I wasn’t awake when we arrived. I didn’t see the trees give way for the granite skyscrapers, nor did I see the rock climbers camping in little tents on the face of the walls. I couldn’t appreciate the thick, enveloping sunlight as viscous as honey that lazily dragged shadows through the windowpane and over my eyelids. Instead, I was reposed on the schoolbus with my head against the drumming engine in the seats, completely unaware of the national park we had entered.
The following five days were transcendent.
Slowly, the peers I spent each day with became dear friends. We trekked for hours up a mountain and led a picnic with poetry, climbed atop the likely remains of a rockslide as we sang the songs we knew, wrote our most valued identities on little pet stones, and crept out past lights-out and found that indeed stars were the only lights that were out. We crawled through caves of cool, utter darkness, only knowing we had each other not by our vision but by the hands we strung together. We enacted a play with talking magic trees. We taught each other words from Catalan to Japanese. We told stories from our pasts to the story we were in-the-making of.
But most of all, the moments in between were quiet.
Quiet, not like the quiet from do-not-disturb or the quiet like silent mode, but the quiet that chirps in the morning and the quiet that rustles beyond the camp. The quiet that chatters in the evening after the sun had gone down, and the quiet that, believe it or not, someone saw a bear wander near the cabins. It is unlike any silence I have ever heard; a silence that breathed and churned and whispered without bells or ringing or notifications.
There was laughter, talking, games, getting lost, playing cards, drawing on napkins--and a small path in the autumn forest.
Leaves painted the dirt hues of yellow and crunched softly underfoot; they fluttered down from somewhere up in heaven and drifted like snowflakes with the breeze.
“Oh, you’ll love this,” our group leader told us. “This was my favorite part when I was your age.”
My group lined up one by one at the edge of a beaten path. As I watched my friend disappear into the forest, I started counting to ninety. When it was my turn, and I was sure that I left enough space between us, my group leader signaled me to go, and I made my way down the path.
My only footprints were light steps against the deciduous leaves, but even they were drowned out by the ever-shifting brush. What laid below my feet, I did not know, for I may have been treading on lily pads across a pond if I had looked down. Shapely streams of sun sunk through the canopy as did the salty stray gust that combed through my hair. A light petrichor reached deep into my lungs where I wished it would stay forever.
And just as fleeting as an eternity in a blink, the moment draws its curtains closed.
At the end of the path, I found a family of deer settled by a boulder. Lounging over the boulder, my group sat in silence, delicately running their pencils over their journals. I nodded to the deer and slipped past them onto the boulder, finding my own spot wordlessly as the others did. For a while, we stayed like that: in the middle of an enchanting autumn forest, watching the leaves glide gently to the earth, and enjoying the company of the woodland creatures.
When it was time to board the schoolbus on the fifth afternoon, they returned our phones to us. As the national park gradually fell away behind me, my phone was in some pocket of my bag, and my forehead was against the glass. I saw the trees--those magnificent giants; I saw colorful dots on the face of mountains where I knew ambition was bottled. I absorbed the cozy honey sun that wrapped my skin in warmth, even through the window. Then, I settled into my seat with the drumming engine, waiting to be whisked back to mundanity.