September 10, 2014 | Feature
West of Ambitions
a summer of being lost
When my alarm sounds at 5:30 a.m., the sun’s light is still a purple smudge on the horizon. The dark musk of predawn air breathes through the open window; it will be night for another hour at least. I stand, pull on my clothes, and comb through my hair with my fingers. A cup of coffee, a perfunctory glance in the mirror, the routine lacing-up of my apron, and I am out the door into night’s denouement.
While I drive, the sky brightens. By the time I merge onto the highway, the ragged peaks of the Tetons have exploded against daybreak. The road is empty still, so I speed. A half dozen songs later and I am in the parking lot. Storefront windows are still dark except for Danna’s. I can see him inside. I watch him flip on the neon sign.
It’s quiet in the restaurant apart from the vocal stylings of Leann Rimes and the yellow tabby’s occasional meow. Danna, head chef and proprietor, is unstacking chairs, already sweating into his white kerchief. “Lizzie,” he bellows, patting my shoulder with one large hand. “Get to work on that coffee, you’re late!”
It’s been a week since I arrived here. I make the coffee without overfilling the machine, a minor miracle. Then I roll silverware, refill bottles of dressing, and chop onions until my eyes water.
Midway through the morning, I get to step outside. I collapse cardboard boxes and take them to the dumpster behind the building. The sharp curves of the mountains ringing the town are just visible over the roof of the strip mall. Snow flashes on the summits, though it’s almost July. I linger on the curb and inhale. I think, not for the first time, about where I’d be if I had done the sensible thing. What might I be up to right now, I wonder, if I had left my ambitions and plans as the pivot points of my life this summer?
It is a Wednesday. I imagine I might have awoken at a reasonable time, in my queen-sized bed at home. I would have slipped on a knee-length skirt and a button-down, driven a few blocks to a building downtown, stapled things. I might have squinted at articles, made sure em dashes weren’t en dashes, added the occasional oxford comma, and managed a subscriber list. My resume would have been better for it, perhaps. And yet, I am here, deep frying potatoes and mastering the difference between the Broadway burger and the Fireball burger (with jalapeños, of course). I wonder if I’ll regret it.
The morning passes quickly, punctuated with only small mishaps. I work on the line alongside Danna, sprinkling feta on salads while he tells stories about old flames and the time he worked as private chef for Jamie Lee Curtis. When I take over on the floor, the noon rush is streaming in, and for a few hours I’m too flustered to think about much besides drink orders and salad ingredients. It’s a welcome change, in a way, to complete tasks so definite, to focus the entirety of my energy on simple endeavors. Garnish the plate with a pickle, carry it to table eight, and you’ve done it. Remember to dice the hardboiled egg and you’ll be alright. There is nothing abstract about smiling with your eyes, listing off specials, or making correct changes.
I work a double and leave slaphappy and exhausted, pockets full of crumpled bills. Outside in the gravel parking lot, a boy is sitting on the hood of my car. He stands up and grins when he sees me; I bound over to him, laughing. I still can’t get used to the beard that has sprouted on his face in the three months since I saw him last, or the freckles that cluster on the newly-browned skin of his hands. Here, his speech and movements seem unhurried, more deliberate. It’s as if he has grown roots that braid him to the slow beauty of the landscape.
Wyoming suits him. Had he been born two hundred years earlier, he might have set out with John Astor and founded the fur trade that set off westward expansion. He might have been one of the first five men to clamber over the South Pass on foot, might have written descriptions of geysers that would have sounded like tall tales at the time. In part, it’s this drive to explore that has led him here, albeit on a bike instead of a horse. He thrives on simplicity and detests blind ambition. He works to live instead of living to work. Success, to him, is to rise with the sun, to make something, to take in a new panorama, and—when night falls—to sleep. A job in Wyoming then, tuning up bicycles and guiding whitewater rafting trips, is a natural choice. And I have followed, turning down a couple of job offers to sleep beside him in a tiny cabin, to wait tables and climb the occasional mountain.
In the car, I get a call from my mother. She asks about my shift, tells me she misses me. We get through almost an entire conversation without her issuing some subtle judgment, but just before she says goodbye she murmurs, “I spoke with Karen today. Anne is really enjoying her internship.”
Anne is an old friend, an expert networker with a billion-watt smile. This summer she’s landed an internship at NBC in New York, doing communications or media relations or something like that. A career counselor couldn’t have picked a better job for her. Sometimes, when I’m sweeping wilted lettuce and bits of bread off the floor, I think of her. In a pantsuit, usually. Sipping a latte, walking purposefully somewhere.
I look out the window at the emerald foothills hedging in the town. The early evening sky is alight with crystallizing stars, probably more than I’d see in the dead of Manhattan night. It’s hard to imagine the buzzing of telephones, the incessant hum of traffic, the scent of cigarette smoke or ethnic food from street vendors. Shadows blanket boundless plains and I think for a second that maybe the difference between an em dash and an en dash doesn’t matter at all.
