Yesterday God told me to be a writer.
I responded, “Sorry God, not possible.”
I went on to explain my reasoning. “As you know God, I have an amazingly supportive wife and four growing boys. Boys (in case it’s been a while) eat a lot of food… every day. Food costs money. Writing doesn’t make money. I know because that’s what I’ve been told since I was old enough to hold a #2 pencil.”
I remember being eighteen once in a school parking lot. Alone in my thoughts, I’m standing in a herd of community college freshmen armed with an overnight gym bag, a pair of scruffy Nike Airs, and a homemade buzz cut — the ultimate “I’m living away from home for the first time ever” fashion statement.
Rooted to my patch of asphalt, eyes focused on anything but anyone, I’m impatiently waiting to escape into the backseat of an oversized minivan to be shuttled to the middle of nowhere: Vernal, Utah.
Vernal is a mining town in the boondocks of Eastern Utah, population less than 10,000. It’s the kind of place where you can always find who you’re looking for, even if all you remember is their first name and hair type.
Vernal is also known for death, which is why I’m on the 20th Century stagecoach being carried over a sagebrush-lined sunset. It’s famous among paleontologists, geologists, (all kinds of -ologists in fact) because hundreds of millions of years ago a bunch of dinosaurs lived and, fortunately died there. If they hadn’t croaked, the town wouldn’t be famous.
Fortuitously, we pull into Vernal minutes before the town’s generally recognized closing time. Our horde of college freshmen push out of the minibus, stampeding through the only supermarket in town. Out of the 11 college freshmen, I’m the lucky one to be left shuffling through a four-person checkout line. King Size Reese’s Cup in hand, I make a poor attempt at small-town smalltalk, asking about a girl I knew once from Vernal named Jen with frizzy black hair. Sure enough, the cashier and two of the three people in line simultaneously point in the direction where she lives. I exit the store and head that direction.
After a forgettable night with the King Size Reese’s, Jen, and her frizzy black hair, I roll out of my KOA cabin bunk bed to again board the minivan. Saying so long to Vernal, we rumble over hilly dirt roads sixteen miles north of the town to Red Fleet Reservoir.
Red Fleet Reservoir, like Vernal, is famous for what was. Along its red and white-striped sandstone shores lie numerous fossilized footprints from dinosaurs living 200 million years ago.
Following a lecture from our professor on these ancient relics, we’re set free to explore the surroundings and graze on sack lunches. I’m left standing on the shore, staring into my thoughts, eyes fixed on these last remnants of beings that got stuck 200 thousand millennia ago.
I start wondering whether someday soon I’ll be nothing more than a dirty footprint in the middle of what some awkward 18-year-old considers north of nowhere. However, in the midst of this rapid post-adolescent emotional tailspin, a voice in my head slices clean through the mind-numbing despair.
To the right of where I’m standing there’s a steep rise in the sandstone shelf, plateauing 30 feet above the reservoir. The resulting cliff is a sharp drop to the water, making it simultaneously inviting and imposing. Imposing wins out, after all A) it is October, B) This is Eastern Utah, and C) the water can’t be more than 38 degrees.
With the thought now building in my mind like the Jaws theme song, I fight back with more reason. I’m standing in a flock of highly insecure co-eds, protected from any possible scorn in my Costco flannel button-up shirt and stonewashed jeans. Understandably, I didn’t pack my swimsuit along. No, I’m not jumping.
I’m standing naked at the top of the 30-foot cliff. Stonewashed jean, flannel button-down, and boxer briefs have all been shed on the shore below. The breeze is cool; it rushes around my pudgy, pasty white frame. Looking down all I can see is a cold deep blue distance that’s increasing every second I stand here. I consider my options for an honorable retreat.
I’m falling. Gravity is pushing me to get it over with, yet I’m floating long enough to think the words “I’m, falling” and “Man, this, is, high.”
My exposed body collides with deep blue, sucking all life from my lungs, holding it for a full second, then finally giving it back. Every pore of my skin is simultaneously lit on fire and put on ice. Limbs fly into auto propulsion. No thinking required; no thinking possible. Escaping imminent death fills every cell of my being.
I rise from the watery grave, rinsing the drowning self-doubt away. Adrenaline still thick in my veins, I once again take my place on the shore, unashamedly exposed to the world around me. This is helped by the fact that all my classmates have already abandoned my baptism in search of sack lunches.
Chest heaving, I can feel my lungs thawing as I fight for breath for the first time since birth. I resolve to never again stand glued to a sandstone shore, paralyzed by a fear that the path of mediocrity I’ve charted in the past is the same I must follow always.
20 years have gone by, yet here again I stand, staring down at the fossilized tracks of what others told me I should become over the past 38 years.
“I can’t move, God.”
“I can’t change, God.” I can’t become a writer.
I’m destined to stay here, just your average, middle-aged dinosaur lacking the courage to climb a small rise and glance down into the growing distance below.
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