And to my surprise, I was actually feeling better.
About the author
Michael Heil has been a gleeful storyteller from the time he began first forming sentences. He likes making people laugh out loud and finds joy thinking that his writings might help others to avoid making the same mistakes he has.