• • •
Still, I resist. The morning I boarded my plane I swore I wouldn’t lose sight of my plans. At night while he sleeps, I lay next to him, bathing the room in my iPad’s blue light, reading texts for an online course. Over breakfast, he sits on the porch with his coffee, and I research study abroad programs. And at the end of the day, I work remotely for an old employer, reading fine print until my head aches. My efforts are unpaid, of course, but they make me feel prudent. I’m accomplishing things, things that might be relevant one day.
This is my attempt to stay on track, to keep the causeway of the future in sight, to reconcile with the fact that I’ve lobbed two golden opportunities in an unknown direction and run off after some boy. I am hovering just beside what’s expected of me, but I make sure to walk parallel to it. As an added bonus, I can tell myself I’ve escaped, or at least come as close to doing so as I ever will.
One glorious Sunday we both have time off. We drive up to Jenny Lake and dip our feet into the aquamarine shallows. I am complaining, as I often do, about how little time I’ve spent in pristine spots like these. I’ve been holed up in the cabin for days, fact-checking and reading submissions.
“Why don’t you quit, then?” he asks.
I laugh, “You make it sound easy!”
“It doesn’t matter. You’re here.” He gestures to the two peaks that jut out from the impossibly smooth surface of lake. I sigh, leaning back against a boulder, and say nothing.
In the moment, the decision seems like a heavy one. I envision the blank space on my resume and cringe. I hear my parents, their disappointed voices. I imagine graduating and being condemned to a long string of part-time jobs; restaurants, retail, sandwich lines. Then I look up, out. The outlines of clouds unfurl like symmetrical wings across water and sky. I want to be here, to really be here. I want work to be incidental for once. I want to give myself time to wander, to stretch out across the vastness of the state. To watch hot springs jet upwards, to climb the Devil’s Tower, to eat funnel cake at the state fair. I dial the number.
• • •
Things unfold afterwards as I feared they might. I’ve quit a job, sure, but this isn’t enough to shift my perspective. I still spend most waking hours mulling over the great and impenetrable Future. I realize that I am playing at escape. When my summer of spontaneity comes to an end I’ll buckle down at an Ivy league school. It’s so easy to forsake potential opportunities when you know the biggest, most grandiose one will be waiting for you in the end.
Still, even playing at escape feels gratifying. At the end of the day, I go home with enough cash to get a week’s worth of groceries, and my day job is over. I let my mind wander away from the walk-in freezer, away from the waffle iron, and towards whatever I care to contemplate. I do as I please.
• • •
The week before we go back to school we plan a day-long hike to Pyramid Lake. The route is twelve miles—the most we’ve attempted in a day—and known for its peaks and falls in elevation. We get an early start, carrying a couple of water bottles and a ham sandwich each. The dirt paths wind through gentle foothills, and we laugh and talk leisurely, stopping every few miles to take pictures.
A few hours in, we get hungry and settle in a leafy glade to eat. We’re dawdling, sidestepping certain loops and taking others, dipping our toes into streams. When midday comes, the sun smolders white in the sky, bathing us in heat and sweat, and we realize our bottles are empty and we’re nowhere close to where we started.
“We’re not lost, so we just have to keep going and we’ll be fine,” he says, his voice characteristically calm.
“Why didn’t we bring more water? I wouldn’t be so worried about it if we just had a little more.”
He bends to the muddy stream and submerges our flimsy Dasani water bottles. River streams in, brown and flecked with tiny shapeless particles. I give him a doubtful look.
“We won’t drink it. Unless we have to,” he says.
We have a map, we’re on the path, but we’re still afraid. We don’t even speak, just plod along. I wonder silently if we’ll make it back before sundown, and realize he’s forgotten his inhaler. I wonder if he’ll have an asthma attack. The muscles in my legs are heavy and fatigued. I want give up.
“It’ll be easier if we laugh about it,” he says. “What are we going to eat when we get back?”
I manage a smile. We start listing off foods with our remaining enthusiasm.
“Pizza, so much pizza.”
Still, I’m afraid. The 1,000-foot rises and dips in elevation come like swinging pendulums. The sun is sinking; the temperature follows suit. Sweat cools on my body. I shiver.
When the car finally comes into view the darkness is complete. The parking lot is empty, and I begin to cry, leaning against him. “What were we thinking?” I murmur.
“We weren’t really lost, Liz,” he says.
He’s right. We weren’t lost, really. But we were close enough to being lost that the fear was real.
I get in the car, turn the radio on. The predictable pop music splashes over us and calms my breathing. There is nothing I want more than to be home. I wonder, days or years from now, what I will remember: the anxiety of very nearly losing my way, or the thrill of the climb.